Historical Lectures and Addresses/The Picturesque in History
It is an old controversy whether history is a branch of literature or a branch of science; but there is no reason why the controversy should ever be decided. A book is written; it must take its chance. It is cast upon the world to exercise such influence as it can, to teach or to attract, to mould thought or to create interest, to solve questions or to suggest them. There is always one consoling reflection for authors, which ought to save them from disappointment. The deeper the impression which a book produces, the smaller is the circle of its readers likely to be. The general public likes to take its journeys by easy stages, and will not be carried too far all at once. Only a select few will be ready to undertake a serious expedition; but they are the explorers, and through their efforts knowledge will ultimately grow. When pioneers have entered upon a new field, it takes some time before the communications are made which make travelling easy. Meanwhile, ideas and notions float disjointedly into the general stock of knowledge, and affect public opinion insensibly in various ways. Knowledge of the past is of value as it affords a background against which men view the present. It is of some value, as likely to affect men's judgment of what is going on around them, that they should feel that there has been a past at all. Every additional item of knowledge about the process by which human society has slowly reached its present form is of increasing value. From whatever source it comes to them, it is so much to the good. History is to be welcomed, whatever form it assumes.
There can be no doubt that in late years there has been a very decided increase of general interest in history amongst us. The nature of political questions, and the tendency of thought about social questions, have given a decided impulse in this direction. In small towns and villages, historical subjects are amongst the most popular for lectures; and historical allusions are acceptable to all audiences. It was not so fifteen years ago. At that time I remember an eminent statesman speaking to me sadly of his experience. He had been speaking to a vast audience in the open air, under the shadow of one of our oldest cathedrals. The crowd was so great that it had to be addressed from various platforms, of which he occupied one. He told me that he was led by his architectural surroundings to indulge in a peroration in which he exhorted his hearers to act worthily of their mighty past, and pointed to the splendid building as a perpetual memorial of the great deeds and noble aspirations of their forefathers. The allusion fell upon dull ears; no cheer was raised; the point was entirely missed. My friend then strolled to the next platform, where a longer-winded orator was indulging in a lengthier speech, He, too, selected the cathedral to give local colour to his peroration. He denounced the wrongs of the people, and shook his fist at the great church as the symbol of oppression, the home of purse-proud prelates who adorned themselves and their belongings at the expense of the poor. But in this case also no cheer followed; again a rhetorical sally which owed its point to any feeling for the past was unheeded. The working men cared neither for the good nor the evil of the past; their minds were set upon the present, and that was enough for them. I think this indifference would not be shown nowadays. One view or the other would raise a hearty cheer. There is nowadays a conception that things have grown, and that the way to mend them is to get them to gfrow in the right direction. This attitude of mind is the abiding contribution which a knowledge of history will make to social progress. Perhaps every branch of knowledge is more valuable for the temper which it creates, which can be shared by every one, than by its direct contributions, which can be judged by only a few. Again, I say, let us welcome the results of knowledge in any and every form.
It is not, however, my intention to-night to criticise the various ways in which history has been written. It is enough to say that it is not absolutely necessary to be dull in order to prove that you are wise, or to repress all human emotion in order to show that you are strictly impartial. On the other hand, the perpetual appeal to sentiment grows tedious, and the steadfast desire to construct a consistent character by disregarding uncomfortable facts, or explaining them away, does not carry conviction. It is even more impossible to write history with a purpose than it is to write fiction with a purpose. Fiction can at least select its own limitations, and professedly excludes all the events of the lives of its characters except those which suit its immediate purpose. We know that the state of the world's affairs could not be set to suit a particular past, and that men cannot be read into the expression of abstract principles. History is very impatient of direct morals. Its teaching is to be found in large tendencies, which, it may be, are very imperfectly traceable within particular limits. History cannot be made picturesque by the skill of the writer. It must be picturesque in itself if it is to be so at all. All that the writer can claim is the artistic insight which discerns the elements of a forcible composition in unexpected places, and reveals unknown beauties by compelling attention to what might otherwise be overlooked.
