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Title: William Cobbett
Author: G.K.Chesterton
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Title: William Cobbett
Author: G.K.Chesterton

First published 1925




This chapter is here called 'The Revival of Cobbett.' As originally
planned, only a little while ago, it was to have been called 'The
Neglect of Cobbett.' It is not unimportant to realise how recent has
been the change. It is but a year or two ago that I had the great and
(it is to be feared) the undeserved honour of reading a paper an the
subject to the Royal Society of Literature on my admission to that body,
which certainly consists almost entirely of men who know much more
about literature than I do. It was a graceful formality on such an
occasion for the least learned person in the room to lecture to all the
rest. Yet on that occasion the chairman, who was much more of a literary
expert than I am, re-marked on my having chosen an obscure and largely
forgotten writer, just as if I had been lecturing on one of the last and
least of the Greek sophists, or one of the numberless and nameless
lyrists among the Cavaliers. Between then and now the change from
neglect to revival has taken place. It is true that it is not until the
first beginnings of the revival that we ever even hear of the neglect.
Until that moment even the neglect is neglected. When I delivered the
highly amateur address in question, the memory was already stirring, in
others besides myself. But it is not out of egotism that I give this
example; but because it happens to illustrate the first fact to be
realised about the present position of Cobbett.

In one sense, of course, Cobbett has never been neglected. He has only
been admired in the way in which he would have specially hated to be
admired. He who was full of his subject has been valued only for his
style. He who was so stuffed with matter has been admired for his
manner; though not perhaps for his manners. He shouted to the uproarious
many, and his voice in a faint whisper has reached the refined few; who
delicately applauded a turn of diction or a flight of syntax. But if
such applause be rather disconcerting to the demagogue, the real revival
of his demagogy would be even more disconcerting to the academic
admirer. Now I mean by the revival of Cobbett the revival of the things
that Cobbett wished to revive. They were things which until a little
while ago nobody imagined there was the slightest chance of reviving;
such as liberty, England, the family, the honour of the yeoman, and so
on. Many of the learned who, on the occasion above mentioned, were very
indulgent to my own eccentric enthusiasm, would even now be a little
puzzled if that enthusiasm became something more than an eccentricity.
Cobbett had been for them a man who praised an extravagant and
impossible England in exact and excellent English. It must seem strange
indeed that one who can never hope to write such English can yet hope to
see such an England. The critics must feel like cultivated gentlemen
who, after long relishing Jeremy Taylor's diction, should abruptly
receive an unwelcome invitation to give an exhibition of Holy Dying.
They must feel like scholars who should have lingered lovingly all their
lives over the lapidary Babylonian jests and vast verbal incantations of
the wonderful essay on Urn-Burial; and then have lived to see it sold by
the hundred as the popular pamphlet of a bustling modern movement in
favour of cremation.

Nevertheless, this classic preservation of Cobbett in an urn, in the
form of ashes, has not been quite consistent with itself. Even now it
would seem that the ashes were still a little too hot to touch. And I
only mentioned my own little effort in academic lecturing because it
concerned something that may be repeated here, as relevant to the first
essentials of the subject. Many professors have in a merely literary
sense recognised Cobbett as a model; but few have modelled themselves
upon their model. They were always ready to hope that their pupils would
write such good English. But they would have been mildly surprised if
any pupil had written such plain English. Yet, as I pointed out on that
occasion, the strongest quality of Cobbett as a stylist is in the use he
made of a certain kind of language; the sort of use commonly called
abuse. It is especially his bad language that is always good. It is
precisely the passages that have always been recognised as good style
that would now be regarded as bad form. And it is precisely these
violent passages that especially bring out not only the best capacities
of Cobbett but also the best capacities of English. I was and am
therefore ready to repeat what I said in my little lecture, and to
repeat it quite seriously, though it was the subject at the time of
merely amused comment. I pointed out that in the formation of the noble
and beautiful English language, out of so many local elements, nothing
had emerged more truly beautiful than the sort of English that has been
localised under the name of Billingsgate. I pointed out that English
excels in certain angular consonants and abrupt terminations that make
it extraordinarily effective for the expression of the fighting spirit
and a fierce contempt. How fortunate is the condition of the Englishman
who can kick people; and how relatively melancholy that of the Frenchman
who can only give them a blow of the foot! If we say that two people
fight like cat and dog, the very words seem to have in them a shindy of
snaps and screams and scratches. If we say 'comme le chat et le chien,'
we are depressed with the suggestion of comparative peace. French has of
course its own depths of resounding power: but not this sort of
battering ram of bathos. Now nobody denies that Cobbett and his enemies
did fight like cat and dog, but it is precisely his fighting passages
that contain some of the finest examples of a style as English as the
word dog or the word cat. So far as this goes the point has nothing to
do with political or moral sympathy with Cobbett's cause. The beauty of
his incessant abuse is a matter of art for art's sake. The pleasure
which an educated taste would receive in hearing Cobbett call a duchess
an old eat or a bishop a dirty dog is almost onomatopoeic, in its love
of a melody all but detached from meaning. In saying this, it might be
supposed, I was indeed meeting the purely artistic and academic critic
half way, and might well have been welcomed, so to speak, with an
embrace of reconciliation. This is indeed the reason why most lovers of
English letters have at least kept alive a purely literary tradition of
Cobbett. But, as it happened, I added some words which I will also take
the liberty of mentioning, because they exactly illustrate the stages
of this re-emergence of the great writer's fame from the field of
literature to the field of life. 'There is a serious danger that this
charm in English literature may be lost. The comparative absence of
abuse in social and senatorial life may take away one of the beauties of
our beautiful and historic speech. Words like "scamp" and "scoundrel,"
which have the unique strength of English in them, are likely to grow
unfamiliar through lack of use, though certainly not through lack of
opportunity for use. It is indeed strange that when public life presents
so wide and promising a field for the use of these terms, they should be
suffered to drop into desuetude. It seems singular that when the careers
of our public men, the character of our commercial triumphs, and the
general culture and ethic of the modern world seem so specially to
invite and, as it were, to cry aloud for the use of such language, the
secret of such language should be in danger of being lost.' Now, when I
drew the attention of those authoritative guardians of English
literature, responsible for the preservation of the purity of the
English language, to this deplorable state of things--to the words that
are like weapons rusting on the wall, to the most choice terms of abuse
becoming obsolete in face of rich and even bewildering opportunities in
the way of public persons to apply them to--when I appealed against this
neglect of our noble tongue, I am sorry to say that my appeal was
received with heartless laughter and was genially criticised in the
newspapers as a joke. It was regarded not only as a piece of mild
buffoonery but as a sort of eighteenth-century masquerade; as if I only
wished to bring back cudgels and cutlasses along with wigs and
three-cornered hats. It was assumed that nobody could possibly seriously
hope, or even seriously expect, to hear again the old Billingsgate of
the hustings and the election fight. And yet, since those criticisms
were written, only a very little time ago, that sort of very Early
English has suddenly been heard, if not in journalism, at least in
politics. By a strange paradox, even the House of Commons has heard the
sound of common speech, not wholly unconnected with common sense. Labour
members and young Tories have both been heard talking like men in the
street. Mr. Jack Jones, by his interruptions, has made himself a
judicious patron of this literary revival, this attempt to save the
heritage of English culture; and Mr. Kirkwood has said things about
capitalists of which even Cobbett might be proud.

Now, I have only mentioned my premature lament over the bargee, that
disreputable Tom Bowling, because it serves to introduce a certain
equally premature rejoicing which explains much of our present position.
The Victorian critics had insisted on regarding the violence of Cobbett
as entirely a thing of the past; with the result that they find
themselves suddenly threatened with that sort of violence advancing on
them from the future. They are perhaps a little alarmed; and at least
they are very naturally puzzled. They had always been taught that
Cobbett was a crank whose theories had been thrashed out long ago and
found to be quite empty and fallacious. He had been preserved only for
his style; and even that was rude and old-fashioned, especially in the
quaint Saxon archaism of calling a spade a spade. They little thought to
have heard the horrid sound, the hideous word 'spade' itself, shake the
arches of St. Stephen's as with a blasphemy. But the question is not
merely one of idioms but of ideas. They had always supposed at least
that Cobbett's ideas were exploded; and they found they were still
exploding. They found that the explosion which missed fire a hundred
years ago, like that of Guy Fawkes three hundred years ago, still has a
time fuse whose time was not quite expired; and that the location of the
peril (I regret to say) was also not very far from the same spot as Guy
Fawkes's. In a peril of that sort it is very important to understand
what is really happening; and I doubt if the comfortable classes
understand what is happening much better than they did in Cobbett's
day--to say nothing of Guy Fawkes's. And one reason why I originally
agreed to write this little book, is that I think it a matter of life
and death that it should be understood.

The cudgel has come back like a boomerang: and the common Englishman, so
long content with taking half a loaf, may yet in the same tradition of
compromise confine himself to heaving half a brick. The reason why
Parliamentary language is unparliamentary and Westminster has been
joined to Billingsgate, the reason why the English poor in many places
are no longer grumbling or even growling but rather howling, the reason
why there is a new note in our old polite politics, is a reason that
vitally concerns the subject of this little study. There are a great
many ways of stating that reason; but the way most relevant here is
this. All this is happening because the critics have been all wrong
about Cobbett. I mean they were specially wrong about what he
represented. It is happening because Cobbett was not what they have
always represented him as being; not even what they have always praised
him as being. It is happening because Cobbett stood for a reality of
quite another sort; and realities can return whether we understand them
or not. Cobbett was not merely a wrong-headed fellow with a knack of
saying the right word about the wrong thing. Cobbett was not merely an
angry and antiquated old farmer who thought the country must be going to
the dogs because the whole world was not given up to the cows. Cobbett
was not merely a man with a lot of nonsensical notions that could be
exploded by political economy; a man looking to turn England into an
Eden that should grow nothing but Cobbett's Corn. What he saw was not an
Eden that cannot exist but rather an Inferno that can exist, and even
that does exist. What he saw was the perishing of the whole English
power of self-support, the growth of cities that drain and dry up the
countryside, the growth of dense dependent populations incapable of
finding their own food, the toppling triumph of machines over men, the
sprawling omnipotence of financiers over patriots, the herding of
humanity in nomadic masses whose very homes are homeless, the terrible
necessity of peace and the terrible probability of war, all the loading
up of our little island like a sinking ship; the wealth that may mean
famine and the culture that may mean despair; the bread of Midas and the
sword of Damocles. In a word, he saw what we see, but he saw it when it
was not there. And some cannot see it--even when it is there.

It is the paradox of his life that he loved the past, and he alone
really lived in the future. That is, he alone lived in the real future.
The future was a fog, as it always is; and in some ways his largely
instinctive intelligence was foggy enough about it. But he and he alone
had some notion of the sort of London fog that it was going to be. He
was in France during the French Revolution; amid all that world of
carnage and classical quotations, of Greek names and very Latin riots.
He must have looked, as he stood there with his big heavy figure and
black beaver hat, as solemn and solid a specimen as ever was seen of the
Englishman abroad--the sort of Englishman who is very much abroad. He
went to America just after the American Revolution; and played the part
of the old Tory farmer, waving the beaver hat and calling on those
astonished republicans for three cheers for King George. Everywhere,
amid all that dance of humanitarian hopes, he seemed like a survival and
a relic of times gone by. And he alone was in any living touch with the
times that were to come.

All those reformers and revolutionists around him, talking hopefully of
the future, were without exception living in the past. The very future
they happily prophesied was the future as it would have been in the
past. Some were dreaming of a remote and some of a recent past; some of
a true and some of a false past; some of a heroic past and others of a
past more dubious. But they all meant by their ideal democracy what
democracy would have been in a simpler age than their own. The French
republicans were living in the lost republics of the Mediterranean; in
the cold volcanoes of Athens and Thebes. Theirs was a great ideal; but
no modern state is small enough to achieve anything so great. We might
say that some of those eighteenth century progressives had even got so
far as the reign of Pepin or Dagobert, and discovered the existence of
the French Monarchy. For things so genuine and primarily so popular as
the French Monarchy are generally not really discovered until they have
existed for some time; and when they are discovered they are generally
destroyed. The English and to some extent the American liberals were
living in one sense even more in the past; for they were not destroying
what had recently been discovered. They were destroying what had
recently been destroyed. The Americans were defying George the Third,
under the extraordinary idea that George the Third ruled England. When
they set up their republic, the simple colonists probably really did
think that England was a monarchy. The same illusion filled the English
Whigs; but it was only because England had once been a monarchy. The
Whigs were engaged permanently in expelling the Stuarts, an enjoyable
occupation that could be indefinitely repeated. They were always
fighting the battles of Naseby and Newbury over again, and defying a
divine right that nobody was defending. For them indeed Charles the
First walked and talked half an hour, or half a century, or a century
and a half, after his head was cut off and they themselves could walk
nowhere but in Whitehall, and talk of nothing but what happened there.
We can see how that long tradition lingered in a light and popular book
like Dickens's Child's History of England; and how even the child was
still summoned to take part in that retrospective revolution. For there
were moments when even Mr. Dickens had the same obsession as Mr. Dick.

But the point is that these idealists--most of them very noble
idealists--all saw the future upon the simple pattern of the past. It is
typical that the American band of comrades were called the Cincinnati,
and were named after Cincinnatus the Consul who threw away the toga to
take the plough. But Cobbett knew a little more about ploughing. He knew
the ploughshare had stuck in a stiff furrow; and he knew as nobody else
knew upon what sort of stone it had struck. He knew that stone was the
metal out of which the whole modern world would be made; unless the
operation could be stopped in time. He knew it indeed only blindly and
instinctively; but nobody else knew it at all. Nobody else had felt the
future; nobody else had smelt the fog; nobody else had any notion of
what was really coming upon the world.

I mean that if you had gone to Jefferson at the moment when he was
writing the Declaration of Independence, and shown him the exact picture
of an Oil Trust, and its present position in America, he would have
said, 'It is not to be believed.' If you had gone to Cobbett, and shown
him the same thing, he would have said, like the bearded old gentleman
in the rhyme, 'It is just as I feared.' If you had confronted Carnot
with Caillaux, the old revolutionist would have wondered what
inconceivable curse could have fallen on great France of the soldiers.
If you had confronted Cobbett with some of our similar specimens, he
would have said it was what might be expected when you gave over great
England to the stockjobbers. For men like Jefferson and Carnot were
thinking of an ancient agricultural society merely changing from
inequality to equality. They were thinking of Greek and Roman villages
in which democracy had driven out oligarchy. They were thinking of a
medieval manor that had become a medieval commune. The merchant and man
of affairs was a small and harmless by-product of their system; they had
no notion that it would grow large enough to swallow all the rest. The
point about Cobbett is that he alone really knew that there and not in
kings or republics, Jacobins or Anti-Jacobins, lay the peril and
oppression of the times to come.

It is the riddle of the man that if he was wrong then, he is right now.
As a dead man fighting with dead men, he can still very easily be
covered with derision; but if we imagine him still alive and talking to
living men, his remarks are rather uncomfortably like life. The very
words that we should once have read as the most faded and antiquated
history can now be read as the most startling and topical journalism.
Let it be granted that the denunciation was not always correct about Dr.
Priestley or Dr. Rush, that the abuse was not really applicable to Mr.
Hunt or Mr. Wright; let us console ourselves with the fact that the
abuse is quite applicable to us. We at least have done all that
Cobbett's enemies were accused of doing. We have fulfilled all those
wild prophecies; we have justified all those most unjustifiable
aspersions; we have come into the world as if to embody and fulfill in a
belated fashion that highly improbable prediction. Cobbett's enemies may
or may not have ruined agriculture; but anyhow we have. Cobbett's
contemporaries may or may not have decreased the national wealth, but it
is decreased. Paper money may not have driven out gold in his lifetime,
but we have been more privileged than he. In a mere quarrel between the
eighteenth century and the nineteenth century he may easily appear
wrong; but in a quarrel between the nineteenth century and the twentieth
century he is right. He did not always draw precise diagrams of things
as they were. He only had frantic and fantastic nightmares of things as
they are. The fame of Cobbett faded and indeed completely vanished
during our time of prosperity or what is counted our time of prosperity.
For in fact it was only the prosperity of the prosperous. But during all
that time his version of the doubts about what Carlyle called the
profit-and-loss philosophy practically disappeared from the modern mind.
I have mentioned Carlyle but as expressed by Carlyle the same doubts
were not the same thing. Carlyle would have turned capitalism into a
sort of feudalism, with the feudal loyalty on the one side and the
feudal liberality on the other. He meant by the profit-and-loss
philosophy a small and mean philosophy that could not face a small loss
even for the sake of a great profit. But he never denied that there
could be a great profit, he never contradicted the whole trend of the
age as Cobbett did. On the contrary, Carlyle called the capitalist by a
romantic name, where Cobbett would have called him by a shockingly
realistic name. Carlyle called the capitalist a captain of industry, a
very sad scrap of Victorian sentimentalism. That romantic evasion misses
the whole point, the point that Cobbett kept steadily in sight all his
life. Militarism would be much less respectable and respected if the
captain of a line regiment had pocketed the rent of every acre that he
fought for in Flanders. Capitalism would be much more respectable and
respected if all the master builders climbed to the tops of towers and
fell off, if there were as many capitalists knocked on the head by
bricks as there were captains killed at the front by bullets. But as I
pointed out in a connection already mentioned, Carlyle was really rather
an optimist than a pessimist. Certainly Carlyle was an optimist where
Cobbett was a pessimist. Cobbett dug much deeper; he not only called a
spade a spade, but he used it like a resurrectionist--not merely like a
reformer weeding out small evils. We might say that the mere reformer
calls a spade a spud. Carlyle gave hints and suggestions rather darkly
that the whole business might end badly; but he never really dared to
wish that it had never begun. He told the rich sternly how they should
dispose of their wealth, he did not, like Cobbett, tell them coarsely
how they had collected it. The consequence was that Carlyle has been
exhibited as a Puritan, a pessimist, a prophet of woe. Cobbett has not
been exhibited at all. Carlyle has been set over against Mill and
Macaulay as a sort of official opposition, but Cobbett's opposition was
not sufficiently official. Carlyle has been allowed to grumble like a
choleric old major much respected in the club. Cobbett has been entirely
removed, like the enfant terrible, kicking and screaming, lest he should
say something dreadful in the drawing room. Hence the big secret with
which he was bursting has actually been too big to be uttered; his
condemnation was so large and sweeping that it had to be hidden in a
hole. The Victorians were quite cultivated enough and broad-minded
enough to realise that there must be some reminder amid their rejoicings
of human fallibility and frailty; lest Mr. George Augustus Sala should
seem a creature all too bright and good for human nature's daily food.
They had something of the imperial imagination and philosophic outlook
of the ancient Egyptians, who set a skeleton at the banquet to remind
them of mortality and a more melancholy mood that might mingle
harmlessly with the mood of joy. Carlyle was the skeleton of the feast.
But Cobbett was not the skeleton of the feast; he was the skeleton in
the cupboard.

In short, Carlyle did criticise the profit-and-loss school, but not the
profitableness of the whole world in which it was made. Certainly he did
not question the assumption that it was at least profitable in the sense
of being practicable. But since then deeper forces have moved and darker
riddles begun to be murmured amongst us; and it is not the superficial
abnormalities and accidents but the whole main movement and purpose of
the nineteenth century that is brought in question. We have come back to
doing what Carlyle never really did, what Cobbett always wanted to do,
to make a real reckoning of ultimate loss and profit on the
profit-and-loss philosophy. Even in the economic sphere the answer has
been looking more and more doubtful. We talk of it as the age of
profiteers; but it is a question how long even profiteers will make
profits. We talk of it as capitalism; and so it is, in the rather
sinister sense of living on capital.

So in some old romance of some old manor-house and manorial family there
might come a dark hour in its annals and a dark cloud upon its towers (a
thunderstorm thrown in, or the fall of some shield or picture or garden
statue or anything necessary to the novelist's taste in doom); and
through the darkened halls and corridors the master of the house would
pass to some dim disordered library and take down some forbidden or
neglected volume, in which are traced strange emblems or figures or maps
or charts of hidden things, or forgotten runes and riddles returning
only with the end. So the Englishman of the twentieth century is to-day
groping his way back past all the literature of the nineteenth; past all
the varied Victorian romances of fashionable progress in Macaulay and
fashionable reaction in Carlyle; till he finds far up on a high shelf
the old thick, leather-bound volumes, with faded print and the barely
decipherable title of 'Cobbett's Register'; and taking down the book,
amid the gathering storm and the growing darkness, reads this old story.


It is now rather more than a century and a half since a small boy of the
poorer sort was occupied in scaring rooks where they rose, as they still
rise, in black flotillas flecking the great white clouds that roll up
against the great ridges of Surrey and the southern shires. Yet further
south where the Sussex hills take on an outline at once more opulent and
more bare there was repeated a rhyme that might run like a refrain
through much of his story.

 Bees are bees of Paradise,
 Do the work of Jesus Christ,
 Do the work that no man can;
 God made bees and bees make honey,
 God made man and man makes money,
 God made man to plough and reap and sow,
 And God made little boys to scare away the crow.

And so the little boy in question continued to scare away the crow, in
obedience to that providential arrangement.

The little boy was destined to grow up into a tall and vigorous man, who
was to travel far and into strange places, into exile and into prison
and into Parliament; but his heart never wandered very far from the
simple ideals that are summed up in that verse. He was no mere dreamer
or more or less lovable loafer, of the sort sometimes associated with
the village genius. He would have been as ready as any man of the
utilitarian school to admit that men would do well to imitate the
industry of bees. Only, those who look at his literary industry may be
tempted to say that he had more sting than honey. Similarly he was no
mere romantic or sentimentalist, such as is sometimes associated with a
love of the rural scene. He would have been as ready as any merchant or
trader to face the fact that man, as God has made him, must make money.
But he had a vivid sense that the money must be as solid and honest as
the corn and fruit for which it stood, that it must be closely in touch
with the realities that it represented; and he waged a furious war on
all those indirect and sometimes imaginary processes of debts and shares
and promises and percentages which make the world of wealth to-day a
world at the worst unreal and at the best unseen. He was most
immediately concerned, in the conditions of the hour, with what he
regarded as the fugitive and wasteful paper-chase of paper money. But
what he was at once predicting and denouncing, like a small cloud that
had not yet become a universal fog, was that vast legal fiction that we
call finance. In any case, against a world in which such financial
mysteries were multiplying every day, in which machinery was everywhere
on the march, and the new towns spreading with the swiftness of a
landslide, in which England was already well on the way to becoming
merely the workshop of the world, against the whole great crawling
labyrinth of the modern state which is almost one with the modern city,
there remained in him unaltered, cut deep into the solitary rock of his
soul, the single clause of his single creed: that God made man to plough
and reap and sow.

For this was William Cobbett, who was born in 1762 at a little farm at
Farnham in Surrey. His grandfather had been an ordinary agricultural
labourer, one of a class drudging for a miserable wage, and fallen so
far from anything resembling the pride of a peasantry that in English
history it had utterly sunk out of sight. It was something that has
hardly been known since heathen times; there rests on all its records
the ancient silence of slavery. It was to these slaves that the heart of
Cobbett continually turned, in what seemed to many its dizzy and
incalculable turnings. Those that were trampled and forgotten alike by
the Tory squire and the Radical merchant were those whom Cobbett eared
to remember; exactly as both Patrician and Plebeian citizens might have
been puzzled by a sage whose first thought was of the slaves. And if
ever in this land of ours the poor are truly lifted up, if ever the
really needy find a tongue for their own needs, if ever progressives and
reactionaries alike realise upon what ruins were built both their order
and their reform, how many failures went to make their success, and what
crimes have set their house in order, if they see the underside of their
own history with its secrets of sealed-up wrath and irrevocable
injustice--in a word, if a great people can ever repent, then posterity
may see achieved by this agency also, by this one lonely and angry bee
in whom society saw nothing but a hornet, the work of Jesus Christ.

His father was a small farmer and evidently no fool; but the son could
have but a very rudimentary and rustic schooling. The son was perhaps
all his life' a little too prone to play the schoolmaster; and from an
early age he played the schoolmaster to himself. We have many notes of
his first reading; notably a glimpse which shows him gaping at the broad
farcical title of 'The Tale of a Tub,' so much in his own verbal
fashion, and buying it and trying to understand it. He read it under a
haystack, and it was so that there fell across him in his first sunshine
the shadow of that dark but not ignoble spirit who a hundred years
before had seen the first victory of our Venetian oligarchy and
despaired. For many have discussed whether Cobbett owed anything to
Swift's style, but few have sufficiently considered his connection with
Swift's cause or creed. Anyhow, precious little of either could have
been made out by a farmer's boy reading 'The Tale of a Tub' under a
haystack. For the rest, there is something of the boy's adventure story
running through his boyhood. He embodied the recognised romance of
England by running away to sea. He also embodied his own rather
recurrent and fitful sagacity by running back again.

