Books of the Day
The Vision of Greatness
AN autobiography, provided the subject of it is an interesting man, has a charm which the external biography can seldom attain; just as it has a peculiar boring power if the subject is a bore. In his own account of his life the personality of the man is doubled. We have not merely his own view OE himself; we have his unconscious selection of the points or regions of his life that stand out in his memory. A proper biography of Herbert Fisher, when it comes to be written, will narrate in due proportion his varied distinctions and public services : as a historian, as Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield, as Member of Royal Commissions, as President of the Board of Education, as Cabinet Minister during the Great War, as Warden of New College as President of the British Academy and O.M. All Very 'suitable. That is the way in which .the biography of an eminent man ought to be written. But the man himself probably thought more of other things. In the peace of old age, .when we are no longer afraid of being a burning disgrace to all who loved us, nor yet uncertain whether we may not, with luck, surpass Napoleon, Einstein, or Shakespeare in their respective spheres; when, though the world is not at all bitter,. its atmosphere is rather used up, and its remarks very much what we have heard before, the mind likes to run back to the days when life was unexplored, and things splendid or terrible lay in wait for us round every corner. Fisher loved his home and his school: ." I enjoyed every moment of my time at Winchester; the work,- the games, the society of my fellows and of the masters, the com- pelling beauty of the old buildings," were all delightful. He likes to recall his kind fag-master, Edward Grey, who taught him how to fold trousers; his inspiring housemaster, Morshead; his school- fellows, Kenyon and Selby Bigge, and, above all, Lionel Johnson, whom "a certain aura surrounded, for he was reputed to be a Buddhist, to have read all the books in the library, and to drink eau -de Cologne for- his amusement."
"The Victorian- family," Professor A. C. Bradley once wrote, "is the greatest imaginative creation of Georgian literature," It will be quite a shock to some younger writers to learn from these memoirs what the Victorian family, at least in some cases, was really like. Odd as it seems, in those days we really liked our parents,, admired them, adopted their views, and defended them against the- world.- "My early impresiions, of my father are those of a beautiful being, very vivid and fond of the open air, a swift runner and a great promoter of races among children." .
"Later on- we learned that my father was terribly clever." . He had that." vision of greatness" which should be the prize of any good system of education: He -read the children poetry, "From my own experience I should doubt whether any part of education can be so valuable to a child as that he should hear soon and often the great Masterpieces of poetry from the lips of one who feels their beauty and can transmit it."
The account of his mother is too long to quote, but even more delightful. - She was a saint. " Enjoying great personal beauty, she never gave it ,a thought or was yisited, even by the faintest suspiciOn of Vanity. . The qualities- which must have impressed most people about my mother were an ardent rushing inexhaustible benevolence, and a swiftness in words and action which left every- one around_ her_ .breathless." This incorrigible Victorian even admired his brothers; two died on military service, one was Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, one a- brilliant student. oL.Clariit Church, and a _great _cricketer. Aft th.ese were distinguished in the outer world, but the two real "geniuses" of the family Were- the sister -who married F. W. Maitland, and the brOthei whom an injury to the Spine condemned to perpetual
imprisonment -in a sick _room. - •
One, is, not surprised after this to read: :" I have never un- learned or attempted to unlearn ..my boyish. admiration of Tennyson. I still think him the Most Musical. of Mir, poets, and the greatest master Of our poetic English language 'since:Shake- speare." Poets;' Fisher observes need their off times, when they descend froni Parnalsifs.: :When his father took some friends to see Wordsworth, for example, the old poet would talk of nothing but boots. (We may remember that when the young Shelley made a pilgrimage:to Southey in the LakeS,'SOuthey was absorbed in the delights of well-buttered muffins.) But with Tennyson, "these moments of relaxation were rarer than with most ; he sustained himself With effortless ease in the rarefied atmosphere of pOetry." Am I deepening arid 'exasperating the prejudices of my younger readers against the po6t? It may soften them to learn that "he' liked 'strong language and strong drink."
Fisher 'did not love Oxford quite as he loved Winchester. As a University it was not as hardworking and alive as -Paris. As it -happened; the 'ancient_ -studies 'which formed the hard core of Oxford training were suddenly vivified just after this time by the arriazing- discoveries—of—papyri and -archaeological- remains which "changed the whole landscape of ancient history." - Among the historians York Powell at least was alive. When Fisher consulted him about tinning from' Classics to.--niOderii history "the Yorker" advised :him to begin by reading the Chanson de Roland, Bracton's Notebook, and the Corpus Poeticum Boreale. Still, none of the teachers that he came Under were quite the equals of Taine and Retian. One saying of Itenan' to that fiery patriot Deroulede in the eighteen-nineties carries .a, tragic note at the present day : " jeune homme, llz France se meurt. Ne troubiez pas son aganie."
There is far more in this book than I have mentioned. I have treated it mainly, in the words of Mrs. Fisher in her graceful preface, as an effort "to seek comfort in the recapture of old memories," memories of a time which to us old men remains in retrospect homelike and serene, and infinitely lovable, though perhaps to "this unhappy but not inglorious generation," it may seem dull 'and irrelevant, and hard to understand: 'Fisher as a Liberal and a reformer was in advance of his time., some ways again he belonged to the polished .classiCism of, he' eighteenth century, but in the main he was a choice product of the nine- teenth century and of Winchester. He had the humanity, serenity, tolerance and sceptical common sense of iliai.great age; the " manners " of that great Schoolmanners of the -kind which truly " rnakyth man." • In the 'true Winchester style; he never ptished, never pulled strings' never ,asserted himself; yet he Was called to one high position after another, and was found more than equal to all of them. Among students his- teaching was doubly interesting because of his wide knowledge of' the world and his personal experience of high politics; among politicians he was distinguished by an, intellectual fastidiousness, and :a- readiness always to stand back and prefer a friend's interest to his own. That childhood's home: which he describes so lovingly was a -living influence with him for seventy years.
_ _ . _ - - - - -Guam MURRA Y.