We may agree that history should be made as picturesque as possible; but picturesqueness cannot be applied in patches. Characters must be made life-like by remembering that after all they were human beings, neither wholly good nor wholly bad, but animated by motives analogous to those which animate ourselves and are common to man in all ages. An historian ought to live with his characters as much as possible, and form a conception of their temperament and appearance, so as to feel that he is dealing, not with dummies, but with real persons. This is not always the method pursued. I remember being told by a friend that he was in a great library, and saw a popular writer anxiously searching the catalogue, with a bundle of proofs under his arm. He proffered his assistance, as he was merely reading at large for a few days, and would be glad to have an object. "Oh," said the author with a sigh, "I want to know the colour of So-and-so's hair, and I don't know where to find out." My friend spent three days in discovering this fact, and observed, when the book appeared, that the information was used in a description of the hero at a great crisis of his fortunes: "He stood with his shock of red hair and flashing eyes," etc. Now in this case it is obvious that the judgment on which the book was written was formed first, and then picturesque details were sought to deck it out. I have sometimes meditated whether or no the judgment would have been the same if the writer had known at first that his hero had red hair. As we are affected in daily life by personal appearance as an index of character, so we might well be affected by some corresponding conception of temperament in great men of the past. Historical portraits are very valuable; the knowledge how a man's appearance impressed those who saw him is equally valuable. No outburst of description makes a man real. This is only possible by a sympathy between the writer and his character, which penetrates all that he says of him. A large, yet consistent, representation is the best form of picturesqueness in this important field. The danger of an excessive desire for picturesqueness is that it leads to a purely external view of the course of affairs. The writer passes hastily from one strongly marked personality to another, from one striking event to another, and neglects all that lies between them. Yet personalities are only really interesting as they exhibit tendencies which are widely spread; and it is the strengfth of these tendencies which finds expression in the dominating character. In fact, the character itself is of no value for the purposes of history, unless it be brought into relation with the general conditions of life and thought which produced it. This is the difference between history and fiction. For the purposes of fiction, you have to grant the possibility of the character which is analysed or displayed in action. For the purposes of history, you have to understand the correspondency of the character with the conditions and circumstances of national life. It requires a skilful delineation of those conditions to give a character historical reality. He cannot be detached from his background. His whole interest lies in the fact that he really existed, and he must above all things be made possible. The reader must not be left bewildered and amazed, asking himself what sort of men lived on the earth in those days, and what were the interests and pursuits of the ordinary man.
It is obvious, therefore, that all history cannot be made equally picturesque, and that it is useless to attempt to make it so by deliberate omissions of all that is not picturesque. We must take human affairs as they come. After all, men did not live in the past for our amusement, but for our instruction. There were probably as many dull people in the past as there are in the present, and we may console ourselves with that reflection. I can see no reason why any one should read history except because he wishes to learn how things really went on. I do not know that any method of writing can make them always exciting. I hear people sometimes complain, "The newspapers are very dull to-day". I find they mean that there is no record of a great accident, or a horrible murder, or a political catastrophe. I think, however, they would change their remark and become very serious if, let us suppose, the newspapers chronicled a great railway accident on every day in one week. They would crave for a period of uneventfulness, and think that it was more permanently satisfying. We need a stable basis to rest upon before we can find comfortable pleasure in contemplating instability. Picturesqueness must have an element of restfulness. It is not to be found in constant excitement, but in clear cut and attractive presentation of events.
