( Originally Published 1907 )
" I must admit," said the Commoner, " that C.-B. has treated me very handsomely. I attacked him bitterly in the midst of the war. Most men would have remembered it ; he has forgotten it, and when last week he was asked to preside at a meeting I was to address, he consented cheerfully, without a moment's hesitation. Now Rosebery is a man whom you never know how you will catch. He may be all smiles today and tomorrow you will find him cold and remote as an iceberg."
" Yes," said the Peer, " he came down to the House this afternoon to support my motion, and delivered an excellent speech. I met him in the lobby afterwards, stopped him, and thanked him for his support. He turned on his heel without a word and walked away."
" He turned on his heel and walked away." The phrase sums up Lord Rosebery. He is always turning on his heel and walking away now from his friends, now from himself. He is as inconstant as the moon, unstable as water, whimsical as a butterfly. His path leads from nowhere to nowhere. He is like a man lost in the mist on the mountains and having no compass with which to guide his steps. He has all the gifts except the gift of being, able to apply them. Macaulay said of Byron that all the good fairies brought their offerings at his christening; but the one malignant fairy, uninvited, came and turned the gifts of the others to bitterness. And so with Lord Rosebery. He was endowed with all the elements of greatness; but the elements are not enough. They must be compounded into unity by that in-definable something, constant and purposeful, which we call character, and it is the quality of character which Lord Rosebery lacks. And lacking that he lacks all. His gifts are idle ornaments; his life a drama without a sequence and without a theme.
He is the tragedy of unfulfliment. Twenty-five years ago he rode in the lists the most brilliant figure in the land. The sun of Gladstone was near the setting; but here was the promise of the dawn of another day hardly less splendid. Genius and wealth, wit and wisdom, fascination and the gift of incomparable speech all combined and all fused by a young and chivalrous enthusiasm that drew all men's hearts to him. He rode by the side of his great chief in those memorable Midlothian days, a figure of romance carrying the golden key of the golden future. With what enthusiasm we saw him enter the brief Ministry of 1886 as Foreign Minister! With what high hopes we welcomed his splendid championship of the new London County Council, saw him fling himself into the great cause of a regenerated London, saw him sitting seven hours a day in the chair, taking his chocolate in place of a meal! Here was indeed the man to lead us into the Promised Land.
Was it all false, that world of knightly deeds, The splendid quest, the good fight ringing clear? Yonder the dragon. ramps with fiery gorge, Yonder the victim faints and gasps and bleeds; But in his Merry England our St. George Sleeps a base sleep beside his idle spear.
What is the meaning of it all? For answer one recalls that saying of William Johnson, his tutor in his Eton days-" Dalmeny has the finest combination of qualities I have ever seen. He will be an orator, and, if not a poet, such a man as poets delight in. But he is one of those who like the palm without the dust." The palm without the dust." But it is the dust which gives the palm its meaning; it is the race and not the reward that matters. Fortune, with cruel irony, gave him the palm without the pursuit. He found it an emblem of nothing, and he threw it scornfully aside. He had not paid for it in toil and devotion, and he could not value that for which he had not paid.
He has been the spoiled child of fortune the type of the futility of riches, whether of mind or of circumstance, undisciplined in the hard school of struggle. It was as though he had the Midas touch. All things turned to gold beneath his hand. He had but to express a wish and it was fulfilled. He had but to appear and the path was clear before him. That triple ambition which is attributed, to him is true in spirit if not in fact. He would marry the richest heiress in England; he would win the Derby; he would become Prime Minister. He would have the palm, but not the dust. He would have learning; but he would go down rather than sacrifice his racing stud at Oxford. He would have the Premier-ship; but he would not sit on a stool in the Home Office. He would command ; but he would not serve.
It was said of Sir James Picton, that brilliant hero of Waterloo, that he would never have learned to command because he had never learned to obey. Lord Rosebery never learned to obey. He served no apprenticeship to life, and the inconstancy of the brilliant amateur is over all he does. Above all, he served no apprenticeship to politics. Fortune, cruel in its kindness here as always, sent him straight to the House of Lords. Again, the palm without the dust. What a mind, what endowments the man has! " said Mr. Churchill, speaking of him to me.
I feel that if I had his brain I would move mountains. Oh, that he had been in the House of Commons ! There is the tragedy. Never to have come into contact with realities, never to have felt the pulse of things that is what. is wrong with Rosebery."
There is truth in this ; but it is not all the truth. He has, it is true, the petulance and impatience of the unschooled mind. But his real defect as a politician goes deeper than circumstance. It is in his nature. He has the temperament of the artist, not of the politician. The artist lives by the intensity of his emotions and his impressions. The world of things is coloured and transmuted in the realm of his mind. He is subjective, personal, a harp responsive to every breeze that blows. The breath of the May morning touches him to ecstasy; the east wind chills him to the bone. He passes quickly through the whole gamut of emotion, tasting a joy unknown to coarser minds, plunging to depths unplumbed by coarser minds. He is a creature of moods and moments, and spiritually he often dies young. The successful politician is made of sterner and harder stuff. His view is objective, and the less introspection he has the better, for introspection palsies action. He applies his mind to things like a mechanic. They are the material that he moulds to his slow purposes. He is not governed by them, but governs them. He is insensitive to impressions, and, if he has emotions and impulses, has learned, like Gladstone, to be their master and not their slave, to use them and not to be used by them. He is, in fact, a man of business, cold and calculating even in his enthusiasms, not a poet lit with the rose-light of romance. Walpole, Pitt, Chamberlain, Asquith these are the type of the politician. Lord Rosebery's temperament is that of Byron rather than of these.