He was a character from his earliest years. There was a sort of calm
impetuosity about his movements. He set out one day to escort some girls
to the village fair, dressed up in all his village finery. He saw a
coach with 'London' on it, and inconsequently got on to it and went
careering away, leaving his lady friends, his fair, his farm, and his
family behind him like things of the past. Fortunately he met a friend
of his father's in London, who got him a post as clerk in a lawyer's
office. He hated the lawyer's office, as he hated lawyers and law, all
his life; as he hated long words and pedantry and petty tyranny. He took
another plunge with the same placid abruptness; he took the King's
shilling and enlisted as a private soldier. Here he was more successful;
for there was much more of the soldier than the lawyer about him.
Moreover, he was none the less a country boy because he had played the
traditional part of the country boy who comes up to London where the
streets are paved with gold. He was tall and strong, with a stride for
which there seemed to be no room in the narrow streets, which went with
a better swing on the long marches over the hills and far away. His
lungs, which in every sense played so large a part in his life, demanded
the deep air of the open places. Fifty years afterwards, at Westminster,
as lie would have said, he was to find himself dying in another den of
lawyers. He was much happier anyhow in the camp of soldiers; indeed, he
was not only happy but fortunate. He was recognised as a good soldier,
and rose to be corporal and sergeant and eventually a sort of secretary
to the whole regiment, assisting the adjutant. All this time he had been
teaching himself grammar; and also (what is pleasingly characteristic)
teaching the adjutant grammar. Anyhow it is obvious that he was
trustworthy and that he was trusted. He was strict in his duty; rose
early, an early bird ready to catch the earliest worm; he kept an eye on
everything; he was as busy as a business man. Such a man generally dies
rich and respected; but it is just here that there appears that little
twist or bias which decided how William Cobbett was to live and die.

Cobbett began to note something queer and quite wrong about the
regimental accounts. He soon discovered that a number of officers were
simply pocketing money meant for the regimental food. Then it was that
there appeared the deplorable difference between Cobbett and a really
respectable and successful man. All his life long he never could leave
things alone. He was a business man: but he could not mind his own
business. He kept an eye on things; but he had never learnt to wink the
other eye. He was the early bird; but he fell into the melancholy
mistake of supposing that all worms ought really to be treated as worms.
He had not the fine instinct which makes the really successful
secretary-bird distinguish between the earthworms of the underworld and
the silkworms of the smart set. It is not suggested that he was a pure
altruist, a spotless saint of patriotism; then as always his action
involved a vast amount of vanity, of self-assertion, of sensationalism
and crudity, also a vast amount of inconsistency and inconsequence. The
point is that, whatever his other vices, he did not really know how to
rise in the world. He made a scene; and discovered too late that in
denouncing what he supposed to be a detail of individual swindling in
his own regiment he had really challenged a system running through the
whole British Army, or for that matter through the whole British
Constitution. Where his restless meddling thought to let the regimental
cat out of the bag, or out of one particular knapsack, he found he had
roused from its lair a sort of Tammany Tiger. He was not by any means
clear or consistent about it. The truth is he was quite out of his
depth; yet he was perfectly right in feeling that there were depths of
degradation. While he was in the Army his protest was easily crushed;
when he had left it the Government granted some sort of enquiry; but as
Cobbett could not get what he demanded as the conditions of that
enquiry, he refused even to attend it himself, and the whole protest
went by default. In a society like ours, it is very common for scandals
that are too big to be cured to fizzle out like that, as if they were
too small to be considered.

It was while he was a soldier that lie took another of those
characteristic steps, that might seem to many like steps over a
precipice. But it is essential to realise about him that the very first
step always had about it something almost stiff and automatic in its
composure, however stormy might be the consequences or however much he
might rave back against the storm. In this connection we must try to
remember what is so entirely forgotten: the Stoic ideal of the end of
the eighteenth century. The secular ideals of humanity fossilise very
fast, and nothing but religion ever remains. Stoicism is stratified amid
layers of lost moral fashions; but it was a fine thing in its day, when
it stiffened with heathen virtues the Revolutionists of France and
America. Our luxurious and orientalised fashions and fictions have a
great deal to learn from the Roman virtues advocated in Sandford and
Merton. That is why they certainly will not learn it. It must be
admitted that in Mr. Cobbett there was a touch of Mr. Barlow. All his
life he admired people who did things for themselves; especially if they
did them under difficulties. He admired home-made bread or home-brewed
ale even if some would call it the bread of affliction or consider it
very bitter beer. Very early one morning he was going some of his
military rounds in his sergeant's uniform, when the grey day was just
breaking over fields of snow. He had a great power of sketching a
landscape in simple words; and somehow such a twilight of grey and
silver remains long in the reader's memory. At the end of a small yard
he saw a girl with dark hair scouring out some pots and pans. He looked
at her again and saw she was very beautiful. Then he said with a sort of
fatal finality: 'That's the girl for me.' And indeed she was the wife
who was with him when he died fifty years afterwards, on those Surrey
hills that were his home.

Another incident attaches itself to her memory which is very significant
of Cobbett's career from its earliest days. Doubtless he had before and
since taken many girls to fairs, or failed to take them to fairs, like
those who must have waited wondering after the incident of the coach.
But like many combative, objective men he was really by nature very
faithful in relations of mere affection; and he makes us believe it by a
very convincing account of his one serious temptation to
unfaithfulness. Unfaithfulness is never so vivid to an unfaithful man.
By the time he returned to England, it was with the perfectly simple and
concentrated purpose of seeking out the girl he had seen in the snow. In
the old days he had come to a sort of understanding with her; and had
solemnly placed in her hands a sealed packet of money, telling her to
use it whenever she was in need. Then his regiment crossed the Atlantic
and she was lost in the labyrinth of the poverty of a modern town. For a
long time he could find no trace; at last he tracked her to a slum where
she was working as the poorest sort of servant; and she handed him back
his packet of money with the seal unbroken.

It is clear that for Cobbett that small gesture of repayment seemed as
splendid as the throwing of the gauntlet. To enter into his sense of
triumph we must understand something that is found in him through life,
and especially found in him, when it is generally rarest, in youth. It
is something seldom understood in a society without peasants; an
oligarchy which can only understand what we call 'honour' as it is
understood by gentlemen. It was the self-respect of the poor, which all
modern industrial society has been slowly crushing to death. To find it
anywhere uncrushed and even uncowed was to Cobbett like the noise of a
great victory in a war of the world. When the poor servant-girl stood up
and handed him back his little handful, there were things in it that
neither snobs nor Bohemians will ever understand. There was at once
fidelity and defiance, there was at once loyalty and solitude, there was
a hard pride in work and a fine shade of delicacy; there was dignity,
there was justice, above all there was triumph. Not here at least had
the almighty meanness of the modern world prevailed, that lopped all
lofty simplicities and lamed all lovers' quests; here was a romance
rounded and complete and solid as the sealed packet in his hand; here in
this unhappy world was a story with a happy ending. In all the long
comedy of the contrast between the heart of man and its surroundings,
never has there been a stranger disproportion than between the outside
and the inside of that one small incident; of a young man finding his
first love left alone with her honour and her pride. To any one passing
in the street there could have been nothing visible but a tall and
shabby soldier staring at a servant-girl on a door-step; but in his own
narration it becomes easy to understand that she came back to him with
all the beauty of banners.

I have dwelt on this one case of the contrast between the external
homeliness of poverty and the internal glow of its occasional festivals
and triumphs, because this is something very near to the whole secret of
the man's life. It was always of such small tragedies and small triumphs
that he was thinking when he talked about the problem of poverty. He
differed from many modern social reformers and from most modern
philanthropists, in the fact that he was not merely concerned with what
is called the welfare of the workers. He was very much concerned for
their dignity, their good name, their honour, and even their glory. Any
humane man may desire the well-being of his servants, as he may the
well-being of his horses or his sheep. But he does not commonly expect a
horse to bring back a nosebag, full of oats, to which the conscientious
quadruped does not think himself entitled by the terms of the contract.
He does not expect a sheep to fire up and take offence, either at being
bribed with grass or water, or at being criticised as the black sheep of
the flock. He does not expect the sheep to offer to fight the sheep-dog,
when accused of running away from the wolf. In short, he does not expect
horses and sheep to have a sense of honour; but Cobbett, always so
eccentric and paradoxical, did really desire peasants and working-men
to have a sense of honour. The agony of rage in which so much of his
life was passed was due to the consciousness that this popular sense of
honour was everywhere being broken down by a cruel and ignoble
industrialism. His whole life was a resistance to the degradation of the
poor; to their degradation in the literal sense of the loss of a step,
of a standing, of a status. There lay on his mind, like a nightmare of
machinery crushing and crunching millions of bones, all the detailed
destruction of the private property and domestic traditions of
destitute families; all the selling up and breaking up of furniture,
all the pawning of heirlooms and keepsakes; all that is meant by the
awful sacrifice of the wedding-ring. He thought of a thousand stories
like the story of the servant-girl: except that these stories did not
have a happy ending.

His wife was soon to discover that if she had married (as she had) one
of the most constant and considerate of husbands, she had also married
one of the most restless and incalculable of men. It would be
instructive to have a diary of Mrs. Cobbett, as well as the endless
autobiographies of Mr. Cobbett. But she remains in the background of
his life in a sort of powerful silence; and is known to us only by the
praises that he never ceased to give her. She was soon called upon to go
on some of his interminable travels. When he found in the case of Army
corruption, to use one of his own homely sort of figures, that he had
bitten off more than he could chew, he retired in disgust to France, and
remained there through some of the most thrilling days of the French
Revolution. Yet it is typical of him that he took with immense
seriousness to the subject of French grammar, as a pendant to his
devouring hobby of English grammar. When he set sail again from France
it was not for England but for America, where he and his wife remained
in exile for seven years. Their travels were not without their
tragedies; for his first child died and his second was still-born, and
it was not until he was more finally established that a living child
rejoiced the most enthusiastic of fathers. But through all these early
days we have the same vigilant activity in private things; as in the
touching story of his striding up and down all night and driving away
the howling dogs that his wife might sleep.

But there is another moral affecting the man and his work and arising in
this connection out of an incident like that of his courtship and
marriage. From the start we find him standing up sternly and almost
priggishly for ideals of thrift and self-control. He might almost have
been mistaken for a supporter of Smiles and Self-Help, if it were not
for his second phase in raising a riot far more reckless than that of
Wilkes and Liberty. But he enormously strengthened his case for Liberty
by being the very antithesis of Wilkes. He justified his riot precisely
because it could not be mistaken merely for riotous living. No sane
person could pretend that Cobbett only sympathised with poverty because
he sympathised with profligacy; because he sympathised with improvidence
and irresponsibility and imbecile waste. Nobody could say he was merely
an idler sympathising with idlers, or a wastrel sympathising with
wastrels, or a man who loved ignorance preferring those who were
ignorant. He was not even a man like Byron or Burns, whose sincere love
of public liberty could be confused with a love of private licence. His
case against industrialism was immensely strengthened by the fact that
he himself was quite cut out to be the industrious apprentice. When he
said that thousands were not only unlucky but unjustly oppressed, he
said it with the authority of one who might quite well have been the
hundredth lucky man who was the only hope of industrial competition. He
who was so obviously a self-educated man might surely have been a
self-made man. At least he stood a better chance of it than the
thousands who were told to live only for that remote chance. When he
said that the chance was worthless he was a reasonable and valid
witness; when he said that most men were unfairly equipped for the
struggle, he was better equipped than most. It was a much wiser Mr.
Smiles, himself entirely capable of self-help, who saw that the poor
were really and truly helpless. And this second consideration comes back
to the same truth as the first. It comes back to the fundamental truth
of the modern state. Our commercialism does not punish the vices of the
poor, but the virtues of the poor. It hampers the human character at its
best and not merely at its worst; and makes impossible even the merits
that it vainly recommends. Capitalism has prevented the poor man from
saving more than it has prevented him from spending. It has restrained
him from respectable marriage more than from casual immorality. It may
be that Socialism threatens to destroy domesticity; but it is capitalism
that destroys it. This is doubtless what is meant by saying that
capitalism is the more practical of the two.

Cobbett was eminently and emphatically a respectable man. He was
denounced as a demagogue, he was thrown in prison like a felon, he was
all his life in the midst of riot and abuse, he was regarded as the
inaugurator of red ruin and the breaking up of laws; but he remained to
the last a highly respectable person, in the sense that he valued what
are called the respectable virtues. That he was respectable to the last
is perhaps less remarkable than that he was respectable from the first;
and perhaps especially respectable at the first. That period of youth,
which is commonly excused as the irresponsible period, was with him by
far the most responsible period. It was during that period that he was
improving his mind, limiting his luxuries, schooling himself in simple
habits and rising in his military profession. He married the girl whose
independence and probity he so much admired: and he was all his life a
model husband and father. He was respectable and he might easily have
been respected. It is his great virtue that he preferred to be reviled.
It is his great glory that having taken the first steps in the
successful life as it has been lived by so many successful men, he
preferred to make himself a mockery and a cockshy for every worldly wit
or comfortable critic to laugh at as a failure for a hundred years. He
might have been a self-made man; but he died unfinished, trying to make
something better than himself.

Finally, he was by nature a traditionalist and he was by tradition a
Tory. He appeared first as a solid and loyal supporter of Church and
King; and he appeared with complete success. As we shall see, his place
was prepared for him as a good party man; his path was straight before
him to the position of a great party leader. It seemed to most honest
people, it seemed to him quite honestly, his logical and legitimate
goal. It is his glory that he never reached his goal. It is his merit
that his fallen figure was found far astray, and picked up, so to speak,
like a dead vagabond; a puzzle for pedants and a sort of suicidal wreck
to politicians; when he had set out on his journey stiff with so many
strict loyalties and so many respectable conventions. For there dwelt
within him a divine spirit more restless than a devil; a spirit that
could not feed on fictions or sleep at the dictation of any drug; an
insomnia of intelligence that could not choose but understand; a lidless
eye that could not escape from seeing a surge of spontaneous protest
almost as involuntary as vomiting and stronger than the strength of
fear, a voice not to be strangled, which forever, in a fashion so fierce
and unfamiliar that it startled men like the roar of a blind beast,
appealed from tyranny to God.


A book like this can be but a bare outline a life so full as that of
William Cobbett. nevertheless an outline is needed, and is an outline
that is not often supplied, is the advantage of such a small scope that
it can focus what often seems formless and sprawling, through being too
large to be seen. Cobbett produced a vast and voluminous mass of work;
and vast and voluminous masses of work have been produced about Cobbett.
Most of it is interesting and much of it is true; but none of it is the
truth. What is wanted in modern biography is something as simple as the
single line that marks the sweeping curve or the sharp corner in a
weather-chart, that yet more simple line that runs round the nose or
chin is a caricature. There have been caricatures enough of Cobbett but
they caricatured the wrong features. They missed the point. The subject
of Cobbett has been admirably simplified; but when it has been
simplified, it has been simplified wrong.

The story of Cobbett was a tragedy; a tragedy of a certain type. It was
the disillusionment of a patriot. That definition covers all that is
called its bewildering inconsistency. I do not mean to imply that he
lost his patriotism. He most certainly retained it that was the tragedy.
But he began by having the ordinary optimistic patriotism that looks
outwards, and it changed into a pessimistic patriotism that looked
inwards. His earlier and more cheerful attitude was one of mere
defiance; but it grew to be a much more gloomy attitude when it
seriously passed from defiance to defence. It was like the difference
between a man blowing a trumpet and a man examining the condition of a
gun. But there was also bound up in it the whole business of the modern
economic problem; of the industrial individualism that produced the
proletarian peril; in short, the whole problem of modern England. We
may, say of Cobbett, as of more than one great man, that some of the
most important incidents in his life happened after he was dead. But the
truth to seize at this stage is the truth about this transition from a
sort of centrifugal nationalism, that was cheery and even cheeky, to a
sort of centripetal nationalism that was grave and even grim. A modern
writer, resembling Cobbett only in having proved that the highest
literary genius can be combined with publicity and popular journalism,
has called one of his books of essays An Englishman Looks at the World.
It would have fitted very well the first essays of Cobbett. But the time
came when a deeper, a darker, a more withering experience might have
carried the title: An Englishman Looks at England.

The first fact about this first phase is that the patriotism of Cobbett
was the passionate patriotism of the exile. He went to America while he
was still quite young; so that even his memories of England were almost
memories of childhood. They had not only the glamour of distance, but
the glamour of which Wordsworth wrote, the glory and the freshness of a
dream. The islands of the blest were supposed to lie to the west like
Atlantis; but every man who has really sailed to Atlantis knows that the
islands of the blest are left behind. Certainly all the islanders who
have ever set forth from these islands to the modern Atlantis are at one
in having that homing imagination that wings its way backward into the
sunrise. Greatly as they have disagreed among themselves, they all agree
in that. Perhaps the one rallying point for all Britons is that their
songs in America have been songs of exile. The most familiar of them
represents the Irishman with his bundle bound for Philadelphia, or the
Englishman whistling 'Falmouth is a fine town' as he walks down the
street of Baltimore, or the Scotsman rising to that high note not
unworthy of the waters of Babylon.

 But still our hearts are true, our hearts are Highland,
 And we in dreams behold the Hebrides.

So strong is such a tradition that later generations will dream of what
they have never seen. The nationalism is most intense where the nation
is only a name. Irish American is more Irish than Irish. The English
colonial loyalist is more loyal than an Englishman. The loves and
hatreds harden in that hard air under those clear skies of the western
world. They are unsoftened by all internal doubts and criticisms that;
from being on the spot. But with Cobbett this ignorance of interior
details combined with the memories of one who had from childhood an eye
for detail, especially for the details of fields and skies. He
remembered England as a great green nursery; and felt as homesick in
America as a boy sent to a big, bare, strange, uncomfortable boarding

Nowhere in the world does an Englishman feel so much a stranger as in
America. He does not necessarily dislike America, and Cobbett himself
came to like it in the long run. He simply feels it is a stranger place
than France or Flanders or Italy; that it is really the other side of
the world like the other side of the moon. But if an Englishman still
feels like this, in spite of the hypnotism of the talk about an
Anglo-Saxon race and the hope of an Anglo-American alliance, it was
immeasurably more so when Cobbett landed in what had quite recently been
enemy territory. He met not only an alien atmosphere but a blast of
hatred against England.

There were indeed some Americans who sympathised with England as
compared with France. They were those grouped around Hamilton, who being
avowedly anti-popular in his politics was not likely to be very popular
in his personality. They counted a certain number of New England
Puritans; for almost the only real resemblance between New England and
Old England was that neither of them could make head or tail of France.
But though historians divide American opinion into the French party and
the English party, I suspect that the atmosphere of popular sympathy was
far more French than English. The whole romance of America consisted of
rebellion against England; except that part of it that consisted of
rescue by France. Nobody who knows what popular legends are like could
expect the princess suddenly to take the side of the dragon against St.
George. It was quite true, of course, that England was by no means
merely a dragon and France was by no means only a saint. But in
revolutions strong enough to overthrow all historic authorities and
create a new nationality there must be the sort of impatient simplicity
that sees characters in black and white; and few men at that moment
could persuade a real American mob that England was not so black as she
was painted. Moreover, the men of that age did not talk about racial
unity; and they were bound to France by something like a religious
unity. To leave out the definite democratic creed in judging Jefferson
and his contemporaries is exactly like leaving Mahomedanism out of
Mahomet. England did not believe in that democratic creed; and, being
honest in those days, did not pretend to do so for a moment. I take it
that the air that Cobbett had to breathe was not only American but

It is part of the picturesque combat of personalities throughout his
life that his first cockshy was, of all men in the world, the famous
Priestley, the Unitarian and friend of French or American ideals in
England. Priestley was a type of the sort of idealist whose ideals are
pure but just a little perverse; the sort of internationalist who is
specially unpopular among nationalists. The slight superiority in the
tone of such intellectuals towards the popular patriotism of their hour
aroused Cobbett to a rage quite ignorant and incongruous and yet not
unhealthy. What probably made the refined Unitarian very annoying to the
unrefined Surrey farmer was the notion of attacking England in America.
For exile affected the Surrey farmer in quite the opposite way. It drove
him to representing England as a sort of Eden from which he and Dr.
Priestley had been driven forth; only that Priestley slandered that
paradise and it was left for Cobbett to defend it. In a series of
furious pamphlets with the appropriate signature of Peter Porcupine, he
not only attacked the English democrats but to a great extent the
American democracy. It is important to note that his motive was much
more patriotism than conservatism. It is sometimes said that Cobbett
began in pure conservatism; men talk of him as a Tory from the start;
but even from the start the ease was more complex than that. His old
father the farmer, if he was a Tory, was a Tory with ideas of his own,
for he defended the American rebels; and Cobbett had first gone to
America bearing a letter to the great Thomas Jefferson. He did not
defend England because England was monarchical and he was a Royalist, or
because England was aristocratic and he was a snob, or because England
was the home of Toryism and he was a Tory. He defended England because
England was attacked and he was an Englishman; and his real rage was
reserved for other Englishmen who attacked her, or seemed to him not
sufficiently to defend her. For this reason he extravagantly abused Dr.
Priestley, for this reason he extravagantly abused Tom Paine, the author
of The Age of Reason: writing a bitter burlesque life of that author,
full of innocent lies: a story with a strange sequel. For this reason he
lectured the wondering people of that western land about the beauty of
the British Constitution, of British laws, of British landlords, of
British military policy, of almost everything, in fact, that he was
afterwards famous for rending and rolling in the mud.

Meanwhile his pamphleteering was getting better and better; those quaint
studies of English grammar in the corners of the cold barracks at
daybreak had trained him not only in language but in logic; and the
furious tenderness of exile gave him inspiration. Towards the end of his
American visit he showed his uncontrollable fancy for having a finger in
every pie by denouncing an American doctor as a quack. He lost his case
and was cast in heavy damages so that he decided to quit the country,
leaving behind him a farewell address to the Americans, one of the least
friendly farewells to be found in literature. This last American
injustice, as he saw it, finally reconciled him to his own country; and
it was in a glow of romantic reaction in favour of everything English
that the exile re-entered England. The crisis of his life came between
that hour and the hour some seventeen years later when he left it once

The Tories of England, waging war against Republicans abroad and
Radicals at home, naturally received the great reactionary with a roar
of welcome. The most prominent figure in the political group that
received him was William Windham. He was a fine specimen of the old
English aristocrat; that is, he was a Whig more Tory than the Tories. He
was a fine specimen of the cultivated gentleman and dilettante; and
therefore he was educated enough to see that the uneducated demagogue
was a genuine English man of letters. He and his friends gave Cobbett
the practical backing necessary for the founding of the celebrated
Cobbett's Register. It may be well to remark that Cobbett's Register
really was Cobbett's. He retained his intellectual independence he made
no party compact with Windham or anybody else: nay, he flatly refused
money from his friends in a way almost tartly honourable. But Windham
and he were at one with the enthusiasm with which they flung their
energies into the defence of Old England against the French Revolution
and its American sympathisers. The swing and momentum of his American
triumphs carried Cobbett on like a tide, and he may well have felt that
he was at the top of his fortunes. It was just about this time that
curious things began to happen.

All the time he had wandered on the bare baked prairies under the hard
white light of the western skies, he had remembered the high green
fields of his father's farm and the clouds and the comfort of the rain.
For him even more than for Nelson, and in another sense, there was
something united and almost interchangeable in the three terms of
England, home, and beauty. But his was no mere landscape-painter's but a
land-owner's and a land-worker's love; and he pored more and more
intently over the practice and detail of the farming he had known in
boyhood. As he looked at crops or barns or orchards, it seemed as if the
frown on his shrewd square face became first thoughtful and then
doubtful. Things were not going well; and bit by bit he began to work
out in his own mind a notion of the cause. For instance, it was
essential to true farming that the farmer should be secure on his farm.
If he was not legally and literally a peasant proprietor, he must at
least be rooted like a peasant. At the moment peasants were being rooted
out like weeds instead of being rooted like trees. Landlords were
refusing to grant the long leases that gave a status to a yeomanry; they
were chopping them up into shorter terms, and shifting and evicting for
higher rents. And when he looked for the cause of this, he thought he
had found it in the new fluctuation of prices and even of the value of
money; in the paper money that symbolised to him such insecurity and
shuffling and sharp practice. It meant the destruction not only of the
old sort of yeoman but of the old sort of squire. Stockbrokers and Jews
and jobbers from the town were driving out the national gentry; he would
appeal to the great leaders of the party of the gentry to save them. He
turned to his own Tory leaders, to Windham and the party of Pitt; for
they were the natural saviours of the green countryside from this yellow
fever of finance.

There is sometimes in a great comedy a scene of almost tragic irony,
when some simple character enters, eager, voluble, and full of his
subject, and pours it out quite confidently to a group of listeners. It
is long before even the spectator realises that the listeners are very
silent. It is much longer before the speaker realises it. It is long
before even a hint leads him to look, at first with doubt and at last
with horror, at the significant and sinister smile faintly present on
all those unanswering faces. That was the sort of scene that occurred in
history when Cobbett came rushing to his Tory friends with his great
scheme for saving English agriculture. He did not understand that
restrained smirk on the pinched face of Pitt; that shadow of something
like shame that may have rested for a moment on the more generous face
of Windham. We could imagine one of them looking at the ceiling and the
other at the floor; and neither answering a word.