The possibility of such presentation, strange to say, becomes greater as the events are more remote. This is due to two causes: first, that we have made up our minds more clearly about what is important in the past; secondly, because the amount of materials which are available is limited. There is an immense difference between writing history previous to the sixteenth century and writing history after that date, owing to the nature of the material. The change which separates modern from mediæval times was made by the conscious growth of nations, and the consequent complexity of international relations. The difficulty of dealing with modern history is the impossibility of isolating events and their results. This truth is expressed in the amazing development of diplomacy and in the vast multiplication of documents, which is to the historical craftsman the dividing line between two periods. The contemporary chronicler, who was previously the chief authority, sinks into the background. The historian has to wander patiently through endless byways, which apparently lead nowhere. It is comparatively easy to form a clear conception of a man's character when you have only the general outlines of his life and the record of his permanent achievements. It is much more difficult when you can follow his projects from day to day. The great mass of those projects came to nothing. Yet it is true, if we look to private life, that a man's character is more revealed by what he tries to do than by what he succeeds in doing. Indeed, it is not paradoxical to say that his abiding influence is expressed by his aspirations rather than by his achievements. His most fruitful heritage is, generally speaking, his temper, his attitude towards life, his method of facing its problems. The great question is, Did he heighten or did he lower the sense of duty of those amongst whom he lived and worked? The same mode of judgment seems to me to hold true in the large affairs in which history is concerned. Before we can judge a statesman rightly we must follow his aims and methods in detail. He could only command certain forces, the power of which was best known to himself. It is easy to prescribe an heroic policy at great crises, to lament apparent pusillanimity, and to arrange quietly in one's study, after a lapse of centuries, an ideal termination to political difficulties. But we are all of us conscious of the difference between what we would do and what we can do. Everybody who sits on a committee comes away feeling that he could have managed its business better by himself. But the use even of a committee is to show you what available resources a particular line of action can command; and you generally depart with a conviction that it is only the second-best policy which has any chance of immediate success. Statesmen in the past suffered under the same limitations. The possession of supreme power by rulers is only apparent. Somehow or other they had to discover what the nation was likely to do, and more than that they could not venture to undertake. Improvements in the mechanism of government are of use as they enable statesmen to gauge more accurately the forces on which they can rely. There is one lesson that comes from reading diplomatic records: it is that rulers were always trying to make the best of a bad business. Parliamentary obstruction is only a condensed form of what had always to be reckoned with. The outward expression of tendencies has changed, rather than the tendencies themselves.
It is very difficult to clothe with any appearance of interest abortive attempts which came to nothing, which were put forward in ambiguous language, and were often cloaks to some further purpose behind. Yet, as a matter of fact, these constituted the main activity of many statesmen, and, if we leave them untraced or unmentioned, we are missing the point of their laborious lives. There is no more widespread delusion than that a man in a great position gets his own way. He is envied by the ignorant and thoughtless for his supposed power, for his freedom from those petty inconveniences of which they themselves are keenly conscious. The opportunity to do what one wills—this is assumed to be the privilege of those who direct affairs. One of the great lessons of history is to show the bondage, as well as the responsibility, of power. The trials and disappointments of the great deserve recognition—not only their failures in great undertakings, the dramatic downfall of over-lofty schemes, but the small difficulties of their daily business, the imperious limitations by which they were constantly hampered. This has a meaning of direct importance to us all; but it is hard to make the troubles of daily life picturesque. The writer of fiction moves us by the stirring adventures of his hero and heroine in overcoming difficulties which stood in the way of their marriage. Then he leaves them to settle down to humdrum life as best they can. They are no longer interesting, but become as ignoble and commonplace as their parents were at the beginning of the book. The historian cannot treat his personages in the same way. He has to face the difficulty of extracting some interest from their average occupations. He is tempted to shirk it, and to hurry on to something in which he can find fuller scope for his power of description.
It is, therefore, this diplomatic record which goes far to injure the picturesqueness of history. It constantly reveals limitations which could not be overcome. It shows us the hero in his shirt-sleeves, labouring mostly in vain, and it enables us to see only too clearly his inevitable defects. But if we look a little longer we see that it enlarges his personality, and exhibits him as the representative of his nation. This really sets him on a higher level, and gives him a greater dignity. He is bearing the burden of his country, and is fettered by her deficiencies. There are many things which might be done if he had the means to do them. He can only reckon on so much, and must make it go as far as he can. His projects are tentative, and he is often obliged to withdraw from much for want of a little. He is not really his own master, but serves a public which imperfectly understands its own position and grudges everything it gives. Whatever else picturesqueness may attempt to do, it must not seek to abolish the pathos of humble industry.
