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T. E. Lawrence, introduction to The Twilight of the Gods and Other Tales by Richard Garnett

(London, John Lane The Bodley Head, 1924, pp. vii-xiv)

How kind a nurse has the British Museum been, sometimes, to poets! In the Department of Fishes O'Shaughnessy sang of fountains, whole rivers of tears. Barbellion among the beasts found himself his richest subject for dissection; and this Dr. Garnett in the horrific dome (bald within and without like an empty ostrich-egg), which is the Reading Room, was used to chuckle over the Twilight of the Gods.

They seem to have been moved by contraries, these central-heated artists. Much poring over Japanese prints makes a Binyon re-create Arthurian legends. In the Assyrian Basement I have heard a keeper whose charge (if hardly his care) was Babylonian burst into modern song. Assur-nasir-Pal reminded him of an only girl. He was an ordinary man, incapable of literature even at his highest; but in him was working the spirit of contrariety, which has made the real artists blossom so strangely in their police-guarded halls. The Director, no doubt, could be moved only to Limericks, while Epic would be the choice of the man with red dress-cuffs and lapels, who takes your umbrella at the door. Incidentally this is the best place in London to lose an acquired or embarrassing umbrella. It costs no more than the pain of carrying off a brass disc; and that's not all loss, for there is one special pattern of slot machine in which these discs perform miracles.

Many other personal details of the Museum are curious; but Mr. Lane did promise to pay me twenty guineas for an introduction to the 'Twilight'; and so unprecedented an event in my writing career demands and deserves more attention than it appears to be getting. So here is back again for Dr. Garnett....

The Reading Room, his province, is wise, rich, sober, warm, decent (even dingy), industrious; but it lacks humour, it lacks polish, and all that crackling display of surface virtue which comprehends smartness, and is much more. Consequently, because the Museum was hushed, Dr. Garnett would be - on paper - lively. Because the great ceiling coved so solemnly overhead, he would be flippant. Because his readers were so deadly serious, he would be sprightly.

Which is not to say that he too was not serious and bookish and sincere. The great national Museum may be a great necropolis for the public, a charnel-house wherein the mouldering bones of dead civilisations are somewhat indecently displayed. For the staff it is a Temple, and themselves the devotees. For them the world outside the windows is that which is indecent in display. They live with the best materials of the past, studying them, endeavouring by every context of literature and history to understand them more fully, to see them more remarkably in the round. For this select few on earth, Greece and Rome, Babylon and Egypt are not dead. These empires are in their department (or in old So-and-So's next door), things of vital importance, growing daily larger and clearer, their bread-and-butter, their ideal, their study, the business of their working hours and the chosen pastime of their leisure. Inestimable is this privilege of a twenty-four-hour-day preoccupation with the censored fittest of sixty centuries ... and I am happy to remember how for some years the B.M. made me estimable in its employment.

Dr. Garnett's department, the Reading Room, is one which forces a sympathetic president to be somewhat universal. Rome and Greece, Chaldea and Egypt: those were real enough to him; but their reality was not exclusive, to him alone of the staff. His dealings throughout the open hours were with living people, inquirers all, whether they were great scholars with minds so deep in the well of learning that never could they be raised to the life of day, or simple souls who had perhaps not heard of Sanchoniathon or Vopiscus. People would sidle up to him at his desk to ask for the best book upon caterpillars, for a Keats manuscript, to know how many protons might be in a cubic foot of Bessemer steel. The Library is the ultimate reference book of the world, and its presiding genius the Index.

Courteously and unerringly Dr. Garnett would advise upon bee-keeping or bimetallism, while inwardly his mind was picturing Caucasus or Pandemonium and little themes of Albert of Aix or Hesychius were running through his head. Never did he abdicate from his chair of scholarship. In this book are his obiter scripta, reactions of his spirit against drudgery, and what a bouquet and flavour they have! Book-learned in the best sense, he was a worthy priest of the Museum, that last temple of the classical theogony.

I like to imagine the puzzled debate in the Greek sculpture halls, at night in the quiet moon-lit emptiness after the public had withdrawn, as the carved Gods on their marble pedestals heard his carpet slippers flip-flapping softly where the nailed soles of P.C. 7872889 had made harsh day music. Dr. Garnett came through so shyly, carefully, among the ranked Gods, since perhaps he did not quite know if his faith was founded on print, or on Pentelic marble... and the Gods too remained aloof, shy and speechless, for they are as little used to worshippers as men are to Gods. The Die-hard section, Ares, Zeus himself, Hera, were for dismissing him: better, they said, no worshipper at all than one who had exposed their rents and patches to a mocking world. The beautiful Athene, the confused Apollo leaned by reason to this party: though their instincts lay with Aesculapius, with Hermes, with Prometheus, the modernists, who stoutly pleaded that seas and centuries were considerations to be admitted in argument even by Gods, and that for a reformed Olympus there lay yet a hope in the constituencies. 'Here,' they said, 'is one who has made our question again a living issue. He in Britain, Anatole over there in France, are rousing public interest. Pull yourselves together, provide copy, show yourselves, wear your plaster noses' (Demeter burst into tears), 'become NEWS; and from these Apostles will be born an army at whose head we will regain our provinces.'

