A Sage at Close Quarters

A Sage at Close Quarters

Some personal reminiscences of Edward Carpenter, by a friend who knew him intimately for over forty years, may hereafter be of interest, and even of value, to students of his writings, inasmuch as it is often more difficult to form a clear idea of "the man behind the book" than of the books themselves.

My acquaintance with him dated from 1884; and during the next twenty-five years my wife and I were often visitors at his cottage at Millthorpe, or stayed for weeks at a time in neighbouring farm-houses; while he, in his turn, was frequently our guest in London or in Surrey, or went on excursions with us to the mountains of Wales or Cumberland. In 1910 we built a cottage at Holmesfield, within a mile of Millthorpe, and lived there for some seven years. It will be seen that I am not writing without knowledge.

These reminiscences are intended to be personal only, and not in any sense an estimate of Carpenter's position as teacher and writer; they are the work, too, of a friend, not of a follower, for though I owed much to some of his books, especially to Civilization: its Cause and Cure, I came to think, in after years, that he was almost as overrated for his later writings as underrated for his earlier ones. But if what I have to say of him should at times clash with the legendary and perhaps too solemn notion of him as the seer, I trust it will not be thought that I do not appreciate, as fully as any of his admirers, the great qualities—genius perhaps they should be called—that he undoubtedly possessed. If, like other "sages", such as Carlyle, Ruskin, Tolstoy, he had weaknesses which were not observed by the majority of the pilgrims who visited the shrine, his strength was not the less real; and his great services to Socialism, in the widest sense of the word, the cause of brotherhood and liberty, are in no more danger of being forgotten than is "that spirit of comradeship which endeared his name to all who knew him, and to many who to himself were unknown".

Carpenter has been generally regarded as a man of peculiarly equable temperament, a calm self-possessed being who observed the world and its passions with the philosophic detachment of one who had attained, like an Indian yogi, to a higher and serener realm of thought. Such he certainly appeared to those who knew him only as lecturer or writer, and to a certain extent the impression was a true one. But there were also great contradictions in his nature, which were not the less powerful because they were for the most part concealed. "Sanity" is the quality that is most often attributed to him, and justly; yet the agitated state of mind under which, according to his own description, he wrote his Towards Democracy, can hardly have been quite a sane one. He was, in fact, far from being the placid, almost robust person that figures in the minds of his disciples, who have sometimes spoken of him as "the English Whitman" or "the English Thoreau"; for neither physically nor intellectually had he the robustness of Whitman, or Thoreau's stern and stoical determination. His nature was to an extraordinary degree nervous, sensitive, and highly strung; constitutionally delicate, he only kept his weaknesses in check by a carefully cultivated will-power akin to that of the yogi. Unlike as he was to the real Thoreau, he resembled the Thoreau depicted in some of the mistaken criticisms of the "hermit" of Walden, in being a fugitive from the artificial life to the unconventional, a brand plucked from the burning, one who sought medicinal comfort in nature for the follies and wrongs of mankind.

This internal strain and conflict in Carpenter left its mark very strongly upon his personal appearance. I do not know how he impressed others in that respect, but my own feelings about him were vividly summed up in some stanzas of Francis Adam’s, The Mass of Christ.

There was a man beside me. In that light
Tho' dim, remote, and shadowy, I could see
His face swarthy yet pale, and eyes like night,
With a strange, far sadness, looking at me.
It seemed as if the buffets of some sea
Had beaten on him as he faced it long.
The salty foam, the spittle of its wrath,
Had blurred the bruises of its fingers strong,
Striking him pitilessly from out its path;
Yet had he braved it as the willow hath.

It is strange how an imaginary description will sometimes fit a real person. Adams's lines recall to me with extraordinary clearness my first impression of Edward Carpenter, as I saw him in the twilight of a London square, and on many later occasions. There were, of course, other and different impressions, some gay and genial enough, but that is the first and final one. His eyes were always the chief feature, and most wonderful they were; now grave and sad, as in the poem; now flashing with fire as his warmth of feeling was aroused. I used to think sometimes that he tried to withdraw and, so to speak, to sheath, their almost piercing brilliance, out of consideration for some lack-lustre companion like myself.

