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´╗┐Title: George Borrow - A Sermon Preached in Norwich Cathedral on July 6, 1913
Author: Beeching, Henry Charles, 1859-1919
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "George Borrow - A Sermon Preached in Norwich Cathedral on July 6, 1913" ***

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Transcribed from the 1913 Jarrold & Sons edition by David Price, email
ccx074@pglaf.org.  Many thanks to the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium
Library, UK, for kindly supplying the images from which this transcription
was made.


::  ::  JULY 6, 1913  ::  ::



   "As for me, I would seek unto God, which doeth great things and
   unsearchable; marvellous things without number."--_Job_ _v._ 8.

You may desire some explanation of why we in this Cathedral, have thought
it right to take part with the city in the public commemoration of George
Borrow.  It is not, of course, merely because he was a devoted lover of
our ancient house, though for that we are not ungrateful.  Nor again is
it merely because he was for the most active years of his life a zealous
servant of the Bible Society; and our Church has taken a special interest
in that society since the day when Bishop Bathurst, first of his
episcopal brethren, appeared upon its platforms side by side with Joseph
John Gurney.  Nor again is it merely because he was an accomplished man
of letters.  Religion and literature indeed have much that is common in
their purpose.  The Church exists to propagate a certain interpretation
of the world and human life.  Literature also exists to interpret life,
and the great literatures of the world have never in their
interpretations shown themselves antagonistic to religion; on the
contrary, they have always tended to discover more and more elements of
permanent value in human life, confirming the Church's message of its
Divine origin and destiny.  But, unhappily, there have always been, and
are still, men of letters whom the Church cannot honour, because their
books, although technically meritorious, take a view of life which is in
our judgment against good morals, or in some other way mischievous.  If,
then, we in this Mother Church claim our share in the commemoration of
George Borrow, it is because he was, as we think, a true seer and
interpreter; because he opened to us fresh springs of delight in the
natural world; because he aroused new and living interest in the lives of
men of many kindreds and tongues; and because he held up to our own
nation an ideal of conduct which could not but benefit those whom it

Let me, as shortly as I can, remind you of some characteristics of that

Every reader of the Old Testament is familiar with the two great types
which the early Israelitish civilisation sets before us again and again
in Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob--the contrast of the
wild and vagabond hunter and the "plain man, dwelling in tents."  These
types as they appear in the Bible have in them a characteristically
Semitic element, but they have still more of our common humanity.  We
observe the two types among our own children, and it is a contrast that
interests us all.  Our affections perhaps go out to the romantic Esau
rather than to his business-like brother; while at the same time we
recognise that the future of civilisation must lie not with the child of
impulse, but with him who can forecast the future and rank something
higher than his momentary whim.  It was this fundamental contrast that
was so interesting to Borrow.  He studied it in the cities and in the
wildernesses of this and many other lands; and because he studied it he
was not content to accept the easy verdict of civilisation that finds
nothing but profanity in Esau, or the equally easy paradox of a return-to-
nature philosophy, which finds all virtue in the noble savage.  Borrow
studied Esau in his wandering life with interested eyes, and won his
confidence and a glimpse of his secret; and he studied Jacob in his
counting house and workshop with no less understanding, if with a less
degree of sympathy; and then he exhibited to his countrymen an ideal
which at the time vexed and disquieted them, because there were elements
in it drawn from both.