There is in him, indeed, much of the Byronic instinct for melodrama. He rather enjoys making our flesh creep with, horrific vaticinations and proclaiming " the end of all things " to our affrighted souls. There was a curious illustration of this rhetorical tendency at the dinner of welcome given to the Imperial Press Conference at the White City. His speech was couched in the most forboding vein. Deeper and deeper grew the silence and the gloom as he pictured the menace that encompassed us. And when in a thrilling whisper he spoke of the peace that hung over Europe being charged with such a significant silence that " we might almost hear a leaf fall " we felt a though the German Navy were already off Tilbury docks. And at that moment there was a roar like the roar of a hundred guns outside. For an instant we thought that Lord Rosebery had uttered his warning too late and that our doom was sealed. But then the truth flashed on us. It was ten o'clock the hour at which the fireworks display began in the Exhibition grounds outside. It was Mr. Brock and not the German Navy who was offering his comment on the speech within. It seemed a singularly appropriate comment, conceived in the true spirit of this artist in the histrionics of public life.
It is not difficult to see that to so variable a temperament, political leadership was impossible. The public may enjoy the moods of the artist, but in affairs it demands constancy of mind and distrusts the man of moods. In this it has the true instinct of the child. It was a deep truth that was uttered by the rustic who was asked whether Wordsworth was not fond of children. " Happen he was," he replied, " but they wasn't vara fond o' 'im. He was a man o' moods, thou sees." The man of moods has no welcome in the kingdom of the child and no permanent place in the leadership of men. It is this incalculable quality that has made Lord Rosebery the spendthrift of political friendship. No man in our time has "run through" such a fortune in friends as he has done. His path is strewn with their wreckage. When, like Achilles, he went to his tent, they gathered round him with loyal devotion. They left the titular chief in chill isolation to fight the battle of Liberalism through the bitter years of the war. They sacrificed everything to woo him back to the battle line. They became " Imperialists "; they formed a League in his service; they kept the way clear for his return. When the war was over, " C. B." himself, in the historic interview, besought him to come back. (" I liked Rosebery," he told me, " and took the leadership always hoping to see him back.") " No, no, C. B.," he said, I do not belong to your tabernacle." The more he was importuned the more wayward and impenetrable he became. He continued to speak; but he never spoke without turning his guns on his old friends. Even when the Fiscal issue arose he spoke in unclear tones. " Free Trade was not in the Sermon on the Mount." He flung the mantle of mystery around him, took refuge more and more within himself. His friends hoped against hope. The day of decision was near. Still they waited for him. Then he went down to Bodmin and declared: " I will not serve under that banner." And with that final word he pronounced his political extinction and rehabilitated Liberalism. He had squandered the last penny of his political fortune. He was left a lonely figure in his lonely furrow a political profligate at the end of his resources.
And yet Tout savoir, c'est tout pardonner. Perhaps if we knew all the inner history of that brilliantly futile life the verdict would be given in sorrow and not in anger. It is not for me to raise the curtain on the Rosebery-Harcourt feud. The two were flint and steel. They met only to clash and strike fire. Lord Rosebery would not serve under Sir William in the Home Office. It can be imagined with what feelings the great stalwart of Liberalism saw the young rebel snatch the palm from his grasp in the moment of victory. He took office under him; but the wound rankled, and Sir William could be an ill bedfellow. It was a sorry business," said one who was in that Cabinet to me, " and my sympathies were with Rosebery. He was not well treated." Perhaps there we have the secret of the wasted life. Or perhaps it is in that domestic sorrow that robbed him of the wife to whom he was deeply attached. Or in that cruel affliction of insomnia which has pursued him for long years, making him a night wanderer in search of sleep. One thinks of him taking his carriage under the stars and driving, driving, driving, and of the cheerless dawn breaking on the unslept eyes. Yes, perhaps, to know all would be to understand all.
There he sits on the cross-benches of the House of Lords, his head leaning back on his linked hands, his heavy-lidded light blue eyes fixed in a curious, impassive stare a sphinx whose riddle no man can read, a sphinx gazing bleakly at the
Universal blank of Nature's works,
A lonely man, full of strange exits and entrances, incoherent, inexplicable, flashing out in passionate, melodramatic utterances, disappearing into some remote fastness of his solitary self. The light has vanished from the morning hills, the vision has faded in grey disenchantment. He is the Flying Dutch-man of politics-a phantom vessel floating about on the wide seas, without an anchor and without a port. It is significant that his latest work should deal with " The Last Phase " of Napoleon, for it is that solitary figure standing on the rock of St. Helena and gazing over the sea at the setting sun of whom he most reminds us. Behind, the far-off murmur of the great world where he was once the hero, now lost to him for ever; before, the waste of lonely waters and the engulfing night.