The Spike: or, Victoria University College Review, June 1924
It was one of those blue, expansive days we get sometimes, even in Wellington; there was not a cloud in the sky, save that over the estuary of the Hutt, and again above Mount Matthews, two little wisps of delicate gossamer floated passively, stationary—treading water, as it were, in the illimitable depths that surrounded and underlaid them. From the Wireless hill, where I stood, the morning sun sparkled with a cheerful vigour on the flat harbour, that in peace and colour seemed to reflect the opposing deeps above it. The two islands stood in it like an emerald and a topaz; out beyond the Heads the bays were marked by a line of lazy cream all along their margin, and then the level sea stretched away again, past the other island, straight to the remote fastnesses and haunted caverns of the ice-smitten south. My thoughts followed it, and then back to the familiar scene below me. There was a faint haze over the Tararuas, but from there right round the harbour the hills leapt up sharp and clear, ancient citadels, stark and ungracious, but still in that morning light suffused with something of the stuff of beauty. There was, for a wonder, hardly any wind on top of my hill; what there was served but to bend the short grasses at my feet and send an occasional faint sigh through the topmost girders of the great steel tower that loomed above.
I sat down on a rock, and gazed below and around. Even the dirty town seemed to carry less than its usual load of ugliness, while the yellow roads and deep valleys behind looked as though they might lead the traveller to lands of unimagined mystery and loveliness. In a moment I turned again to my book, that short, most finely-written testament of the modern Stoic:
The troubles of our proud and angry dust
Are from eternity, and shall not fail.
I read, and fell into a muse whether it were indeed so. A page 2 sudden movement at my side broke into my thoughts, and I turned to gaze into the steady eyes of a young man seated a yard or so away. They were grey, serious eyes, yet kindly, and with the hint of great depths of feeling, passion even; and though the young man himself looked no more than twenty-five, his eyes were very old, and held the wisdom of centuries. He sat easily, like a Praxitelean statue, and as he was stark naked I had no difficulty in recognising in his candid face and beautiful muscles the god Apollo.
His lips parted and he spoke in a very musical tone. "It is a good doctrine," he said, as he glanced at the book. "The immortal gods themselves can do no less than admit that; for they, too, are in the eternal flux."
"It does seem one of our few certainties," I rejoined, rather surprised at the ease of my conversation with one so far removed from myself in station; "and yet—"
He looked up interrogatively and smiled. "You have a human disbelief in the certainties," he said. "Yet I believe your poet is right; we struggle and cry, but the universe will have its way. We can but seek wisdom, for at least the gracious Minerva will never desert us, and give to Nature that allegiance which her laws require."
"I was going to say," I said, I "that nevertheless one very often meets the irresistible temptation to curse ' whatever brute and blackguard made the world.' Unphilosophical it may be; but, as you say, it is human."
He smiled again. "It is human, but it is not wise," he said. "And wisdom can give us one of our few comforts in this scene."
"Sapientia magis auro desideranda," I said softly to myself.
"What is that?" he said. "I seem to know the Roman tongue, though your pronunciation is, if I may say so, barbarous."
"It is the motto of our University here," I answered, "the words of an old philosopher (though not of Hellas)—' Wisdom is more to be desired than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.' Even thus far from the birth-place of knowledge, you see, we tend the sacred flame."
"It is a good thing to do in any land," he said gravely. "And your University—is it old and beautiful like those of other lands 1 have visited?"
"It is not very beautiful," I said, "for a home of learning; yet the true University, which is not a thing of stones and mortar, but of the spirit, has a great beauty in the hearts and minds of those that love it. Nor is it old, except with the age of ancient learning; in fact," I said, with something like the shame of a parvenu in the presence of one so august, himself the peer of Minerva, "it has but twenty-five years, and this very month we have celebrated our Silver Jubilee."
"That is no matter," he said. "It is not good to lose the virtues of youth. Plato was young once, and the groves of Academe . . . Yes, even the immortal gods were young. And in youth all things are possible "
I meditated on this for some time beneath the gaze of those clear eyes, and a good many thoughts chased themselves through my brain. At last I opened my mouth, and I regret to say that I harangued Apollo. Yes—harangued is the word: I harangued a god.