I have been speaking generally about picturesque ways of writing history, in the ordinary acceptation of the term. Let me attempt to go a little farther, and try to discover in what the picturesqueness of history consists. It is obvious that, if it lies in a series of vivid pictures of events and striking presentations of character, the historian cannot rival the writer of fiction, and historical novels are the proper mode of expressing picturesque presentation. Some historians have felt the need of a more imaginative treatment than their subject properly allowed, and have supplemented their serious histories by historical novels. But the point which I wish to consider is the sense in which history can be made picturesque, and the reason why some periods of history are more capable of picturesque treatment than others.
Now the term picturesque itself suggests artistic handling; and it is obvious that in art as much depends on the selection of the subject as on the mode of treating it. An historian is bound by his subject, and cannot make it picturesque if it is not so in reality. The great periods of picturesqueness are those in which personality is most powerful. This constitutes to many minds the charm of the history of Italy, especially in the fifteenth century. There was then a copious supply of determined and adventurous characters, whose main object was to express themselves fully. Outward circumstances gave them a favourable opportunity. They rose by their own dexterity, and aimed at artistic completeness in all their achievements. They are attractive by their freedom from conventional restraints, by their unhesitating self-confidence, and by the magnificence of their aims. The same spirit which animated Italy passed on in a somewhat modified form to the rest of Europe in the sixteenth century, and became domesticated in France. From that time onward we may say that French history is the most picturesque.
Yet it is worth observing that a mere expression of character, unfettered by ordinary restraints, does not of itself satisfy our craving for picturesqueness. In fact, the most purely personal history is that of the later Roman Empire, of the Byzantine Empire, and of its successor, the Russian Empire. For striking scenes and dramatic events, these histories surpass any others. Caligula and Nero, Leo the Isaurian and Irene, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, outstrip in wilfulness and daring anything that Italy or France ever produced. Yet they seem to us remote and monstrous; they do not touch us with any sympathy; they belong to a range of ideas which is not our own; they represent characteristics of power with which we are not familiar. It is not enough that scenes should be striking or characters strongly marked. Scenes and characters alike must stand in some definite relation to ourselves and our actual surroundings. I doubt if our interest in Italian history would be so strong, were it not for the fact that its records still remain and have their message for us. Italian princes would be forgotten had they not been patrons of artists and architects, whose works speak to us by their beauty and their grandeur. We wish to know what was the view of life which gave these creations such dignity and grace, who were the men for whom such stately palaces were built, what was the conception of human character and its possibilities which prevailed in the community from which they sprung? The men themselves are only interesting because they were conspicuous and intelligible instances of tendencies which we wish to see expressed in action, that we may more clearly understand their meaning as expressed in the abstract forms of architecture and art. Our interest is not primarily in the men themselves or their doings, but in the significance of the ideas which lay behind them. The same thing is true of the picturesqueness of French history. We are attracted by the process which produced that mental alertness and precision which characterise the French mind, that power of organising life so as to get the most out of it, which is still the peculiar merit of the French people.
This leads me to another point. A bald record of events or a faint description of a character by a contemporary does not suffice for historical picturesqueness. Things may loom large, and we may see their importance, but we cannot hope to reproduce them by mere exercise of imagination. Picturesqueness must come from adequate materials, and every touch must be real. Imagination, after all, is only an arrangement of experience. You cannot really create; you are only borrowing and adjusting odds and ends according to some dominant conception. It is useless in history to read a man about whom little is known into the likeness of another about whom you may know much. It is useless to reproduce an obscure period in the terms of a period with which you are more familiar. Where we do not know we cannot safely invent. Now picturesqueness in history must depend on the material available for intimate knowledge. It is only at times when men were keenly interested in life and character that such records were produced. We cannot make the life of Byzantium live again, for the records are formal and official. Outside accounts of magnificence suggest little; we need the touch of intimacy to give life. In short, picturesqueness is only possible in dealing with periods when literature was vigorous and contemporary memoirs were plentiful.
