Proem

PROEM

"Proem" at The Database of Ornament

To all simple peoples in history, as to the
young in every age, the seasons have meant
much : not only marking out the paths of action
and filling the cup of sense, but giving varying
colour to thought and fancy. And even among
us to-day, so slenderly related as we are apt to
be to the primary Nature of Things, it
would yet seem that the most harmonious
lives—seen in glimpses now and then—
are those whose times of effort and of
rest, of growing and of ripening, are in
tune with the seasonal rhythm of the earth.
That is the ultimate system in which we live ; and we
needs must respond to it, however reluctantly, as the
finger acknowledges the heart-throbs and the fjord the tides.
So, at this time, the voice of Spring echoes through us all, and
is felt as a tidal message in the landlocked places of our
being. The evergreen feels it, even. For though its branches
are never bare, it now shares in the fulness of sap that is
given to all things living.
The sun has swept through Aries, the west wind blows, the
showers soften the earth—and behold ! the world is young
again and visionary. The Sleeping Beauty has awaked in
fragrance; Proserpina, escaped from Hades, goes joyously
about the fields, hearing the sprouting of the corn, the rising
of the sap, the tiny clamour of buds new breaking into life.
Some of the Wanderers who went last Autumn have returned
with the sunshine, and the little hills shout for joy. It is a time
of Renascence. And not only do we rejoice because what has
been is again, but we feel that every Spring is the epochal
dawn of a new age. This time of birth is also the time of

B              9

PROEM

variations, when new forms and new habits flow from the well-
head of change.
And so it will be not amiss if we try in the present foreword to
give some hint of what our particular variation may be, what
is our conception of that present from which we start and the
future towards which we tend—unanimously, if in broken
order. For though we are one, we are also many; and
the words and lines which form our book will show how
variously each, according to his or her listening, interprets
the seasonal melody—the true song of the spheres—which we
all bow to.
And first we would say that we do not ignore the Decadence
around us, so much spoken of. If we wished, we could not.
For while at one social level, all the land over, it fills the gaze
with a vision of slums and the hearing with outcries of coarse-
ness and cretinous insanity—at another it is trumpeted as a
boast and worn as a badge and studied as the ultimate syllable
of this world's wisdom. So many clever writers emulously
working in a rotten vineyard, so many healthy young men
eager for the distinction of decay ! And yet, out of each other's
sight as those two worlds lie, there is but a step between and
their kinship is unmistakable. A literature of distinguished
style and moral vulgarity is indeed a misproduct of the same
process that gives us in our meaner streets a degeneration of
human type worse than what follows famine. We see also
the restless craving, high and low, for undignified excitement,
the triumphant system of education which is the nationalised
blasting of buds, our science metamorphosed into the man
with the muck-rake, our religion become the symbol of a drifting
ship. All these things we see, if we are for the most part silent
regarding them. It may be that they are a part of us ; for even
from the evergreen the leaves fall singly at this time of greatest
hopefulness. By reaction, at least, and by counter-influence,
we would gladly have our relation to them made certain and a
remembered thing. Nay, already we seem to see, against the

10

PROEM

background of Decadence, the vaguely growing lines of a
picture of New-Birth.
And as the evil began in the social and economic sphere, it is
there that we first mark the remedial beginnings of a better
order. A generation or two ago, in an age committed to arid
industrialism and the keenest practice, men happened on a
half-thought which had strayed from science into the market-
place. That thought was the conception of the Struggle for
Existence as Nature's sole method of progress. It was, to be
sure, a libel projected upon Nature, but it had enough truth in
it to be mischievous for a while. For now the pitiful creed of
individualism—'Each for himself!'—seemed to have gained
unexpected sanction, as a cosmic process. Egoism and reck-
lessness, provided they be on a large scale and out-of-doors,
were evolutionary forces as fair as the sunlight, making ulti-
mately for the welfare of the race. We need not wonder, then,
that the individualist waxed arrogant, that his work prospered,
that he built cities which are a degradation unto this day.
But all error is a deciduous growth : truths and evergreens
only are perpetual. Science, working honestly within its own
region, has perceived in good time how false to natural fact the
theory was, and has lately vindicated for Nature a more logical
method and a nobler character. It has shown how primordial,
how organically imperative the social virtues are; how love,
not egoism, is the motive which the final history of every
species justifies ; how fostering, not ravening, is the pioneer
process in the ascent of life. The practical inference has been
quickly made: that a rule of conduct—'Each for himself!'—
which is not half good enough for the beasts, has but little
relevance to human intercourse and social action.
And thus the good sense and sympathies of the best men and
women are no longer at heresy with the accredited teaching of
their time. A communal quickening of the conscience is one
of the most marked notes of recent history : that, and a grow-
ing faith in the value of all good precedents, an increasing

