Dark but not awful,
dismal but yet mean,
With anxious bustle moves the cumbrous scene;
Presents no objects tender or profound,
But spreads its cold unmeaning gloom around.
Here in the midst of overshadowing warehouses—and until he came hither at the age of fifty-one few people in London had ever heard his name, a name which even now is more frequently pronounced as if it rhymed with cringe, instead of with sting—here the Dean of St. Paul’s, looking at one moment like Don Quixote, at another like a figure from the pages of Dostoevsky, and flitting almost noiselessly about rooms which would surely have been filled for the mind of Dickens with ghosts of both sexes and of every order and degree; here the great Dean faces the problems of the universe, dwells much with his own soul, and fights the Seven Devils of Foolishness in a style which the Church of England has not known since the days of Swift.
In appearance he is very tall, rigid, long-necked, and extremely thin, with fine dark hair and a lean grey clean-shaven face, the heavy-lidded eyes of an almost Asian deadness, the upper lip projecting beyond the lower, a drift of careless hair sticking boyishly forward from the forehead, the nose thin, the mouth mobile but decisive, the whole set and colour of the face stonelike and impassive.
In repose he looks as if he had set himself to stare the Sphinx out of countenance and not yet had lost heart in the matter. When he smiles, it is as if a mischievous boy looked out of an undertaker’s window; but the smile, so full of wit, mischief, and even gaiety, is gone in an instant, quicker than I have ever seen a smile flash out of sight, and immediately the fine scholarly face sinks back into somnolent austerity which for all its aloofness and immemorial calm suggests, in some fashion for which I cannot account, a frozen whimsicality.
Few public men, with perhaps the exception of Samuel Rogers, ever cared so little about appearance. It is believed that the Dean would be indistinguishable from a tramp but for the constant admonishment and active benevolence of Mrs. Inge. As it is, he is something more than shabby, and only escapes a disreputable appearance by the finest of hairs, resembling, as I have suggested, one of those poor Russian noblemen whom Dostoevsky loved to place in the dismal and sordid atmosphere of a lodging-house, there to shine like golden planets by the force of their ideas.
But when all this is said, and it is worth saying, I hope, if only to make the reader feel that he is here making the acquaintance of an ascetic of the intellect, a man who cares most deeply for accurate thought, and is absorbed body, soul and spirit in the contemplation of eternal values, still, for all the gloom of his surroundings and the deadness of his appearance, it is profoundly untrue to think of the Dean as a prophet of pessimism.