A Voice in the Wilderness

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A Voice in the Wilderness  (1912) 
by Algernon Blackwood

The new book, A Tramp’s Sketches (Macmillan), by Stephen Graham, which has just been issued, is significant, to my mind at least, because it is a sign of that spirit which today is more and more making itself felt⁠—in protest against the universal octopus of a squalid commercialism. It is a sincere plea for spiritual beauty in modern life, the cry of an honest man who has gone into the wilderness to find more space, who seeks, however, not to wreck, but to recreate. One may quarrel with the form and detail of his plea, but that it is wholesome, big and needed, no one can deny. The writer’s passionate worship of Beauty, his love of simplicity, his charity, his courage, all these make a strong appeal. He has in him poetry and vision; he strikes fearlessly; he is an honest rebel in vehement revolt; but a sane one. His deep conviction is felt in every description, in every adventure, in every comment and suggestion, and his message is one the world may well listen to as at least a little bit of stimulating leaven against the sordid commercialism that oppresses life everywhere today. Lord Dunsany, oddly enough, makes a somewhat similar plea in the English Review for October. The note sounds, indeed, from many quarters. It is in the air⁠—a warning and a prophecy. Ostensibly these “sketches” describe the writer’s pilgrimage with Russian peasants to Jerusalem; but actually they are the notes of a spiritual pilgrim going towards the New Jerusalem. For he is no common “tramp”; there is genius in tramping as there is in painting pictures or in playing tennis. These are the notes of spiritual aspirations interpreting the incidents of the enormous journey that he made on foot, and to “review” the incidents merely would be to miss the real meaning of the book and thus give a false impression of its writer’s purpose. Details of the journey are to be published later, and will form a continuation of the work begun in his Undiscovered Russia⁠—the full story of the places visited along the Black Sea shores, of the life of the pilgrims on the way to the Shrine of the Holy Sepulchre and at the Shrine itself. The interesting, and I would say the important, things in this book are the inner experiences of the tramp who is in rebellion, for to be a tramp, in the writer’s meaning, is to be one who has escaped⁠—from the conventional moulds of life. “He is the walking hermit, the world-forsaker, but he is above all things a rebel and a prophet, and he stands in very distinct relation to the life of his time.⁠ ⁠… One reads every day such phrases as ‘our commercial, national and imperial welfare’⁠—commercial first, national second, imperial third, and spiritual nowhere.” Here is the keynote of this vital but modest little book. And a hint of the earnestness of purpose which lies behind it may be gathered from the fact that the author did not merely join the pilgrims on the way, or meet them at the Shrine, but first went into Northern Russia and lived for months among them; lived as a muojik, let their thoughts and feelings soak into him until he understood them by inner sympathy⁠—and then, as one of themselves, made the great pilgrimage of many thousand versts on foot to the Holy City.

“It is not so much a book about Russia as about the tramp⁠ ⁠… the wanderer and seeker⁠ ⁠… who has gone out into the wilderness.⁠ ⁠… It is with life itself that this volume is concerned,” and his observations upon life may be listened to for what wisdom is in them, because he is in such tremendous earnest, because he loves Beauty for its own sake and because he is constructive as well as critical. “Never in any preceding generation has the young man standing on the threshold of life felt more unsettled.⁠ ⁠… Never has he cast his eyes about more desperately for a way of redemption or a spiritual leader. For him, as for all of us, the one requirement is to find out what is the first thing to do⁠…the essential thing, after which all other things naturally take their places.” Thus he writes after summing up the results of his many experiences and adventures. And he answers his own question thus: “It is not to wreck thc great machine”⁠—of modern commercialism⁠—“it is not even, as I think, to build a new machine⁠ ⁠… The one way and the first way is to use and subordinate the present machine, to limit it to its true domain, and let it be our true and vital servant”⁠—a plea, in other words, for proportion, for higher ideals, less fever for gold, less ugly, hurried rush in the worship of that Moloch, Progress, a little more room for Beauty and inner spiritual endeavour; briefly, for simpler living. More space!