I should not like to say whether the demand created the supply, or the supply created the demand. It is enough that men were interested in themselves and in one another, and have left us the result of their interest. That interest arose from a belief in the importance of what was happening, and a power of tracing it to individual action. Hence prominent individuals were closely scanned, their motives were analysed, and the influences which weighed with them were carefully observed. In some cases the men themselves were worthy of study: in other cases their importance was entirely due to their position. But, anyhow, they were representatives of their times, of the habits, manners and ideas which were current. The picture which we wish to have in our own minds is not merely that of the man, or of the events in which he took part, but of the life and the society which lay behind him.
The picturesqueness of history, therefore, is largely due to memoirs; and the countries and epochs which have produced them are especially picturesque. Now it is great crises, periods of disruption, great emergencies, which as a rule impress contemporaries and furnish matter for close observation. The production of a crisis is, of course, not the highest sign of human intelligence. In fact, a crisis is due to blundering and incapacity. But when a crisis occurs it is a revelation of character. This is obvious in the drama. It is impossible to represent an ordinary man engaged in his ordinary pursuits. To show what sort of man he is, it is necessary to place him in an extraordinary and unexpected position; then all his hidden strength or weakness comes to light. A man can only be defined by his limitations; and these are only obvious when he has to act on his own initiative, robbed of his ordinary props, and forced to draw upon his own intellectual and moral resources. Hence it comes that we feel the attraction of troublous times in history, and regard them as the most picturesque. The Great Rebellion and the French Revolution have furnished endless motives to dramatists, novelists and painters, because they suggest possibilities of striking contrasts, and afford available situations. The human interest is then most intense, and our sympathies are most easily awakened.
But though such times are the best for displaying individual character, it may be doubted if they are the best for displaying national life and national character. Indeed, they exaggerate differing tendencies which, in an ordinary way, work harmoniously together, and force them into violent opposition. It is true that the tendencies were there, that they rested upon certain ideas and made for certain ends. But, in the exigencies of a struggle, they assumed undue proportions and became one-sided through the apparent necessity of denying any right of existence to the ideas opposed to them. In short, national life depends on the blending of various elements, and the co-operation on a large scale of efforts which, regarded on a small scale, seem to be diametrically opposed. Periods of revolution destroy this process, and make the apparent opposition an absolute one for a time, so that the parallel between the individual and the nation fails in this point. A crisis in the life of the individual reveals his true character, because it compels him to gather together the various elements of which that character is composed and condense them into a decisive act. In the case of a nation the contrary occurs. The crisis dissolves the bonds which bind national character together, and sets some of its elements against others. All are equally necessary; they must ultimately be recombined and reabsorbed; they do not really exist in the form in which they show themselves under the exigencies of conflict. Revolutionary epochs may be the most interesting, but they are not the most instructive. They may show us forcible characters, but these characters are rarely attractive. They may emphasise national characteristics, but they do not show them in the form in which they really work. It is true that a decisive choice will be made of the elements which are to be dominant in the new combination. So far as those elements were unknown and unsuspected before, the interest lies in discovering their origin and the source whence they drew their power. The picturesqueness of revolutionary periods is really dramatic and psychological, not strictly historical.
We come back, therefore, to the position that history is picturesque at those epochs when national tendencies are expressed in individual characters, and when the consciousness of this fact creates a literary study of those characters which is given in considerable detail. It is worth while to go a step further, and consider what may be learned from this fact. Perhaps this may best be done by reference to the history of our own country, with which we are most familiar.