"Well, the fact is," I said. "I don't know. Are all things page 3 possible, or is it best to abandon hope of the crystallisation of our dreams at once, definitely and finally, and merely live, taking the evil equally with the good? Take Housman now—is his not after all the manliest gospel? And remember what you have just said: 'We struggle and cry, but the universe will have its way.' Why contradict yourself?"
He seemed to be about to speak, but I rudely pressed on.
"Let's get away from metaphysics. It all boils down to this—here's our University, the first thing in our minds to-day. "What's it doing, what's its aim, what is its ultimate purpose in life? Perhaps you, being a particularly distinguished god, god of the Arts, in fact (of which we produce so many Masters), may be able to throw some light on the question." (Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment I didn't give him much of a chance to do so.) "We have our little Jubilee—a nice little function, with lunches and speeches and so forth; we abound in pious sentiments, and say over and over again: ' Sapientia magis auro desideranda.' But do we really mean it all? We think with pride of our successful students, but what do we mean by l successful'? We unveil our coloured windows and shake hands all round, but do we really give a damn for what it symbolises? Is this twenty-five year mark, the merest chip, the infinitely small sawdust speck of an eternity of learning, just another event, as meaningless and unpremeditated in the scheme of things as a murder in a back street? Sub specie aeternitatis, I suppose it is: we and all our learning are a wisp of dust that some unnoticing Eternal will blow away in due time, and that not long; we are in space, quite alarmingly inconspicuous in a million of years—what does Hardy say?
'So the Will heaves through Space and moulds the times
With mortals for its fingers.'
Very comforting for the mortals—to be part of a heave! Or is there anything in the heave after all? May not our twenty-five years, so utterly laughable in its insignificance, have a positive value? It all depends how you regard it, I suppose.
"I want to get down to fundamentals, but here I am, always flying up in the air again." (Really, that god's patience was remarkable.) "It all depends how you regard it—it all depends on our attitude. What are we getting at? For instance, I've heard it said, and, mark you, by a University student, that some of our speeches in debates and so on are in very bad taste. Very Bad Taste? What have we to do with taste? As if the very existence of a University in a world constituted like this were not itself a simply colossal piece of bad taste! The idea of it! To set up truth, sincerity, wisdom, beauty, kindliness as ideals to be searched for and practised in a world veiled with insincerities, compounded of half-truths, foolishness, ugliness and human inhumanity. To discharge our popgun of reason at the embattled front of Success! A University—what is it but a rude gesture by a bad little boy, fingers at nose, in the horrified face of an indubitably respectable Universe? Is not this the sin against the Holy Ghost of our civilisation, whereat large-footed policemen shudder? And yet they talk, quite solemnly (I assure you), with an assured and evangelistic excellence, of Bad Taste!
"And that admirably-conducted Jubilee! I recur to it as to a lodestone. Did it merely signify the triumph of an impeccable Good Taste, the apotheosis of successful Law under the benign page 4 ægis of an enormously genial Sir Francis Dillon Bell, the Spirit ascending to the right hand of the Father in a cloud of congratulatory speeches; or did it mean the faint pause, the breathing-space fin a not inconsiderable conflict, the Marathon (shall I say) of those hard, spare athletes, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in the Olympic Games of Eternity? Shall we, partners too in that everlasting race, drop for refreshment, faint-hearted and with inadequately distended ribs (pardon my bathos) into the boozy bar of some wayside pub, or shall we, mediocrities it may be, but striving ever with bursting lungs and spasmshot limbs, stagger at last over the long track into that final arena whose serried ranks of seats are filled by the passive but mayhap enthusiastic gods themselves? Pardon me if I abandon before going further the metaphor, however seasonable, whose coils lie so dangerously subtle round the feet. What I am endeavouring to emphasise, perhaps at undue length, is the fact that there are things that matter and matter tremendously. I do not flatter myself, as an extremely humble member of our College, that we have sought those things without faltering. I do not for a moment imagine that more than an inconsiderable number of us are doing so at present; the thinking, the conscious section of our number is amazingly small. Amazingly, I say—well, it all depends upon how you look at the world. Perhaps not in the least amazingly. But it is only in and through this inconsiderable conscious number that the true purposes of a University are being carried on. They are there; they will persist; but with what a pang do we feel the inadequacy of our strength in their transmission.