For William Cobbett had not in fact the faintest notion of what manner
of men he served, or what sort of Government he was supporting. If
Cobbett eventually found that the Tories were not satisfactory, it was
for the very simple reason that he found that the Tories were not
Tories. They may have had a desire to restore the old regime in France,
largely because it would mean France being less vigorous and victorious
than under the new regime of Napoleon. But they had not the faintest
desire to save the old regime in England. Why should they? Men like Pitt
and Perceval and the rest were more entangled with the new world than
ever they were with the old; and were in much closer touch with the
stockbrokers than with the farmers. Above a11 they had no notion of what
Cobbett was talking about when he talked of giving the farmer the
stability of a yeoman. The only laws they could imagine as applicable to
rural life were the game laws. For that purpose perhaps it was desirable
that the country should continue to exist. It was seldom possible to
start a hare in Lombard Street, and quite awkward to shoot a partridge
in Threadneedle Street. Otherwise there was really no reason why Lombard
Street and Threadneedle Street should not extend to the ends of the
earth. The educated class in England knew much more about preserving
pheasants than peasants: it was an aitch they were very careful not to

The biographies of Cobbett commonly say that he began life as a Tory and
afterwards changed his politics and became a sort of Radical. The
proportions of this picture are misleading. Cobbett was never anything
that an enemy would call a turncoat or a friend would call a brand from
the burning. There is no sharp break in his life, breaking the very
backbone of his principles; such as there is in the life of a penitent
or the life of a traitor. It is not true that he belonged successively
to two parties: it is much truer to say that he never belonged to any.
But in so far as there were elements of the Radical in him at the end,
there had been traces of them from the beginning. And in so far as he
was in one sense a Tory at the beginning, he remained a Tory to the end.
The truth is that the confusion was riot in Cobbett but in the terms
Tory and Radical. They are not exact terms; they are nothing like so
exact as Cobbett was. His general position is intrinsically quite clear
and, as men go, quite consistent. It was the Tories who were not clear
about Toryism. It was the Radicals who were inconsistent about
Radicalism. I do not mean that he had no inconsistencies; he had a great
many. He had all those inconsistencies of mere verbal variation which
are almost invariable in a man who throws himself with equal vehemence
into the proving of many different propositions in many different
connections. But the inconsistencies of Cobbett were very superficial;
much more superficial than the changes in most political careers. The
man who played Peter Porcupine in America did not differ so much from
the man who brought the bones of Tom Paine like holy relics to England
as the Disraeli of the Revolutionary Epick differed from the Disraeli of
the Primrose League, or the Gladstone who was the hope of the stern and
unbending Tories from the Gladstone who was the idol of the Radicals and

Cobbett was a very consistent man, in every essential sense. It was the
parties claiming or repudiating him who were quite inconsistent. To
understand the point it is necessary to refer briefly to the history of
those parties. There had once been something like a real war between
Whigs and Tories. It was the real war between aristocracy and monarchy;
two mortal enemies who have wrestled through all history. But in England
aristocracy had won. Formal histories tell us that the Crown passed from
the House of Stuart to the House of Brunswick. But in fact, while the
Stuarts lost it, the Brunswicks never got it. The old original Crown the
Stuarts had worn was thrown away with the Great Seal, when James the
Second fled to France. The young George the Third had indeed tried to
recover it with the aid of a Scottish Tory; just as the young Charles
Edward had tried to recover it with the aid of the Scottish Jacobites.
But it never was recovered. A loyalty to it lingered in middle-class and
especially literary circles; as in Johnson and Goldsmith and many of the
wisest and best individual thinkers of the eighteenth century. Cobbett
came a little too late in time and a little too low in the social scale
to touch this old and intelligent Tory middleclass before it died out. I
do not know whether he realised how often he visited the Deserted
Village in the course of the Rural Rides. Johnson he regarded with one
of those accidental animosities that justified to some extent his
reputation for mere spite. Cobbett had a prejudice against Johnson;
which is all the more amusing because it was exactly the sort of
prejudice that Johnson might have had against him. Cobbett regarded
Johnson as a mere pedantic pensioner; and Johnson would very possibly
have regarded Cobbett as he regarded Wilkes, more or less in the
abstract as a dirty demagogue. So many things united these two great
Englishmen, and not least their instinctive embodiment of England; they
were alike in their benevolent bullying, in something private and
practical, and very much to the point in their individual tenderness, in
their surly sympathy for the Catholic tradition, in their dark doubts of
the coming time. But above all they were united by the thing that
divided them: the most genial and humane of all forms of hatred; their
passionate and personal hatred of people they had never seen.

In any case, Cobbett was born long after the true Tory monarchy had
died, and he never quite understood its tradition. If he grew up a Tory
and in some sense remained a Tory, it was in somewhat vaguer traditions
that he was traditional. He liked old customs and the continuity of
family life to be found in the countryside; he loved England in a sense
that was very real and unfortunately very rare. I mean that it was a
positive love that looked inwards upon the beloved; and not merely a
negative love that looked outwards for rivals or remote imitations. If
this sort of love of what is national and normal be called conservative,
certainly that character was rooted in him. But what was called his
Radicalism was equally radical. He realised by the light of nature the
last deductions of the democratic speculators in so far as they can
fairly be deduced. But the last conclusions which the republicans could
reach were only the ancient axioms on which the monarchies had
originally been founded. They were only forgotten because they were
fundamental. Cobbett had a great faculty of not forgetting the
foundations, as most of us do forget the foundations of a house,
especially if we walk about on the roof. He had one very virile sort of
simplicity: he was true to the truisms. He was never ashamed of the
homely appearance of a humble and a faithful truth. Cobbett always
really believed in popular principles, though he saw no cause to talk
Greek and call them democratic principles. He could not see that the new
industrial progress had anything to do with these principles; and he was
perfectly right. He knew that the real revolutionary song had been about
fields and furrows, and not about wheels and rails. He knew that the
Revolution had begun with bread. He was not in the least impressed by
its ending in smoke. The man who had once been a rioter waving the red
flag in a revolution may now be a guard waving the red flag on a
railway-line. But this will not convince the realistic reformer that a
railway-line is the same as a revolution.

When Radicalism was caught up in the wheel that was the symbol of
industrialism, the opposite school tended the opposite way, by the
slight movement that makes the balance of a party system. The Tories
could pose as the agricultural party; if only a party of squires and not
of peasants. But it was no longer a real war, like the war between
Parliament and the King, in which Parliament had finally triumphed. The
new Whigs and Tories were only two different shades of the same colour,
like the dark blue of the Tory University and the light blue of the Whig
University. They were at most only two different types of the same only
garchy. They were often only two different, generations of the same
oligarchy. The one was still making money in the town, while the other
had made enough money to live in the country. That Cobbett cut across
this sort of distinction of mere sentiment and association is not a mark
of his inconsistency but of his consistency. He knew what he wanted and
the Whigs and Tories only offered two slightly different reasons for not
giving it to him. There was no logic in the things that held them apart,
or in the things they lumped together. There was nothing in the nature
of a rational sequence in the notion of one party standing for
aristocracy and the land, and the other for democracy and machinery. It
was as meaningless as if one party were associated with justice and
beef, while the other was wholly dedicated to mercy and mutton. And it
was as if they had joined in reviling the inconsistency of a
common-sense person, who desired the more merciful treatment of oxen or
the more just distribution of muttonchops. Now this is why it is vital
at this point to realise the true nature of the Tory regime which
extends intermittently from Pitt to Peel. Friends and foes alike have
treated it as a reactionary regime; but that is only because the facts
about it have not been faced. Pitt and his followers were not in the
least Tory in the sense of traditional. They were only Tory in the sense
of tyrannical. If trying to destroy all old constitutional liberties
makes a man a conservative, then certainly Pitt and Castlereagh were
model conservatives. But it would be hard to say what it was they
conserved. There was not a single historic tradition, not a single human
memory of the past, for which they ever showed the faintest sympathy.
The truth is that the whole of this passage in history will be read
wildly wrong unless we clearly understand that Pitt and Peel were highly
modern and purely mercantile figures, helping to found the purely modern
and mercantile world. Thus it was Pitt who began the degradation and
destruction of a genuine gentry, by selling peerages right and left to
every pawnbroker or pork butcher who would pay for them. If ever men
were responsible for handing the country over to cads, it was the party
of gentlemen who waved the Union Jack after Waterloo. It was so in all
the more decent or defensible aspects of commercialism. In that sense
Pitt cared nothing for the opinion of the Country Party; or even for the
opinion of the Country. What he cared for was the opinion of the City.
His real bodyguard was a battalion of bankers. It has often been pointed
out that he had many of the merits of a liberal; he had also the vices
of a liberal, and especially the illiberalities of a liberal. Pitt was
the real founder of the Manchester School. Peel only followed the real
policy of his party in eventually helping its triumph. We talk of Peel's
abrupt acceptance of Free Trade; but it would be truer to talk of his
temporary acceptance of Protection. As a type of human being, he had
always been purely commercial, and not in the least conservative. In a
word, these men did indeed fight democracy abroad and persecute it at
home. But they did not defend aristocracy, far less monarchy. What they
did was to establish plutocracy; and mainly a parvenu plutocracy. And if
it be a glory to have created the modern industrial state, they can
claim a very great share in it. Cobbett did not grudge it to them.

Broadly speaking, if there was one man who was bound to be the
antithesis of William Cobbett it was William Pitt. Anybody who expected
anything else, merely because the two men were at one time classed as
Tories, is the person really incapable of understanding intellectual
consistency. Cobbett had only supported Pitt because he thought the Pitt
rule stood for Old England; but it did not. Cobbett never supported the
Pitt party after he had discovered that it did not. It is true that as
he drifted further from Pitt and the Tories he necessarily appeared to
be drifting nearer to Brougham and the Radicals, who also did not. But
the slightest acquaintance with what he said about Brougham and the
Radicals will show that it was almost always a movement of repulsion and
not of attraction. His preference for any party was rather too
comparative to be complimentary. It would hardly have been flattering to
Mr. Pitt to be told that his appearance had only seemed to be something
of a relief after that of Dr. Rush, or to Lord Brougham to say that his
society seemed quite tolerable to one fleeing from that of Lord
Castlereagh. But Cobbett's public alliances, as distinct from his
private affections, seldom went much further than this. He may have come
eventually almost to hate Orator Hunt; but I doubt whether he had ever
really liked him. Windham I am inclined to think that he really liked;
and lie made earnest efforts to explain to that perplexed Tory that
there was nothing inconsistent with Toryism in his pleas for labour and
the land. He remained in this doubtful and negative attitude, nearer to
the Radicals rather than more Radical, when something happened that
changed everything; something that broke his life in two in the middle
like a blow that breaks the backbone.

He inserted in his Register an indignant protest against the flogging of
certain English soldiers under a guard of German mercenaries. It is
essential to realise that the accent is on the word English and the word
German. He was not merely a humanitarian protesting against inhumanity.
He was a patriot protesting against his countrymen being tortured to
make a spectacle for foreigners. Being a very genuine Englishman, he
cared nothing for all the nonsense about allies and enemies, in
comparison with the real difference between Englishmen and foreigners.
Indeed, by the whole trend of his mind he would always have preferred
the French to the German; and nobody would have rejoiced more than he at
that great and just alliance that brought about the downfall of Prussia.
Anyhow he printed his protest; and instantly discovered that he had
touched the spring which launched a whole huge engine of destruction
against himself. The great Tory Government, which he had come back from
America to serve, had no doubt about how it should deal with this sort
of patriotic service. He was instantly pinned with a prosecution, tried
before the usual packed jury of the White Terror, and eventually
sentenced to imprisonment for two years in Newgate, accompanied by a
fine that meant ruin.

Cobbett was bewildered by the blow; and seems at first to have been
reduced to despair. It is said that he talked of throwing up his whole
public work, since it could not be conducted without involving his
family in such ruin. There has been much dispute about the story of some
such despairing surrender being communicated to the Government. It seems
to me that Cobbett's own account of the incident is probably true in the
main; all the more as he owned frankly that his family had once
persuaded him to this course: of which, he said, he had afterwards
repented. There was some talk of a letter that he had recalled being
maliciously published. It is possible: but the whole story seems rather
confused. Certainly Cobbett was fought through all his life with weapons
of a peculiar baseness; a certain mean spirit which is rather peculiar
to such aristocracies when alarmed. It was that mean spirit that stole
and published the scandalous poem of Wilkes. It was that spirit which
used for political ends the private fault of Parnell. Cobbett suffered
from this often enough; but his complaints in this case are rather
chaotic and inconsistent. It is very characteristic of Cobbett that even
in repudiating the action he argued in defence of it; pointing out that
there would be nothing immoral in a private man out of private affection
abandoning public work that nobody could demand of him as a duty. His
argument was sound enough; but it did not give a real picture of his
complex and confused situation. In order to understand the meaning of
the whole business, we must understand two things that are relevant to
the whole of his life; though the first refers more particularly to this
earlier passage in his life. It will be well to get these conceptions
clear before this chapter concludes.

First, it must be clearly understood that Cobbett was not yet a
Revolutionist; even if he was already a Radical, he was still
subconsciously the Tory patriot who had made his name by waging war on
all Revolutionists. He had indeed kept his English journalism
independent of parties; but if he had originally had any party, it was
the Tory party. In other words, his disappointment had begun, but he
still had enough admiration to be disappointed. He was still
sufficiently orthodox to be troubled by doubt. Then came the shameful
and incredible shock of the Constitution he had once defended swinging
round and knocking him silly. It was no wonder if, for the moment, it
did knock him very silly. But it is reading the last lucid rage of the
Radical Cobbett into the first dark and confused doubts of the
Conservative Cobbett to expect him to have met his first trial in as he
met his second trial in His real revolutionary spirit was not the cause
of his imprisonment; it was the result of it.

The fools who put Cobbett in prison probably did believe they were
crushing a Jacobin, when they were really creating one. And they were
creating a Jacobin out of the best Anti-Jacobin of the age. Apart from
all political labels, they were manufacturing the greatest rebel, of
English history out of the most unpromising materials. Perhaps he was
the only real rebel that was ever manufactured out of purely English
materials. But he was all the more a furious rebel because he was a
reluctant rebel. For the man who paced that cell, like a lion in a cage,
had not any of the detachment given either by idealism or cynicism. He
had not fully learned to expect injustice; he had not yet survived
disappointment, the dark surprise of youth. The man in that cell was no
Stoic, trained in the Latin logic of Condorcet or Carnot, seeing his own
virtues as part of the ideal system of the Republic and his own
sufferings as part of the inevitable system of the Kings. He was no
Irish martyr, schooled to breathe the very air of tragedy and tyranny
and vengeance, and living in a noble but unnatural exaltation of wholly
spiritual hate. Like most men of a very English type, he was
inordinately fond of happiness. And happiness to him was concrete and
not abstract; it was his own farm, his own family, his own children.
Like most men of a very masculine type, he was probably a good deal
dominated by his wife. And his wife and family had evidently hung on
heavily to drag him back from his political precipice. But the worst of
it was that he was suffering for an idea; and as yet did not quite know
what idea. That is where this great angry and bewildered Englishman
differed from the French Stoics or the Irish patriots. They appealed to
the gods against the kings, to the ideas against the facts; but it
seemed to the Englishman that his own god and king had condemned him.
They saw clear skies above a confused world; but it was upon him that
his own sky had fallen. He had indeed in his mind all that volcanic
amalgam of ancient loyalties and popular sympathies which puzzles the
student of party labels; but it was still in his subconscious mind. He
had not yet a creed as Robespierre or Jefferson or O'Connell had a
creed. In fact, he was not suffering for an idea he was suffering for an
instinct. But the instinct seemed to him a natural part of that natural
order which had suddenly sprung on him an unnatural revenge. In so far
as he had originally believed in anything, it was in the authorities
that had thrown him into gaol. In so far as he had any creed, it had
been the Constitution which condemned him as a felon. He had acted on a
patriotic impulse; and patriotism had punished him for being patriotic.
All this first transition of bewilderment must be allowed for; but when
it is allowed for, something else remains. Even when his head had
cleared and his creed consolidated, there remained something about him
for which the reader must be prepared to make allowances; as much as
when we see him swaying rather blindly under this first blow.

Cobbett was a particular human type; the very last to be fairly
understood in those quiet times of which the virtue is sociability and
the vice is snobbery. He was the imperfect martyr. The modern and
popular way of putting it is to say that a man can really be a martyr
without being by any means a saint. The more subtle truth is that he can
even be a saint and still have that sort of imperfection. The first of
Christian saints was in that sense a very imperfect martyr. He
eventually suffered martyrdom for a Master whom he had cursed and
denied. That marks the tremendous realism of our religion: its heroes
had not heroic faults. They had not those Byronic vices that can pose
almost as virtues. When they said they were miserable sinners, it was
because they really dared to confess the miserable sins. Tradition says
that the saint in question actually asked to be crucified upslde-down,
as if making himself a mere parody of a martyr. And there is something
of the same sacred topsy-turvydom in the strange fancy by which he is
haunted in all hagiological art and legend by the symbol of his failure.
The crowing of a cock, which has become a phrase for insolence, has in
this case actually become an emblem of meekness. Rome has lifted up the
cock of Peter higher than the eagle of Caesar, not to preach pride to
kings but to preach humility to pontiffs. The cock is crowing for ever
that the saint may never crow.

Cobbett was a much more imperfect martyr; for he lived and died by a
much more imperfect light. But this is the contradiction that explains
all his contradictions. His courage was not consistent, complete, a
thing working itself out by a perfectly clear principle. His heroic
stature was not properly or perfectly proportioned, it was merely
heroic. He sometimes fell below himself; but it was because he had a far
higher and more arduous standard of manhood than most men, especially
the men around him. He began tasks that he did not always finish; he
took up rash positions that he sometimes found to be untenable.

More than once in his career there comes in an element of anti-climax
and bathos, at which the world will find it easy to laugh. But the world
will have no sort of right to laugh. In the lives of most of us there is
no such anti-climax simply because there is no climax. If we do not
abandon those tasks it is because we do not attempt them; and we are not
crucified upside-down because we have no intention of being crucified at
all. The ordinary Sophist or Sadducee, passing the grotesque
crucifixion, would have no right to mock the martyr with the crowing of
the cock. The ordinary politician or political writer of Cobbett's time
or ours had no right to mock the inconsistencies of Cobbett. The whole
scheme and standard of his life was higher and harder than theirs, even
of the best of them. Men like Bentham and Brougham were sincere
reformers in the ordinary sense. Men like Macaulay and Mackintosh were
good men in the normal fashion. But they served their world; they never
set out to fight the whole world as Cobbett did. Good and bad alike,
they are like civilians sitting at home and criticising a shattered and
shell-shocked soldier. There is no particular disgrace in being a
civilian; though there may be in being an ungenerous civilian.

One example may illustrate what is meant by the comparison. Cobbett got
himself flung into a common gaol for protesting against the flogging of
British soldiers in the middle of the Napoleonic war; he afterwards went
to America to avoid being flung into prison again. Macaulay, nearly a
generation later, in time of peace, when the general mood was much more
humanitarian, had the ordinary official task of apologising for
flagrantly savage floggings of the same sort, simply because he happened
to be Secretary for War and the blustering Lord Cardigan happened to be
Commander of the Forces in London. Nobody in his senses would call
Macaulay a cruel man. He simply regarded himself as a good party man,
making the best of a bad case, as a part of his least agreeable
parliamentary duties. His biographer, Sir George Trevelyan, certainly a
very liberal and humane man, expresses no particular surprise at it; and
nobody felt any particular surprise at it. Most people probably regarded
it as we regard the uncomfortable duty of a barrister, who has to
minimise the acts of a monster who has tortured children. It was part of
the routine, of the rules of the game, of the way of the world. But the
man who accepts everything and defends such things is not in the same
world with the man who risks everything, or even anything, to denounce
them. We may well say about Macaulay what he himself said about Cranmer:
'It is no great condemnation of a man to say that he did not possess
heroic fortitude.' And it is no great condemnation of him to say that he
will never come within a thousand miles of the man who does possess
heroic fortitude, even for a moment.

For if the common or conventional man is not to be condemned for failing
to be a hero, still less is the other man to be condemned for succeeding
in being half a hero or nine-tenths of a hero. The imperfect martyr may
be judged by the perfect martyr, but not by anybody else; and the
perfect martyr will probably have the charity as well as the patience of
the perfect saint. Nobody will pretend that Cobbett had the patience of
the perfect saint. He had not enough of the charity, though he had more
than many might suppose, especially the people who make a point of being
charitable to the rich. It is true that even his heroism was
incalculable and inconsequent; but the question of proportion and even
of quantity does not touch the question of quality. One moment of
Cobbett's courage is of a different quality from a lifetime of
Macaulay's common sense. Macaulay, in his life as in his logic, was
nothing worse than superficial. It was the tragedy of Cobbett that he
was fundamental. Of all our social critics lie was by far the most
fundamental. He could not help seeing a fight of first principles deadly
enough to daunt any fighter. He could not help realising an evil too
large for most men to realise, let alone resist. It was as if he had
been given an appalling vision, in which the whole land he looked at,
dotted with peaceful houses and indifferent men, had the lines and
slopes of a slow earthquake.

Macaulay, it has been noted, said about Cranmer that he could not be
blamed for not being a hero and a martyr. But for all that Macaulay
blamed him a good deal for being a coward and a snob. Cobbett said about
Cranmer that the very thought that such a being had walked the earth on
two legs was enough to make the reeling brain doubt the existence of
God; but that peace and faith flow back again into the soul when we
remember that he was burned alive. I quote the sentiment from memory;
but that was the substance of the remark. It is a remark touched with a
certain exaggeration. It is not an observation marked primarily by
measure or precise proportion or the mellowing of truth with charity.
Macaulay's criticism of Cranmer is more effective for everyday purposes;
as when he says that the crime of the Tudor politician was not in being
too indifferent to be killed, but in killing other people for things
about which he was indifferent, and enacting laws against anyone 'who
should do from conviction what he had done from cowardice.' But there is
a quality in that outburst of Cobbett about Cranmer which we must learn
to appreciate or leave off troubling about Cobbett. There is a volume
and a violence of humanity in such hatred; a hatred straight from the
heart like a knockout blow straight from the shoulder. It is a blast
from a furnace. And it is only in such a furnace seven times heated that
men suffer for an idea-or even suffer for an impulse.

Anyhow, the only effect of the imprisonment was to turn an impulse into
an idea. He may have lacked some of the virtues of a philosopher; even
including the philosophy. He may not have been perfect as a hero; or
even have possessed any of the qualities of a martyr except the
martyrdom. But he was emphatically the sort of man with whom one cannot
afford to be in the wrong. It was suicidally silly to act with such
injustice to a man with such a talent for expounding justice, including
intellectual justice. It would have been wiser in the governing class to
have gone on their natural course and continued to harry the imbecile
and to torment the dumb. Thousands of poor men have been and are
persecuted quite as unjustly as Cobbett by the police and plutocracy of
modern states; but a certain political instinct and practical intuition
have generally and wisely guided the authorities to hit the sort of man
who cannot possibly hit them back. It is impossible not to comment on
the very curious carelessness, which in this case allowed the rich and
the rulers to commit the customary cruelties upon a man eminently
capable of telling the tale. They threw him into gaol for nothing, or
for anything, or for something more or less meritorious, for all the
world as if he had been his own grandfather the agricultural labourer.

Certainly if they put him in prison, they ought never to have let him
out. Surely the flexible British Constitution of Pitt and Castlereagh
would have been equal to the necessity of sending him to Botany Bay for
life. For that Constitution was very free when it came to attacking
freedom. The man who came out of that prison was not the man who went
in. It is not enough to say that he came out in a rage, and may be said
to have remained in a rage; to have lived in a rage for thirty years,
until he died in a rage in his own place upon the hills of Surrey. There
are rages and rages, and they ought to have seen in his eyes when they
opened the door that they had let loose a revolution. We talk of a man
being in a towering passion and that vigorous English phrase, so much in
his own literary manner, is symbolic of his intellectual importance. He
did indeed return in a towering passion, a passion that towered above
towns and villages like a waterspout, or a cyclone visible from ten
counties and crossing England like the stride of the storm. The most
terrible of human tongues was loosened and went through the country like
a wandering bell, of incessant anger and alarum; till men must have
wondered why, when it was in their power, they had not cut it out.