English history is not very picturesque. It has not produced a large number of striking situations or of strongly marked characters. It is by no means rich in memoirs, and the most striking times have not called forth the most vivid description of their incidents. There is no brilliant biography of Oliver Cromwell, for instance, by a contemporary. We have to piece together materials for the characters of Henry VIII., Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I. No one at the time attempted to grasp them. The dramatic moments of their careers were only dimly and imperfectly felt. Let me illustrate what I meant when I said that it was impossible for later writers to create deeper impressions than were present in the minds of contemporaries. Two situations occur to me as surpassing all others in English history in vividness and dramatic effect; they are the murder of St. Thomas of Canterbury and the death of Wolsey. This is entirely due to the fact that they profoundly moved men's minds at the time, and are recorded in language which is full of the emotion so engendered. Both were regarded as great and significant catastrophes, important in themselves and in their results. The death of Wolsey is a remarkable instance. In outward circumstance it is inferior to the execution of More or the burning of Cranmer. Yet it remains more picturesque. We feel that More and Cranmer fell in a way like soldiers on the field of battle. They shared the fortunes of their cause, and our interest lies in discovering the exact point on which they took their intellectual stand, and laid down their lives rather than take a step further. But Wolsey is a type of human fortunes, of the inherent limitations of man's endeavours, of the sudden reversal of high hopes, of the restless chafing of an imprisoned spirit, and its final despair. This position arises from the literary skill of his biographer, Cavendish, reflecting doubtless the permanent impression of his time, and expressing with deepening melancholy the profound pathos of the wreckage of a life. This intensity of feeling could not have gathered round an ordinary career, but was engendered by the profound conviction that, with the fall of Wolsey, England had entered upon a new course in its national life—a course the end and goal of which no man could foresee. Wolsey had striven to make England powerful in a changing world. He had created forces which he could not restrain within the limits that his prudence had prescribed. There was deeper emotion at the downfall of him who strove to keep the peace than over the sad fate of combatants on either side when once war had been proclaimed. It is only the pen of one who is conscious of living through such a crisis that can be instinct with real feeling and can convey that feeling to after-times.
It is curious to observe that these two instances of Thomas of Canterbury and Wolsey are both cases of men who pursued clear and decided objects, and whose characters consequently detached themselves from the general background of contemporary life. The objects which they pursued were not in either case popular, and they had to trust mainly to their own resoluteness and skill for ultimate success. Hence came the attraction of their characters for their biographers. They were men who could be studied and described in themselves, apart from the results of their actions. In fact, any estimate of, or sympathy with, their line of action was entirely secondary to the interest of the men themselves. In this sense they resemble the subjects of Italian or French history. They rose to power by their own capacity, and they used their position consciously for the furtherance of objects which they deliberately selected for themselves. It is this which gives a picturesque interest to characters in history. We are most easily attracted by a sense of completeness and self-determination. This, indeed, is the artistic quality in character, and alone admits of clear and forcible delineation. Opportunism, however successful, cannot well be depicted clearly; it must be considered by reference to a number of possibilities, and challenges our judgment at every step. A man who is doing his best under untold difficulties may be heroic, but he rarely enjoys any great moments which set forth his heroism in a striking way. Our judgment may, after a long survey, recognise his worth, but that does not make him picturesque. William the Silent can never fill a large canvas, great as was his contribution to the best interests of the world.
The picturesqueness, then, of the history of any nation, or period, depends upon the possibility of an individual detaching himself from ordinary life in such a way as to express in himself its unconscious tendencies. The possibility of such individual detachment depends on the ideas on which the ordinary life of the nation is founded. If these ideas are to be represented by a person, they must be comparatively simple. For this reason, great crises in a nation's history are the most picturesque, for they simplify national ideas by forcing one or two great principles into temporary supremacy over all else. Yet, even in great crises, England has not brought forth clearly representative characters. Oliver Cromwell, for instance, was the executor rather than the representative of the principles of the Great Rebellion. They were never definite enough to be summed up by any individual. However highly we may rate Cromwell's capacity, we cannot make him out as eminently picturesque, or place him by the side of Napoleon.
We may, I think, go a step further. The ideas on which national life are founded may be ultimately reduced to the national conception of liberty. Ultimately, each man values the society of which he forms part for the opportunities which it affords him of doing or being what he wishes to do or be.