"And yet I have heard it said (to recur to the subject of taste and speech again) that we should really bridle our tongues in certain connections; it is known for a fact (it is said) that . our College has, on many occasions, lost gifts of a quite appreciable amount on account of that embarrassing habit of opening our mouth and putting our foot in it. I admit that there is such a thing as seeing red on every possible occasion; we may, being young (like Plato once and his joyous comrades) charge with excessive trumpeting, with somewhat too savagely awe-inspiring an air, some hallowed fallacy—(though after all what does it matter?) but, as the President of the Debating Society has recently said, let us hold fast to that which Ave believe to be of the verities, and fight for it staunchly, with unabated and unappeased vigour. There is no question of the advantage to be gained—'sapientia'—I will not weary you by repeating the phrase. We may gain a king-dominion of the temporals, and stranded on the rock of our little dominion, see helplessly the eternals go drifting by on the rapid tide into the gloom where eyes blinded by the flash and glitter of much fine gold may not follow.
"We are even now in some danger. There is a little matter of a huge controversy over the principles of Extravaganza composition and criticism, extending now over two or three years—"
Apollo, to whose magnanimity it is, in retrospect, impossible not to render a homage most profound, here raised a somewhat puzzled, though withal intelligent eyebrow.
"I see the subject is foreign to you," I said, "whose august eyes have gazed never upon a spectacle less nobly moving than the sin of Oedipus or the agony of Electra; or mayhap smiled at the divine satirics of Aristophanes; and so I will not elaborate the subject. Yet let me say that even in the trivial there is an ideal, and page 5 rather than turn our eyes from that ideal, the intangible gage of our spiritual quest, it were better that we perished utterly and were swept like leaves from the earth."
"As another of the Poets has also said,"Apollo remarked, "'what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?' And that is good doctrine, too."
He gazed contemplatively over the scene spread out before him. I felt rather aghast as the full realisation came back to me that the person I had been addressing with such immoderate vigour was a most admirable deity, an authentic inhabitant of Olympus. One tends to forget this sort of thing in the full flood of oratory, even while giving it a cursory recognition. The emotions are no respecters of persons. I waited in some awe for him to speak again. He was very kind.
"Our conversation," he said, "though somewhat one-sided, has not been uninteresting. Your plaint is a common one, and will endure, as it has lasted through more centuries than you have lived years. Grief passes by no man; and yet it passes.
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
All things must perish; but first it is possible to live. And, assuredly, though that may be no great distinction, yet neither is it any great shame."
I suddenly felt very tired of talking; the sun still shone, the sky was unmoved; and we were just about at the same stage as when we started. A profound discouragement swept over me, I turned to the Housman again.
"Here," I said, "listen to this—
It is in truth iniquity on high
To cheat our sentenced souls of aught they crave,
And mar the merriment as you and I
Fare on our long fool's-errand to the grave.
Doesn't that about sum it all up?"
"Who knows?" he said. "There is flux and reflux, and the high gods themselves are caught in the swing of things. Yet what is that last verse—'The troubles of our proud and angry dust'—?
The troubles of our proud and angry dust
Are from eternity, and shall not fail.
Bear them we can, and if we can we must.
Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.
"Yes," he said, meditatively, "it is good doctrine."
He rose beside me, as noble and beautiful as a dream. A tint of gold seemed to ripple over his skin, and his hair burned with a thousand lights. He smiled, and stretched his arms towards the sky.
"It is verging on noon," he said, "and you will have business in the town, you and your poet; while I too must not stay. Yet be Assured; wisdom at least is eternal and shall not perish. And now I salute you."
I blinked at his glory, and even as I did so he left the ground, and towered high in a pillar of golden light. I followed the glittering shaft up into the blue with my eye, till it was suddenly caught into the sun, and I was dazzled. Then I, also, reflecting that I had a mile or two to go before dinner, shut my book and turned down the steep track homeward.