IN the year of grace 1890, and in the
autumn of that year, I was a freshman at
Oxford. I remember how my tutor asked
me what lectures I wished to attend, and
how he laughed when I said that I wished
to attend the lectures of Mr. Walter Pater.
Also I remember how, one morning soon
after, I went into Rymans to order some
foolish engraving for my room, and there
saw, peering into a portfolio, a small, thick, rock-faced man, whose top-
hat and gloves of bright dog-skin struck one of the many discords in
that little city of learning or laughter. The serried bristles of his
moustachio made for him a false-military air. Was ever such cunning
as twinkled in his narrow eyes? I think I nearly went down when
they told me that this was Pater.
Not that even in those more decadent days of my childhood
I admire the man as a stylist. Even then I was angry that he should
treat English as a dead language, bored by that sedulous ritual where-
with he laid out every sentence as in a shroud—hanging, like a widower,
long over its marmoreal beauty or ever he could lay it at length
in his book, its sepulchre. From that laden air, the so cadaverous
murmur of that sanctuary, I would hook it at the beck of any jade.
The writing of Pater had never, indeed, appealed to me,άλλ αίεί, having
regard to the couth solemnity of his mind, to his philosophy, his rare
erudition,τινα φϖτα μέуαν χαί χαλόν έδέγμην. And I suppose it was
when at length I saw him that I first knew him to be fallible.
At school I had read Marius the
Epicurean in bed and with a dark
lantern. Indeed, I regarded it mainly as a tale of adventure, quite as
fascinating as Midshipman Easy, and far less hard to understand,
because there were no nautical terms in it. Marryat, moreover, never
made me wish to run away to sea, whilst certainly Pater did make me
wish for more ‘colour’ in the curriculum, for a renascence of the Farrar
period, when there was always ‘a sullen spirit of revolt against the
authorities’; when lockers were always being broken into and marks
falsified and small boys prevented from saying their prayers, insomuch
that they vowed they would no longer buy brandy for their seniors.
In some schools, I am told, the pretty old custom of roasting a fourth-
form boy, whole, upon Founders Day still survives. But in my school
there was less sentiment. I ended by acquiescing in the slow revolu-
tion of its wheel of work and play. I felt that at Oxford, when I
should be of age to matriculate, a ‘variegated dramatic life’ was wait-
ing for me. I was not a little too sanguine, alas!
How sad was my coming to the university! Where were
sweet conditions I had pictured in my boyhood? Those antique
contrasts? Did I ride, one sunset, through fens on a palfrey, watching
the gold reflections on Magdalen Tower? Did I ride over Magdalen
Bridge and hear the consonance of evening-bells and cries from the
river below? Did I rein in to wonder at the raised gates of Queens,
the twisted pillars of St. Marys, the little shops, lighted with tapers ?
Did bull-pups snarl at me, or dons, with bent backs, acknow-
ledge my salute? Any one who knows the place as it is, must see
that such questions are purely rhetorical. To him I need not explain
the disappointment that beset me when, after being whirled in a cab
from the station to a big hotel, I wandered out into the streets. On
aurait dit a bit of Manchester through which Apollo had once passed;
for here, among the hideous trams and the brand-new bricks here,
glared at by the electric-lights that hung from poles, screamed at by
boys with the Echo and the Star—here, in a riot of vulgarity, were
remnants of beauty, as I discerned. There were only remnants.
Soon also I found that the life of the place, like the place,
its charm and its tradition. Gone were the contrasts that made it
wonderful. That feud between undergraduates and dons—latent, in
the old days, only at times when it behoved the two academic grades
to unite against the townspeople—was one of the absurdities of the
past. The townspeople now looked just like undergraduates, and the
dons just like townspeople. So splendid was the train-service between
Oxford and London that, with hundreds of passengers daily, the one
had become little better than a suburb of the other. What more could
extensionists demand? As for me, I was disheartened. Bitter were
the comparisons I drew between my coming to Oxford and the coming
of Marius to Rome. Could it be that there was at length no beautiful
environment wherein a man might sound the harmonies of his soul?