His imprisonment destroyed in Cobbett the whole dream with which he had
returned rejoicing from America. That is, it did not in the least
destroy his love of his native land; but it did destroy the illusion
that he would there be able to breathe quite easily a native air. He
could no longer hope, as it had once seemed so natural to do, that the
spontaneous and colloquial language that sprang so easily to his own
lips would commend itself as easily to people in his own land; that
there he would be among neighbours and would talk without an
interpreter. England was not a place where they understood plain
English. From the very beginning of his fresh start after imprisonment
we find him, therefore, facing the fact that he will never be able to
say all that he wants to say or to fulfil himself as he had meant to do.
Moreover, his fresh start was one not only after imprisonment, but after
ruin and practical bankruptcy; and the fresh start was not a very
fortunate start. His farming was not successful, his financial
difficulties became acute; and it looked as if Cobbett in England would
be in every sense a failure. Hence we have to record (before coming to
the crowning and decisive part of his English career) another
interruption in the form of a visit to America. The visit was a shorter
one; and is chiefly interesting through two or three episodes which must
be taken in their turn. But we must first say a word of the conditions
in his own country.

The first note of the new Cobbett who came out from captivity is the
abrupt and absolute cessation of his first boyish feelings about the war
with France; the feelings he probably had when he ran away to sea as a
boy. He was no longer jolly enough to be a Jingo. I do not use the word
in a bad sense; for indeed Cobbett's Jingoism has never been bad enough
to be called Imperialism. He had been for fighting the French on the
perfectly healthy ground that he was saving his own beloved island from
the French. But anyhow this simple way of looking at it became
impossible after his imprisonment. He was still a patriot; he was never
anything in the least like a pacifist; but he had learnt something that
he could not unlearn. He who had cheered on the dogs of war with Windham
for a fellow-huntsman called them off abruptly, with a sort of harsh
humanitarianism. He came out positively on the side of stopping the war.
That is the change that is really significant. He would waste no more
time on saving England from the French. He had the huge task of saving
England from the English.

Even here, however, it is easy to miss the consistency under all the
inconsistencies. It is highly characteristic of him that he had refused
with especial fury the proposal to stop the war at an earlier stage,
when the proposal was based on the argument (still so common among
commercial peacemongers) that war is bad for commerce. Cobbett was quite
consistent in having an equal contempt for the Pacifist who made peace
for that reason and for the Pittite who made war for that reason. But he
was more and more convinced that the Pittites were only making war for
that reason. The moment he concluded that only the bankers and merchants
really wanted war, and the populace suffered from it without need, he
was perfectly consistent in changing sides. He would have been quite
inconsistent if he had not changed sides. Windham himself had said,
"Perish Commerce; but let the Constitution be saved." Cobbett had made
it his motto, though now perhaps in the amended form, "Perish Commerce
and Constitutions; but let the country be saved." Only, he was more and
more grimly convinced that it needed saving, and not from Napoleon. He
was not less of an English patriot, but perhaps he was in one sense a
little less of an Englishman, if being an Englishman means being happy
and happy-go-lucky and comforted by compromises and ready to believe
anything printed in the Times.

Meanwhile the war ended with Waterloo and the peace began with Peterloo.
That was the only kind of peace that seemed likely to begin. It was time
that somebody did something, whether or no Cobbett could do anything.
The new capitalistic phase of England was coming to a crisis, especially
in the North. The industrial revolution was already producing the
anti-industrial revolution--which is likely to be a much more real
revolution. Machines were busy and men were idle. Some men indeed were
not idle; but those who were most busy were the political economists,
who were busy proving on paper that the machinery that had made people
poor must really have made them rich. Very soon something began to
happen that anybody might have foreseen, whether he was on the side of
the machines or the men, so long as he understood that men are not
machines. Cobbett realised it, though he did not approve of it. The men
began to destroy the machine; to destroy them as if they were dragons
that had come in to destroy the paradise of innocence and liberty.
Cobbett, who upon that matter was a moderate, wrote a Letter to the
Luddites, urging them to desist from this method of protest; but he
banded himself with the most resolute of the Radicals, with old
Cartwright and Orator Hunt and Burdett, in demanding drastic democratic
reforms. His Register, already popular at a shilling, was made
enormously more popular by being sold for twopence, with the ironic
boast of Twopenny Trash. Never in English history perhaps has one man
wielded so vast and potent a popular instrument as Cobbett did. He and
his friends were incessant in demanding reform, which had already begun
to be spelt with a capital letter. They pointed to the dark sphinx of
industrial destitution and demanded that there should be at least some
answer to its riddle.

The answer of the Government was interesting. It was to discover a Plot
of the most vast and sanguinary sort started by a Mr. Spence, a little
bookseller holding the mild sort of Socialism that is called Land
Nationalisation. It was called Spencean Philanthropy. All the other
reformers were apparently in the plot, however remote or contrary were
their notions of reform. Cobbett was about as unlike a Spencean
Philanthropist, or indeed any other philanthropist, as any one could
conceivably be, but he was supposed to be deep in the plot. The
Government hastily armed itself with abnormal powers of violence and
secrecy, and threw an iron net of spies and special agents over the
whole country to catch all fish, great and small, all reformers,
reasonable and unreasonable. One of the big fish decided to break the
net before it closed and to get away into other waters. He may have been
wise or foolish, but he was in the habit of acting very promptly on his
wisdom or folly. Cobbett resolved once more to escape to America and
conduct his campaign from there. As a matter of fact, he only stayed
there two years, bombarding England with pamphlets all the time, and
then came back to follow up his pamphlets with a yet more furious
personal onslaught. But he was blamed for his expedient; and indeed it
was his fate to go through life being blamed first for attacking and
then for retreating, blamed for all he did and all he did not do. Anyhow
he thought he was more useful to the reform in America than in gaol; and
certainly we should otherwise have lost some protests that were much
needed. Nobody else could have done justice to an even more absurd plot
called 'the Derbyshire Insurrection,' which was entirely created by an
agent provocateur named Oliver. It is typical of the wrangles that go on
among reformers that if some of the other Radicals blamed Cobbett for
escaping to America, he was even more withering about them for playing
the coward in England. He denounced them for doing nothing to save the
wretched men who suffered from this hideous plot to manufacture a plot.
It was on this occasion that Cobbett quarrelled with Burdett, as he
afterwards quarrelled with Hunt, and indeed with nearly everybody else.
Before leaving for America, indeed, he had had quarrels of less public
but more personal importance with his own agents. As already noted, his
own economic position was not promising; and this probably contributed
to his deciding on a second American visit. In any case, he reached
America in the May of 1817, and soon established himself on a farm in
Long Island.

Cobbett's second visit to America is associated with an action which all
the authorities have censured as ridiculous, and which I think has been
ridiculously censured. I do not mean that there was nothing to
criticise, but only that there is something quite wrong in the
criticisms. The story thus strangely misunderstood is the story of
Cobbett carrying back the remains of Thomas Paine, the English Jacobin,
to be laid to rest in England.

Thomas Paine invented the name of the Age of Reason; and he was one of
those sincere but curiously simple men who really did think that the age
of reason was beginning, at about the time when it was really ending.
Being a secularist of the most simple-minded sort, he naturally aroused
angry passions at the moment, as does any poor fellow who stands on a
chair and tries to heckle heaven in Hyde Park. But considering him in
retrospect, the modern world will be more disposed to wonder at his
belief than at his unbelief. The denial of Christianity is as old as
Christianity; we might well say older. The anti-clerical will probably
last as long as the Church, which will last as long as the world. But it
is doubtful when we shall see again the positive side of Paine's
philosophy; the part that was at once credulous and creative. It is
impossible, alas, for us to believe that a Republic will put everything
right, that elections everywhere will ensure equality for all. For him
the Church was at best a beautiful dream and the Republic a human
reality today it is his Republic that is the beautiful dream. There was
in that liberalism much of the leisure of the eighteenth-century
aristocrats who invented it; and much of the sheltered seclusion also.
The garden which Voltaire told a man to cultivate was really almost as
innocent as the garden of Eden. But the young men who saw such visions
were none the less seeing visions of paradise, though it was an earthly
paradise. Rationalism is a romance of youth. There is nothing very much
the matter with the age of reason; except, alas, that it comes before
the age of discretion.

But Paine had one point of superiority to the mere Radicals then rising
in England, who shared his cocksure rationalism and sublime
superficiality. He was not merely commercial, any more than Shelley; and
he seems to have had his doubts about the hopefulness of mere
huckstering and unhampered exchange, somewhat in the manner of Cobbett.
Now Cobbett, in his first American period, was hitting out at the
Jacobins on the principle of 'see a head and hit it'; and the
intellectual brow of Thomas Paine was naturally prominent. He attacked
Paine as he generally did attack people, in a highly personal and
ferocious manner. He said things about that ingenuous Deist that were
certainly quite false; Cobbett was not guilty of lying, but he was
guilty of readily thinking evil. To him at that time Tom Paine was
simply the Age of Reason; that is, the Age of Red Ruin. For Cobbett also
was as simple as Tom Paine and especially at that time he had as
guileless a faith in Royalism as the other had in Republicanism. But
when Cobbett came back to America after his imprisonment, he had made
the terrible discovery that terminates youth, even if it often gives a
new interest to life; the discovery that it is a strange world, that
things are not what they seem, and certainly not always what they
profess to be. He was in a position to begin to admit that there might
be more in Tom Paine than met the eye, especially the blind eye that he
had turned on all the enemies of the English crown. But above all he
went to America with his head still buzzing like a beehive with all
sorts of new notions and suspicions, which went to make up the really
original political philosophy of his later years. He was becoming a
sceptic, not about crowns and creeds but about things that the world
round him reverenced far more than any creed or crown. He was doubting
things that Whigs and Tories and Radicals were more and more taking for
granted; the whole basis of the commercial success of his country. Just
as he was questioning the very medium of their exchange, so he was
questioning the very language of their controversy. He thought that
paper money was waste paper; and he thought that industrial wealth was
really only industrious waste. He doubted above all the abstract and
invisible, we might say the transcendental, part of modern capitalism;
the national debts and the international loans. Tom Paine took on a
comparatively easy job when he attacked the Church. Will Cobbett had the
inconceivable impudence to attack the Bank. Then he knew he was in
collision with the colossal force of the whole modern world, like a man
running with his head down at an express train. The whole world would
leave such a lunatic to run alone; and Cobbett was left to run entirely
alone. All the books and pamphlets of the period, and indeed all the
books and pamphlets ever since, have scoffed at him about this part of
his political adventure. He read such books and pamphlets with a face
continually hardening into defiance and scorn; and then he made a
strange discovery. In turning over, it may be, one out of twenty of the
contemporary books and papers he was thus in the habit of tossing aside
with a snort, not to say a snarl, he came upon some of the real writings
of the atrocious Paine; and was astonished to find that some of the
opinions of the atrocious Paine bore a remarkable resemblance to those
of the just and public-spirited Cobbett. He found that Paine, of all
men, and apparently alone among all men, had really tried to say some of
these things that needed so excruciatingly to be said; and about which
all mankind walked about gagged and in a ghastly silence. Surely it is
not so very difficult to understand that he should have a revulsion so
violent and impetuous as his original plunge of prejudice; surely those
who have taken the trouble to write studies of Cobbett might have
learned something of his manner of living, and how all his generosity
and his vanity, his simplicity and his emotionalism, his sympathy for
the under-dog and his fury at being himself the dupe, should have called
clamorously in him for some vigorous external action; for some
proclamation or practical motion that should relieve the feelings and
perhaps right the wrong. He had cruelly calumniated a man who might have
been his friend and was certainly his ally. And it was too late to tell
him so. For that which he had madly splashed with mud had already
returned to dust, and Thomas Paine was dead.

Cobbett did something which any other age would have understood; nay,
something that we should have understood if narrated of any other age.
He was instantly possessed by a human impulse, which even the heathens
have comprehended and only the humanitarians have denied. It brought him
as it were at one stride to the grave of the man whose pardon he would
have asked. The man had been buried in his land of exile; and Cobbett,
himself an exile, realised as few could realise the horror of dying far
away from home. He believed, as only he could believe, that the one
perfect act of piety which could be done to the body of an Englishman
was to bring it back to England. It seemed an absurd notion to men in
the mercantile and rather materialistic mood of the beginning of the
nineteenth century; it may well still seem absurd to many in the
twentieth century. It would not seem absurd to men in the twelfth
century. It will not seem absurd to men in the thirtieth or the fortieth
century. It was felt to be incongruous with something comic and
commonplace about contemporary manners; with the chimney-pot hats and
the mutton-chop whiskers. But when men look back over long periods they
have lost the contemporary derision of details and see only the main
lines of humanity, and these acts of primitive ritual seem merely human.
Aristophanes was a mighty mocker and derider of the details that were
modern in his day; the wild hats and whiskers of ancient progress.
Aristophanes was an enemy of modernity, and indeed of modernism.
Aristophanes was also a lord of bad language, a man with all the
splendid scurrility of Cobbett. But suppose it were recorded of
Aristophanes that he came to repent of his satire on Euripides; suppose
he had concluded too late that what he had taken for sophistry and
scepticism had been a truer traditionalism. We should see nothing but
beauty and pathos in some story about Aristophanes bringing the body of
Euripides from some barbarian country to the temple of Athene. There
would be nothing undignified or unworthy to be carved on a classic
frieze in the figure of the great scoffer following the hearse of the
great sceptic. But this is only because in the process of time the
little things are lost and only the large lines remain. For that little
flask of oil, with which the scoffer once stopped the mouth of the
sceptic, has lost its bathos for us: and might well be the vessel of the
sacred chrism for the anointing of the dead.

Cobbett was a son of the earth, or what used to be called a child of
nature; and these rude and natural people are all ritualists. He had
those giant gestures that are encouraged by the elbowroom of empty
spaces and open skies; those impulses to send signals by instinctive
posture and pantomime; to beckon, to brandish, to lift the head in
battle or bow it at the graveside. He had in him also the mysticism of
the mob; the mob that makes bonfires and burns men in effigy and chairs
a man through the cheering streets on a chariot made of marching men. In
all this impulsive imagery, and in another sense (I fear) than that in
which it was said of Abraham Lincoln, he does truly and indeed belong to
the ages. He belongs to all the ages except perhaps his own age. His own
age certainly saw nothing but absurdity in his strange pilgrimage and
his strange relics. The men with the chimney-pot hats could see nothing
but the grotesque side of "Cobby" lugging about as his luggage the bones
of an old blasphemer in a box. And yet their idea of the grotesque in
the matter is something of a paradox. For in a sense these people
objected to ritual not because it was grotesque but because it was not
grotesque. It was not grotesque enough to fit in with the grotesque hats
and whiskers that were the fashion. The Utilitarians, like their fathers
the Puritans, used ugliness as a uniform; that is, as a symbol. For the
utilitarian ritual was not merely utilitarian. The chimney-pot hats were
not really useful like chimney pots. The mutton-chop whiskers were not
really sustaining like muttonchops. These also were a sort of black
heraldry, like the black trappings of their funerals; but they
symbolised the funeral of art or the old spontaneous symbolism. When a
man used one of the gestures of that more generous symbolism they were
offended with him and considered him ludicrous. But they were really
offended with him for not being so ludicrous as themselves.

This itch or instinct for representative action, for ritual that goes
beyond words like an embrace or a blow, was that part of Cobbett's
character which was always reaching backwards to the medieval England
that has never lost the name of Merry England. He was a man born out of
due time, and forced to live and suffer in a world of mechanical traffic
going to Manchester; when he ought to have ridden with Chaucer to
Canterbury. His heraldry was sometimes deliberately grotesque, but it
was always heraldic. When he hung up the gridiron outside his house in
Kensington, he not only repeated the ritual of all the old shop signs
and inn-signs, but that of the crests and banners. But it was this in
him that brought him into sympathy with another people whom he began to
understand; and a remark of Peel aptly illustrates how little that
understanding was understood.

Sir Robert Peel was a man who had stupidity in the soul. It went, as it
often does, along with all the talents of a man of business and a man of
the world. He was the kind of man who only knows things by their labels,
and has not only no comprehension but no curiosity touching their
substance or what they are made of. A supreme example of this is to be
found in this phase of the life of Cobbett. Peel seems to have suggested
that nothing could seemingly be more impossible, nothing certainly more
absurd, than a combination between Cobbett and O'Connell. And the reason
he gave was that O'Connell was a Roman Catholic and Cobbett had brought
back the bones of Tom Paine, who was an infidel. In other words,
O'Connell was labelled a Papist and Paine was labelled a blasphemer and
Cobbett was saddled with his bones as a sort of joke in the comic
papers. This is the kind of folly that makes the fool walk like a
mystical figure through the pages of the Book of Proverbs. If the man
who said it had ever caught one glimpse of the inside of things, of the
inside of men's minds, of the intrinsic implications of men's religions,
he would have seen something that might have surprised him. The truth is
that in all public life at that moment there was only one public man who
could possibly understand and sympathise with the business of poor
Paine's bones; and that man was Daniel O'Connell the Liberator. Any
Catholic understands the idea of penitence taking the form of penance;
if it be only natural penitence for a wrong done to a naturalistic
philosopher. Any Catholic understands the idea of penance taking the
form of public penance, and all the more if it really has in it
something of humiliation. But above all O'Connell had the best reasons
in the world for knowing that, in the English atmosphere of the moment,
any attempt at such a public penance would really be accompanied by the
simplest form of humiliation: that of being laughed at. He knew much
better than most people that England in that mood thought such public
penance theatrical. The business of the death of D'Esterre was in many
ways a curious parallel to that of the burial of Paine. O'Connell in his
youth had shot a man dead in a duel; and his perfectly sincere remorse
led him to swear never again to accept a challenge, and to wear on his
right hand a white glove to remind himself of his sin, especially when
he took Sacrament. The refusal of challenges provided his political
opponents with a conveniently safe man to challenge. And the wearing of
the white glove was a piece of dramatic symbolism which naturally
offended the plain sobriety and simple modesty of the young Disraeli.
But O'Connell was well aware that, even among ordinary Englishmen, there
was not one in a thousand who understood what his public gesture meant.
It is possible that their fathers might have understood it. It is
possible that their fathers did not think Henry the Second was merely
striking a melodramatic attitude when he was scourged at the tomb of the
saint he had martyred. But anyhow the sentiments of O'Connell were
equally simple, too simple to be understood. Morbid as his scruple may
seem to those who lament the murderous habits of the Irish, it really
did seem to O'Connell a serious thing to have killed a man. Morbid as
the other scruple may seem to those who are always reviling that
demagogue for reviling everybody, it really did seem to Cobbett a
serious thing to have libelled a man. That his sorrow for wrongdoing was
highly intermittent and inconsistent is very true; but he scarcely
stands alone among his fellow creatures in that respect. But not to see
that there was a reason for remorse in the case of Paine is to be blind
to the whole case of Cobbett. Cobbett was shouting in deafening tones to
deaf ears a certain warning of danger; a danger he alone could see, or
at least a danger in which no one else would believe. He believed that
the whole financial network of national debts and paper money would
eventually drag England to destruction. He may have been wrong; though
in fact it is far easier now than it was then to maintain that he was
right. But anyhow, believing this, he found that almost the only other
Englishman who had warned England, or helped him to save England, was an
Englishman whom he had himself slandered and might even have silenced by
mistake. If there be any man who does not understand his feeling the
need of a public apology to such a solitary and silent ally, such a man
is very much less of a man than William Cobbett or Daniel O'Connell or
Thomas Paine.

Anyhow, as things stood, he could get no more good out of the possible
sympathy of O'Connell than out of the inevitable contempt of Peel. His
political friendships, as we have noted, were very unstable and
unsatisfactory; not so much, as is often supposed, because Cobbett
changed his opinion, as because nobody else ever really understood the
fundamental opinion that he did not change. The fellowship he did
afterwards establish with O'Connell was more genuine than most; but that
also was disturbed by quarrels. In one case, curiously enough, Cobbett
was more O'Connellite than O'Connell. He fiercely (and perhaps rightly)
blamed the Liberator for accepting a compromise suited to the more
reactionary Irish bishops. His quarrel with Hunt dates originally from
his second visit to America, from which he sent word, in his reckless
way, repudiating some letter of which he had forgotten the details, and
which contained a charge against the domestic morals of Hunt, whom
Cobbett did not then even know. Yet even the misunderstanding is of the
sort that wants understanding. Many of the Radicals really were cut off
from Cobbett by a deep difference about morals; and anybody who thinks
the Radical Programme must look a larger thing than the institution of
marriage does not know what the story of Cobbett is all about.

Another work of this period bore the fine title of The Last Hundred Days
of English Freedom, attacking the coercion acts that had threatened his
liberty in England. It is notable that Cobbett always treated tyranny as
a new thing; his attitude to abstract revolution was well expressed in
the phrase, 'I was born under a King and Constitution; but I was not
born under the Six Acts.' It was a new Tory raid and reign of terror
that had driven him into exile; but he did not remain there long; and
his conduct when he returned showed he had no intention of being silent
at home if he had been noisy abroad. An accident brought his change of
plans to a head. His farm on Long Island was burned down; he moved first
to New York, and finally from New York to England. He was given a public
dinner and addressed a large meeting; perhaps it is ironical that his
only immediate difficulty was bringing the bones of Paine through the
customhouse. I wonder what he said when asked if he had anything to

So for the second time William Cobbett came back across the Atlantic to
the harbours of his own land. It would be easy to insist on a
picturesque contrast between the two voyages. Doubtless, if somebody had
told him on his first voyage that he would make the second voyage in the
character of the chief mourner for Tom Paine, he might well have thrown
that obliging prophet into the sea. On the first occasion he had
returned to receive what truly might be called a royal welcome; a royal
welcome from Royalists. He had come back to be toasted by the gentlemen
of England, talking over their wine of his services to the Tory cause,
of the blows that their loyal yeoman could deal at Boney and the Yanks.
He had come back the second time, the demagogue of a darker hour, to
meet a roar of angry admiration from the strikers and frame-breakers of
the smoky north as well as the potential rick-burners of the agrarian
war; the Titan of the English Revolution. At least if any man could have
made an English revolution, if any hour in our history could really have
been revolutionary, the hour was come and the man.

And yet he was exactly the same man. He was the same solid figure, with
his sober good-humoured face and small shrewd eye; and in the depths of
his mind, I fancy, no difference at all. It is difficult to talk of his
inner consciousness, for nobody ever went there, least of all himself.
But if it were penetrated, I fancy it would be found to be filled with a
vast void of innocence that wondered and questioned, and was a little
puzzled by the answers to its questions; as is a child by the
inconsistencies or quarrels of its parents. Enormous queries, as
elementary as nursery riddles, would have been found to fill that void.
What was wrong? and how could it be wrong to be right? Why must not a
soldier object to soldiers being starved by swindlers? Why must not a
patriot object to their being flogged by foreigners? Why ought not a
Tory to dislike squires being driven out by stockbrokers? Why ought not
a Radical to dislike peasants being oppressed by Jews? Why did a man
find himself in the House of Lords if he cheated the nation, and in
Newgate if he tried to point out that it was cheated? As he gazed at the
great expanses of that empty and shining sea, it may be that there was
an interlude in his incessant mental activity of mere recrimination and
retort, that the clouds of too much controversy cleared a little, and he
became half conscious of why he was so incurably himself. But even so
there would only have been found, like some strange sunrise under the
sea, under his all too salt humour and all the waters of bitterness that
had gone over him, a lucid and enduring surprise.


There is a joke with which we are all familiar, about the rustic who
relates some local legend, as of a hero who hurled a huge rock into a
river, and who says that it must be true because the rock is till there.
As is commonly the case in the small talk of a scientific age, the
satire is directed against popular ideas. As is also commonly the case
in such an age, the satire is really very shallow. When the critics mock
a man for saying 'I believe it because I have seen the rock,'
nine-tenths of them could not give any sort of reason for their own
historic beliefs, beyond saying, 'I believe it because I saw it
somewhere set out in printer's ink by somebody I never knew, referring
to evidence I have never seen, and telling a tale which I cannot test in
any way whatever, even by the look of the landscape.' The rustic does
not rely merely on the rock but on the tradition--that is, the
truthfulness of a certain sort of people, many of whom he has known. But
at least the rock and the river do fit in with the tradition; and to
that limited extent consistency is corroboration. It is far more
superstitious to assume that print is proof. So far as print is
concerned, the whole of history might be as utterly imaginationary as
that mazy river and that dancing rock in the dizzy pipe-dream of 'Kubla

But there are others whose state of mind is still more extraordinary.
They not only do not need the landscape to corroborate their history,
but they do not care if the landscape contradicts their history. They
are not content with the very reasonable statement that the existence of
the rock does not prove the existence of the hero. They are so anxious
to show that there was no hero, that they will shut their eyes and say
there is no rock. If the map marks the place as a waterless desert, they
will declare it is as dry as a bone, though the whole valley resound
with the rushing river. The whole huge rock will be invisible, if a
little book on geology says it is impossible. This is at the opposite
extreme to the irrational credulity of the rustic, but it is infinitely
more irrational. It is not inferring something from the rock that the
rock does not prove; it is denying what the rock does prove. Or rather
it is denying what the rock is; that ultimate and terrible rock of
reality, that veritable rock of offence, against which all delusions
will dash themselves to pieces. This great delusion of the prior claim
of printed matter, as something anterior to experience and capable of
contradicting it, is the main weakness of modern urban society. The
chief mark of the modern man has been that he has gone through a
landscape with his eyes glued to a guidebook, and could actually deny in
the one anything that he could not find in the other. One man, however,
happened to look up from the book and see things for himself; he was a
man of too impatient a temper, and later he showed too hasty a
disposition to tear the book up, or toss the book away. But there had
been granted to him a strange and high and heroic sort of faith. He
could believe his eyes.

