Saturday, November 04, 2006

In Search of Europe

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, an English writer by the name of H. V. Morton wrote a series of books in which he went in search of the soul of various European countries. He wrote about England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Italy, and Spain. What makes his books literature rather than mere travelogues is his religious sense. (He also wrote books about St. Paul and Christ.) He looks for the soul of the country he is writing about. I would recommend, to anyone that is truly interested in European history, that they read H. V. Morton. He, like Walter Scott, is infinitely superior to the factoid historians because he looks past the material façades of things to the spirit behind them.

Writing in a better time than now, Morton sees a Europe where Christianity is still a given. I don’t know that Europe first-hand as Morton did, for I was born in the post-Christian phase of the European experience. But I know the old Europe and love it through writers such as Shakespeare, Walter Scott, and H. V. Morton. In fact, my life could be summed up as “A Search for Europe.” It is an ongoing search. I once thought that Europe and Roman Catholicism were one and the same. But that is not so. Christianity and Europe are one and the same, but Roman Catholicism, in both its Novus Ordo and Tridentine form, is more closely wedded to modern science and modernity than I originally thought. Nor has Protestantism purged the modernist dragon. Europe still bleeds and longs for its lost Christian Faith.

H. V. Morton, who died in 1979, still has a devoted band of readers who admire him for a diversity of reasons. But I admire him because he captures the poetic core of every country he writes about. He says this, for instance, about his native England:

We may not revive the English village of the old days, with its industry and its arts. The wireless, the newspaper, the railway, and the motor-car have broken down that perhaps wider world of intellectual solitude in which the rustic evolved his shrewd wisdom, saw fairies in the mushroom rings, and composed those songs which he now affects to have forgotten. Those days are gone. The village is now part of the country: it now realizes how small the world really is! But the village is still the unit of development from which we have advanced first to the position of the great European nation and then to that of the greatest world power since Rome.

That village, so often near a Roman road, is sometimes clearly a Saxon hamlet with its great house, its church, and its cottages. There is no question of its death: it is, in fact, a lesson in survival, and a streak of ancient wisdom warns us that it is our duty to keep an eye on the old thatch because we may have to go back there some day, if not for the sake of our bodies, perhaps for the sake of our souls.

And later:

The old vicar mounted into the pulpit and talked to his people about the harvest and God’s harvest, as I knew he would. His wise eyes, that knew all their sins and the sins of their fathers, and loved them perhaps because of those sins, moved over them as he spoke; and I noticed a subtle change in his manner. As he addressed them he talked with a faint country accent and I realized then better than before how well he knew his people. The little organ whispered down the nave:

To Thee, O lord, our hearts we raise
In hymns of adoration,
To Thee bring sacrifice of praise
With shouts of exultation;
Bright robes of gold the fields adorn,
The hills with joy are ringing,
The valleys stand so thick with corn
That even they are singing.

We bear the burden of the day,
And often toil seems dreary
But labour ends with sunset ray,
And rest comes for the weary;
May we, the Angel-reaping o’er,
Stand at the last accepted,
Christ’s gold sheaves for evermore
To garners bright elected…

The church emptied. The noon sun fell in bright spears of colour over the old Jocelyns; beyond the porch was a picture of harvest set in a Norman Frame. The rich earth had borne its children, and over the fields was that same smile which a man sees only on the face of a woman when she looks down to the child at her breast.

I went out into the churchyard where the green stones nodded together, and I took up a handful of earth and felt it crumble and run through my fingers, thinking that as long as one English field lies against another there is something left in the world for a man to love.

‘Well,’ smiled the vicar, as he walked towards me between the yew trees, ‘that, I am afraid, is all we have.’

‘You have England,’ I said.

In his book about Scotland, Morton recounts the story of Prince Charlie and the lost cause:

In the days that follow the news speeds over the mountains. The adventurers reach the mainland. There is much coming and going of Highland chiefs. The heather is alight again! News goes out to the Jacobite strongholds that ‘some one’ has arrived in Scotland, and the Jacobite chiefs—a prey to various emotions—mount their shaggy ponies and ride secretly to meet a solemn young man addressed as ‘M. l’Abbe’. Sometimes those who must not know too much are told that he is an English clergyman anxious to tour the Highlands, and he dresses the part, coming silently among his friends in a plain black coat with a plain shirt, not too clean, black stockings, and brass-buckled shoes. ‘I found my heart swell to my very throat,’ writes one who saw him. A most unconvincing cleric!

So for days the enterprise hangs fire as the chiefs weigh up the consequences of rebellion. Cameron of Lochiel is the decisive factor. If he hangs back the clans will not rise. He begs Charles to return to France. There is no hope, he says. Then Charles wins him with the first of his many heroic gestures.

‘In a few days,’ he says, ‘with the few friends I have, I will erect the Royal Standard and proclaim to the people of Britain that Charles Stuart is come over to claim the crown of his ancestors, to win it or perish in the attempt. Lochiel, who, my father has often told me, was our firmest friend, may stay at home, and learn from the newspapers the fate of his prince.’

What could you do with such a prince?