Had civilisation made beauty, besides adventure, so rare? I wondered
what counsel Pater, insistent always upon contact with comely things,
would offer to one who could nowhere find them. I had been wonder-
ing that very day when I went into Rymans and saw him there.
When the tumult of my disillusioning was past, my mind
clearer. I discerned that the scope of my quest for emotion must
be narrowed. That abandonment of one’s self to life, that merging
of one’s soul in bright waters, so often suggested in Paters writing,
were a counsel impossible for to-day. The quest of emotions must be
no less keen, certainly, but the manner of it must be changed forthwith.
To unswitch myself from my surroundings, to guard my soul from
contact with the unlovely things that compassed it about, therein lay
my hope. I must approach the Benign Mother with great caution.
And so, while most of the freshmen were doing her honour with
wine and song and wreaths of smoke, I stood aside, pondered. In
such seclusion I passed my first term—ah, how often did I wonder
whether I was not wasting my days, and, wondering, abandon my
meditations upon the right ordering of the future! Thanks be
to Athene, who threw her shadow over me in those moments of weak
At the end of term, I came to London. Around me seethed
eddies, torrents, violent cross-currents of human activity. What uproar!
Certainly I could have no part in modern life—yet, yet for a time it was
fascinating to watch the lives of its children. To watch the portentous
life of the Prince of Wales fascinated me above all; indeed, it still
fascinates me. What ‘experience’ has been withheld from His Royal
Highness? He has hunted elephants through the jungles of India, boar
through the forests of Austria, pigs over the plains of Massachusetts.
He has marched the Grenadiers to chapel through the white streets of
Windsor. He has ridden through Moscow, in strange apparel, to kiss
the catafalque of more than one Tzar. From the Castle of Abergeldie
he has led his Princess into the frosty night, Highlanders lighting with
torches the path to the deer-larder, where lay the wild things that had
fallen to him on the crags. For him the Rajahs of India have spoiled
their temples, and Blondin has crossed Niagara on the tight-rope, and
the Giant Guard done drill beneath the chandeliers of the Neue Schloss.
He has danced in every palace of every capital, played in every club.
How often has he watched, at Newmarket, the scud-a-run of quivering
homuncules over the vert on horses, or, from some night-boat, the
burning of great wharves by the side of the Thames; raced through the
blue Solent; threaded les coulisses! Is he fond of scandal? Lawyers are
proud to whisper secrets in his ear. Gallant? The ladies are at his
feet. Ennuyé? All the wits, from Bernal Osborne to Arthur Roberts,
have jested for him. He has been ‘present always at the focus where
the greatest number of forces unite in their purest energy,’ for it is his
presence that makes those forces unite.
‘Ennuyé?’ I asked. Indeed he never
is. How could he be when
Pleasure hangs constantly upon his arm? It is those others, overtaking
her only after arduous chase, breathless and footsore, who quickly sicken
of her company, and fall fainting at her feet. And for me, shod neither
with rank nor riches, what folly to join the chase! I began to see how
small a thing it were to sacrifice those external‘experiences,’ so dear to
the heart of Pater, by a rigid, complex civilisation made so hard to
gain. They gave nothing but lassitude to those who had gained them
through suffering. Even to the kings and princes, who so easily gained
them, what did they yield besides themselves? I do not suppose that, if
we were invited to give authenticated instances of intelligence on the
part of our royal pets, we could fill half a column of the Spectator. In
fact, their lives are so full they have no time for thought, the highest
energy of man. Now, it was to thought that my life should be
dedicated. Action, apart from its absorption of time, would war other-
wise against the pleasures of intellect, which, for me, meant mainly the
pleasures of imagination. It is only (this is a platitude) the things one
has not done, the faces or places one has not seen, or seen but darkly,
that have charm. It is only mystery—such mystery as besets the eyes
of children—that makes things superb. I thought of the voluptuaries I
had known—they seemed so sad, so ascetic almost, like poor pilgrims,
raising their eyes never or ever gazing at the moon of tarnished
endeavour. I thought of the round, insouciant faces of the monks at
whose monastery I once broke bread, and how their eyes sparkled when
they asked me of the France that lay around their walls. I thought,
pardie, of the lurid verses written by young men who, in real life,
know no haunt more lurid than a literary public-house. It was,
for me, merely a problem how I could best avoid ‘sensations,’ ‘pulsa-
tions,’ and ‘exquisite moments’ that were not purely intellectual.