“But how?” By the combined effort of the flower of the race, those who at present are rebels, even tramps, but who, in view of their larger vision, might be spiritual leaders; and by ignoring “the smaller, meaner sort of man” which “the tremendous commercial machine is grinding out at a marvellous acceleration, the average man, ‘the damned, compact, liberal majority,’ to use the words of Ibsen.⁠ ⁠… For all the rest of ordinary humanity is waiting to live its life in relation to these (greater ones). By finding the few who can live the life of communion, the few who can show forth the true significance of the race. By saving our most precious thoughts and ideals, and adding them to the similar thoughts and ideals of others, by putting the instruments of education in their proper places, by separating and saving in the world of literature and art the expressions of Beauty which are valuable to the coming race, as distinguished from those that are merely sold for a price. By the making solitary, which is making sacred.”

And by way of allegory, typical of all, the writer suggests the “enfranchisement” of “famous and wonderful pictures now foiling and dwarfing one another in our vulgar galleries. Each great picture should be given a room to itself, like the Sistine Madonna, not only a room but a temple like that of the Iverskaya at Moscow, not only a temple, but a fair populous province. The great pictures should be objects of pilgrimages, and their temples places of prayer,” for great pictures, he urges, are very like great souls, and what is true for pictures is true for men. By these temples⁠—of course, not temples made by hands⁠—“we shall protect ourselves from the encroaching commercial machine, its dwarfing ethics, mean postulates, and accurst conventions, and we shall rear within the walls all the beautiful that the outside world says does not exist. We shall find a whole new world of those who despise the honours and prizes of the commercial machine⁠ ⁠… but it will not cause those of that world to falter if the great multitude of their fellow-men scoff at them or think that they miss life.⁠ ⁠… Our work, then, is to separate off and consecrate the beautiful, to bring the beautiful together and organise it, not renouncing the machine, but only taking from it the service necessary for our physical needs, in no case being ruled or guided by it or its exigencies. When we have accomplished that, a miracle is promised⁠… The new heart means the salvation of all.⁠ ⁠… We are many: I speak for thousands who are voiceless. But we are feeble, for we know not one another: We shall know.”

To give broken quotations thus from the notebook of an idealist, I feel, is to risk injustice to their author, but I have taken the risk in order to show the deeper meaning which breathes everywhere through the pages of what is three-quarters a book of travel, and an uncommonly interesting one at that. Indeed, so deftly and unobtrusively is the idealism interwoven with the exciting adventures that the reader whom it bores may pass it by without detriment to his enjoyment of the narrative. He may even, if he will, skip the “Question of the Sceptic,” “The Unconquerable Hope,” “The Message from the Hermit” and, if he is recklessly unwise, “The Wanderer’s Story” too, though this latter is a subtle and penetrating allegory it is good to read; but he must in no case skip the fascinating descriptions of months of sleeping under the stars, in caves, on the seashore and among haunted Caucasian forests, nor omit the stories of "Hospitality," “The Rich Man and the Poor Man,” “A Lodging for the Night” and “How the Old Pilgrim Reached Bethlehem.” How the author-tramp lived on wild fruits and berries, made common meals and bed with most uncommon folk, defended himself from the ferocious Caucasian dogs and travelled with five hundred and sixty pilgrims in the hulk of a coasting vessel down the Black Sea shores⁠—all this makes capital and diverting reading, And of particular interest is the account of his stay in the great Monastery of New Athos, and, of course, the final arrival of all the weary pilgrims at Jerusalem itself. The beauty and pathos of the scenes in the Holy City are movingly told⁠—the baptism in the Jordan, all the pilgrims wearing their “death shroud,” the prostrations at Golgotha, and their ways and means of living in the Russian Settlement. One looks forward with keen interest to the more detailed volume that is to follow.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1951, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 71 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.