The Work Of T. M. Kettle
( Originally Published 1919 )
To have written books and to have died in battle has been a common enough fate in the last few years. But not many of the young men who have fallen in the war have left us with such a sense of perished genius as Lieutenant T. M. Kettle, who was killed at Ginchy. He was one of those men who have almost too many gifts to succeed. He had the gift of letters and the gift of politics : he was a mathematician, an economist, a barrister, and a philosopher : he was a Bohemian as well as a scholar : as one listened to him, one suspected at times that he must be one of the most brilliant conversationalists of the age. He lived in a blaze of adoration as a student, and, though this adoration was tempered by the abuse of opponents in his later years, he still had a way of going about as a conqueror with his charm. Had he only had a little ordinariness in his composition to harden him, he would almost certainly have ended as the leading Irish statesman of his day. He was undoubtedly, ambitious of success in the grand style. But with his ambition went the mood of Ecclesiastes, which reminded him of the vanity of ambition. In his youth he adhered to Herbert Spencer's much-quoted saying : " What I need to realize is how infinitesimal' is the importance of anything I can do, and how infinitely important it is that I should do it." But, while with Spencer this was a call to action, with Kettle it was rather a call to meditation, to discussion. He was the Hamlet of modern Ireland. And it is interesting to remember that in one of his early essays he defended Hamlet against the common charge of inability to act," and protested that he was the victim, not of a vacillating will, but of the fates. He contended that, so great were the issues and so dubious the evidence, Hamlet had every right to hesitate. " The commercial blandness," he wrote, "with which people talk of Hamlet's plain duty ' makes one wonder if they recognize such a thing as plain morality. The ' removal ' of an uncle without due process of law and on the unsupported evidence of an unsubpoenable ghost ; the widowing of a mother and her casting-off as unspeakably vile, are treated as enterprises about which a man has no right to hesitate or even to feel unhappy." This is not mere speciousness. There is the commonsense of pessimism in it too.
The normal Irish man of letters begins as something of a Utopian. Kettle was always too much of a pessimist —he himself would have said a realist—to yield easily to romance. As a very young man he edited in Dublin a paper called The Nationist, for which he claimed, above all things, that it stood for " realism " in politics. Some men are driven into revolution by despair : it was as though Kettle had been driven into reform by despair. He admired the Utopians, but he could not share their faith. " If one never got tired," he wrote in a sketch of the International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart in 1907, " one would always be with the revolutionaries, the re-makers, with Fourier and Kropotkin. But the soul's energy is strictly limited ; and with weariness there comes the need for compromise, for ` machines,' for reputation, for routine. Fatigue is the beginning of political wisdom." One finds the same strain of melancholy transmuting itself into gaiety with an epigram in much of his work. His appreciation of Anatole France is the appreciation of a kindred spirit. In an essay called The Fatigue of Anatole France in The Day's Burden he defended his author's pessimistic attitude as he might have defended his own :
A pessimism, stabbed and gashed with the radiance of epigrams, as a thundercloud is stabbed by lightning, is a type of spiritual life far from contemptible. A reasonable sadness, chastened by the music of consummate prose, is an attitude and an achievement that will help many men to bear with more resignation the burden of our century.
How wonderfully, again, he portrays the Hamlet doubts of Anatole France, when, speaking of his bust, he says :
It is the face of a soldier ready to die for a flag in which he does not entirely believe." And he goes on :
He looks out at you like a veteran of the lost cause of intellect, to whose soul the trumpet of defeat strikes with as mournful and vehement a music as to that of Pascal himself, but who thinks that a wise man may be permitted to hearten himself up in evil days with an anecdote after the manner of his master Rabelais.
Kettle himself practised just such a gloom shot with gaiety. He did not, however, share Anatole France's gaiety of unbelief. In some ways he was more nearly, akin to Villiers de l'Isle Adam, with his religion and his love of the fine gesture. Had he been a. Frenchman of an earlier generation, he would have been famous for his talk, like Villiers, in the cafés. Most people who knew him contend that he talked even better than he wrote ; but one gets a good enough example of his ruling mood and attitude in the fine essay called On Saying Good-bye. Meditating on life as " a sustained good-bye," he writes :
Life is a cheap table d'hote in a rather dirty restaurant, with Time changing the plates before you have had enough of anything.
