The friend of whom I speak belongs to that class which may be roughly described as Earnest Good People. With very small means, and not much spare time at his disposal, he is nevertheless constantly engaged in what is called the work of Social Amelioration. The problems of city squalor, vice, and ignorance haunt him like a nightmare. When a very young man he made a voyage of discovery among the submerged tenth; got acquainted with tramps, night strollers, and wastrels on the Thames Embankment; slept in doss-houses and Salvation Army shelters; tried his hand on experimental philanthropy among the slums; and was driven half-frantic by what he saw. He has the makings of a saint in him; of a Francis of Assisi, of a Father Damien. He teaches in night-schools, conducts Penny Banks, and is grateful to any one who will introduce him to a desperate social enterprise which no one else will attempt. The first business of life, he is fond of saying, is not to get good, but to do good. Of pleasure, in the usual sense of the term, he knows nothing, and would grudge the expenditure of a sixpence upon himself as long as he knew a cadger or a decayed washerwoman who seemed to have a better claim to it. London is for him not a home, but a battlefield, and his spirit is the spirit of the soldier who dare not forsake his post.
Many years ago, when I was going for my summer holiday, he wrote me a reproachful poem, from which I quote a part, because it is the best index to his own character and the most lucid exposition of his own attitude to life which I can recall:
The roar of the streets at their loudest
Rises and falls like a tune;
Midday in the heart of London,
Midway in the month of June.
And blue at the end of a valley
I see the ocean gleam,
And a voice like falling water
Speaks to me thro’ a dream.
It calls, and it bids me follow;
Ah, how the worn nerves thrill
At the vision of those green pastures
And waters running still!
But I dare not move nor follow,
For out of the quivering heat
Another vision arises
And darkens at my feet—
White faces worn with the fever
That crouches evermore
In the court and alley, and seizes
The poor man at his door,
Float up in my dream and call me,
And cry, If Christ were here
He had not left us to perish
In the fever-heat of the year!
God knows how I yearn for the mountains
And the river that runs between!
Ah, well, I can wait—and the pastures
Of heaven are always green.
No one will question the nobility of sentiment in these simple lines, and they are the genuine expression of the man. In his case, however slight may be his claim to be called a poet, that hardest test of the poet is fulfilled:—
The gods exact for song
To become what we sing.