11

PROEM

confidence that one man's gain need not for ever be another
man's loss. Experiments in co-operation have been an effec-
tive object-lesson in citizenship ; the union of workers is
rapidly passing beyond its earlier character as a mere article
of war. And this had need to be so. For the social organism
must integrate, or perish of its own energies : and our hope
can never be in any banding together which shall merely make
bread and butter cheaper, still less in any massing of similar
interests which shall enable a legion to triumph over a
phalanx, or a city to prosper at the expense of a shire. Least
of all with the desperadoes of chimerical reform can we have
anything to do. Our trust is rather in following a subtler
indication which Nature gives to those who study her domestic
economy : by trying to bring the most diverse interests under
the dominance of a common civic ideal, in what to naturalists
is known as a Symbiosis—in which the strength of one shall
call forth, instead of cancelling, the strength of the other, in
which each shall have his place, and even his privileges un-
grudged, but shall feel that he has them through and for all.
A second way of escape we are reminded of now, when we
throw our windows open to the morning air. The time of
the singing of birds has come, and in the city precincts a
thousand voices are gossiping of green fields beyond, calling
upon us to go out into the country. The decadent of idleness
is putting his yacht in trim, the decadent of another order now
buys to himself a singing bird — a pathetic act, surely, to make
the angels weep ! Both are witnesses to one truth, and it is
an old one: that Nature, whether you drive her out with a
pitchfork or with material progress, never ceases trying to
come back. We can never quite lose a kindly feeling towards
the old memories and the old menage of the race, unless our-
selves be lost altogether. The desire of them is an organic
inheritance of the heart, and the need of them haunts our
spirit in every generation. We are wont enough to look for
health in the rural ways of living to which all our pedigrees so

12

PROEM

quickly revert ; but we do not consider that our ways of think-
ing, also, would be saner and more wholesome if we listened
to the counsel of the birds, or drew an inference from the
trees in the city square :—

            Can such delights be in the street
            And open fields, and we not see 't ?
            Come, we 'll abroad : and let's obey
            The proclamation made for May ! '

From urban to rural, from fever to fresh air—that may fitly be
the second rallying-word of Renascence.
And let no one too promptly construe our saying, or accuse us
of ignoring the forces which bind men to their fate. Cities
there are and must be, and it is in cities that much of to-day's
work and breadwinning must needs be done. But a more
open route from town to country is surely not beyond achiev-
ing, nor is it necessary that all the travelling should tend
for ever one way. People might at least be kept from for-
getting that the fields are still under the open sky, that the
occupations of Adam still go on, that the nature of things and
man's relation to the earth have a creation freshness still, some
ten miles from town. Of the moral value of even such know-
ledge as that, and of the present-day need for it, many things
might be said. But here we shall rather say that the means
of salvation lie not in any unhoped migration to the solitary
places of the land, but in a transformation of the populous
centres. While the town grows year by year in our heart's
despite, we can determine in some degree the aspects it shall
take. Spaces may be left for the sunlight to fill, trees may
redeem the dismal street, fit architecture call forth the pride of
citizenship. Some sylvan graces may brave the vicinage of the
factory, and the cultivation of flowers become a school of
manners. So we may draw a little nearer to the City Beautiful
—the rural town—in which joy inhabits, and righteousness has
a chance of increase.

