Monday, March 20, 2006

Edmund Gosse

I have been writing about the Plymouth Brethren and their attitudes toward literature and a university education. These can be much better understood by reading Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperments by Edmund Gosse. Gosse became a recognized literary critic in England and wrote this biography of his early years. It is one of the few Plymouth Brethren biographies that I am aware of.

A well-written and touching story, this book is essential reading to those who would like to understand the deep dual commitment of the early Brethren to the Bible and to scholarship. It also represents the conflict which I have been writing about. This little anecdote is a good introduction to his book.

    It was in my fifteenth year that I became again, this time intelligently, acquainted with Shakespeare. I got hold of a single play, The Tempest, in a school edition, prepared, I suppose, for one of the university examinations which were then being instituted in the provinces. This I read through and through, not disdaining the help of the notes, and revelling in the glossary. I studied The Tempest as I had hitherto studied no classic work, and it filled my whole being with music and romance.

    This book was my own hoarded possession; the rest of Shakespeare's works were beyond my hopes. But gradually I contrived to borrow a volume here and a volume there. I completed The Merchant of Venice, read Cymbeline, Julius Caesar and Much Ado; most of the others, I think, remained closed to me for along time. But these were enough to steep my horizon with all the colours of sunrise.

    It was while I was thus under the full spell of the Shakespearean necromancy that a significant event occurred. My Father took me up to London for the first time since my infancy. Our visit was one of a few days only, and its purpose was that we might take part in some enormous Evangelical conference. We stayed in a dark hotel off the Strand, where I found the noise by day and night very afflicting.

    When we were not at the conference, I spent long hours, among crumbs and blue bottle flies, in the coffee room of this hotel, my Father being busy at the British Museum and the Royal Society. The conference was held in an immense hall, somewhere in the north of London. I remember my short-sighted sense of the terrible vastness of the crowd, with rings on rings of dim white faces fading in the fog.

    My Father, as a privileged visitor, was obliged with seats on the platform, and we were inthe heart of the first really large assemblage of persons that I had ever seen.T he interminable ritual of prayers, hymns and addresses left no impression on my memory, but my attention was suddenly stung into life by a remark.

    An elderly man, fat and greasy, with a voice like a bassoon, and an imperturbable assurance, was denouncing the spread of infidelity, and the lukewarmness of professing Christians, who refrained from battling with the wickedness at their doors. They were like the Laodiceans, whom the angel of the Apocalypse spewed out of his mouth.

    For instance, who, the orator asked, is now rising to check the outburst of idolatry in our midst? 'At this very moment,' he went on, 'there is proceeding, unreproved, a blasphemous celebration of the birth of Shakespeare, a lost soul now suffering for his sins in hell!' My sensation was that of one who has suddenly been struck on the head; stars and sparks beat around me. If some person I loved had been grossly insulted in my presence, I could not have felt more powerless in anguish.

    No one in that vast audience raised a word of protest, and my spirits fell to their nadir. This, be it remarked, was the earliest intimation that had reached me of the tercentenary of the Birth at Stratford, and I had not the least idea what could have provoked the outburst of outraged godliness. But Shakespeare was certainly in the air. When we returned to the hotel that noon, my Father of his own accord reverted to the subject. I held my breath, prepared to endure fresh torment.

    What he said, however, surprised and relieved me. 'Brother So and So,' he remarked, 'was not, in my judgement, justified in saying what he did. The uncovenanted mercies of God are not revealed to us. Before so rashly speaking of Shakespeare as "a lost soul inhell", he should have remembered how little we know of the poet's history. The light of salvation was widely disseminated in the land during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and we cannot know that Shakespeare did not accept the atonement of Christ in simple faith before he came to die.'

    The concession will today seem meagre to gay and worldly spirits, but words cannot express how comfortable it was to me. I gazed at my Father with loving eyes across the cheese and celery, and if the waiter had not been present I believe I might have hugged him in my arms.
I will write more about Edmund Gosse and his parents later. This book presents one view of the culture and social context of the early Plymouth Brethren. It is also an excellent literary text, a worthwhile read for anyone interested in Christianity in England in the 1800's.

No comments: