Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet: Ch. 37

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Chapter XXXVII: The True Demagogue

I used to try to arrange my thoughts, but could not; the past seemed swept away and buried, like the wreck of some drowned land after a flood. Ploughed by affliction to the core, my heart lay fallow for every seed that fell. Eleanor understood me, and gently and gradually, beneath her skilful hand, the chaos began again to bloom with verdure. She and Crossthwaite used to sit and read to me—from the Bible, from poets, from every book which could suggest soothing, graceful, or hopeful fancies. Now out of the stillness of the darkened chamber, one or two priceless sentences of à Kempis, or a spirit-stirring Hebrew psalm, would fall upon my ear: and then there was silence again; and I was left to brood over the words in vacancy, till they became a fibre of my own soul's core. Again and again the stories of Lazarus and the Magdalene alternated with Milton's Penseroso, or with Wordsworth's tenderest and most solemn strains. Exquisite prints from the history of our Lord's life and death were hung one by one, each for a few days, opposite my bed, where they might catch my eye the moment that I woke, the moment before I fell asleep. I heard one day the good dean remonstrating with her on the "sentimentalism" of her mode of treatment.

"Poor drowned butterfly!" she answered, smiling, "he must be fed with honey-dew. Have I not surely had practice enough already?"

"Yes, angel that you are!" answered the old man. "You have indeed had practice enough!" And lifting her hand reverentially to his lips, he turned and left the room.

She sat down by me as I lay, and began to read from Tennyson's Lotus-Eaters. But it was not reading—it was rather a soft dreamy chant, which rose and fell like the waves of sound on an Æolian harp.

 "There is sweet music here that softer falls
  Than petals from blown roses on the grass,
  Or night dews on still waters between wails
  Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;
  Music that gentler on the spirit lies
  Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes;
  Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies.
  Here are cool mosses deep,
  And through the moss the ivies creep,
  And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
  And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep.

 "Why are we weigh'd upon with heaviness,
  And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
  While all things else have rest from weariness?
  All things have rest: why should we toil alone?
  We only toil, who are the first of things,
  And make perpetual moan,
  Still from one sorrow to another thrown:
  Nor ever fold our wings.
  And cease from wanderings;
  Nor steep our brows in slumber's holy balm,
  Nor hearken what the inner spirit sings,
  'There is no joy but calm!'
  Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?"

She paused—

  My soul was an enchanted boat
  Which, like a sleeping swan, did float
  Upon the silver waves of her sweet singing.

Half-unconscious, I looked up. Before me hung a copy of Raffaelle's cartoon of the Miraculous Draught of Fishes. As my eye wandered over it, it seemed to blend into harmony with the feelings which the poem had stirred. I seemed to float upon the glassy lake. I watched the vista of the waters and mountains, receding into the dreamy infinite of the still summer sky. Softly from distant shores came the hum of eager multitudes; towers and palaces slept quietly beneath the eastern sun. In front, fantastic fishes, and the birds of the mountain and the lake, confessed His power, who sat there in His calm godlike beauty, His eye ranging over all that still infinity of His own works, over all that wondrous line of figures, which seemed to express every gradation of spiritual consciousness, from the dark self-condemned dislike of Judas's averted and wily face, through mere animal greediness to the first dawnings of surprise, and on to the manly awe and gratitude of Andrew's majestic figure, and the self-abhorrent humility of Peter, as he shrank down into the bottom of the skiff, and with convulsive palms and bursting brow seemed to press out from his inmost heart the words, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!" Truly, pictures are the books of the unlearned, and of the mis-learned too. Glorious Raffaelle! Shakspeare of the South! Mighty preacher, to whose blessed intuition it was given to know all human hearts, to embody in form and colour all spiritual truths, common alike to Protestant and Papist, to workman and to sage—oh that I may meet thee before the throne of God, if it be but to thank thee for that one picture, in which thou didst reveal to me, in a single glance, every step of my own spiritual history!