Conservatism, of course, carried it. Gods are ever slow to overtake a reform movement. They slipped back again into the Elgin Room, and stood there mutilated but immobile on the dingily-labelled pedestals when the attendants came round with the feather brushes in the morning. Dr. Garnett was born an age too soon or too late.

Yet in these Gods he did virtually believe: his drawing of them is to the life, visualised, with that routine apology of the sensitive dévot who hides his beliefs and his beloved from the arrows of vulgar contempt by dressing them in motley, to evoke not anger but laughter from the crowd. Last and most slippery refuge of faith! but how tender must be the God who is small enough for the worshipper to fondle and protect, and play the shield to! Dr. Garnett's intimacy with his Gods betrays sincerity. Not the last, no doubt, but the latest of the Pagans confesses himself.

The scholarship in these tales is beautiful: so deep, so unobtrusive, so easy and exact. The high-roads of the classic have been much trodden, so that they are become white, straight, dusty tracks. Scholarship which is sure of itself, and not ambitious to go far or fast, often takes more delight in by-ways where there are winding paths, quaint resting-places, a luxuriance of overgrown foliage. Dr. Garnett was a very sure scholar, who had done the plain things and the big things and was tired of them. In this book lies his leisure, as much for our delight as his. It wants no learning to enjoy the Twilight of the Gods; but the more learning you have, the more odd corners and hidden delights you will find in it.

The Gods are the main element. Poisons, the science of toxins, are perhaps third element. Second place, I think, falls to black magic. Here again, so far as my competence extends, Dr. Garnett is serious. His spells are real, his sorcery accurate, according to the best dark-age models. His curious mind must have found another escape from the reading-desk in the attempts of our ancestors to see through the veil of flesh, downwards.

"It will be a tough business," observed the sorcerer. "It will require fumigations."
"Yes," said the bishop, "and suffumigations."
"Aloes and mastic," advised the sorcerer.
"Aye," assented the bishop, "and red sanders."
"We must call in Primeumaton," said the warlock.
"Clearly," said the bishop, "and Amioram."
"Triangles," said the sorcerer.
"Pentacles," said the bishop.
"In the hour of Methon," said the sorcerer.
"I should have thought Tafrac," suggested the bishop, "but I defer to your better judgment."
"I can have the blood of a goat?" queried the wizard.
"Yes," said the bishop, "and of a monkey also."
"Does your Lordship think that one might venture to go so far as a little unweaned child?"
"If absolutely necessary," said the bishop.
"I am delighted to find such liberality of sentiment on your Lordship’s part," said the sorcerer. "Your Lordship is evidently of the profession."

It seems to me that the learned Doctor would have been in some danger, too, if the nineteenth century had been the ninth or the seventeenth.

On the point of scholarship let us give the book a first-class. Ditto in magic, in alchemy, in toxicology; ditto in wit and humour. Yet they say it never sold. As literature my experience (despite Mr. Lane's solitary swallow) is not professional enough to make my opinion of the book worth while. Swinburne loved it: my introduction to it came at second hand from him. Flecker, the inquiring poet, stole his first copy. Mr. Wells, a writer of very different texture, has praised it in print. Wilde's satisfaction is some testimony to the wit. The Yellow Book published some of it. Perhaps all these people borrowed or stole copies: apparently their satisfaction and their praise of it were not enough to exhaust the editions which the publisher offered. Now he is trying an illustrated edition. Such good wine can well endure to be bushed largely; and therefore, apart from that possible twenty guineas, I cannot refuse the opportunity to say clearly, and I hope infectiously, how very much I have enjoyed the book for nearly twenty years; and what a passport to the sympathy of many chance-met literary men my knowledge of it has been.

So please, purchasers-of-this-edition, don't lend your copies too freely. For one thing, you probably won't get them back. It's packed with a delicious callous cruelty, of the playful sort which thrills bookish men. There is an ever-springing irony which provokes smiling. Smiling is decorous in the Reading Room (always think of that), where an open laugh would shatter the air like a stone in a quiet pool. The readers sit all round the edge, like the frogs round the pool; and you know how a large stone floods the water into all their mouths and stops the croaking. This book will make you chuckle: nothing vulgar. There is a polish and perfection of incongruity, like goggles on an aged bust: a wit so fine that its point has reflections down a chain of three or four passages to which the original alludes: allusions recondite, and yet so broad and human that I’ve heard the chuckles spread from the reader across a barrack full of troops. There is finished care side by side with recklessness, mad gaiety over all the marvellous bundle of contradictions. What a brood for the old Reading Room to have hatched!


24th May, 1924

Source: The Twilight of the Gods and OtherTales, 1924
Checked: jw/
Last revised: 14 January 2006

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