William Cobbett was pre-eminently a man with eyes in his head. He had of
course other human attributes; such as a tongue in his head. Many
considered it a merely bitter or blasphemously seditious tongue; but it
was a tongue that could sometimes be for great mobs like the tocsin from
a great tower. But when all emotional effects of such demagogy or
deafening sensationalism have died away, the impression that will remain
longest in the mind is the quiet and constant use that he made of his
eyes. It is as if, after all passions had chased each other like shadows
across his face, we saw his face at last in repose and realised that he
had the eyes of a sailor; the eyes that can see a dot or speck on the
distant horizon. But he could see dots and specks in the foreground as
well. He could focus his sight at many different ranges; an organic
power which is the point of what Carlyle said of somebody else that he
had eyes and not merely spectacles. Because his eyes were sharp they
were clear; because his sight was exact it was even subtle. At its best
it could really measure things, and even the degrees of things. It could
place anything from the face of a stranger to the strength of a horse;
from the shade of ripeness in a cornfield to the shade of rottenness in
a Cabinet Minister. The ultimate impression of his personality is not so
much of violence as of vigilance. So strong is this impression, that any
one who has been long in his literary company cannot shake off an
uncanny impression of being watched. He cannot help fancying that this
man who has been dead a hundred years has his eye on events in England
and may suddenly speak--probably not in an amiable manner. It is as if,
in some elfin tale, those strange eyes in one man's head were stars that
could survive him.

But there is one particular form of this faculty in Cobbett which is not
so sharply apprehended; and perhaps is not so easy to apprehend. For in
this sense it is a faculty which few people, if any people fully possess
in the urban population of to day. It is destroyed rather than helped by
the urban education of to day. Cobbett was very far from being an enemy
of education. He was, as has been said elsewhere, a great educationist.
He published French and English grammars of his own composition, and
exhorted all young people to learn. Here and there he even showed a
touch of that too crude and earnest respect for education which so often
marks the self educated man. But for all that, he had a native power or
piece of good fortune which education never gives and sometimes
destroys. In one thing he was a very lucky and lonely mortal.

He could see before he could read. Most modern people can read before
they can see. They have read about a hundred things long before they
have seen one of them. Most town children have read about corn or cattle
as if they were dwarfs or dragons, long before they have seen a grain of
wheat or a cow. Many of them have read about ships or churches, or the
marching of soldiers or the crowd cheering a king, or any other normal
sight, which they have never seen. By a weird mesmerism which it is not
here necessary to analyse, what people read has a sort of magic power
over their sight. It lays a spell on their eyes, so that they see what
they expect to see. They do not see the most solid and striking things
that contradict what they expect to see. They believe their
schoolmasters too well to believe their eyes. They trust the map against
the mountain. Cobbett was a man without these magic spectacles. He did
not see what he expected to see, but what he saw. He liked books; but he
could not only read between the lines but through the book.

Now, in nothing is this more vivid than in his vision of history. Most
of us know what was the accepted general version of English history when
we were at school; at anyrate when I was at school, and still more, of
course, when Cobbett was at school-in so far as he ever was at school.
England had emerged out of a savage past to be the greatest empire in
the world, with the best-balanced constitution in the world, by a wise
and well-timed progress or series of reforms, that ever kept in mind the
need of constitutionalism and of balance. The Barons had extorted a
constitutional charter from the King, in advance of that feudal 'age'
and a foundation for parliamentary freedom. The Commons came into the
struggle for parliamentary freedom when it was waged against the
Stuarts. By that time the Revival of Learning had led to the Reformation
or sweeping away of the superstition that had been the only religion of
the ruder feudal time. This enlightenment favoured the growth of
democracy; and though the aristocrats still remained, and remain still,
to give dignity to the state with their ancient blazonry of the Conquest
and the Crusades, the law of the land is no longer controlled by the
lords but by the citizens. Hence the country has been filled with a
fresh and free population, made happy by humane and rational ideas,
where there were once only a few serfs stunted by the most senseless
superstitions. I ask any one if that is not a fair summary of the
historical education in which most modern people over forty were brought
up. And having read it first, we went to look at the towns and castles
and abbeys afterwards, and saw it or tried to see it. Cobbett, not
having read it, or not caring whether he had read it, saw something
totally different. He saw what is really there.

What would a man really see with his eyes if he simply walked across
England? What would he actually see in the solid farms and towns of
three-quarters of the country, if he could see them without any
prejudice of historical interpretation? To begin with, he would see one
thing which Cobbett saw, and nobody else seems ever to have seen, though
it stared and still stares at everybody in big bulk and broad daylight.
He would find England dotted with a vast number of little hamlets
consisting entirely of little houses. Considered as little houses there
is much that might be said about them both critical and sympathetic.
They are generally picturesque cottages; they are often what is
described as picturesque tumbledown cottages. They are the most
beautiful houses in the world for all appreciative people who have ever
been outside them. For the less obvious and outstanding people who have
always been inside them, it would be an exaggeration to say that they
are the most beautiful houses in the world. About these people inside
also a great deal that is good and bad might be said; they are kindly
and full of English humours and all the virtues that belong to an
atmosphere of ale. But they are not citizens and do not want to be; they
have hardly even heard of the word. They can no more imagine the
vanishing of the squire than the vanishing of the sky; though they may
grumble at the moods of both. But anyhow the point is that their houses
are little houses, and' especially low houses; so that a tall man
walking past them would sometimes have to stoop down under the eaves to
peer into the front window, as if he were travelling in a town of the
dwarfs. And the town is a very little town; often only a handful of
houses to be counted on the fingers.

In the midst of this little cluster or huddle of low houses rises
something of which the spire or tower may be seen for miles. Relatively
to the roofs beneath it, the tower is as much an exception as the Eiffel
Tower. Relatively to the world in which it was built, it was really an
experiment in engineering more extraordinary than the Eiffel Tower. For
the first Gothic arch was really a thing more original than the first
flying-ship. And indeed something of its leap and its uplifting seems to
make architecture akin to aviation. Its distant vaulted roof looks like
a maze of mathematical patterns as mysterious as the stars; and its
balance of fighting gravitations and flying buttresses was a fine
calculation in medieval mathematics. But it is not bare and metallic
like the Eiffel Tower or the Zeppelin. Its stones are hurled at heaven
in an arc as by the kick of a catapult; but that simple curve has not
the mere cruelty of an engine of war. The whole building is also a
forest of images and symbols and stories. There are saints bringing
their tales from all the towns and countries in Europe. There are saints
bearing the tools of all the trades and crafts in England. There are
traces of trade brotherhoods as egalitarian as trades unions. There are
traditions of universities more popular than popular education. There
are a thousand things in the way of fancy and parody and pantomime; but
with the wildest creative variety it is not chaotic. From the highest
symbol of God tortured in stone and in silence, to the last wild
gargoyle flung out into the sky as a devil cast forth with a gesture,
the whole plan of that uplifted labyrinth shows the mastery of an
ordered mind.

It is the parish church, and it is often very old; for it was built in
the days of darkness and savage superstition. The picturesque cottages
are all of much later date; for they belong to the ages of progress and

If people saw the Great Pyramid and found scattered about its base a few
patchwork tents of a few ragged Bedouins, they would hardly say there
had been no civilisation in that land until the Bedouins brought it. Yet
a Pyramid is as plain as a post of wood compared with the dizzy balance
and delicate energy of the Gothic. If they had seen some dingy tribe of
barbarians living in their little mud huts, when high above their heads
went the soaring arch of a Roman aqueduct almost as remote as the
rainbow, they would hardly say that the Romans must have been savages
and that the savages alone were civilised. Yet the round Roman arch is
really rudimentary compared with the prism of forces in the pointed
Gothic arch. But the truth is that the Catholics, having some humility
even in their hatred, never did make this absurd pretence that paganism
was barbaric, as their enemies afterwards made the absurd pretence that
Catholicism was barbaric. They denounced the wickedness of the world,
but they recognised the Pyramids and the Coliseum as wonders of the
world. It was only the great medieval civilisation whose conquerors were
base enough to pretend that it had not been a civilisation at all. But
that is not the aspect of the ease immediately important here. The point
immediately important here is that this solid stone object did and does
stand up among the others like a mountain among molehills; and that
nobody could see it but Cobbett. We talk of not seeing the wood for the
trees; but one would think anybody could see a poplar-tree in spite of
the presence of six rhododendron-trees. Yet we may repeat, in a
spiritual but most realistic sense, that nobody except Cobbett could see
the church spire.

He did not by any means see all that was to be seen in the church,
or all that has here been noted in the church. For that he would
really have required more education; and not the sort of
education that he could then have got merely by being educated.
He was a simple man in a rationalistic age, and he saw something.
It was something very primitive and elementary; but he saw it.
He saw the size. He tells us again and again that he has
found a village of which the whole present population could
be put into the porch of the village church, leaving the whole
vast and varied interior as empty and useless as Stonehenge.
What had become of all the people? Why should anybody, in any age,
pay to build a church serving two thousand people when he only had
to serve twenty people? Was it true, could it be true, after all,
that the population of England had so hugely increased from what
had once been a mere handful? Was it only that the new towns
had hugely increased, leaving the countryside a mere wilderness?
And could it be true that the men who built such things were a sort
of Pictish dwarfs or troglodytes of the twilight, when what they
had left looked so like the houses of a generation of giants,
which could not even be filled with a generation of dwarfs?

These doubts had much to do with historical and social views of Cobbett
to be considered in their order; but in the first place they are to be
noted as a working model of his power to see things simply and as they
stand. Hundreds of elegant essayists and artists had traced the more
graceful proportions of Gothic buildings, vaguely regarding them as
ruins. The end of the eighteenth century is full of these painters in
watercolours and first cousins to the Earl of Cork. What Cobbett saw was
not the graceful proportions but rather the disgraceful disproportions.
He saw a colossal contrast; the contrast between a village that was
hardly a hamlet and a village church that was almost a cathedral. It was
the biggest and baldest of all the facts; and yet it was the fact that
nobody else saw. The others did not see it because they had been
educated not to see it; because they had been educated to see the
opposite. Since liberty and light had come to the Commons with the Whig
revolution, the Commons must somewhere or other be free and enlightened;
they could not still be living in hovels under the shadow of a huge old
church. There had been nothing before that revolution but feudal
ferocity and priest craft. So, somehow or other, somebody had built the
church by sheer ferocity; or priest craft can be made a complete
substitute for every other craft, including the craft of the sculptor
and the stonemason. But Cobbett began with the big fact that he could
see with his own eyes, and with that he contrived, with tremendous
reconstructive power, to turn all English history upside down.

His view involved another truth that may be symbolised by another
building. When we said that there was nothing but small houses to
compete with the church, we meant of course that there was nothing else
within the immediate circuit of the church: that the village church was
the only big building in the village. There was another very big
building at some distance from the village which bulked very much larger
in the minds of the villagers. Indeed, it might be said that they lived
in the material shadow of the church and in the moral shadow of the
country house. Now the example of the squire's house is yet another
which illustrates the illusion that is general and the realism that is
exceedingly rare. All that Cobbett could have read in books, all that he
could have learnt at school, would have taught him a view of the
manor-house or country seat which is still a commonplace in novels and
newspapers. It is almost literally a view; in the sense of a landscape
seen in the mind's eye. But men only see that sort of view by shutting
their eyes. Cobbett formed his views by opening his eyes. The universal
impression or illusion was that the Tory squires were an ancient
aristocracy, full of feudal notions and Norman blood; and from this it
followed logically that they lived in castles or at anyrate in moated
granges, Tudor manor-houses, and other ancient and appropriate haunts.
If Cobbett had believed in historical novels, or in the histories that
were all on the same model as the historical novels, he would have gone
about looking for the Castle of Otranto in the valleys of England: and
never seen the little temple that Horace Walpole really stuck up for
himself on the top of Strawberry Hill.

But Cobbett had this strange power of faith: he could believe his eyes.
Most people cannot believe their eyes; it is the very last thing in
which they can believe. They can believe in the wildest creeds and the
crudest philosophies; similarly they can believe in a past made up of
The Castle of Otranto and The Mysteries of Udolpho. But they cannot
believe in the present; in the thing present to their sight; in the
thing in whose real presence they stand. But Cobbett really had this
unearthly detachment, this dry light of reality, this vision of a man
from the moon. In that light he probably saw what the country houses are
really like; as he certainly saw what the parish churches are really
like. Here and there, there is really a castle; now generally a show
place. Here and there, there is really an old Tudor manor, often
preserved as carefully as a model in a museum. But the house of the
squire dominating a hundred countrysides all over England is something
quite different; something quite unmistakable; and something to a large
extent uniform. It is emphatically a rule, where the romantic castles
and manors are exceptions. It is a rule in more senses than one; for the
populace has the squire for a landlord, for an employer, and, it may be
added, for a judge; for the magistracy is made up of the gentry. Anyhow,
the house has a positive character which amounts to a pattern.

It really looks rather like a large public building from a large city
exiled in the provinces. It looks like a Town Hall taken away on the
wings of the fairies, and set down far away in the woodlands. It looks
like a Palais de Justice rusticating for some reason or other and taking
a ramble in the country. It is not only very large, but it does not look
like a private house at all. It is like something conscious that it is a
seat of government and power over men--as it is. It is nothing like so
cosy as a castle. It is rather open in the same sense as a law-court.
Above all, it is built in the same style as the average modern
law-court. What makes that style important is its date. Very few of the
real countryseats are really of a Tudor type; hardly any are of a
medieval type. The type and pattern of them is of a sort that bears the
stamp of a subsequent and clearly marked epoch of society. Generally
they are Georgian houses; often they are rather earlier, and correspond
to the quainter style of William of Orange and Queen Anne. But nearly
all belong to what the French call the Classic Age; meaning that stretch
of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in which the full result of
the Renaissance worked itself out, becoming if anything more and more
classical until its shell was broken by the Romantic movement and the
French Revolution. In short, the whole architecture is the recent
creation of a rationalistic age. It belongs as much to the Age of Reason
as the books of Voltaire.

But people were blinded to this fact by books they knew better than
those of Voltaire. Every novel and novelette told them that a bad
baronet lived in a castellated tower; and they could not see that he
lived in a sort of comfortable classic temple. Tennyson, calling in his
youth on the Lady Clara Vere de Vere, suffered the delusion of seeing a
lion on her old stone gates. Most probably it was really a nymph or an
urn. For that matter, Tennyson would probably have made some curious
discoveries if he had looked more closely into Lady Clara's claims to
Norman blood, however it might be with her claims to coronets. But for
the moment I am speaking simply of things seen, or rather of things not
seen. I am speaking of the veil which our version of history hangs
between us and the real facts about our fathers, even the facts in front
of our eyes. Very few people saw that the aristocratic country house is
commonly a comparatively new building, and looks more like a General
Post Office than a feudal fortress. Such ornament as it has is a curious
cold exuberance of heathen nymphs and hollow temples. Because it stands
for the age of the sceptics, its gods are not only dead but have never
been alive. Its gardens are full of shrines without idols or idols
without idolaters.

Finally, as has been hinted already, there does exist a third historic
memorial and variety of architecture or the use of architecture. Among
these aristocratic houses and estates, setting aside such curiosities as
castles, there does appear fairly commonly one type of country house
that really is old and really is medieval. The medieval part of it is
often in ruins, and only valued because it is in ruins. But the ruins
have the same soaring and skyward lines as those of the large and empty
parish church. Yet the house as a whole is by no means a ruin, but is
turned into a country house quite as comfortable, or rather luxurious,
as the more common pattern of the Georgian houses. But the very name of
that house of luxury remains a medieval name; and a very queer name too.

We should think it rather odd if a profiteer had a country house that
was called The Cathedral. We might think it strange if a stockbroker had
built a villa and habitually referred to it as a church. But we can
hardly see the preposterous profanity by which one chance rich man after
another has been able to commandeer or purchase a house which he still
calls an Abbey. It is precisely as if he had gone to live in the parish
church; had breakfasted on the altar, or cleaned his teeth in the font.
That is the short and sharp summary of what has happened in English
history; but few can get it thus foreshortened or in any such sharp
outline. Anyhow, this third type of monument of the past does offer
itself visibly to the eye like the other two. The romantic reactionary
at the end of the eighteenth century might not often find the Bad
Baronet in a castle, but might really find him in an abbey. The most
attractive of all such reactionaries, Miss Catherine Morland, was not
altogether disappointed in her search for the Mysteries of Udolpho. She
knew at least that General Tilney lived in an abbey; though even she
could hardly have mistaken General Tilney for an abbot. Nor was she
wrong in supposing that a crime had been committed by that gentleman in
Northanger Abbey. His crime was not being an abbot. But Jane Austen, who
had so piercing a penetration of the shams of her own age, had had a
little too much genteel education to penetrate the shams of history.
Despite the perverse humour of her juvenile History of England, despite
her spirited sympathy with Mary Stuart, she could not be expected to see
the truth about the Tudor transition. In these matters she had begun
with books, and could not be expected to read what is written in mere
buildings and big monuments. She was educated, and had not the luck to
be self-educated like Cobbett. The comparison is not so incongruous as
it may seem. They were the four sharpest eyes that God had given to the
England of that time; but two of them were turned inward into the home,
and two were looking out of the window. I wish I could think that they
ever met.

Anyhow, all this is written in large letters of stone and clay across
the land; in a giant alphabet of arch and column and flying buttress.
And these three striking things stand out to tell the main talc of
English history, even to a man who had never opened a book. The first is
a very ancient and artistically beautiful parish church, far too big for
its parish. The second is an aristocratic mansion of much later date,
and looking like the palace of a German prince of the eighteenth
century. The third is a similar palace constructed out of the ruins, if
not of a similar parish church, at least of a religious building similar
to the parish church. With those three solid facts alone a man might
have pieced together the truth that no historians would tell him.
Somehow or other there had once been a larger religious life which was
also a popular life. Somehow or other its memorials had been taken over
by a new race of men, who had become great lords in the land, and had
been able to disdain alike the people and the religion.

Cobbett was an amateur historian in that sense; that he used his own
wits. Those who sniff at such amateur history are not using theirs. They
say the amateur's views cannot be correct, because they are not founded
on research. In other words, they say he cannot see what is there,
because he sees what is obviously there. He cannot have seen the sun,
because he evidently did not have to extract the sunbeams from
cucumbers. He cannot have really understood that two and two make four,
because he understood it at once. But allowing for this, such academic
characters underrate even the detailed information of men like Cobbett.
It must once more be emphasised very strongly that Cobbett did not in
the least despise books. He had far too much common sense to despise any
common and convenient way of obtaining information. He was the very
reverse of the sort of sentimental reactionary who thinks that all
humanity would be innocent if only it were illiterate. But he did not
allow what he read to contradict what he had seen. And when he really
began to read, he found that what he read confirmed what he had seen.

I say he really began to read; for there is a distinction in this case.
It is not merely a question of the books, but rather of the books behind
the books. The fashionable book of history is at best little better than
a leading article; it is founded on the documents as a leading article
is founded on the news; in both cases a rather careful selection. Like a
leading article the historical summary is generally partisan; and never
quite so partisan as when it professes to be impartial. Cobbett had to
go a little deeper than these superficial summaries to trace in the past
the truths he had already discovered in the present. It was a fortunate
coincidence that it was precisely at this time that the most learned and
laborious of English historians produced the work on which so many other
works have been founded. John Lingard was a very moderate man, but even
the prejudices he was presumed to have gave him a detached position from
the fashionable fallacies of that particular age. With a mass of
material he established his own very moderate version of what had really
happened in England; and by the use of that material Cobbett produced
his own version, which some have hesitated to call moderate.

This was the celebrated History of the Reformation, published in 1824.
The real question at issue about the History of the Reformation is not
so much concerned with a certain state of things as with the right
reaction to that state of things. What ought a man to do when he
believes that public opinion has grown accustomed to repose confidently
in a completely wrong picture of the past? A man might agree with
Cobbett about the existence of the error, without in the least agreeing
with Cobbett about the proper process of the enlightenment. The very
name of Lingard is enough to prove the possibility. Lingard had a strong
case, and deliberately understated the case to give a greater impression
of impartiality. Cobbett had the same strong case, and deliberately
flung away all such airs of impartiality to prove how completely he had
been convinced. When Cobbett found that what he conceived to be a truth
had been concealed by a trick, his reaction was a towering passion; and
whether that or a more patient exposition be appropriate to controversy,
there is no doubt about which is appropriate to Cobbett. He would have
said that when he found a man robbing his hen-roost he called out 'Stop,
thief!' and not 'Stop, philosophical communist invading the thesis of
private property!' He would have said that when a man told lies he
called him a liar, and not a person insensible to the value of objective
reality. Yet it is probably true that many listened to Lingard who could
not listen to Cobbett. And it is true to say that such persons could not
hear him because he talked so loud. But as to questioning what he
said--that is quite different and much more difficult. Those who suppose
that he must be talking nonsense because he was talking too loud are
much less clearheaded and even cool-headed than he was. Veracity has
nothing to do with violence, one way or the other. One historian may
prefer to say, 'The Emperor Nero set on foot several conspiracies
against the life of Agrippina his mother, and expressed satisfaction
when the final attempt was successful.' Another may say, 'The bloody and
treacherous tyrant foully murdered his own mother, and fiendishly
exulted in the detestable deed.' But the second statement records the
same fact as the first, and records it equally correctly. It is accurate
to say, 'The Rev. Titus Oates declared on oath his knowledge of a Papist
conspiracy; but his statements, which led to the execution of many
Papists, were subsequently found to be fictitious.' But it is every bit
as accurate to say, 'The liar and perjurer Oates cruelly swore away the
lives of innocent Catholics, blasphemously calling on God to witness to
his murderous lie.' The violent man is telling the truth quite as
logically and precisely as the more dignified man. It is a question of
what we consider superiority of literary form; not of any sort of
superiority in historical fact. And this was substantially the chief
difference between Cobbett and Lingard; not to mention all the modern
scholars who are pupils of Lingard.

Cobbett stated all his facts in one prolonged and almost monotonous
fury. But if he was wrong, he was wrong in his fury, not especially in
his facts. There are many mistakes in his History of the Reformation, as
there are in most histories; though most people did not even know what
they were until they were carefully discovered and tabulated by Cardinal
Gasquet. I doubt if there are so many of them as could be found by so
good a scholar in all the more cautious and constitutional historians.
Cobbett did not begin with whole masses of obvious myth and romance,
like those which Macaulay criticised in Hume. He did not depend on the
expurgated extravagances of manifestly mad sectarians, like those which
Aytoun criticised in Macaulay. The truth is that the general impression
that Cobbett wrote a wild romance is really only a general impression.
It does not rest, and it never did rest, on the discovery of the
particular points in which he was wrong. The impression was one of
paradox; the mere fact that he seemed to be calling black white, when he
declared that what was white had been blackened, or that what seemed to
be white had only been whitewashed. But the shock came from the moral
comment or application rather than from the definite details. For the
definite details even then, very often, were not in dispute. For
instance, it is supremely characteristic of Cobbett that he reversed the
common titles by talking of Bloody Bess and Good Queen Mary. He could
always find a popular phrase for an unpopular opinion. For he was always
speaking to the mob, even when he was defying it. But this is an
excellent example; for it is not shaken by any particular controversy
about facts. Everybody knew even then that Queen Elizabeth was bloody,
if pursuing people with execution and persecution and torture makes a
person bloody; and that was the only reason for saying it of Mary.
Everybody knew even then that Mary was good, if certain real virtues and
responsibilities make a person good; a great deal more indubitably good
than Elizabeth. It was the too obvious and biased motive of the
inversion that irritated people. It was not really Cobbett's history
that was in controversy; it was his controversialism. It was not his
facts that were challenged; it was his challenge.

Here we are only concerned with his controversy as a part of his
character. And of this sort of challenge we may almost say that it was
the whole of his character. We must see the situation very simply, if we
would see it as he saw it. He was simply a man who had discovered a
crime: ancient like many crimes; concealed like all crimes. He was as
one who had found in a dark wood the bones of his mother, and suddenly
knew she had been murdered. He knew now that England had been secretly
slain. Some, he would say, might think it a matter of mild regret to be
expressed in murmurs. But when he found a corpse he gave a shout; and if
fools laughed at anyone shouting, he would shout the more, till the
world should be shaken with that terrible cry in the night.

