Edward Carpenter - Democratic Author and Poet
by Henry S. Salt
Mr. Edward Carpenter, the veteran Socialist, died at Guildford yesterday, in his 85th year.
Edward Carpenter, “democratic author and poet” (to use his own description of himself), was born at Brighton in 1844, of a family which for several generations has been connected with the Navy. His grandfather was an admiral, his father a retired naval officer, a friend of Henry Fawcett and Frederick Robertson.
The salient figure in his boyhood was his suffering, silent and almost unconscious, in conventional surroundings with which he was by temperament out of harmony, though as yet he made no sign of revolt. His chief refuse was in the solitude of the Downs, described by him in a charming passage of his autobiography, “My Days and Dreams.” That his true bent, as a born leveller, was still unrealized, when the time came to leave school at Brighton, is shown by his piquant choice of Trinity Hall as his college at Cambridge, on the ground that it was “gentlemanly.”
At the University he read mathematics, was classed as tenth Wrangler in 1868, and being nominated for a clerical Fellowship—one vacated by Leslie Stephen—took Orders in the following year, and a little later became curate to F. D. Maurice at St. Edward’s. Thus far, in spite of an inner perplexity, his career had on the surface been smooth and respectable enough; but the process of awakening and self-determination had long been going on, and was now quickened perhaps by his friendship with Fawcett, Charles Dilke, W. K. Clifford, and other “intellectuals,” most of all by a reading and intense study of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” which seemed to open the gateway of a larger and fuller life. At Cambridge, as at Brighton, he felt himself, but now more consciously, to be at variance with the spirit of the place. It flashed on him that he “must somehow go and live with the mass of the people and the manual workers.” The change, so long in maturing, came with sufficient suddenness at last. He abandoned his Fellowship and Orders, and accepted an appointment under the University Extension Lecturing Scheme to give a course of addresses on astronomy in certain Yorkshire towns.
But this was only a step to a larger emancipation. He became acquainted through the lectures with members of the working-class, and several close friendships resulted which encouraged him to take up a new life—a simple open-air life in a country home, with real manual labour in place of the University man’s “exercise.” In 1883 he established himself in a cottage in Millthorpe, a Derbyshire hamlet a few miles south of Sheffield, where he toiled in his fields, and grew the fruit and vegetables which he himself sold in the Sheffield market, often taxing to the uttermost his somewhat slight physical strength. “A consuming passion,” he wrote later, “drove me on, a desire to know, to do something real—an evil conscience, perhaps, of the past unreality of my existence.” A working-class family lived with him; but there is no truth in the legend that his small farm was the scene of a communal enterprise, though not a few of his visitors were willing enough to regard it in that light.
Meantime his pen had not been idle. He had published, while still at Cambridge, his “Narcissus,” a volume of poems in the ordinary academic style; and now in “Towards Democracy” he sent forth a very strange and remarkable work, Whitmanese in form, but in conception quite original, which, though it received at the time but little serious notice, produced a powerful effect on a number of congenial minds; there was a personal note in it, the cry of a highly strung spirit seeking escape from its fetters, which in many cases went straight to the heart. That the book survived to do this was mainly due, so its author once told the present writer, to its timely recognition by Dr. Havelock Ellis, who picked up a copy on a bookstall when its fate was in the balance. How far he had travelled since he resigned his Orders was shown, with unintended humour, by his being catalogued for some years at the British Museum as two separate Edward Carpenters, the first described as “Fellow of Trinity Hall,” the second as “Social Reformer.”
It was, however, a message not of social reform only but of something deeper and more intimate that Carpenter strove to deliver. His “Civilization, its Cause and Cure,” published a few years later, may be regarded as the prose counterpart of “Towards Democracy,” and as humorously indicating in its title the sum of his exoteric teaching; but together with the plea for a more simple, human, and brotherly mode of living—a return to nature, but on a higher plane than that of Rousseau’s noble savage—he united a strain of oriental self-introspection and illumination, which was afterwards more fully expressed in four notable chapters of his “From Adam’s Peak to Elephanta” entitled “A Visit to a Gnani.” He has been called the Whitman and the Thoreau of the English democratic movement, but he was more than that; he was himself an adept in the serene “wisdom” of the East, and dreamed of a reconciliation of the intellectual faculty with the intuitive, of the restless energies of the western world with the oriental self-knowledge and repose.
Of Carpenter’s other books, and they are numerous, it need here be only said that they extended and applied in various directions this central idea. The essays most likely to arouse controversy (and they are certainly open to criticism) are those on sex questions; for his mind, like Shelley’s, was of that guileless and primitive character which shrinks from no discussion; but even here he was well served, as he himself used smilingly to admit, by his aptitude for propounding dangerous themes with a suavity that had a reassuring effect. His reputation as a writer was gained very slowly, and less through the ordinary literary channels than by the gradual growth among his readers of a feeling of kinship and affection. His personality was of the kind known as magnetic; and this quality seemed to be inherent also in his “Towards Democracy,” which brought him communications, and in many cases pilgrims and disciples, from many parts of the world. He was essentially the comrade, the counseller, and the friend. “For this most of all we thank you,” so concluded the address presented to him on his seventieth birthday, “the spirit of comradeship which has endeared your name to all who know you, and to many who to yourself are unknown.”
So the years passed, at first largely in manual occupations; then rather in literary work, in converse with the guests and strangers who sought his advice, in lecturing tours, and in periodical visits to friends. Of outward events, with the exception of two journeys to America, to meet Whitman, and of his later Indian experiences, there was little to record; but his life in Millthorpe, with his friend George Merrill, was never lacking in activity, and in old age he could look forward with tranquil interest to what he called “the great adventure of death.” For over 30 years his name, little known to the general public, has been held in high regard by Socialists and advanced thinkers of other schools as that of a prophet and a sage; and this impression was heightened by his personal appearance—kindly, but somewhat grave and self-contained, with eyes remarkably luminous and penetrating. On his 80th birthday he received an album containing the signatures of the members of the then Labour Government, headed by that of the Prime Minister, whom he had known since Mr. MacDonald was 17 or 18 years of age.
With certain attributes of seership Carpenter had also some of its defects; the idealistic faculty was stronger in him than the rational, and he was apt to overlook or underestimate the obstacles that lay in the path of his theories. He was hardly in the strict sense a thinker; and his speculations, even when valuable in themselves, are not always strengthened by the reasons advanced for them in his books. Whether, apart from his inspiring personality, his writings will live as literature may be questioned; but there can be no doubt that his influence was great and far-reaching, and that his nature was singularly elevated, lovable, and sincere.
The funeral will be at Guildford Cemetery on Monday, at 3 o’clock.
Published: The Times, June 29, 1929