He used to say that all the members of his family were like dogs or monkeys; and there was no question that, under such a division, it was among the monkeys he had to be classed. A beautiful monkey, beyond doubt, with a pathetic and soulful expression. In his profile there was a curious resemblance to that of George Meredith; and I was told by my wife, who went with him to a concert at St. James's Hall, where, sitting in the gallery, they saw Meredith in the stalls below, that she ventured to ask him whether he was aware of the likeness. He said he was; but added that it was a likeness to something in himself that he did not at all admire!

But though not physically strong, Carpenter was active to an extraordinary degree, and rarely or ever spared himself in any task that he had undertaken. Whenever I climbed with him in steep places, like Crib Goch on Snowdon, or swam with him, as sometimes happened, in rough seas at Brighton, I was struck by his energy; there was a sort of willow-like resilience in his nature which seemed to render him indifferent to fatigue. I remember how on one occasion, when we had had a long walk round Kinderscout in Derbyshire by Edale and Ashop Head, we arrived in the evening at the Snake Inn, where we had planned to sleep, and finding it full were compelled to trudge another eight miles down the valley to Ashopton. This, for a man of nearly seventy, was no light task; but he did it as if it did not trouble him in the least.

To the world in general, as I have said, Carpenter's chief characteristic was a benignant tranquillity; yet to those closely associated with him he was also a man of very varying moods, superficial no doubt, but nevertheless marked enough to make it difficult at times to hold untroubled intercourse with him. We got to know these moods so well we had distinctive names for them, and endeavoured to conduct ourselves in the manner that was appropriate to each. There was the "Cambridge", a mood in which he seemed to revert for awhile to his pre-Socialist days, dressed rather nattily, often in a velvet coat, and was just a little stiff and distant in his demeanour. There was nothing dangerous abut "Cambridge", but it was well to take no liberties at such times, and just to mind one's p's and q's. Probably the likeness to George Meredith, already referred to, had some kinship with that phase.

Then there was the "Hall Porter", a mood indicative of a certain external lassitude, when he would come in tired after much converse with many people, and would himself continue to talk in a slow strained voice as if to stave off any further remarks or demands from those present. We took it that he was thus resting his inner self in some region of central calm, while he turned on a sort of outer self—the "Hall Porter", in fact—to create a diversion and so to keep the company engaged. It was advisable to listen quietly to this deputy-talker, and not to broach any subject of a novel or exciting kind. The "Porter", like "Cambridge", was quite harmless, and indeed affable, if treated with the circumspection that was his due, and so long as no attempt were made to pass beyond the outer precincts where he was stationed.

A mood known to us as "On the pounce" was much more formidable; for at such times there was a sort of "cussedness" about him which caused him to adopt a teasing, combative manner, and, as he himself expressed it, to get up a "tiff" with some innocent person who had the misfortune to catch his eye. He would put on a rather wicked, challenging look, and address a remark to his victim with an obvious intent to make mischief; and his irritability seemed to be greatly increased if he received a soft answer of the kind that is supposed to turn away wrath. It was much safer to pay him back in his own coin, if the courage could be found to do so; for any nervousness or hesitation was fatal. We traced this mood back to an incident of his school life, of which I more than once heard him speak, and to which I think he has referred in his autobiography, when he used to tease a half-witted schoolfellow, then to feel sorry for a time, and then tease him again. Thus history was repeating itself; he was once more the teasing schoolboy, and we played the part of the half-witted.

But if at times we were compelled to apply to him that terse comment in Emerson's diary, "Thoreau is, with difficulty, sweet," the occasions were much more frequent when he was "Chips", his old and natural and amiable self: and I have dwelt on the other side of the picture only because it is the one that is less known. It may be added that his signatures in letters also showed considerable variations, which were taken by some of his intimate friends to reflect his feelings at the moment. They ranged from "Edward C.", which was regarded as somewhat stiff, through various intermediate forms to the friendly "Ed.", and best of all to the "Ted" which indicated real affection.

It will be seen that he was by nature autocratic. "Towards Autocracy", rather than "Towards Democracy" might well have been the title, if his personal tendencies had been depicted in a book of verse. He was a member of a family that had long been connected with the Royal Navy, and he as little brooked to see his orders neglected as any of his relations who had walked the quarter-deck. A benevolent despot he was, and his kindness extraordinary in devising helpful services for the friends whom he visited from time to time in various parts of the country, somewhat as a zealous bishop goes the round of his diocese; but it was always he who must decide matters. As his friend George Hukin once remarked to me: "Edward's not content with making his own plans: he wants to make everyone else's as well".

