Essays by Alice Meynell
By Alice Meynell

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Domus Angusta

The narrow house is a small human nature compelled to a large human destiny, charged with a fate too great, a history too various, for its slight capacities. Men have commonly complained of fate; but their complaints have been of the smallness, not of the greatness, of the human lot. A disproportion–all in favour of man–between man and his destiny is one of the things to be taken for granted in literature: so frequent and so easy is the utterance of the habitual lamentation as to the trouble of a “vain capacity,” so well explained has it ever been.

Thou hast not half the power to do me harm That I have to be hurt,

discontented man seems to cry to Heaven, taking the words of the brave Emilia. But inarticulate has been the voice within the narrow house. Obviously it never had its poet. Little elocution is there, little argument or definition, little explicitness. And yet for every vain capacity we may assuredly count a thousand vain destinies, for every liberal nature a thousand liberal fates. It is the trouble of the wide house we hear of, clamorous of its disappointments and desires. The narrow house has no echoes; yet its pathetic shortcoming might well move pity. On that strait stage is acted a generous tragedy; to that inadequate soul is intrusted an enormous sorrow; a tempest of movement makes its home within that slender nature; and heroic happiness seeks that timorous heart.

We may, indeed, in part know the narrow house by its inarticulateness–not, certainly, its fewness of words, but its inadequacy and imprecision of speech. For, doubtless, right language enlarges the soul as no other power or influence may do. Who, for instance, but trusts more nobly for knowing the full word of his confidence? Who but loves more penetratingly for possessing the ultimate syllable of his tenderness? There is a “pledging of the word,” in another sense than the ordinary sense of troth and promise. The poet pledges his word, his sentence, his verse, and finds therein a peculiar sanction. And I suppose that even physical pain takes on an edge when it not only enforces a pang but whispers a phrase. Consciousness and the word are almost as closely united as thought and the word. Almost–not quite; in spite of its inexpressive speech, the narrow house is aware and sensitive beyond, as it were, its poor power.

But as to the whole disparity between the destiny and the nature, we know it to be general. Life is great that is trivially transmitted; love is great that is vulgarly experienced. Death, too, is a heroic virtue; and to the keeping of us all is death committed: death, submissive in the indocile, modest in the fatuous, several in the vulgar, secret in the familiar. It is destructive, because it not only closes but contradicts life. Unlikely people die. The one certain thing, it is also the one improbable. A dreadful paradox is perhaps wrought upon a little nature that is incapable of death and yet is constrained to die. That is a true destruction, and the thought of it is obscure.

Happy literature corrects all this disproportion by its immortal pause. It does not bid us follow man or woman to an illogical conclusion. Mrs. Micawber never does desert Mr. Micawber. Considering her mental powers, by the way, an illogical conclusion for her would be manifestly inappropriate. Shakespeare, indeed, having seen a life whole, sees it to an end: sees it out, and Falstaff dies. More than Promethean was the audacity that, having kindled, quenched that spark. But otherwise the grotesque man in literature is immortal, and with something more significant than the immortality awarded to him in the sayings of rhetoric; he is perdurable because he is not completed. His humours are strangely matched with perpetuity. But, indeed, he is not worthy to die; for there is something graver than to be immortal, and that is to be mortal. I protest I do not laugh at man or woman in the world. I thank my fellow mortals for their wit, and also for the kind of joke that the French so pleasantly call une joyeusete; these are to smile at. But the gay injustice of laughter is between me and the man or woman in a book, in fiction, or on the stage in a play.

That narrow house–there is sometimes a message from its living windows. Its bewilderment, its reluctance, its defect, show by moments from eyes that are apt to express none but common things. There are allusions unawares, involuntary appeals, in those brief glances. Far from me and from my friends be the misfortune of meeting such looks in reply to pain of our inflicting. To be clever and sensitive and to hurt the foolish and the stolid–"wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?”


Ceres’ Runaway  •  Wells  •  Rain  •  The Tow Path  •  The Tethered Constellations  •  Rushes and Reeds  •  A Northern Fancy  •  Pathos  •  Anima Pellegrina!  •  A Point of Biography  •  The Honours of Mortality  •  Composure  •  The Little Language  •  A Counterchange  •  Harlequin Mercutio  •  Laughter  •  The Rhythm of Life  •  Domus Angusta  •  Innocence and Experience  •  The Hours of Sleep  •  Solitude  •  Decivilized  •  The Spirit of Place  •  Popular Burlesque  •  Have Patience, Little Saint  •  At Monastery Gates  •  The Sea Wall  •  Tithonus  •  Symmetry and Incident  •  The Plaid  •  The Flower  •  Unstable Equilibrium  •  Victorian Caricature  •  The Point of Honour  •  The Colour of Life  •  The Horizon  •  In July  •  Cloud  •  Shadows  •  The Seventeenth Century  •  Mrs. Dingley  •  Prue  •  Mrs. Johnson  •  Madame Roland  •  Fellow Travellers With a Bird  •  The Child of Tumult  •  The Child of Subsiding Tumult  •  The Unready  •  That Pretty Person  •  Under the Early Stars  •  The Illusion of Historic Time  •  Footnotes

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