13

PROEM

And we have many cities that are called to a splendid future,
if men were only wise. Before all others there is our own,
unique in the world: 'A city that is set upon an hill.' Its
houses are in mourning, and its streets have been washed with
tears ; but it has kept well its brave outlook over sea and land,
its own gifts of sanity and eagerness. Paved with history,
echoing with romance, rich in an unbroken intellectual tradi-
tion—what might not this city become! Meanwhile it sends
forth its sons, there being little for them here to do, and they
are of service in carrying on the wasting business of that
metropolitan life which resembles so much the proliferation of
a cancer. Yet the stirrings of better things are visible here
also ; there are those who do not hesitate to discuss already
the tendencies of the local Renascence as a thing assured.
Howsoever that be, there are many places in the land which
seem marked just now for hope to alight upon. In a vision of
fair cities——Houses Beautiful or about to be—we cannot miss
the grey town in the east, splashed with sea-foam, cinctured
by green fields and the paradise of golfers; nor the city of
industry in the west, mistress of many ships, trafficking with
all peoples ; nor the granite city of the north, cold and clear,
defined into dignity, softened into music. Upon them all is the
flying shadow of a regret, the breaking light of a promise. We
see them—with Durham, York and Liverpool, Manchester,
Bristol, Dundee and Perth—all with a struggling sublimity,
all dishevelled and disgraced, all alive and full of hope !
One thought more. Now is the season of young things, of
buds and seedlings, of lambs and other children. Round the
earth has gone a cry of resurrection, and Life renews itself
from point to point. It was in vain, seemingly, that Autumn
withered and Winter laid waste—for behold! the muster of
young lives, the splendour of fresh energies. The hawthorn
which the hedger stripped, leaving it a gaunt skeleton, is
clothed again with green leaves, and among the leaves is the
shining of blossoms. And looking at the blossoms we are

14

PROEM

minded of the Children. Through them also reparation is
unceasingly being made. The dust of life dries up the heart of
a generation, character is fretted out in mean practice, thought
itself is frittered down to cheap expedients and broken views
(for which reason, notice, every vicious age and circle is
addicted to epigram as a means of masking its emotional
impotence, its bankruptcy of generous human qualities). With
all this cheapening, we are driven to think, the moral wealth of
mankind must be dwindling, the common fund will soon be
dissipated, the human average tends steadily downward. But
such fears are fanciful ; against those evil issues there is an
eternal safeguard. For while the love of man and maid is a
daily discovery for some one in town and village, and while the
greater love it leads to supplies the powerfullest motive in life
and the most pervading, human nature can never permanently
forfeit either its dignity or its strength. The higher truths are
in the keeping of every household, while the women educate
and the children lead the Race. Through them in every
generation Nature conserves her good, and returns always to
the standard of normality for a fresh outfaring. We have
reason therefore, when, looking at the Children, we feel that
the blossom is of more purchase than the tree. Another line of
the Renascence must surely be in the right unfolding of these,
in care for the new that is in them, in perfecting their powers,
in teaching them to love, in helping them to learn by living.
This, then, in the Springtime, would be our particular variation,
if only we might achieve it perfectly: to think and to dream,
to rhyme and to picture, in unison with the music of the
Renascence. Of that music we hear as yet only broken
snatches. But in these snatches four chords are sounded,
which we would fain carry in our hearts— That faith may be
  had still in the friendliness of fellows; that the love of
  country is not a lost cause ; that the love of women is
   the way of life ; and that in the eternal newness of
     every Child is an undying promise for the Race.

                                                                                                W.M.
                                                                                                J.A.T.





MLA citation: Macdonald, W., and J. Arthur Thomson. "Proem." The Evergreen 1 (1895): 9. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2016. Web. [Date of access] http://1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=EGV1_macdonald_thomson_proem.html