He was benevolent, but not sympathetic in the true sense of the word: that is, he had no instinctive apprehension of what was passing in the minds of his companions. He sampled and sorted his friends' characters, and often liked to talk about them; but as it seemed to me, there was little real insight in the appraisement, and some of his judgments were quite wrong. Women he was supposed to understand, but that he did not understand them was the opinion of Olive Schreiner, Isabella Ford, and those of his female friends who knew him best. His writings about the sex are laboured and lacking in discernment, not to say dull: in this point, at any rate, he was signally unlike Meredith.

A few anecdotes may serve to illustrate the masterfulness of which I speak. We used to say that he issued not requests but "ukases"; and for many years, in my regard for his friendship, I did numerous errands for him in the southern counties: now visiting correspondents or friends whom I was deputed to interview, now dealing on his behalf with some London publisher with whom he desired to place a book. All this he seemed to take as a matter of course, or even with occasional signs of dissatisfaction; so that we used to quote among ourselves those pertinent words of Clarence's in King Richard III:

O Brakenbury, I have done those things
For Edward's sake: and see how he requites me!

On one occasion his disapproval of my stay-at-home habits caused him to write urging me to travel abroad; and I had to point out to him that having journeyed from India to England at the age of one, in a sailing-vessel which took four months to complete the voyage round the Cape, I had felt justified thenceforth in remaining at home. At another time he wrote to beg me to discontinue wearing a cap, and to substitute for that form of headgear a soft felt hat such as he himself patronized; but here, by a piece of luck, I had the better of him, for a few days later I happened to see in the paper a portrait of Dr. Crippen, the famous murderer, wearing a hat of just the same shape as the Millthorpe one, an illustration which I at once cut out and forwarded, heavily pencil-marked, and, as I expected, heard no more of the matter.

When he wished us to come to his house, he did not invite, but "commandeered" us. "Get your excuses ready", he used to say; forgetting that no excuse is needed where there is no obligation. He dictated to us when we were to come, and when we were to go, or not to go; and sometimes, when we arrived, it would happen that his mood had changed, and he would look at us with a sort of haughty surprise as if we were intruding. Miss Isabella Ford told me that once when he had pressed her, rather against her convenience, to pay him a week-end visit, he announced calmly next morning that he was going out for the day with a friend, and she was thus left to spend a pious Sunday in solitary meditation.

His attitude towards his friends always seemed to me to be summed up in a line of Shelley’s:

Alternating attraction and repulsion.

His house-mate, George Adams, said to me once: "He first drives you away from him, and then draws you back again," and the remark was very true. He had a temper which was naturally quick, but usually so well mastered that I used to think he allowed it a certain freedom, knowing that he had it in a safe control, like a dog allowed just the length of his chain. "I should like to see him angry", a friend once remarked to me. I had that experience on several occasions, but did not find it especially enjoyable.

Once, at a meeting of the Fabian Society to which he accompanied me, two young men, sitting just in front of us, persisted in talking during the lecture; and after I had expostulated with them in vain, the sage suddenly burst out, in great wrath as it seemed, commanding them in a voice full of awful menace to be "instantly silent". I grieve to say that, after a brief improvement, they behaved as badly as before.

Carpenter's irascibility sometimes led to awkward moments among his friends. At a little "talk" which he gave to a small society of ladies who were ardent students of his works, one of the devotees who were present was by temperament rather too sanguine and garrulous, and in her nervous excitement interrupted him once too often with her questions. "I will tell you—if you'll let me speak", was his scathing reply, and at once there fell upon the party a great gloom, from which they did not recover. On another occasion, at a gathering of the Humanitarian League, a lady asked me to introduce her to him, and I did so, somewhat unluckily, for it happened that he was tired or out of sorts at the moment, and I saw him, to my concern, making gestures to her as if, owing to his deafness, he had difficulty in hearing. Leaving her to her fate, I fled to another part of the room; a day or two later I had a letter in which she said she had been greatly disappointed in Mr. Carpenter, as she had previously thought he was "a kind sort of man". I was more careful in my introductions after that.