‘No,’ says the gentle Lochiel, ‘I’ll share the fate of my prince; and so shall every man over whom nature or fortune hath given me any power.’

And then this:

An old Highland chieftain, whose name marches through Scottish history behind a fence of pikes, came into Inverness one day and stood looking into the window of a motor-car shop. He thought it would be nice to have a motor-car, but being as poor as only a man can be who declines to sell inherited mountains to Americans, he wondered whether he ought to afford it. He went inside the shop where he was told, to his surprise and delight, that he could have any of the cars around him by paying a small deposit and the rest by instalments. He chose a car with great deliberation and was preparing to write a cheque for the deposit when the salesman placed before him a hire-purchase agree-ment.

‘What is this?’ asked the chief.

The salesman explained.

‘Is not the word of a Highland chief good enough?’ he cried, insulted to the very depths of his being, as he stamped indignantly from the shop.

And in his book on St. Paul he warns England and all of Europe of the dangers of Moslem encroachment on the West:

Politicians of Western nations ought not to be eligible for election until they have traveled the ancient world. They should be made to see how easy it is for the constant sea of savagery, which flows for ever round the small island of civilization, to break in and destroy. Asia Minor was once as highly organized as Europe is to-day: a land of large cities whose libraries and public monuments were so splendid that when we retrieve fragments of this lost world, we think it worth while to build a museum to house them, as the Germans have housed in Berlin a fragment of Pergamum and Miletus. Yet a few centuries of occupation by a static race have seen the highest pillars fall to earth, have witnessed the destruction of aqueducts that carried life-giving water from afar, and have seen the silting up of harbours that once sheltered the proudest navies of the ancient world. I cannot understand how any traveler can stand unmoved at the graveside of the civilization from which our own world springs, or can see a Corinthian capital lying in the mud without feeling that such things hold a lesson and a warning and, perhaps, a prophesy.

Throughout his travels Morton makes reference to his service in World War I. Naturally, the war deeply affected him as it did so many others. There is a hope expressed in his books that such a war will never happen again. But of course it did. And this man, with such a deep love for England and for Europe, moved to South Africa. Is that so hard to understand? When you have seen something you loved in its magnificence, it is often hard to view it in ruin. Thank God he died before South Africa caved in to the barbarian hordes.

Morton, in his travels through Europe, reminds me of the Duke in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. He walks incognito through his kingdom, trying to find out who the truly virtuous are and who are merely shamming virtue. Morton views Europe as ‘one divine’; he looks past its material façade to the soul beneath. And the one common denominator in every European country that Morton writes about is Christ.

Morton views Europe as ‘one divine’; he looks past its material façade to the soul beneath. And the one common denominator in every European country that Morton writes about is Christ.

If you’re interested in reading some of Morton’s works, I would recommend you start with In Search of England. In that book he outlines his basic plan for all the other books. And it is important to note that although Morton is English, he is a poet, so when he writes about Italy, he is Italian, and when he writes about the Welsh, he is Welsh, and so on.

If you want to read the greatest apologetic for European Christianity every written, read the last chapter of Morton’s book, In Search of Wales. In the pit of hell, the Welsh coal mining district of South Wales, Morton finds men who have His sacred heart burned into their souls.

‘There’s a lot of very good work going on in the valley,’ said Emlyn, ‘in the way of feeding school-children and giving them shoes and things, but only if the father is out of work. Some of the worst cases of hardship I’ve known have been in homes where the father was trying to keep six children on £2 5s a week and was too proud to accept help from any one…

‘There was Bill So-and-So. We worked together in Number Two pit. When you’re on a shift you fall out for twenty minutes and eat bread and butter, or bread and cheese, which the wife puts in your food tin. Well, Bill and I used to fall out together and get away from the coal face into the stall, or heading, you see. And we’d sit on each side of the road with our feet on the tram rails and our lamps on the floor. Then we’d open our food tins and eat our food. Now, you’ve been down a mine. You know that when two fellows are sitting with their lamps on the floor the light only reaches to their knees. I could see Bill’s knees. That was all…

‘One day we were sitting like this talking when Bill didn’t answer. Then I saw his light go over, and he fell in the middle of the tram rails. He’d fainted. So I lifted him and carried him to the pit bottom to send him home, but before I did this I gathered up his food tin. There wasn’t a crumb in it! There hadn’t been a crumb in it for days! He’d been sitting there in the dark pretending to eat, pretending to me—his pal—Now that’s pride, if you like! You may think it’s silly, but it’s pride, isn’t it?’

Emlyn knocked out his pipe on the wall and looked at me for confirmation.

‘Yes; but that’s surely not the end of the story,’ I said. ‘A man getting money, no matter how little, doesn’t starve himself like that unless…’

‘Oh, doesn’t he,’ said Emlyn. ‘When you’re on the starvation line you must keep up appearances.’

‘Yes, but there was something more behind it.’

‘There was. Bill has five children. The week he fainted in the pit was the week they had to have new shoes. Now I’m the only one who knows that. His wife told me. But do you think I’d ever let him know I know? Not blinking likely.’

What Scott does for Scotland and Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s – that is, makes it come alive for us – Morton does for Britain and Europe in the early 20th century.