Look first at those which he drew from his intercourse with the gipsies.
He was puzzled by the problem of their wonderful persistence.  What could
be its cause?  Their faults were proverbs.  They lived by drawing fools
into a circle and cheating them.  Stealing and lying were first
principles in their code of life.  And yet because Borrow held that
Nature did not forgive faults, much less allow men to profit by them, he
could not but ask whether those gipsies were so thoroughly vicious as was
supposed.  One day, in a conversation with a gipsy girl under a hedge--one
of the strangest talks in the chronicle of literature--he elicited the
fact that domestic honour was held among them to be a primary law, and
female unchastity an unpardonable offence.  And he left that conversation
on record for our admonition.  That, you will say, is no new ideal to
English women.  As an ideal, no.  But our English practice is something
very different.  And we have lived to see literature challenge even the

And then there was the secret, an open one indeed, but hidden from many
Englishmen of Borrow's generation, though it had been recently proclaimed
by the gentle and thoughtful poet who lay buried in Borrow's native town
of Dereham, that though civilisation arose from life in cities, yet the
joy of life was apt to escape the city liver.  The vagabond gipsy had
something which man was the better for having, a delight in the sun and
air and wind and rain.  We in Norwich are not likely to forget those
magical words put into the mouth of the gipsy on Mousehold Heath,
"There's night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars,
brother, all sweet things; there's likewise a wind on the heath.  Life is
very sweet, brother."  Allied with this love of nature was a keen
satisfaction in manly exercises, walking, riding, boxing, swimming, which
Borrow contrasted somewhat scornfully with the baser sports of dog
fighting and cock fighting, then in vogue among gentlemen.  And as a
consequence of this love of the open air and the open country Borrow
found in the gipsies a sense of freedom and independence, and so a self-
respect, which he compared unfavourably with the mingled arrogance and
servility of many city-bred people.

Here then we have some of the elements of the ideal, largely drawn from
the despised gipsies, which Borrow held up before his generation.  He
does not indeed promulgate it as the whole duty of man, though we who
have learned the lesson may think he is apt to over-emphasise it.  He
does not ignore other qualities of manliness.  He holds that from the
root of a self-respecting freedom, if the environment be but favourable,
as with the gipsies it was not, other manly qualities will spring.  From
the strength of self-respect should spring the courage of truthfulness,
and justice, and tenderness, and perseverance.  On the love of truth and
justice I need not dwell; they are conspicuous in every page that Borrow
wrote.  Perseverance is still more emphasised, because it was the main
contribution of Jacob to the human ideal, the quality most lacking in
Esau.  Tenderness may seem to be less evident; and I know it is a common
opinion that Borrow's ideal of life was too self-absorbed to allow of
much sympathy with others.  I think this view is mistaken.  There was
undoubtedly a strong stress laid on the duty of protecting one's own life
and personality from outside influence, and a corresponding stress on the
duty of respect for the independence of others; but where there was a
claim, whether of blood, or friendship, or need, Borrow's ideal admitted
it to the full.  I have wished to confine myself this morning to the
ideal of conduct which Borrow offers us in his books, because it was a
conscious and reasoned ideal, and he wrote to propagate it.  The question
how far he himself attained to his own standard we are right in passing
by unless there was any conspicuous contrast between his theory and his
practice.  But there was no such contrast.  So far as our information
goes, Borrow lived by his ideal resolutely.  His truthfulness and
perseverance and love of justice cannot be questioned; and on the point
of tenderness it is not those who knew him best--his mother, or his wife,
or his friends--who have found him wanting.