His deafness, it may be remarked, was genuine enough, but of that sort which is apt to be rather unaccountable and dangerous. He would at time make play with it in the manner described; at other times, when it was not intended that he should hear, he would be gifted with acute perception. I was once walking down his garden at Millthorpe with an American visitor, my friend Sloane Kennedy, a few yards behind him, while he was apparently engaged in close talk with someone else. My companion, pointing to the apple-trees, remarked to me in a low voice: "Those trees want pruning." Immediately a grave face was turned to confront us, and a stern voice slowly uttered the words: "I—understand—apple-trees." America felt itself rebuked.

His letters, and especially his postcards, were occasionally very mordant. He once laughingly showed me a note he had just received from someone, beginning: "Your postcard cut me to the quick." Very amusing was his account of a "tiff" he had had in his correspondence with Horace Traubel, the friend and executor of Walt Whitman. Something he had said to Horace offended that fellow-poet so deeply that he wrote and took a solemn farewell of Carpenter in a letter that was full of dignity, but unfortunately was under-stamped. Seeing a chance of getting in one more "dig" at his friend, Edward wickedly wrote to him that these high and mighty adieus were all very well in their way, but that it was hard that he should be surcharged on them.

He told me that he never felt quite at home in the company of the stolid country folk, but that if he were put down suddenly in one of the large northern manufacturing cities he would be in friendly touch with some artisans before a day was past. Nevertheless, before he left Millthorpe the neighbouring farmers and cottagers had come to trust him thoroughly, and many of them used to ask his advice on occasions when they were in need of help, as when they desired to sign a deed or to make a will.

His visitors, uninvited as well as invited, were very numerous, and dropped in on him literally at all hours of the day and of the night. The skill which he showed in dealing with the more troublesome guests, the kind that goeth not out save by prayer and fasting, was surprising, and was evidently the result of long practice in that form of hospitality. It cannot be doubted that during his residence of nearly forty years at Millthorpe he gave a great deal of enjoyment to numbers of townsfolk; but here, too, I used to think that he was not naturally well equipped for such entertainment; he did it rather, it seemed, from kindness, and from a wish to become acquainted with all manner of men, than from a real liking; and the visitors, in their turn often appeared ill at ease in his presence.

Various were the devices that he had in reserve when things began to look a bit dull. One of them was a queer performance of what was known as "the thunderstorm", when he would sit with elbows resting on a table, and head on hands, and in that posture give forth a succession of low growls and murmurs to represent the storm as it approached: then the lightnings—to wit, his eyes—would flash; and this was the best part of an entertainment which could hardly be said to add to the gaiety of nations. At other times, when there was a threat of awkward silences, he would indulge in mild forms of horse play. A friend told me that William Morris, after a short stay at Millthorpe, referred to him as "a dreary cove". He was by no means that; yet I cannot remember ever seeing him laugh unrestrainedly and wholeheartedly.

But nothing annoyed him more than to be treated by visitors as a saint. I was present one evening when he began to tell us some story of his Cambridge days with the remark: "Once, when I was drunk..." He was interrupted by a delighted laugh from an incredulous lady admirer: "I like that! Edward Carpenter—drunk!" "When I was drunk...", he continued sternly, and again the enthusiast intervened with some jocular comment. "I say," he repeated, "when I was drunk"; and this time there was something in his tone which froze even the worshipper into silence. What had happened, on that lamentable occasion, I quite forget.

His love of order in personal matters (though not of "law and order") showed itself in his way of dealing with visitors. He would take care to separate those who came together, husband from wife, brother from sister, and so on; shifting them from the kitchen to his study, or from study to kitchen, as the whim took him, and investing himself with plenary powers as Master of the Ceremonies. So, too, in the walks and excursions which he sometimes organized with parties of friends from Sheffield; on which occasions he was the Marshal or Field Marshal, and instructed each member of the company with whom he was to walk, himself taking a turn now with one, now with another, through the course of the day. Here, again, things did not always go very brightly, and he had an odd trick, when conversation flagged, of calling on his companion to run. "Run, Mrs. Smith!" he would suddenly cry, and set off at full speed for fifty yards or so, with the lady racing at his side; or perhaps Mrs. Smith would not be an Atalanta, and then the joke fell rather flat. The care which he took to walk in step was another curious symptom of an orderly mind; yet he would laugh at other persons' methodical habits. Knowing his impatience with the irregular, I once ventured to ask him whether the crooked spire of Chesterfield, visible at many points in his neighbourhaood, did not irritate him, and he confessed that it did; he had once written, in fact, to the authorities at Chesterfield and urged that the crooked should be made straight.

