Wednesday, 9 October 2013


Fisher Unwin, London.

Echettus, according to the old story, was presumably a demigod, who when the Athenians were joining battle at Marathon with the invading Persian host, appeared clad as a rustic, and did havoc amongst the barbarians with a ploughshare for his weapon. In similar fashion Mr. Whetenall, in doing battle against some of the evil influences of modern civilisation, and showing how an ideal polity might be set on foot, adopts as to himself, and those who may choose to become his disciples, the old imagery of ploughers at work in the great world field, and having stones and thorns and the like to cope with ; hence the title of the book.

According to Mr. Whetenall the whole times are out of joint "We must allow," says he, "with gain of seasonable modesty at least, that we are, in all probability, the ugliest, sickliest, puniest, most undignified and most miscalculating, most meanly wicked, and altogether ungodliest and dirtiest age the earth has ever held." We have, in fact, lost our ways in the complexity of modern social life; we have forgotten the real ends and conditions of existence, and have become idolaters to the machinery of life. We must return to simplicity and nature. The broad condition of existence is for every son of Adam hard work, for all daughters of Eve motherhood. Man's work lies in the direction of tilling the ground ; he ought to exist, not by soiling, but by eating, the labours of his hands. Therefore the ideal polity will consist of a dominant peasant proprietary, with here and there a town built upon the lines of high art, with little or no commerce, absolute monarchy, and Roman Catholicism.

That the times are out of joint Mr. Whetenall attempts to establish by consideration of the phenomena of to-day—the race for wealth, the remorseless universal competition, the pretensions of science, the dirtiness of party government and representative assemblies, the decline of art, and the degeneracy of human nature itself under such conditions of life. Most of his bitter things have been said before by Ruskin, Carlyle, or Matthew Arnold. When we come across the tirade against "that abortion of middle class, that proper shame of ours which, failing both of higher fineness and lower strength, ass-obstinate toward a righteous cause or a noble zeal, swine-ravenous of its own muddy pleasures, has been long enough the clog upon England's duty and the spur of her base desires, being, in truth, such an exposition of contemptible haste, greedy fear, weather-cock opinion, pompous folly, as might have been looked for from the exaltation of sapient butcher, baker, and grocerdom upon a belauded throne as world's arbiters, and the sources of all moral and mental light" we seem to hear the ideas of the apostle of sweetness and light expressed in the bad language of the Shimei of Chelsea. But, even if Mr. Whetenall were not so indebted, the fact that the unsparing critic finds many bitter things to say is no great argument ; the systems which the labour of generations have put up bit by bit are from the condition of their growth lacking in symmetry, and make a poor show before the ideal creations which religion, poetry, art, or dreaming have enriched us with ; but they are necessary until there is something to take their places.   Mere blowing of trumpets will not bring down the walls of Jericho until they are become utterly useless, and Mr. Whetenall obviously underrates the difficulties of social regeneration when he writes :—" I am inclined to believe that a simple and forcible blasphemy, directed against the topmost godheads of the economic and philosophic pantheon, delivered in unison by certain spirits which at present content themselves with scattered raillery or silence of contempt, would reduce the mass of worshippers to such a gasping horror of astonishment, that anything further beyond a going up and taking possession would be quite needless." In fact the weak part of this, as it generally is of other schemes of regeneration, is the part which tells of the manner how it may all be done. Plato founds his new order of things on labourious education. Mr. Whetenall seems to trust more to the potent effects of mediƦval excommunication with bell, book, and candle.

There are many noble thoughts in the latter part of the book which outlines the ideal life, and dwells on the love, the labour, and the arcadian influences which are to characterise it. Such ideals require to be persistently forced upon our attention, lest we become too contented in the thraldom of commercialism. And for the graceful imagination with which they are sketched, one may with profit undergo the labour of learning the writer's language ; for his delight has been in "twisted words" and archaisms, and in a total neglect of the common words which appeared to him spoilt by the associations of the stock market, the party journal, and the betting ring. Oracles in every age have spoken, in their own styles; otherwise they might not have seemed to be oracles at all. But, style apart, the freshness of feeling, the contentment with country joys, and the desire for repose which marks Mr. Whetenall's pastoral in prose, remind one strongly of Horace. The coincidence that such yearnings for the old rustic peace, as being more religious and more beautiful than the tumult of the town, should find a voice in Mr. Whetenall, and others of the same school, almost at the same time as three-acres-and-a-cow is launched as a policy, is at least worth reflecting on. The revolution of turning the people from town life to country life may in time be effected ; but it can only be effected by a great change of scene. Mr. Whetenall's scheme might be achieved in Canada or Australia ; but in such a case he would have to withdraw all the hard things he has said of steam, electricity, and modern science.

 The Sydney Morning Herald 5 March 1887,

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