Now there is a difference, which is not always recognised, in the meaning of liberty to different peoples. It would be a long matter to attempt to explain this difference in detail and account for it. But we may say generally that it depends on the way in which the rights of the individual are regarded in relation to the rights of the community. Let me apply this to the instances of picturesqueness which I have taken. In Italy, in the sixteenth century, the communities were so small, and their position was so precarious, that men longed for the growth of a national spirit, as the limits in which their actual life was lived were too narrow to express that life in its fulness. A nation could only be formed by the power and influence of a dominant and resolute personality. Hence, men were so interested in the development of such a personality, that they were ready to watch various experiments and to endure much tyranny in the hopes of final success. This created a curious accentuation of the value of individual character, and an absence of any sense of its limitations, which was undoubtedly fitted to produce picturesqueness, but had serious drawbacks in practice.
In the same way, the historical circumstances of the consolidation of the provinces of France under the Monarchy developed a high appreciation of individual character; and the keenly lexical intelligence of the French mind gave it a permanent place in literature.
England, on the other hand, became in early times an organised community, and there was no violent break in the pursuit of this organisation. I cannot now trace in detail the results of the different course of English and French history as reflected in the characters of the people. But this at least is obvious: the average Frenchman conceives of himself as having a right to gratify his individual desires, without thought of others, to a degree unknown to the average Englishman. French civilisation is concerned with the arrangement of the externals of life in the most comfortable way. English civilisation is concerned primarily with political institutions and with the organisation of the activities of life. The Frenchman conceives himself as an individual, the Englishman conceives himself as part of a community. The Frenchman, though wedded to his own country, and having no desire to leave it, still considers himself as a citizen of the world. The Englishman, though a rambler and an adventurer, ready to make his home anywhere, still considers himself an Englishman wherever he goes. France took for the motto of its aspirations "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity". I believe that if England had had occasion to formulate its aspirations in the same way, its motto would have run "Liberty, Justice, Duty".
Now, picturesqueness is obtained by isolating men from their surroundings, by getting clear-cut situations. To this a Frenchman lends himself; he is accustomed to think and act by and for himself. An Englishman objects to isolation; however much he may be alone, and however decidedly he may act, it is as a representative of England, with a mass of national tradition behind him, which he would not rid himself of if he could. He will take enormous responsibility upon himself, but while taking it he repudiates it. He minimises his own individual part in what he does, and is persistently apologetic.
I think I can illustrate my meaning from our literature. Shakespeare has shown with curious insight the difference between northern and southern peoples. Othello and Romeo, when touched with passion, are pure individuals, and act entirely with reference to their own feelings. The difficulties of Hamlet lay in the fact that he could not forget that he was heir to the throne of Denmark, and could not act in such a way that righteous vengeance should seem to be private ambition. He could not escape from his attachment to society, and therefore he will always fail to have the picturesqueness which belongs to individual detachment.
I have been speaking of picturesqueness in its ordinary sense. The upshot of my remarks is that, in proportion as history is picturesque in this sense, it is not really history. For, history is concerned with the life of the community, and picturesqueness with the character of individuals. But there is, I think, a larger and truer picturesqueness, which may be found, not in details, but in principles. The great object of history is to trace the continuity of national life, and to discover and estimate the ideas on which that life is founded. Individuals are only valuable as they express those ideas and embody that life. Such expressions are often to be found in lowly places, and are manifested in inconspicuous lives. It is the true function of history to discover and exhibit them wherever they may be. In our own history, at all events, I am convinced that we need a heightened sense of the causes which produced those qualities which have created the British Empire. The most picturesque hero is the English people itself, growing through manifold training into the full manhood which it still enjoys. What made it? What principles does it embody? How may these principles be enlarged in view of its great and growing responsibilities? These are questions which have an undying interest, and men's minds are being more and more turned towards them. For us, at all events, the highest imaginative charm gathers, not round individuals, but round the growth of our conceptions of public duty. To trace the growth of that body of ideas which make up England's contribution to the world's progress, to estimate their defects, and to consider how they may be increased by broader sympathies and greater teachableness—this is a task which requires the qualities at once of a scientific explorer and of a consummate artist.