In one respect he had distinctly an advantage over his companions in country walks; for he was quite indifferent to the attacks of the very savage dogs that are met at the lonely farms in that desolate part of Derbyshire. "Do you mind being bitten?" he asked me rather querulously, when he overheard us talking in the evening about an unpleasant encounter we had had with a dog that might have passed muster as a wolf. We had to confess, with shame, that we did.

His visitors were of every sort, and included at one time some anarchists who had friends at Walsall, where there had been serious trouble in connection with the making of bombs. It happened that we had sent to Millthorpe, as a present to Carpenter, a barrel of very choice apples; and by a ludicrous mistake his anarchist friends got a suspicion that the barrel contained live bombs which the "comrades" has sent to that remote locality in order to get them out of the way. The cask was therefore handled with extreme care, and not opened until every precaution had been taken to guard against an explosion. It was found, however, to contain nothing more deadly than a hundred-weight of Blenheim Oranges and Ribston Pippins from Somersetshire.

As a guest, when visiting us in London or elsewhere, he was usually most gracious, but on these occasions also he was subject to moods, more particularly at meals. At times he would eat heartily; but if he suspected that any dish had been specially prepared for him, he would probably refuse it. He had his likes and dislikes ("I think I should be a little offended", he once said, "if anyone offered me a potato"), but it was safer not to recall them. One habit he had which we sometimes found rather trying, viz. that of bringing with him, uninvited, some north-country working man; and then perhaps he would himself go off somewhere for the whole of the next day, after saying to me casually: "You might take Bob round London, and show him the sights." Or instead of coming himself on a visit, he would plant one of the "comrades" on us, as in an instance that I remember when he sent a young fellow to me for a three days' visit in a London flat, with directions that I was to be sure to get him in not later than eleven o'clock each night. How I was to do this he did not explain. To my surprise my guest came in punctually on the first night, and on the second, but the less said the better as to the hour of his return on the last evening, or, to be more accurate, the last morning, and as to the condition in which he arrived.

I once went with Carpenter for a couple of days to Brighton after he had not been there for many years, and as we went down the hill to his native Brunswick Square, with the sea spread out below us, a large boat was passing across in front, with an advertisement of somebody's pills painted conspicuously on its sail. Such was "the return of the native". He groaned aloud. His manner, when revisiting those scenes that had been intimately connected with his boyhood, was as cool as if he were entirely unmoved by them; yet how deeply their memories had affected him may be judged from his poem, Out of the House of Childhood, which I have always regarded as his masterpiece, a marvel of deep feeling worthily expressed.

It is not my purpose here to discuss his writings, but I will say in conclusion that he seemed to me to be a seer, a prophet, rather than a thinker; not always logical in his reasoning, but speaking as if ex-cathedra, with the authority that his opinions derived from a rare and magnetic personality. He was a mystic, inclined to be a believer in occult powers, though he himself did not possess any. (So he told me; and it is perhaps as well that I should record the fact, as it is quite likely that some of his admirers will credit him with supernatural gifts!) I knew of several cases in which his "astral" made its appearance to friends when he himself was far distant. There was certainly something abnormal in him; and the same quality must have been inherent in some of his writings, notably in Towards Democracy, which brought pilgrims from every part of the world to his Derbyshire hamlet.

My last anecdote shall be about that most characteristic book of his, which he himself firmly believed to have been inspired. I once went with him to have tea with a literary acquaintance, a novelist, who computed his own work, as novelists do, by the number of words written in a day. Our host told us what his own average output was, and then turning to the author of Towards Democracy, in special reference to his poems of that class, inquired, with sympathetic interest, at what rate they were written. "I expect," he said, "Mr. Carpenter, you write a good many fewer words a day than I do."

Mr. Carpenter said nothing, but looked what Herman Melville called "a sort of diabolically funny".

Henry S. Salt

Edward Carpenter: In Appreciation, edited by G. Beith, 1931