It is that ringing and arresting cry of 'Murder!' wrung from him as he
stumbled over those bones of the dead England, that distinguishes him
from all his contemporaries. It is not the mere discovery of the bones,
or in a sense even the study of them. It was not really, I repeat, the
facts that were in dispute. The Gothic tower overhanging the modern
cottage was as plain as a skeleton hanging on a gibbet. Some held that
the bones were justly gibbeted; that the old England was fortunately
dead. Others held that the bones were so old and decayed that they could
now be the object of merely archaeological interest, like Egyptian
mummies. What was peculiar to Cobbett was the way in which he treated
this question of the past as a question of the present. He treated it,
not as a historical point to be decided, but rather as a legal wrong to
be righted. If he did not exactly answer the question, 'Can these dry
bones live?' he did say in another sense, 'I know that their avenger
liveth.' He was prepared to make those bones his business, like those of
Paine; to be a detective in a mystery story, and present himself ex
ossibus ultor. One might suppose a detective story would be more popular
than an antiquarian essay; and a charge of crime more lucid than a
meditation on archaeology. Yet this was not wholly so; and the paradox
is relevant to the whole riddle of Cobbett. The cry that rang through
the startled village was loud but hardly clear. It may be that it was
too loud to be clear.

It is possible to speak much too plainly to be understood. Most men with
any convictions in a confused and complicated age have had the almost
uncanny sensation of shouting at people that a mad dog is loose or the
house is on fire, to be met merely with puzzled and painfully respectful
expressions, as if the remark were a learned citation in Greek or
Hebrew. For men in such an age are used to long words and cannot
understand short ones. This comic sort of cross-purposes was especially
the ease with Cobbett. The world, in the sense of the ordinary political
and literary world, could not understand him or what he said. People
could not understand it because it was not obscure enough. It did not
soothe them with those formless but familiar obscurities which they
expected as the proper prelude to any political suggestion. He came to
the point too quickly; and it deafened them like an explosion and
blinded them like a flash of lightning. His rapidity produced all the
effect of remoteness. People of this political and literary sort
understood much better the speakers they were used to; or liked much
better the speakers they did not understand. The pompous and
polysyllabic felicities of the diction of Pitt seemed to them comforting
if not comprehensible. The rich and loaded style of Burke seemed like
some display of imperial wealth which could be admired though not
calculated. It was the same with the literary as with the political
utterance of the time. It was much easier to persuade people to listen
to the merely romantic praise of the past as uttered by Scott than to
the realistic praise of the past as uttered by Cobbett. Men vaguely felt
that any sympathy with things thus lost in the mists of antiquity ought
to be conveyed in more or less misty language, and with the air of one
dealing with things not only dead but even unreal. It was more soothing
to be told by a Great Enchanter what ghosts might haunt a ruined abbey
than to be asked by a hard-headed bully of a yeoman how many people
would fit into the porch of a parish church. Men found Melrose Abbey
more visible by moonlight than their own parish church by daylight. The
world will never pay its debt to the great genius of Walter Scott, who
effected in European literature that second Renaissance that was called
Romance. He opened those high dikes of mud that cut men off from the
rivers of popular romantic tradition, and irrigated the dry garden of
the Age of Reason. It is no disrespect to him to say that lie was, like
his own hero, an antiquary and at the same time a sceptic. But he was
fashionable because he assured men that medievalism was only a romance;
and Cobbett was far less fashionable when he urged it as a reality.
Scott was merely sentimental about Mary Stuart, as he was about Charles
Edward Stuart; he was singing 'Will ye no' come back again?' to people
who would have been a horrible nuisance to him if they had come back
again. But Cobbett was not sentimental about Mary Tudor; he did solidly
believe that with her the good times went; and he did really want them
to return.

Anyhow, when he revised history the revision really was a revelation.
The revision may be revised, but it will not be reversed. The revelation
may reveal itself further, but it will never hide itself again. Cobbett
let the cat out of the bag; and this is nonetheless true because it was
rather a wild cat when it came out of his bag. Nobody could pretend that
because it was a wild cat it was a fabulous animal, when it was so
obviously careering down the street. In other words, he drew attention
to a fact; a fact which others have followed up and matched and balanced
with other facts, a fact which others have restated more mildly or
analysed more delicately, but still the original fact which he furiously
asserted and his foes furiously denied. In so far as modern histories do
really differ from the History of the Reformation, it is mostly because
we have come to repeat with decorum what even he only dared to hurl with
defiance. Ruskin and William Morris and many more pursued his path
through that living labyrinth that had once been regarded as the dead
shell of a village church. Maitland and Gasquet and many others
justified by laborious study and annotation his wild but shrewd guesses
about the greatness of medieval sociology. It. was easy for them to
state the medieval argument more mildly; simply because the modern
audience had become more mild. But Cobbett's discovery can never be
undiscovered; that is, it can never be covered up again. And that for
the reason stated at the starting-point of this chapter.

A city that is set on a, hill cannot be hid; a church set high above a
city is even more hard to hide, when once it has been discovered. You
cannot undiscover the elephant. That is why it is essential in this
chapter to insist on the size and simplicity of the neglected thing, and
the plain picture of the Surrey farmer standing staring at the village
spire. Since Cobbett's historical conceptions have increasingly
prevailed, there have been many attempts among the opponents of medieval
ideals to get rid of this medieval renascence. There have been many
efforts to explain away the elephant or minimise the cathedral. And they
all fail by beginning at the trivial end and trying to chop inches off
the elephant's tail; or seeking to set the ugliness of a gargoyle
against the beauty of a cathedral. Thus they will pick this or that hole
in the application of the Guild principle, without noticing that
everything is conceded with the Guild principle itself; the simple fact
that the principle of medieval trade was admittedly comradeship and
justice, while the principle of modern trade was avowedly competition
and greed. They will say that the Guild spirit was deficient in this and
that; without beginning to touch the truth that we are deficient in the
Guild spirit. In short, the attempts to rebut the revelations of
medieval culture and creative reform are above all things trivial. They
not only pick very small holes in a very large thing, but they do not
seem to realise that the rest of the world can now look at the large
thing as well as the small hole. But it was really William Cobbett,
alighted from his horse, and standing for some idle moment in a church
porch out of the rain, who first had a vision of this towering
resurrection of a forgotten Christendom; and lifted up his eyes to
things so lofty and remote that men had let them float unheeded over
their heads like the tree-tops or the clouds. Perhaps the real story of
Jack the Giant Killer is that Jack was the first man who was even tall
enough to see the giant.


Even the most elementary sketches of Cobbett have tended to give too
much of his biography and too little of his life. He had a picturesque
career, if the pictures sometimes seemed to his critics to be comic
pictures; he was always fighting, he was flung into gaol, he went
wandering in foreign lands. And yet there was a sense in which
everything he did was directed towards peace; a peace that he never
fully gained. I have said that he swept across the country like a
whirlwind; but in the heart of the whirlwind there is a calm. The
picture in his own mind was a quiet picture; only, he was never left
alone to enjoy it quietly. Perhaps it would be truer to say that he
never left himself alone to enjoy it quietly. Anyhow, it was only
occasionally in his wanderings through the world that he encountered the
romantic adventure of staying at home. In the midst of his mind there
was a secret landscape of field and farm under the evening light, which
was continually being jerked out of the field of vision like a picture
in a jolting camera. It is very difficult in practice to present the
whole of his mind except as a fragmentary, mind; but perhaps the most
continuous scroll of all that he liked and thought about can be found in
the long, rolling panorama of the Rural Rides.

A little while before the affair of his imprisonment he had taken a farm
at Botley in Hampshire; where he lived for a time the sort of life he
liked, spoiling his children and sparring with his neighbours;
especially with the Botley parson. This reverend gentleman figured so
prominently in Cobbett's satire as to become a sort of proverb; and yet
the origin of a proverb is often difficult to trace. And it is by no
means clear in what respect the infamy of the incumbent of Botley
differed from that of other country clergymen. But he stands as a symbol
of Cobbett's quarrel with the clergy of the Church of England; which in
most of the other cases had other and more serious grounds. Two things
may be noted, even at this stage, about his own rather curious sort of
anti-clericalism. One is that if he scoffed at the Anglican clergy, he
had not less but much more scorn and fury for the Dissenting Ministers
and the Methodists and the Quakers. And second, that his first serious
reason for dislike concerned the corruption of pluralism, and especially
family favouritism. He execrated for economic reasons the large clerical
families that kept their hold on a vast variety of livings and tithes.
He was as yet unconscious that this road was leading him, past the
comfortable vicarage which he cursed as he passed it, towards the
gateway of a grey ruin that was still called an abbey.

In the confusion accompanying his great catastrophe, he had been obliged
to sell his place at Botley; but much of his early life had radiated
from there, and it makes a sort of starting-point for considering him in
his capacity of a Rural Rider.

The Rural Rides are a landscape; but they are also a portrait. Sometimes
we seem to be watching under rolling clouds the rolling country of the
shires, valleys coloured like maps, or downs that seem to shoulder away
the sky; and then again we are only looking at the changes on one
stubborn face as it relapses into good humour or hardens into hate. That
combination of the object and the subject is what makes writing into
literature; and the Rural Rides are pure literature. Perhaps they are
all the more literature because they might be counted loose and
colloquial even for language. It would be a breathless experience even
to hear a man talk in as slap-dash a style as Cobbett wrote; but the
thing would be brilliant as well as breathless. Everything comes into
this great soliloquy: details, dogmas, personalities, political debates,
private memories, mere exclamations such as a man utters in really
riding along a road. But through all there is the assumption that heaven
has appointed him, or he has appointed himself (and perhaps he was too
prone to confuse the conditions), to be a sort of national surveyor of
the whole land of England and publish his report to the world. His notes
simply as notes never fail to be amusing. Anybody with his wits about
him may well read Cobbett for amusement, even when there is no question
of agreement. He could make great buildings and even landscapes look
ludicrous, like landscapes of topsy-turvydom, when he turned on them
that Gargantuan grin. We shall note later how for him great London was
simply; 'the Wen,' a big boil and repulsive eruption on the body
politic. We shall see how Old Sarum was 'the Accursed Hill.' He made the
Martello towers look even sillier than they look now. Nothing was ever
better in its way than the dramatic derision with which he pointed at
the canal at Hythe, and told the people that this was meant to keep out
the French armies-that had just crossed the Rhine and the Danube. More
questionable, but equally laughable, was his irreverent picture of the
fortifications on the cliffs of Dover; which he described, with a sort
of impudent innocence, as a hill full of holes to hide Englishmen from
Frenchmen. So simple a view of the science of fortification it is
perhaps needless to maintain; but even here we have the sort of cranky
common sense that was never far distant from Cobbett, even when he was
talking about what he did not in the least understand; as when he
pointed out that it was very unlikely that the French would try to land
on a precipice at Dover when they had the whole flat stretch away to
East Sussex and the levels of Rye and Pevensey, where all the conquerors
had landed since history began.

He had hatreds that seemed too big for their object; like his loathing
of tea and potatoes. But in his hate there was humour, and even
conscious humour. Many social reformers who have a hankering after his
principles would be much distressed by his prejudices. But it was one of
his principles to have such prejudices. Nor indeed is it an
unintelligent or unintelligible principle. He believed in the traditions
of the past and the instincts of the people. And these things have
always moved along generalisations, touching certain social types or
local atmospheres. You cannot have that sort of common sense of the
countryside if it is not allowed to say that Yorkshiremen are this or
Kentishmen are that, or that one course is the best way with Gypsies or
another the usual habit of Jews. Most people are still allowed to
express these general impressions, until they come to the case of the
Jews. There (for some reason I have never understood), the whole natural
tendency has been to stop; and anybody who says anything whatever about
Jews as Jews is supposed to wish to burn them at the stake. Cobbett was
so exceedingly and almost alarmingly hearty in the expression of his
dislikes that he can hardly be said to have laboured to remove the last
impression. For anybody whose horror of persecution has not yet entirely
destroyed his sense of humour, nothing could be more exhilarating than
the passage in which Cobbett, having heard a Methodist preaching in a
village, and being afterwards shown an antiquated pair of stocks on the
village green, comments indignantly on the incongruity, the
inconsequence, the intellectual outrage of having these two things so
near to each other and not bringing the two things together into one
harmonious whole.

The primary picturesqueness of his work has therefore something of the
knockabout farce or even pantomime; like Mr. Punch, he fights with the
cudgel, the heavy but humorous and relatively even humane English
weapon. When he hits our noble lords and learned judges such thundering
cracks, we have the same causes of consolation as in the case of Punch
and Judy. We have reason to know the weapon is made of wood. We have
still better reason to know the heads are made of wood. All this
superficial and broad farce must be allowed for first as part of the
fun. He got a great deal of fun out of it, and we get a great deal of
fun out of him; even if it is not only his foes who are made to look a
little funny. But to be content with considering this pantomimic energy
is to miss the paradox and therefore miss the point. The interesting
thing is that this swashbuckler who, as we say, put on so much side had
very notably another side; which might be called a soft side. But it was
also decidedly a sober side. For instance, he who was the most impatient
of men was the most patient of fathers. He was even the most patient of
schoolmasters. The ploughman was capable of plodding as well as kicking.
He could be not only soft but even subtle; and if we read the Rural
Rides a second time, so to speak, we shall see certain things that are
the moral of the book: and were never put there by a mere bully.

For instance, there is the educational element in him. Cobbett was a
demagogue in the literal sense; that is, he was a demagogue in the
dignified sense. He was a mob-leader; but he was not merely a man
mob-led. He certainly was not a man merely seeking to ingratiate himself
with the crowd, or indeed with anybody else. At least, if he were
supposed to be ingratiating himself, he must be credited with a curious
and original selection of words with which to do it. But the truth is
that it was not his words but his ideas that were curious and original.
He wished to arouse a mob, or if you will a rabble, to support those
ideas; but not to support any ideas--least of all to support any ideas
that they might happen to have already. Fundamentally and almost
unconsciously he was indeed appealing to popular instincts that were not
only equally fundamental but equally unconscious. But in the mere form
and method of his utterance, he was much more disposed to ram
information down their throats than to take hints from their faces. If
he was in his way demagogic, he was much more definitely didactic.
Education was an enthusiasm with him: from teaching economics as he
taught French by a sort of public correspondence, to helping his own
little boy with a horn-book. But while he was in private the very
gentlest of teachers, he was in public, when talking to a crowd of
farmers instead of to a little boy, the most violent and even offensive;
to the child he was rather persuasive than didactic, and to the men not
so much didactic as dictatorial.

We have already noted something of the sort about the English Grammar.
He was a logician as well as a grammarian. He was the last man in the
world to be really a pedant. He would always have preferred splitting
infinitives to splitting straws. These criticisms of diction are also
criticisms of thought; or of absence of thought. This was the period of
which it used to be said, with all solemnity, that an English statesman
never quite recovered from having uttered a false quantity in a Latin
quotation in early life. It sounds like a parody on the secret sin of
the mysterious baronet; but indeed he recovered easily enough from
deserting the village maiden; and he never tried to recover from being
drunk. Under these circumstances, Cobbett was surely justified in
suggesting that too much notice was taken of a false quantity in Latin,
and too little of a false quality in English. To some it may seem a
rather remote question whether the English statesman in talking Latin
accented it right, considering that he almost certainly pronounced it
wrong: But in any ease Cobbett, if we may extend the metaphor, always
threw the moral accent far back and let it fall on the root of the word.
In that and many other respects he was really a Radical.

But our concern here is not so much with whether it was correct as with
whether it was characteristic. Of course, if Cobbett had treated any
abstract science it would have become a concrete science. If he had
merely undertaken to set out the multiplication table it would have run:
'Twice one useless regiment is two useless regiments; twice two venal
Ministers is four venal Ministers; twice three pluralistic parsonages is
six pluralistic parsonages like those possessed by the Reverend Mr. Hugg
of Netherwallop,' and so on. If he had set out a system of astronomy,
and had merely to give the names of the stars, he would have been unable
to mention Mars without saying something caustic about Lord Wellington
or Mercury, without a few contemporary illustrations of the connection
between commerce and theft. No icy abstractions could freeze out that
ferocious familiarity. It is said that the discoverer of the North Pole
would see a Scotsman's cap on it; certainly the sight of that cap would
fill Cobbett with sentiments sufficient to keep him warm. On that side
the grammatical experiment illustrates only his obvious pugnacity; his
tendency to personify everything in order to pelt it with personalities.
But it illustrates something else as well. And it is exactly that
something else that seems in a sense contrary, and yet is the completion
of the character, without which it cannot be understood.

There was something cool about Cobbett, for all his fire; and that was
his educational instinct, his love of alphabetical and objective
teaching. He was a furious debater; but he was a mild and patient
schoolmaster. His dogmatism left off where most dogmatism begins. He
would always bully an equal; but he would never have bullied a pupil.
Put a child before him to be taught arithmetic or the use of the globes,
and he became in the most profound and even touching sense a different
man. There came about him like a cold air out of the clean heavens,
cooling his hot head, something that counted with him more than it does
with most men; something about which we hear perhaps too much now as too
little then; something that only too easily provides perorations for
politicians or themes for ethical societies; but something which does
exist in some men and did emphatically exist in this one. The pure
passion of education went through him like a purging wind; he thirsted
to tell young people about things-not about theories or parties or
political allegations, but about things. Whether they were grammatical
roots or vegetable roots or cube roots, he wanted to dig them up; to
show them and to share them. He had the schoolmaster's enthusiasm for
being followed, for being understood; his inmost ideal was a sort of
white-hot lucidity. He above all men made the appeal: He that hath ears
to hear, let him hear; though he was too prone to decorate with very
long ears the rivals who would certainly refuse to hear. But the dunces
were the dons. There was no dunce in the class he taught; for the whole
fury of his genius was poured into simplifying his lesson to suit it to
the village idiot.

For this reason also, and not only for the other, he had decorated his
Grammar with grotesque caricatures. He was resolved to make English
grammar amusing; and he did. It is not true that his only pleasure was
in execrating somebody or even exposing something. Stronger even than
these was his rational rapture in explaining something. He had learnt
that in order to explain something it is necessary to hold the
attention; and his examples always do hold the attention. In some ways,
therefore, the two contrary forces in him come together, more than
anywhere, in this strange volume; in what some would call this mad

But he appears as a better because a broader teacher in the Rural Rides.
He really had a great talent for teaching; in the real sense in which a
schoolmaster like a poet is born and not made. He could go back with the
beginner to the beginnings. He could understand the pupil's failure to
understand. He would take trouble to make everything mean something, and
sift the language for terms to which other terms could be reduced. A
model of educational method may be found in his little talk with the
farmhand at Beaulieu Abbey. Most educated men, even of a didactic turn,
would be content to tell the man that, it was spelt Beaulieu but
pronounced Buley, and leave the man merely puzzled. At best they would
have told him that Beau is the French for fine and lieu the French for
place; and left him with an arbitrary fact fallen out of the air, like
the Hebrew word for hat or the Chinese word for umbrella. But Cobbett
really translated the words, making them part of the man's own language.
He pointed out that even in English we talk of a beau when we mean a
buck or dandy; and talk of taking goods in lieu of money when we mean in
place of money. There is not one educated man in a thousand who would
think of those illustrations to make things clear to a yokel in a lane;
and the man who habitually talked like that was one of the great
schoolmasters of the world.

It is quite impossible to pick up all the varied and vivid trifles that
are scattered through the Rural Rides. It would be undesirable even if
it were not impossible. It would be saving the reader the trouble of
reading the book; and it ought to be no trouble. The man who does not
find one of Cobbett's books amusing is doomed to find every book dull.
They contain a hundred fragments from which the whole habit of his life
has been built up. They show him to us in a series of snapshots, in
attitudes so active as to amount to the animation of a cinema. We can
picture him swaggering about on his own farm at Botley, in the red
waistcoat that he wore so appropriately, like a defiance to a whole herd
of bulls. We can watch him peering over fences and hedges in his eager
and shameless vanity, enquiring everywhere about Cobbett's Corn (the
name he modestly gave to the maize he brought from America), and sternly
admonishing those who were unconscious of their good luck in possessing
it. We can behold him as he curses London from the hills; he always
called it the Wen. But here again his humour is more subtle than it
seems. We have noticed the same offhand offensiveness in his quotations
in the English Grammar. With his artless artistry, he gives more weight
to this abusive term by using it not so much abusively as allusively.
Instead of saying, 'This vile city is only one monstrous Wen,' he is
careful to say quite carelessly, 'I was coming from the Wen,' as if he
were saying, 'I was coming from the Wood.' He seems to assume that
everybody knows it by that name. It is impossible, I say, to deal with
all these details; we can only pick out one or two because they are
symbolic and consider the social view they symbolise.

For instance, we can see that even as a reactionary he was a realist. An
excellent example of Cobbett's general attitude may be found in his view
of fairs and markets. This is especially true in that his attitude is
emphatically not what most of his critics and some of his supporters
would suppose. On the theory that he was a sort of retrospective rustic,
merely regretting the good old times, it would be easy enough to make a
picture of such a sentimental veteran recalling the romance of his youth
at fair and market. But Cobbett is really concerned with the business of
the market, and not merely with the fun of the fair. He does not imagine
that village maidens pass their whole lives dancing round the Maypole.
Some of the later romantics of Young England would have been quite
capable of making them set up a Maypole at Christmas, perhaps with a
Christmas pudding on top of it. He does not even cling to that yet
nobler pillar of Christendom, the greasy-pole with a leg of mutton on
top of it; more truly Christian because offering more opportunities for
a cheerful humility. He does not see it as an old-world pageant, in the
manner of Ruskin or William Morris. He sees it as an economic question
as strictly as Ricardo or John Stuart Mill. Only, rightly or wrongly, he
turns the economic argument the other way. It is also quite typical of
him that his economics are really economical. He does not primarily
praise the fair as a place in which people can spend money. He actually
praises it as a way in which they can save money. And his argument,
whether we agree with it or not, is perfectly practical and prosaic. I
do not mean, of course, that he would not sympathise with the Maypole
and the greasy-pole; for he certainly would. I do not mean that he would
not enjoy the enjoyment, for he certainly did. He had a pretty taste in
pretty girls, as have many men who are quite happy with their own wives;
he would certainly have liked to see them dancing round a Maypole;
though perhaps he would not have been sufficiently modern and advanced
to enjoy seeing one of them asserting sex equality and making her own
career by climbing the greasy pole. He would have entirely sympathised
with the girl whose lover lingered at the fair, when he had promised to
buy her a bunch of blue ribbons, as it says in the song, to tie up her
bonny brown hair. Perhaps, again, he would have been so old-fashioned as
to doubt whether the girl would gain very much by never buying ribbon
for her hair, but only ribbon for her typewriter. But all this was a
matter of light sentiment with him; and he was quite sane enough to take
his sentiment lightly. The basis of his argument was in no sense
sentimental; it was perfectly practical as far as it went. It was that
the young man would not have to pay so much for ribbons for the young
woman, because the person selling the ribbons would not have to pay so
much for building or renting a shop. Somebody somewhere else, he argued,
living in an ordinary cottage and garden, would make the ribbons at
home, as the old country lace makers made lace, and would then walk into
the nearest market-town and sell them to the young; man, who had also
walked into the same market-town to buy them. The young woman would get
her ribbons, and the n young man would have so much more left to go
towards Cottage Economy and the expenses of married life, which do not
consist entirely of the purchase of ribbons. But suppose (Cobbett's
argument ran) the cottage woman, instead of working in her own cottage
in her own way, had to go to a special place for working, all the
expenses of that place must be thrown in. Suppose the cottage woman has
to come into the market and put up four walls and a roof in order to
sell a ribbon. The expenses of the shop are also added to the expenses
of the ribbon; and the young woman has fewer ribbons or (more probably)
less housekeeping money. I am not now arguing whether this economic
argument is sound. I am only pointing out that this economic argument is
economic. Cobbett seldom felt comfortable unless his strongest
sentimental instincts had some such solid foundation. I think on the
whole the argument is quite sound as far as it goes; and it goes a good
way, until we come into the world of such very large and very lifeless
mass production that things can be produced cheaply, especially by huge
and rich monopolies by which they can even be, for some time, produced
at a loss. In other words, it probably is true that one big millionaire
might own one big machine with wheels incessantly going round and
reeling off interminable lengths of the same very ugly ribbon; and that
he might even sell it below cost price for the pleasure of driving every
other sort of better and more varied ribbon out of the market. But some
(including the present writer) do not like monopolies of that kind or
machines of that kind, or millionaires of that kind, or even ribbons of
that kind; and some of us even decline under any circumstances to use
them to tie up our bonny brown hair. In any case, in this sketch we are
concerned less with controversy than with character; and it is essential
to the character of Cobbett that he believed that a market was better
than a shop, not merely because it was brighter or quainter or more
picturesque, but because he thought it was cheaper. It must be noted as
marking him off from the romantic reactionary, and even from the school
of Ruskin when it denounced the economical tendency of economics. We can
all sympathise with what Ruskin' meant by the Lamp of Sacrifice. Even
Cobbett could have sympathised, as his love of the great Gothic churches
had shown; but if he had been arranging such an allegorical
illumination, he would probably have added a Lamp of Thrift.