I was not going to attempt to run both kinds together, as Pater
seemed to fancy a man might. I would make myself master of
some small area of physical life, a life of quiet, monotonous simplicity,
exempt from all outer disturbance. I would shield my body from the
world that my mind might range over it, not hurt nor fettered. As yet,
however, I was in my first year at Oxford. There were many reasons
that I should stay there and take my degree, reasons that I did not
combat. Indeed, I was content to wait for my life.
And now that I have made my adieux to the Benign Mother,
need wait no longer. I have been casting my eye over the suburbs of
London. I have taken a most pleasant little villa in ———ham, and here
I shall make my home. Here there is no traffic, no harvest. Those of
the inhabitants who do anything go away each morning and do it
elsewhere. Here no vital forces unite. Nothing happens here. The
days and the months will pass by me, bringing their sure recurrence
of quiet events. In the spring-time I shall look out from my
window and see the laburnum flowering in the little front garden.
In summer cool syrups will come for me from the grocers shop.
Autumn will make the boughs of my mountain-ash scarlet, and, later,
the asbestos in my grate will put forth its blossoms of flame. The
infrequent cart of Buzzard or Mudie will pass my window at all seasons.
Nor will this be all. I shall have friends. Next door, there is a retired
military man who has offered, in a most neighbourly way, to lend me
his copy of the Times. On the other side of my house lives a charming
family, who perhaps will call on me, now and again. I have seen them
sally forth, at sundown, to catch the theatre-train; among them walked
a young lady, the charm of whose figure was ill concealed by the neat
waterproof that overspread her evening dress. Some day it may be . . .
but I anticipate. These things will be but the cosy accompaniment of
my days. For I shall contemplate the world.
I shall look forth from my window, the laburnum and the
ash becoming mere silhouettes in the foreground of my vision. I shall
look forth and, in my remoteness, appreciate the distant pageant of the
world. Humanity will range itself in the columns of my morning
paper. No pulse of life will escape me. The strife of politics, the
intriguing of courts, the wreck of great vessels, wars, dramas, earthquakes,
national griefs or joys; the strange sequels to divorces, even, and the
very mysterious suicides of land-agents at Ipswich,—in all such pheno-
mena I shall steep my exhaurient mind. Delicias quoque bibliothecae
experiar. Tragedy, comedy, chivalry, philosophy will be mine. I
shall listen to their music perpetually and their colours will dance
before my eyes. I shall soar from terraces of stone upon dragons with
shining wings and make war upon Olympus; from the peaks of hills
I shall swoop into recondite valleys and drive the pigmies to their
caverns; wander through infinite parks wherein the deer rest or wander
at will; whisper with prophets under the elms, or bind children with
daisy-chains, or, with a lady, thread my way through the acacias. I shall
swim down rivers into the sea and outstrip all ships. Unhindered I
shall penetrate all sanctuaries and snatch the secrets of every dim
Yes! among books that charm, and give wings to the mind, will
days be spent. I shall be ever absorbing the things great men have
written; with such experience I will charge mind to the full. Nor will
I try to give anything in return. Once, in the delusion that Art, loving
the recluse, would make his life happy, I wrote a little for a yellow
quarterly—and had that succès de fiasco which is always given to a young
writer of talent. But the stress of creation soon overwhelmed me.
Only Art with a capital H gives any consolations to her henchmen.
And I, who crave no knighthood, shall write no more. I shall write no
more. Already I feel myself to be a trifle outmoded. I belong to the
Beardsley period. Younger men, with months of activity before them,
with fresher schemes and notions, with newer enthusiasm, have pressed
forward since then. Cedo junioribus. Indeed, I stand aside with no
regret. For to be outmoded is to be a classic, if one has written well. I
have acceded to the hierarchy of good scribes and rather like my niche.
Beerbohm, Max. “Be it Cosiness.” The Pageant, 1896, pp. 230-235. Pageant Digital Edition, edited by Frederick King and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2019-2021. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2021. https://1890s.ca/pag1-beerbohm-cosiness/