Let me pass on to indicate how this ideal connected itself with religion.
The fundamental dogma of Borrow's religion was the providence of God.  So
far as I know, he did not formulate his notion of the purpose of the
world; he accepted the view of St. Paul, that the creation is moving to
some "divine event"; and that within the great scheme there are
numberless subservient ends which man is being urged by Divine admonition
to fulfil.  Such admonitions come to men in many ways; we speak of them
as modes of inspiration; and even those who question the inspiration of
prophets do not refuse the word in speaking of poets and musicians.
Borrow did not question prophetic inspiration in the past, because he
believed in it as a present fact.  He believed that to the man who by
prayer kept himself in touch with the Divine Spirit intimations were
vouchsafed of the Divine will, which brought clear light into the dark
places of life.  He somewhat shocked the good but precise secretary of
the Bible Society by declaring in a letter from Spain that he had been
"very passionate in prayer during the last two or three days," and in
consequence, as he thought, saw his way "with considerable clearness": on
another occasion, by saying that he was "what the world calls exceedingly
superstitious" because he had changed some plan in consequence of a
dream; and again by saying, "My usual wonderful good fortune accompanied
me."  For the last expression he apologised; but, whatever the particular
expression used, there can be no doubt that Borrow was a firm believer in
what our fathers called "particular providences," "leadings of the Divine
Spirit."  He believed, for example, that he was doing the will of God in
circulating the Bible, and he also believed that God made his way plain
for so doing.  We have known since Borrow another great Englishman who
held a similar faith, Charles Gordon; and the lives of both supply so
many instances of what look like acts of special protection, that the
question will present itself to the student of their lives whether there
may not be some such connexion between faith and miracle, as our Saviour
asserted.  At any rate, we shall never understand Borrow if we exclude
from our notion of religion the idea of the miraculous, meaning by that
word not the contravention of natural law, but the providential guidance
of events.

There is one special side of this doctrine of Providence which must be
referred to specially, because Borrow himself calls attention to it in
the curious commentary which he annexed to "The Romany Rye"; the doctrine
so familiar to the last generation in the poems of Browning, that
trouble, to which "man is born, as the sparks fly upward," is ordained by
the Creator as a stimulus to endeavour, because "where least man suffers,
longest he remains."  Some of you may remember that he argues in that
appendix that the old man who had learnt Chinese to distract his mind
would have played but a sluggard's part in life if no affliction had
befallen him, since he had never taken the pains to learn how to tell the
time from a clock.  "Nothing but extreme agony," says Borrow, "could have
induced such a man to do anything useful."  And every one will recall the
passage in "Lavengro" where he speaks of the fit of horrors that attacked
his hero, may we not say himself, when recovering from an illness.  "In
the recollection and prospect of such woe," he asks, "Is it not lawful to
exclaim, 'Better that I had never been born'"?  And he replies, "Fool,
for thyself thou wast not born, but to fulfil the inscrutable decrees of
thy Creator; and how dost thou know that this dark principle is not,
after all, thy best friend; that it is not that which tempers the whole
mass of thy corruption?  It may be, for what thou knowest, the mother of
wisdom and of great works, it is the dread of the horror of the night
that makes the pilgrim hasten on his way.  When thou feelest it nigh, let
thy safety word be 'Onward!'  If thou tarry, thou art overwhelmed.
Courage!  Build great works; 'tis urging thee."

In the passage just quoted Borrow speaks of God's "inscrutable" decrees.
After sitting as a young man at the feet of William Taylor and learning
from him some philosophy and much scepticism, he had come back to the old
Hebrew idea that in religion reverence was the beginning of wisdom.  This
did not mean that he had discarded Western science, or put a bridle upon
his own insatiable curiosity.  No man was more ready to learn what could
anyhow or anywhere be learned.  It meant that when all had been learned
that science could teach, the really vital questions remained still
without an answer, because natural science can throw no light on what
nature itself really is.  The only clue within our reach to that first
and last problem lay, in his judgment, with the simple-hearted and lowly-
minded, those in whom this wonderful world still aroused wonder.  In thus
calling to the soul of man not to lose its power of wonder, Borrow is in
sympathy with the deepest thought of our time.

         For ah! how surely,
   How soon and surely will disenchantment come,
   When first to herself she boasts to walk securely,
   And drives the master spirit away from his home;
   Seeing the marvellous things that make the morning
   Are marvels of every day, familiar, and some
   Have lost with use, like earthly robes, their adorning,
   As earthly joys the charm of a first delight,
   And some are fallen from awe to neglect and scorning. {12}

Let us say then with the ancient seer: "As for me, I would seek unto God;
which doeth great things and unsearchable, marvellous things without


{12}  Robert Bridges, _Prometheus the Firegiver_, 824.

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