In this limited and definite sense he did object to England being a
nation of shopkeepers. Today, of course, England is most unmistakably
not a nation of shopkeepers. I myself, in a moment of controversial
exaggeration, described it as a nation of shopwalkers. But anyhow, it is
obvious that the process which Cobbett condemned has not only gone far
beyond anything that he described, but has gone far enough to destroy
itself, as a thing covered by that description. If ownership be the
test, it has been a process and a period of people losing things and not
gaining them. It has been a process of people going into service, in the
language of servants, into service if not into servitude. It has been a
process of people losing even the little booth at the fair, that was
thought so poor a substitute for the little farm in the fields. Somewhat
sadly we can now toss away from us the taunt of our great enemy. By the
best proof of all, the English are not a nation of shopkeepers. They
have not kept their shops.

But the point here is that Cobbett was not weeping over lost causes; he
was rather if anything raving over lost cash: or at anyrate lost
capital. He was perfectly practical; but he was sorry that the small
capitalists were being ruined; and in the long run he may possibly turn
out to be right. As we have said, he was emphatically not a mere
laudator temporis acti. He was not merely crying over spilt milk; he was
crying for justice over stolen cows. But he was not reckless in the
sense of a friend to recklessness: on the contrary, he felt that such a
licence to theft was the end of thrift. He gave his enemies beans, as
the saying is, but he knew how many beans make five: and even counted
them carefully.

It is curious that men of the type of Brougham were always lecturing the
poor on foresight, when the one thing they could not do was to foresee
the future of the poor. They were always urging them to thrift and
urging them to set up a system which would make it impossible to be
thrifty. Those who used the word thrift twenty times a day never looked
at the word once. If they had, they would have seen that thrift depends
upon thriving. In Shakespeare, it is used as practically meaning
property or wealth; 'where thrift may follow fawning.' Unfortunately, in
a modern plutocracy it can only follow fawning. It certainly cannot
follow saving. A servant who is agreeably servile may possibly have a
fortune by favouritism. But by no possibility could he save enough out
of common wages to buy a farm, still less a shop in the town where land
is priceless; and those are the sort of things for which men save. But
it is the paradox of the whole position that the Utilitarians who were
always preaching prudence committed this country to one of the most
really reckless revolutions in history--the industrial revolution. They
destroyed agriculture and turned England into a workshop; a workshop in
which the workers were liable at any moment to be locked up and left to
eat hammers and saws. The Radicals who did that were as picturesque as
pirates, so far as pirates become specially picturesque when they burn
their boats. In truth they were not so much metaphorically burning their
boats: they were almost literally burning their barns. But there is
something fitting in the accident by which the term Free Trader used to
mean a smuggler. If romantic recklessness be the test, Cobden and Bright
should always have appeared brandishing cutlasses and with a belt full
of pistols.

But Cobbett did really value foresight; Cobbett did really believe in
forethought; Cobbett did really believe in thrift. He was ever ready to
urge a wise economy of expenditure with the wildest extravagance of
words. He praised prudence in a series of the most appallingly imprudent
speeches ever made by man. He howled and bellowed all the beauties of a
sober and sensible and quiet life. But he was perfectly sincere; and it
was really thrift and forethought and sobriety that he recommended.
Only, it was the trouble with his forethought that it was, among other
things, thought; and of his foresight that he could see a little
further. He could see a little further than his nose; or that
supercilious nose on which the spectacles of the economist were
balanced. He saw that even when the economists were right in
recommending economy, they were recommending it to people who could not
possibly be economical. He saw that the economists were not even
creating their own monster of an Economic Man; they were creating
nothing but the thriftless thousands of a wandering proletariat. As for
the ordinary Whigs and champions of Reform, he did not believe they were
even trying to create anything except salaries and sinecures for

Then again, his coarseness is not only touched by shrewdness but by
tenderness; of a sort much too shrewd to be sentimental. His charity was
not cheap. To say that he had a sense of human equality will convey
little to those who can make no sense of that sense. Perhaps it would be
more intelligible to say that there are some who sympathise with the
poor from the outside and some who can sympathise from the inside. There
is one kind of man who pities a beggar because the beggar is so
different from himself, and another who does it because the beggar is so
similar. Many a perfectly sincere reformer will say, 'Imagine a man
starving in such a slum,' as he would say, 'Imagine a man being really
boiled by cannibals in a pot,' or, 'Imagine that a man really
was-chopped in pieces by Chinese torturers.' His phrase is a piece of
perfectly honest rhetoric; but he knows that we do not really imagine
it. But when Cobbett writes about it, we do imagine it. He does not deal
in lurid description; in this matter he is rather unusually responsible
and reasonable. He simply has the knack of making the thing happen to
himself and therefore to his reader. There is an excellent illustration
of his quieter method in one passage in the Rural Rides. He describes,
in that plain and almost naked narrative style that seems to lie like
strong morning daylight upon every detail of the day, how he started out
riding with his son at dawn; how some hitch occurred about the inn at
which he had intended to breakfast, and he rode on hoping to reach
another hostelry in reasonable time; how other hitches occurred which
annoyed him, making him scold the boy for some small blunders about the
strapping of a bag; and how he awoke at last to a sort of wonder as to
why he should be so irritable with a child whom he loved so much. And
then it dawned upon him that it was for the very simple reason that he
had had no breakfast. He, who had fed well the night before and intended
to feed well again, who was well clothed and well mounted, could not
deny that a good appetite might gradually turn into a bad temper. And
then, with one of his dramatic turns or gestures, he suddenly summons up
before us all the army of Englishmen who had no hope of having any
breakfast until they could somehow beg work from hard or indifferent
men; who wandered about the world in a normal state of hunger and anger
and blank despair about the future; who were exposed to every insult and
impotent under every wrong; and who were expected by the politicians and
the papers to be perfectly mild and moderate in their language,
perfectly loyal and law-abiding in their sentiments, to invoke blessings
on all who were more fortunate and respectfully touch their hats to
anybody who had a little more money.

Now, the unconscious ingenuity of that approach is that it surprises us
from the inside. The man writing it has not struck any attitudes of a
demagogue or a prophet of woe; he has not set out to describe slums as a
missionary to describe savages. The man reading it does not know what is
coming; but when it comes it comes to him and not to some remote
stranger. It is he that feels the sinking within him that comes from the
withdrawal of all our, bodily supports; it is his own stomach that is
hollow and his own heart that is sick with hope deferred. It will be all
the better for him if it is his own brain that grows black and his own
tongue bitter; if it teaches him for a moment what it must be to be a
tramp walking with pain and bludgeoned by perpetual snubs and sneers and
refusals. When a man has imagined that for a moment for himself, he
knows for the first time what is meant by saying that men are brothers,
and not merely poor relations. That is the psychological experience
corresponding to the philosophical doctrine which for many remains a
mystery: the equality of man.

It must also always be remembered, if we are to make any meaning of the
tale, that it was this type of the very poor man, the tramp or the
beggar, whom Cobbett almost unconsciously made the test of the time. He
was not the man for whom it was possible to represent it as a good time.
He was not the man who was being tolerated by toleration acts or
enfranchised by reform bills. He was not the man who was being educated
by Brougham's popular science or equipped by Arkwright's mechanical
discoveries. He was not one of those whom the new world was making
richer. As Cobbett would have put it in his bitter way, he had not the
advantage of being a Jew who blasphemed Christ or a Quaker who ran away
from patriotism. He was only a normal national baptized Englishman with
nothing to eat. He was only a poor man; and he was quite certainly
growing poorer.

Tyranny varies with temperament, especially national temperament. Some
have taxed the poor, and some have enslaved the poor, and a few have
massacred the poor; but the English rulers simply forgot the poor. They
talked as if they did not exist; they generalised as if no such people
need be included in the generalisation. They drew up reports of progress
and prosperity in which the common people did not figure at all. They
did not suppress the subject; by that time they simply did not think of
it any more than a man shooting pheasants prides himself on killing
flies or an angler counts the midges. It was said that the English
founded an empire in a fit of absence of mind. It must be somewhat sadly
added that they neglected a nation with the same absence of mind.
Oligarchies far harsher and more arbitrary in legal form would probably
have more responsibility in the sense of remembrance. A Roman official
might have written in a famine, 'There is still food enough for the
citizens and even the slaves.' A Victorian gentleman in the Hungry
Forties simply sat down at his groaning mahogany and said, 'There is
enough food.' A planter in South Carolina might well have been heard
saying, 'The Blockade is starving the blacks as well as ourselves,' The
merchant in Manchester was only heard saying, 'There may be a slump; but
with the next boom we shall completely recover ourselves.' That is the
mental blank peculiar to this mentality. They did not even look down
with scorn and say, 'We are all comfortable, even if these vagabonds are
beggared by their own vices.' They looked round with complete
satisfaction and said, 'We are all comfortable.'

This distinction is simply a fact, and should not be mixed up with moral
or sentimental recriminations. It is a character of the condition called
capitalism, whether we dwell on the economic dependence or the political
independence of the worker under capitalism. In part, doubtless, the
proletarian was forgotten because he was free. The slave was remembered
because he was always under the eye of the master. But I am not now
arguing about whether nineteenth century capitalism has been better or
worse than slavery. I am pointing out that the whole business of hiring
men and sacking men did allow of forgetting men. It allowed of it much
more than the servile system of owning men. Capitalism has produced a
peculiar thing, which may be called oppression by oblivion. And this
negative and indirect injustice was native both to what is good and what
is bad in the English temper. It is the paradox of the English that they
are always being cruel through an aversion to cruelty. They dislike
quite sincerely the sight of pain, and therefore shut their eyes to it;
and it was not unnatural that they should prefer a system in which men
were starved in slums but not scourged in slave-compounds.

Now, here again we have one of the subtleties under the superficial
simplicities of Rural Rides. Cobbett, it has been often repeated, was as
English as any Englishman who ever lived. He had all the English
virtues: the love of loafing and of lonely adventure; the spirit of the
genial eccentric; the capacity to be a hermit without being a
misanthrope; the love of landscape and of roads astray; and above all,
that love of the grotesque that is as brave as a broad grin. Nor, as we
say, was he without that softer side, only that with him it was
generally the inside. I mean that it was in his private and domestic
character that we see the English aversion to what is painful and
severe. He was a very gentle father and schoolmaster, not only in
practice but in theory; and much that he wrote on education almost
anticipates the complete amnesty of the Montessori school, He always
expressed himself strongly about the stupidity of schoolmasters knocking
children about, though he did it with a cheerful readiness to knock the
schoolmasters about. Here he does indeed touch something in the English
that is behind their dislike of a scene. Victor Hugo in his Art of being
a Grandfather describes in his rather boastful fashion how he had lashed
the world like Isaiah or Juvenal, and refused to descend to the bathos
of slapping a child. Cobbett had lashed the world like nobody in the
world but Cobbett. And he had a better right than Hugo to say truly of
himself that 'thunder should be mild at home.'

But when all this element in the great Englishman has been allowed for,
it is still true that there was one quality in him that was not English.
He was extremely provocative. He was as provocative as an. Irishman. He
refused to leave people alone. He refused emphatically to let sleeping
dogs lie. It is not surprising that at the end he had the whole pack in
full cry after him; and that it only gave him a further opportunity for
turning on them and telling them they were all curs and mongrels, not to
mention mad dogs. He always trailed his coat, especially so as to make
men say that he had turned his coat. He rejoiced and exulted in a scene.
There is nothing more vivid than that scene on which Mr. Edward Thomas
touched with great felicity, the great meeting which Cobbett had worked
up to the point of a passionate enthusiasm for throwing him out. 'I
stood up,' he says,'that they might see the man they had to throw out.'
That phrase is a photograph before the days of photography; the picture
of that big, snorting, bellicose farmer, standing up with distended
nostrils and the expression which in the prize ring is called being a

Now, the combination in Cobbett of the deepest English humours and the
love and understanding of England with this quality which is rare in
England, the aggressive and challenging quality, is a sort of
coincidence or contradiction which gave him his whole value in our
politics and history. It was exactly because he was English in
everything else, and not English in this, that he did serve England, and
very nearly saved England. He very nearly saved her from that oppression
by oblivion, that absent-minded cruelty of the mere capitalist, which
has now brought upon her such accumulated and appalling problems in the
industrial world. He was capable of being candid about cruelty; and
indeed of being cruel about cruelty. He would not let sleeping dogs lie;
he also would not let progressive politicians lie. While a rather oily
optimism was being applied like oil, lie rubbed in his pessimism like
pepper. To a society that was more and more covering itself up with its
own superficial success, he was always deliberately digging up the mass
of submerged failure. To use a metaphor that would have appealed to him,
he was always refusing to judge our society by the top-layer of apples
or strawberries in the basket, and always declaring that the shopkeeper
was a swindler and the fruit underneath was rotten. While the whole of
that version of things afterwards called Victorian was gently pressing
everybody to judge England by an idealised version of the public
schoolboy and the gentleman, he delighted to pester our very imagination
with beggars and tramps. While the New Poor Law was putting away such
people in prisons and police institutions, he delighted to exhibit them
with all their sores like the cripples on the steps of a church in

But though in this he was an exception among Englishmen, he was still an
English exception among Englishmen. The distinction should be
understood; somewhat in the same sense, in spite of what is said to the
contrary, a man like Parnell was an exception among Irishmen, but a
purely Irish exception. Cobbett represented one piece of England awake
where much of England was asleep: he represented certain English things
in revolt that are commonly in repose. But his way of reaching even
these was very national; since it was very casual and almost entirely
experimental. He did not start with theories but with things; with the
things he saw. A philosophy can be deduced from his comments; but we do
not feel that they were deduced from a philosophy.

Lastly, he embodied the English paradox: because he was a sort of poet
whose ideal was prose. He was easily infuriated; and he would have been
immensely infuriated at being called a poet; or, still more, being
called a mystic. But there was much more poetry in him than he knew.
There was even much more mysticism in him than he knew; for a simple man
is a mystery to himself. And nothing is more notable in the great
panorama of the Rural Rides than the fact that he often sees things in
an epical and symbolical fashion which others saw in a very material or
mechanical fashion. To take only one instance: all the books and
speeches and pamphlets of the latter period of his life are full of
allusions to Old Sarum. It was, of course, the outstanding, not to say
outrageous example of the anomalies of the unreformed representative
system; a place that had practically ceased to exist without ceasing to
send legislators to make laws for England. There are any number of jokes
and anecdotes and debates and diatribes about Old Sarum; but they are
all concerned with it as something on a map or even in a table of
figures. The joke is an abstract and arithmetical joke. The idea of
anybody going to Old Sarum would seem somehow like going to the Other
End of Nowhere. It is intensely characteristic of Cobbett that for him
alone Old Sarum was a place; and because it happened to be a high and
hilly place, it stood up in his imagination with the monstrosity of a
mountain. He called it the Accursed Hill. That single title, compared
with the terms used by, pamphleteers and politicians, has in it
something of the palpable apocalypse. We can fancy him seeing it afar
off from some terrace of hills looking over the coloured counties, as
some primitive traveller might have fancied he saw afar off the peak of
Purgatory, or the volcanic prison of the Titans. He hated it not as
arithmetical anomalies can be hated; but as places can be hated, which
is almost as persons can be hated. And in all this, as compared with the
contemporary rationalism, there was more mysticism precisely because
there was more materialism. There is almost in such a combination a sort
of sacrament of hate. His feeling about the sin and shame of Sarum was
of the same moral type as the feeling about the sanctity of the other
Sarum, which might have been felt by some ardent devotee of the Use of
Sarum. But in that sense Cobbett could not see the u se of Sarum.

This imaginative quality in the man is all the more interesting because
it is partly unconscious and partly suppressed. In so far as he had an
imaginative concept of himself, we might almost say it was the concept
of not being imaginative. Even the world which has understood him so
little has at least understood that he was essentially and emphatically
English. But perhaps the most English thing about him was that he
contrived by sheer poetry to picture himself as prosaic. He was so
imaginative that he imagined himself to be merely a plain man. This is
really an illusion that explains much of the history of John Bull; as
indeed it explains the whole legend and ideal of John Bull. As poets
dream not of a poet but of a hero, so a nation of poets has called up as
its ideal the vision of a practical man. But in Cobbett's time, and
especially in Cobbett's case, what there was of illusion in this was
quite innocent; and he did not know that there was anything spiritual or
elemental about him. That universe that exists in the brain of every man
was then rather by way of being a buried universe; and those were few
who, like Blake and Swedenborg, dived after its submerged stars. In the
Age of Reason there was some tendency for the soul to become the
subconsciousness. Cobbett certainly was cheerfully unconscious of having
any subeonsciousness. I shudder to think what would have happened to
anybody who had told him he had a complex; and indeed there was very
little complex about him. In that sense he believed in reason as rigidly
as Tom Paine; and the world in which he moves over downland and dale and
country town is eternally in the broad daylight. But there is one
passage in that practical pilgrimage in which we do get a glimpse of
those deeper things, at once more dark and more illuminated. It is all
the more moving because it comes quite without warning in the middle of
that quiet and unpretentious narrative, and with one turn takes on the
character of some terrible allegory. There is something about it
mysterious and macabre, like a dark woodcut of Albert Durer.

He describes how he came in his careful wanderings to a district in
which the large estates had been reorganised by new landlords of a
certain kind; landlords named Ricardo and Baring and other rather
foreign and financial names, whom he was wont to name very frankly. All
day his heart had grown heavier with the increasing sense that the
country was passing into the hands of these oriental merchants, and he
was probably brooding, as he often did, on the very darkest version of
their history and character, when he saw a strange object or ornament or
accident standing up in those smooth and well-ordered grounds neatly
fenced from the road. It was actually in the shape of a cross; 'big
enough and broad enough to crucify a man on.' With something that makes
his staccato style sound for the first time like broken speech, he
repeats more than once, 'Aye, big enough and broad enough to crucify a
man on.' And then he says that his horse, who was accustomed to the
ambling trot with which he rambled about for his adventures, was
startled by the spur or the gesture which urged him to sudden activity.
He must have gone, he says, at a great and very uncommon pace as he got
away from that place. 'I think he [meaning the horse] must often have
wondered what gave me wings that once and that once only.'

That curious incident is all the more impressive because Cobbett tells
it with powerful restraint and saying as little as may be of its
emotional side. He who flung fierce words about like a fury slinging
flame, always had a rather fine instinct of sobriety and simplicity when
it came to the few things, rather in the background of his mind, which
he did really though vaguely reverence. But in this ease something
rather more unusual and even uncanny was involved. A man has been
pottering about from farm to farm and town to town on a trotting horse,
inspecting crops, making notes about wages, cocking an eye at the
weather and calling for a glass of ale at the inn; but all with the
sense that this older England is passing away, and feeling it more and
more as he comes nearer to Surrey and the suburbs, or to the great new
estates run by the new gentry. Their names are strange names; and he has
suspicions that even those names are not always their own. Their faces
are strange faces; associated in his mind with sketches of eastern
travel or with pictures in the family Bible. They are very busy; very
orderly; in their own way very philanthropic. But what are they doing,
what are they driving at, what is the ultimate design by which they
build? There lies like a load upon him the impression that the whole
world is being reformed; and it is being reformed wrong. The world's
great age begins anew; and it begins wrong. He cannot think where it
will all end; what form so foreign and perhaps formless a growth is
ultimately meant to take. And then he sees, standing up quite neat and
new and solid in the sunlight, something that seems crude and freshly
carpentered and yet frightfully familiar; not a. symbol but rather a
substantial purpose; not an emblem but an end. And we know not what
shock of revelation or revulsion all but unhorsed that strong rider as
on the road to Damascus; something indescribable, overwhelming a plain
man in a passion of subtleties, that had no outlet but a rush of flight;
and far away down the darkling English lanes the throb and thunder of
the flying hooves. For that unholy cross the heathen saw stood up still
ugly and unsanctified; black against the daybreak of the world, the
shape of shame; and saving such a strange flash of reversion, the cross
no Christian will ever see.


A mere outline of the career of Cobbett has been broken or interrupted
here for the sake of two studies of his literary personality. That
outline left him in England after his second return from the United
States. The time of his return was largely the time of his triumph; in
spite of, or rather because of, the tumultuous hour in which he
returned. In this period he received all the highest compliments which
he was ever likely to receive. He was hailed as a democratic deliverer,
not only by his own natural following among the farm-labourers of the
southern shires, but by the grim and growing power of the Trades Unions
of the Midlands and the North. He was given a great public banquet and
toasted with tremendous enthusiasm. He was invited, in many times and
places daring these later years, to stand for Parliament. He was
eventually elected to Parliament. If the Reform Government had really
been a Reform Government, he might have been a Minister in it or
received any honour that popular government could bestow. In any case he
received, in this his time of honour, the highest of all these honours.
He was prosecuted by the Government for sedition.

But the man in the dock was a very different person from the dazed and
disillusioned Tory farmer who had once stood distracted between the doom
hanging over his farm and the doom hanging over his country. He stood in
the dock like a man risen from the dead. He was an incarnate and
historic revenge that had renewed its youth like the eagle's. He was far
younger than when he was young. If it was foolish of the politicians to
have prosecuted him on the first occasion, there is something of the
madness that marks the wrath of the gods in their repetition of the
folly so long afterwards. They were actually silly enough to attempt to
make him responsible for the Luddites smashing the machines. He had not,
of course, the smallest difficulty in showing that he had actually
written to the Luddites asking them not to smash the machines. He could
and did call Brougham as a witness to prove that his appeal had actually
been used on the side of law and order. But Cobbett was not likely to
confine himself to the defensive, with such an opening for a
counter-offensive. He tore to rags their ridiculous case against him;
then he drew a deep breath into his great lungs, and they heard his case
against them. He let himself go; we might say he let himself loose.
Tribunals and officials had a startling experience of what sort of
elemental rage had been dwelling among them. He browbeat the browbeating
judges; he bullied the bullies of the bar; he raised the jury against
them like a mob; it was the hour of his life. For once at least he could
make men understand that he did well to be angry; and he did. He spat
out his passionate contempt for all that cold and cowardly world which
had gone about to trap him lest he should somewhere let out the truth.
He gave its own name to all that bottomless baseness in the comfortable
classes, that would destroy a man for his sympathy with the poor. He
swept away all the ridiculous relevancies of whether he had said this or
that about an election or a trade union, and attacked the' thing his
enemies were really attacking. He accused them of their accusation. He
charged them with charging, a man with having a heart for the oppressed.
He told them why they hated him; and showed them the face of their own
fear. It was not because he was blatant or inconsistent or coarse or
reckless; even if he was. It was not because he raged or ranted or made
a noise. It was because of those silent on whose behalf he made a noise;
of the dumb for whom he ranted and the impotent for whom he raged. It
was his love of the poor that made him horrible to his enemies; and in
that hour he made them feed on the full horrors that such love reveals.
When he had done shaking the court of justice with his voice, everything
around him seemed shrunken and silent; the jury acquitted him almost
mechanically, and he left the court, if not without a stain on his
character, at least with a smile on his face broader than the grim smile
he wore during his sentence to Newgate. He might have been dismounting
after a holiday ride along the hills, before an honest alehouse of his
youth. And indeed he had been doing the same thing; he had been enjoying

That hour in the dock was the supreme moment of his life; and though in
one sense it was followed by more success and popularity than he had
hitherto, he was never again so near to his own vision of triumph. He
became more and more identified with the great movement against the
rotten boroughs, which culminated (or collapsed) with the great Act of
1830. The Reform movement united him with many who had once been his
friends and with many who would always have been his enemies. But the
Reform movement was very different from the Reform Bill. Cobbett lived
to see Reform, but not the Reform he had longed to see. He sat in
Parliament, but not in the Parliament where he wished to sit. The
atmosphere he hated most of all, more than any smoke of destruction or
any smell of decay, the Whig atmosphere, was what prevailed in the new
Parliament and the new Ministry. If he watched with too harsh a sneer
its first act of emancipating the niggers by an enormous bribe to the
nigger-drivers, we may imagine (or fail to imagine) how he regarded its
second act, which was to complete and extend the most cruel Tudor policy
against poor vagabonds, by passing the New Poor Law and putting them
into prisons called workhouses. To a more detached mind there might seem
something of symmetry and balance in thus simultaneously letting out
black people and locking up white.

Before this had happened, of course, and while it was happening, he had
pursued his other controversial interests, and figured in several other
fields. He had taken a seed-farm in Kensington: where he conducted an
experiment in bartering goods for labour, and sold all sorts of things.
His Register still sold like hot cakes; the cakes continued to be very
hot indeed. Sonic of them were more than most people could swallow, in
the way of absolute assertions, positive prophecies, and personal
threats. He was by this time a great public character; from some points
of view a great comic character. It is possible that some people tried
to take a rise out of him. Sometimes the laugh was on his side;
sometimes on the other. But this could always be said of him, that he
stood in the same swaggering attitude whether he stood alone or backed
by a whole nation. Two examples will serve: of the former, the joke
about the gridiron; of the latter, an affair that had happened
earlier-that of the Royal Divorce.

Certainly Cobbett had a way of brazening things out, whether we think
him right or wrong; indeed, we cannot but feel a sort of breathless
admiration especially when we think him wrong. The story of the gridiron
which he came to carry like a coat-of-arms is an excellent illustration
of his invincible impudence. It arose out of a trifle, or at anyrate out
of a detail; a detail which was very doubtful and not at all decisive.
The Government had declared, in connection with the crisis which
necessitated paper money, that things would improve, and that certain
payments would be made in coin. Cobbett, contradicting flatly and flying
into a passion, as was his habit about a hundred things large and small,
had said he would be broiled on a gridiron if the Government could do
any such thing. It was of course only one of his characteristic idioms;
which were at once homely and extravagant. He meant no more by this
singular fireside fantasy than he would have meant by using the more
familiar theological fantasy and saying he would see them damned first.
Indeed, he would have looked forward to seeing the Ministers damned with
a much more solemn and religious expectation. It only illustrates in
passing a certain individual twist that lie could always give to his
plain talk, that where another man would say 'I'll be hanged if you do,'
or possibly 'I'll be shot if you do,' he had the fine fastidiousness to
say 'I'll be broiled if you do.' But when his enemies began to shoot
this light thing at him as an arrow from his own quiver, he wore it like
a feather in his cap. He seized the opportunity of solidifying into an
emblem something that had been but an idle word. They taunted him by
turning his metaphor against him; and he answered them by turning their
taunt against them. He hung up a huge gridiron outside his house; he
brandished his gridiron in controversy like a club in a street riot. It
seemed impossible to believe that any man could be wrong on a point that
he pressed so provocatively; it was manifest that no man could be
ashamed of an episode which he so paraded and perpetuated. And yet, in
the actual episode itself, it is quite possible that he was quite wrong.
A slight financial recovery of that sort was certainly not so insanely
impossible as his metaphor implied; and as a matter of fact he was wrong
in his general notion that immediate failure would follow the new
financial experiments. Anyhow, he would probably have behaved in exactly
the same way whatever had happened in the particular matter of which he
originally spoke. It may be disputed whether this audacity should be
classed as one of his vices or merely one of his talents. But certainly
he had this talent, or if you will this trick, of turning defeat into
victory. In this sense it is true to say that he had the tricks of a
demagogue. Only, something more in the way of a definition of demagogy
is needed before justice is done to him. But he did shout down his
hecklers; and it was he on the hustings, much more than Johnson at the
tea table, who knocked men down with the butt-end when his pistol missed
fire. And he did have the power of making his very digressions and
irrelevancies more important than other men's questions; the great
gridiron did brand itself on men's memory when its origin was forgotten,
and glowed through the twilight of time almost like the sacred gridiron
of St. Lawrence.

It was characteristic of Cobbett's instinct for the national sentiment,
for a sort of sporting variety of chivalry very deep in his people, that
he had thrown himself with refreshing fury against the opponents of
Queen Caroline. It is also characteristic of his fighting spirit that he
must have been rather more of a nuisance to her supporters than to her
enemies. He bullied and browbeat the Queen's lawyers and advisers, he
came near to bullying and browbeating the Queen; but in the main he
respectfully confined himself to pestering and plaguing her. Yet his
aim, as was often the case with him, was nonetheless sane because it was
strenuous. It was his whole purpose to pin her to her full claims, and
especially to nail her to her post in London, when there was any danger
of her leaving the country; which might look like a surrender. So
Dundee, a man of the fighting sort, had tried to nail James the Second,
and prevent him seeming to abandon his claim with his country. Perhaps
the feeling was the fiercer because Cobbett's old enemy Brougham was the
lady's chief legal adviser; and nothing pleased Cobbett so much as to
suggest that he was too legal to be loyal. Anyhow, there is no doubt
that Cobbett was quite sincerely loyal. He enjoyed, indeed, not without
an innocent vanity, his chivalric attitude as the champion of a woman;
he had all his life a very honourable simplicity in his view of women.
There are some very delightful touches in the letters of his daughter,
who adored him, but who does not conceal her amusement at papa's new
grandeur and gratification in his powdered hair and new court-suit and
sword. There was no red waistcoat on these occasions.

The affair of Caroline of Anspach need not be fully discussed here;
though it is not without interest and certainly not without irony. The
irony most relevant to her relations with the great demagogue is its
suggestion of something not uncommon in democratic emotions. The mob has
a curious way of being right by being wrong. It often champions the
wrong person to punish the right person. It supports a true view by a
false argument; or convicts a real criminal of an unreal crime. It may
be doubted whether the official wife of George the Fourth deserved all
the democratic devotion that was poured out for her; but there is little
doubt that George the Fourth by this time deserved most of the
democratic detestation that was hurled against him. Yet he had once been
a far more generous and even a far more liberal man. And the sin that
had rotted his honour was not his repudiation of his official wife
Caroline, but his repudiation of his real wife Mrs. Fitzherbert. And it
is the supreme irony of that strange story that his old and real crime
rose from the grave against him, at the very moment when he was
committing what was regarded as a more indefensible crime, but was
really far more defensible. Lord Liverpool and the King's friends,
goaded by the defiances of Cobbett and the mob, brought in a bill
legally divorcing and degrading the Queen. The Queen's party retorted
with a boldness that smacks very much of' Cobbett's controversial
spirit; they threatened to bring up the King's first and secret marriage
as an illegality forfeiting his whole position, because it was a
marriage to a Catholic. At this point also, not for the first time,
England and the great English agitator touched for a moment the hidden
thing that had remained behind English history; at first a martyr and
always a witness, and perhaps at last a deliverer.

It is more difficult to make the people support the cause of the people
than to make it support the cause of a person. Cobbett had not only the
masses but most of the middle class with him about the dubious royal
romance. He stood much more alone in dealing with the indubitable
popular reality. That reality to which he testified with unwearied
violence was something quite simple; yet it seemed to be too simple for
the educated to understand. He shouted it in a, place more and more
padded and cushioned with a comfortable optimism; and it had no echo. He
shouted it in such a fashion that many of his hearers would have
retorted that it was well that he should be in a padded cell. Yet what
he shouted is of a certain curious interest and is worth recording. It
might be typified very tersely in what he said in answer to one of the
leading statesmen, who said that we might look with confidence to the
future, 'because all the great interests are prospering.' Cobbett wrote
in large letters like a man scrawling on a great wall or the side of a
hill: 'The working classes, then, are not a great interest.'

He added grimly that perhaps they might be some day. Those who see in
Trade Union dictatorship a red dawn of revolutionary tyranny may pause
upon the postscript: I am concerned to point out that this was, first
and last, what he had to say: and he could not say it in the Reform
Parliament. It is notable that a very fair sketch of Cobbett says that
he did nothing in Parliament but make a crack-brained attack on Peel.
Yet he can be judged even by what he attacked.

That Cobbett should have attacked Peel, especially in Parliament, is
exactly what any understanding person would have expected; I am tempted
to say what any understanding person would have hoped. It was equally
obvious that he would attack him in Parliament in very unparliamentary
language. It is most obvious of all that his attack would be utterly
unintelligible to all the Parliamentarians who can only speak the
Parliamentary language and are unacquainted with the English language.
Peel was a model Parliamentarian; in other words, he was a monument of
everything that Cobbett detested and despised. Peel was a Tory without
traditions; Peel was a Liberal without popular sympathies. Peel was
Parliament, and could not be expected to have the faintest notion of
what the people felt or experienced. The only truly popular tradition
about Peel has nothing to do with the inscriptions on the statues or the
speeches on the Corn Laws. It is the fact that, far down in the depths
of a democratic world that politicians never visit, the slang names for
the new police were 'Bobbies' or 'Peelers.' And if we want to seize the
very soul of Peel and his Parliamentary type, we can fix it in the fact
that he organised a tremendously powerful and privileged gendarmerie for
the control or coercion of the people, and thought they could be
distinguished from the guards of Continental despots by the fact that
they wore top hats. That was the definition of Peelite citizenship:
bribery in a top hat; tyranny in a top hat; anything so long as it was
in a top hat. All that is really to be called British hypocrisy, all
that can be fairly classed as English snobbery, all the vices that grew
under cover of decorum, and of which the very vulgarities were shy-all
that is truly expressed in the fact that men in those days were set to
control mobs in top-hats, just as they played cricket in top-hats. It is
no contradiction to this that the hat has since evolved into a helmet.
It might have evolved into a complete suit of armour, so long as it
evolved; evolution was the essence of that cautious and creeping
philosophy. The point is that at the beginning the gendarme would not
have been accepted if he had appeared in a cocked hat. It was a world,
as Tennyson should have said, where tyranny slowly broadened down from
precedent to precedent. The essential' thing of the epoch was the thin
end of the wedge. It is needless to ask what Cobbett thought of the thin
end of the wedge; he who always fought with the thick end of the cudgel.
Nothing-not even his defence of Factory Acts with the scornful phrase
that his England depended on yeomen, but the new Lancashire was
apparently lost without little girls-was so typical as the fact that he
opposed a Police Force.

The short way of putting it is that Cobbett failed in Parliament. In a
longer view it may be Parliament that failed. We can hardly say that the
politicians failed to use the genius and energy of one of the greatest
of Englishmen; for he was not a man to be used for any ends but his own,
and they did not in the least desire to serve those ends. There was no
possible point of contact, even for contradiction. It would be a very
inadequate metaphor to say he was a fish out of water; for it was rather
the politicians that were fishy. It would be truer to say that he was a
very incautious diver drowning in a tank; but the truth is that he was
simply a bull in a china shop. His sort of English, his sort of
eloquence, his gesture, and his very bodily presence were not suitable
in any case to senatorial deliberations. His was the sort of speaking
that may make the welkin ring, but only makes the chairman ring a little
bell. His attitude and action had about them the great spaces of the
downs or the sweeping countrysides; the lifting of the great clouds and
the silent upheaval of the hills. His warnings and rebukes sounded more
homely and natural when they were shouted, as a man might shout across a
meadow a rebuke to a trespasser or a warning against a bull. But that
sort of shouting when it is shut up in a close and heated room has the
appearance of madness. The company received the impression of a mere
maniac. Yet there was not a man in that room who had a clearer head or a
clearer style, or a better basis of common sense. And he showed easily
enough in his English Grammar that it was really he who could reason and
his critics who could only rant.

Indeed, a change was passing over England which he was already too old
to understand; under the double rule of so patrician a Liberal as
Melbourne and so bourgeois a Tory as Peel. An atmosphere was being
generated not exactly like anything that had ever existed or perhaps
will ever exist again; in which the jests of Canning would have been
quite as inappropriate as the curses of Cobbett. It was not exactly a
creed or a cause, or even a spirit; the nearest description is to say
that it was a silence. All its undertakings were understandings; all its
laws were unwritten laws. There was a silent understanding in the new
middle class that it would not really rebel against the aristocracy.
There was a silent understanding in the aristocracy that it would not
really resist the invasion of the middle class. There was a silent
alliance between the two that neither would really think about that
third thing which moved in the depths; visible for an instant in burning
hayricks and broken machines. It was an understanding that produced its
own courtesy and culture, its own poets and painters, its own patriotism
and historic pride; so that we who were born in the last days of that
tradition can never treat it altogether without piety and gratitude. The
atmosphere had then no name; but a few years afterwards there was found
for it a name and a figure and a national symbol; when a girl stood
crowned before the altar at Westminster. We call it the Victorian Age.

It is not very likely that many members of Parliament noticed a little
before this time that a seat in the House of Commons was empty. To a
much greater extent than the profane vulgar are aware, the House of
Commons often largely consists of empty seats. On important occasions,
when there was more of a bustle and a crowd, the gap might be even less
noticeable; there were so many serious things to hold the attention.
There was the question of whether one Graham with the assistance of
another Graham, his brother, could or could not have formed a Ministry
that would include a gentleman named Grey. There was the question of
whether somebody known as Lord Althorpe would soon be turned into
somebody else called Earl Spencer, Under the strain of pressing problems
of this kind, the Commons were not likely, to trouble about the more and
more frequent and eventually prolonged absence of one member or even of
one vote; for indeed the vote had been as erratic as the member. His
name was down in the lists among that queer and laughable little
minority that had voted against the New Poor Law; along with Dan
O'Connell and such odd creatures. Lately he had not been seen about at
all. Probably nobody knew that in the last few days William Cobbett had
gone back to his farm and died.

Far away on those great windy and grassy heights where he had gone crow
scaring as a child, his funeral procession trailed as black and meagre
as a string of crows. They buried him in the little churchyard at
Farnham; and he had died on the farm not far off that lay on the
hillside looking across to the hill-town of Guildford: a place of steep
streets and a crown of roofs and spires which, seen from a distance,
seems not unworthy of its noble medieval name. He had a happy death, who
in the last achievement of his ambition had had an unhappy life. For he
was suffered to die, after all his wanderings, among those he loved, and
in the privacy which he loved to be the cover of such love, with all his
appetite for a loud publicity in other things. Considering what a name
he left, the privacy might have been called neglect; but in that sense,
and especially in that mood, he would certainly have preferred to be to
that extent neglected. Only his family and a few friends appear as
recognisable figures in the landscape of his funeral; but as they
carried, the coffin through meadow and churchyard, there followed it one
lonely figure that would have been conspicuous in any landscape; a man
of giant stature, clad in black and with a white glove on his right
hand: O'Connell.

It seems to have been the general impression of his contemporaries that
he, who had survived hard riding and the sea and prison and the American
summer, was eventually killed by the House of Commons. Chatham had
carried his dramatic talent almost to the point of dying in the House of
Lords. But certainly Westminster was the very last place where Cobbett
would have wished to die--or for that matter to live. He had no such
power of illusion as had enabled the great Imperialist to live and die
in a passion of patriotic play-acting. Indeed, Cobbett had no power of
illusion at all; that is why he was not what people call a practical
man. That was especially why he could never manage to be a Whig; however
much he might be called a Tory or a Radical. He could never have
understood the sincerity there was in the self-deception of a man like
Burke, who could look back on the oligarchical intrigues of 1688 and
onwards in a glow of Constitutional enthusiasm. Perhaps to say that he
was never a Whig is but another way of saying that he was not an
aristocrat. History was not a hobby; politics were not a game, even a
game played for money. He had that indefinable attitude which marks the
man who has always had to earn his own living. He wanted history and
polities to be useful; in that sense he was quite utilitarian. In the
strict sense of the word, he was not a gentleman--he was a yeoman. He
was a farmer who worked for a harvest; not a landscape painter or even a
landscape gardener. All his wild life long he was working for a harvest;
even when men thought he was sowing the wild oats of fanaticism; even
when they thought he was sowing the dragon's teeth of revolution. He was
trying to get results; and did not mind how hard he worked to get them.
He worked to get a reform of Parliament; he worked to get a more popular
control of Parliament; not because he particularly wanted to see the
working of a new constitution in the abstract, but because he thought
the old constitution was delaying the harvest. He worked for a right to
take a hand in the work. He worked for a place among the new rulers of a
new realm. He worked for a seat at Westminster because he really
believed, more or less, that it would be a sort of throne from which he
would see all England rejoicing in the new liberty; since the hirelings
and hacks of the wicked squires were gone and there had been summoned,
in the ancient language of English liberty, a Free Parliament. The
height from which he would look over that landscape of liberty would be
higher than the Accursed Hill. He would see a New Sarum almost as ideal
as the New Jerusalem, if not descending out of heaven from God, at least
lifted towards heaven by the giant limbs of liberated man; by the proud
toil and spontaneous prudence of the free. The new Parliament was meant
to make a new people. And almost the first thing it did was to pass the
New Poor Law. Almost the first thing it did was to hand over little
Oliver Twist to be starved and beaten by Bumble and Claypole: and sell
English children into slavery for being poor.

There is an irony that is like an agony and is beyond speech or measure.
It were vain to wonder, in the normal way, what manner of words would
have come to those all too tempestuous lips; what lucid violence of
logic as of light through rending rocks would have tried to do justice
to that towering contradiction, in the days when the giant was young.
Much he did say, of course, in his own way. But there was something in
that final contradiction that could not so be contradicted finally or
fully: and when Cobbett came with the clearer eyes of later life to look
at the Reform Parliament, to look steadily at its Reformers and its
Parliamentarians, to absorb the whole scene of how such laws are made
and how such men make them; to sit in his seat in silence for a little,
and take in all that enormous thing calmly and completely--then he made
the only comment at all commensurate with it, or equal in eloquence to
the occasion: he died.

The great world with its wheels of progress that went rolling over him
did not understand his death any more than his life. A hundred years
afterwards he is perhaps better known than he was ten years afterwards,
or even ten minutes afterwards. Two hundred years afterwards, perhaps,
he will be known better still. Johnson is more human and familiar to
every casual reader today than he was to Churchill or Horace Walpole;
but Johnson had a bodyguard of faithful friends who really understood
him, his quaint weaknesses and his mighty worth. Cobbett hardly had a
friend outside his family; and it is doubtful whether there had ever
been one human being who really understood what he meant. His political
allies were not friend; and they were not generally for very long
allies. And the reason was that not one of them could enlarge his mind
to understand the mind of Cobbett; or that immense desire for the
deliverance and perpetuation of the whole huge humanity of England. The
makers of the French Pantheon, wisely combining republican and royal and
imperial trophies, have inscribed their common monument, 'To All the
Glories of France.' If any man as wise had stood by the little
gravestone in the churchyard of Farnham, he might have traced the words,
'To All the Glories of England.' All the other leaders were falling
apart into foolish party systems and false antitheses; into Tories who
were mere squires, and Radicals who were mere merchants. Windham had
been his friend; but who could expect Windham to understand what he felt
about the wild justice of the Luddite fires? Orator Hunt had been his
ally; but who could expect Hunt to know what Cobbett was talking about
when he praised the spires of the Gothic churches or the saints of the
Dark Ages? This uneducated man was too well educated for all his
contemporaries. He stood in a world which believed that it was
broadening; and the whole mind of that world was narrower than his own.
It believed itself to be growing modern and many-sided; and he alone saw
that it was growing monomaniac and mean. And that larger vision died
with him: and vanished for a hundred years.

Cobbett was only too ready to give people, in the language of the comic
landlady, a piece of his mind. But the accidental phrase is after all an
accurate phrase. It was only a piece of his mind that was ever given to
anybody; a rather ragged piece often torn off in a rather random
fashion: but not the whole truth that he really meant, for that he had
great difficulty in giving to anybody, perhaps even to himself.
Talkative as he was, it may be that he never said enough; and lucid as
he was, it may be that he never quite got to the point. But the point
was a whole point of view. And whether it was his fault or the other
people's fault, that point of view was never really taken by anybody
else: nobody stood exactly where he stood or saw the world exactly as he
saw it; or others would have realised that, amid all his contradictory
phrases and combative passions, he did in a real sense of his own see
life steadily and see it whole. As we look back on his life, even the
views that were not consistent with each other seem to be consistent
with him. A friend would not deny that he contradicted himself; but a
friend would be able to guess when and where he would probably
contradict himself. Only in this sense it is true to say that he never
had a friend. He had affections, and he had alliances; but not one true
intellectual friendship.

There was this true distinction in the mind of the self-taught farmer:
that his mind is a place where extremes meet. When it can be said of a
man that the Tories thought him a Radical, and the Radicals thought him
a Tory, the first thing that will occur to us is that he is a moderate.
It can truly be said of Cobbett; and the very last thing that would
occur to anybody would be to call him a moderate. He was not only the
reverse of a moderate, he was something that would be utterly
bewildering to any moderate. He was an extremist all round. He was more
Tory than most Tories, and more Radical than most Radicals. In other
words, it was because he was original; but it was also because he was
universal. He did not altogether understand his own universality; and he
expressed it mostly in the form of inconsistency. He was fanatical, but
he was not narrow. With all his fanaticism, he was really looking at
things from too many points of view at once to be understood by those
who wore the blinkers of a party or even a theory. He seemed to be at
all extremes, because he had in some sense encircled and surrounded his
whole generation. Ignorant and violent as he seemed on the surface, his
spirit was like one that had lived before and after. He was there before
they were all born, in the crowded medieval churches. He was there after
they were all dead, in the crowded congresses of the Trades Unions. It
was not knowledge, but it was understanding, in the sense of sympathy.
When we find this sort of universality we find, I think, a thing on the
heroic scale. It would surely be no bad definition of greatness in a
man, to say that we can strike out in any direction and still find the
circumference of his mind.

There was never a Cobbettite except Cobbett. That gives him an absolute
quality not without a sort of authority. He was a full man and a ready
man, but he was not an exact man. He was not a scientific man or in the
orderly and conscious sense even a philosophical man. But he was, by
this rather determining test, a great man. He was large enough to be
lonely. He had more inside him than he could easily find satisfied
outside him. He meant more by what he said even than the other men who
said it. He was one of the rare men to whom the truisms are truths. This
union of different things in his thoughts was not sufficiently thought
out; but it was a union. It was not a compromise; it was a man. That is
what is meant by saying that it was also a great man. There was
something in him that the world had not taught him; even if it was too
vast and vague for him to teach it to the world. Things were part of
that thing that could not be parts of any other thing. That is why he
had no real intellectual friendships among the intellectuals of his day,
when all allowance is made for his real faults of vanity and violence
and readiness to quarrel. It is easy to argue about how he came to
quarrel with his best friends. It is more penetrating to ask how he
could ever come to agree with them. Even to the best of them his whole
outlook, which seemed to him so simple, would have been bewildering. How
was Orator Hunt to understand that the great empty churches with their
gaping mouths cried aloud that they also belonged to the future, because
they belonged to the past? How was the Right Honourable William Windham
to understand that riotous artisans in the Black Country were also
appealing to the past, as well as threatening the future? How was Mr.
Carlile the atheist bookseller to know that a ruined abbey and a raging
mob were one thing; and that thing liberty? How was Lord Brougham to
understand that a field of clover and a grotesque gridiron were one
thing; and that thing England?

That is the paradox of Cobbett; that in a sense he quarrelled with
everybody because he reconciled everything. From him, at least, so many
men were divided, because in him so many things were unified. He
appeared inconsistent enough in the thousand things that he reviled; but
he would have appeared far more inconsistent in the things that he
accepted. The breadth of his sympathy would have been stranger than all
his antipathies; and his peace was more provocative than war. Therefore
it is that our last impression of him is of a loneliness not wholly due
to his hatreds, but partly also to his loves. For the desires of his
intellect and imagination never met anything but thwarting and wounding
in this world; and though the ordinary part of him was often happy
enough, the superior part was never satisfied. He never came quite near
enough to a religion that might have satisfied him. But with
philosophies he would never have been satisfied, especially the mean and
meagre philosophies of his day. The cause he felt within him was too
mighty and multiform to have been fed with anything less than the Faith.
Therefore it was that when he lay dying in his farmhouse on the hills,
those he had loved best in his simple fashion were near to his heart;
but of all the millions of the outer world there was none near to his
mind, and all that he meant escaped and went its way, like a great wind
that roars over the rolling downs.

This book began with an indefensible piece of personal recollection, and
I fear it will have to end with another. Perhaps I might plead the
influence of the man I have been studying and trying to understand; who
has been called egotistical, though I should be content to call him
autobiographical. As Mr. Cole pointed out in his admirable biography,
Cobbett treated his ego as an emblematic figure of England, as Whitman
did his of America. My own memories can have no such symbolic excuse;
but I passed much of my childhood along that main thoroughfare where
Cobbett had his seed farm at Kensington; and one of the last things my
own fattier told me was a tale of a strange object hanging above the
road, before alterations and destructions removed it; one glimpse of a
symbolic shape more ugly and ungainly than a gallows in the sunlight:
the Gridiron.

All that he hated has triumphed on that spot. The ordinary shop that he
thought a nuisance has swelled into the big emporium he would have
thought a nightmare; the suburb has sunk deep into the new London; but
the road still runs westward down which he went riding so often, heading
for the open country, and leaving the Wen as far as possible behind. The
Wen has pursued him, shooting out further and further in telescopic
perspective, past Hammersmith and Chiswick and Richmond; and still I
seem to see the back of that vanishing rider ever ahead, and lessening
amid changing scenery; hills turning about him like a transformation
scene, away almost to the stormy wall of Wales. It was as if he were
riding further and further westward, following towards the sunset the
road of the fallen kings; where a low red light glows for ever upon
things forgotten and the last ruins of the Round Table. And yet I am not
sure of such a view of history; it seems to me that with us also things
change and even change places; and the war does not always go one way.
When I used to go out as a boy into the green twilight, having written
nonsense all night (fortunately unpublished), and drink coffee at a
stall in the street, brooding upon all these things, it seemed then as
if the tide were running high enough in the one direction; but I have
since had a notion that high tides can turn. The enormous buildings,
seen in outline like uncouth drawings, seem to stand up more insecurely
against an altered sky; with some change in it too subtle yet to be
called the twilight. I discovered, at least, that even in all that
labyrinth of the new London by night there is an unvisited hour of
almost utter stillness, before the creaking carts begin to come in from
the market-gardens, to remind us that there is still somewhere a
countryside. And in that stillness I have sometimes fancied I heard,
tiny and infinitely far away, something like a faint voice hallooing and
the sound of horse-hoofs that return.


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