We were bewildered at school to be told that walking was a perpetual falling. But life is, in a far more significant way, a perpetual dying. Death is not an eccentricity, but a settled habit of the universe. The drums of to-day call to us, as they call to young Fortinbras in the fifth act of Hamlet, over corpses piled up in such abundance as to be almost ridiculous. We praise the pioneer, but we praise him on wrong grounds. His strength lies not in his leaning out to new things—that may be mere curiosity —but in his power to abandon old things. All his courage is a courage of adieus,
This meditativeness on the passing nature of things is one of the old moods of mankind. Kettle, however, was one of the men of our time in whom,it has achieved imaginative expression. I remember his once saying, in regard to some hostile criticisms that had been passed on his own ` power to abandon old things " : " The whole world is nothing but the story of a renegade. The bud is renegade to the tree, and the flower to the bud, and the fruit to the flower. Though he rejoiced in change as a politician, however, he bewailed the necessity of change as a philosopher. His praise of death in the essay I have just quoted from is the praise of something that will put an end to changes and good-byes :
There is only one journey, as it seems to me . . . in which we attain our ideal of going away and going home at the same time. Death, normally encountered, has all the attractions of suicide without any of its horrors. The old woman an old woman previously mentioned who complained that " the only bothersome thing about walking was that the miles began at the wrong end "
the old woman when she comes to that road will find the miles beginning at the right end. We shall all bid our first real adieu to those brother-jesters of ours, Time and Space ; and though the handkerchiefs flutter, no lack of courage will have power to cheat or defeat us. " However amusing the comedy may have been," wrote Pascal, " there is always blood in the fifth act. They scatter a little dust in your face ; and then all is over for ever." Blood there may be, but blood does not necessarily mean tragedy. The wisdom of humility bids us pray that in that fifth act we may have good lines and a timely exit ; but, fine or feeble, there is comfort in breaking the parting word into its two significant halves, a Dieu. Since life has been a constant slipping from one good-bye to another, why should we fear that sole good-bye which promises to cancel all its forerunners ?
There you have a passage which, in the light of events, seems strangely prophetic. Kettle certainly got his good lines " at Ginchy. He gave his life greatly for his ideal of a free Ireland in a free Europe.
This suggests that underlying his Hamlet there was a man of action as surely as there was a jester. He was a man with a genius for rising to the occasion—for saying the fine word and doing the fine thing. He compromised often, in accordance with his " realistic " view of things ; but he never compromised in his belief in the necessity of large and European ideals in Ireland. He stood by all good causes, not as an extremist, but as a helper somewhat disillusioned. But his disillusionment never made him feeble in the middle of the fight, He was the sworn foe of the belittlers of Ireland. One will get an idea of the passion with which he fought for the traditional Ireland, as well as for the Ireland of coming days, if one turns to his rhymed reply to a living English poet who had urged the Irish to forget their history and gently cease to be a nation. The last lines of this poem—Reason in Rhyme, as he called it--are his testament to England no less than his call to Europeanism is his testament to Ireland :
Bond, from the toil of hate we may not cease :
That was Kettle's mood to the last. This was the mood that made him regard with such horror the execution of Pearse and Connolly, and the other leaders of the Dublin insurrection. He regarded these men as having all but destroyed his dream of an Ireland enjoying the freedom of Europe. But he did not believe that any English Government possessed the right to be merciless in Ire-land. The murder of Sheehy-Skeffington, who was his brother-in-law, cast another shadow over his imagination from which he never recovered. Only a week before he died he wrote to me from "France : " The Skeffington case oppresses me with horror." When I saw him in the previous July, he talked like a man whose heart Easter Week and its terrible retributions had broken. But there must have been exaltation in those days just before his death, as one gathers from the last, or all but the last, of his letters home :
We are moving up tonight into the battle of the Somme. The bombardment, destruction, and bloodshed are beyond all imagination, nor did I ever think that the valour of simple men could be quite as beautiful as that of my Dublin Fusiliers. I have had two chances of leaving them—one on sick leave and one to take a staff job. I have chosen to stay with my comrades.
There at the end you have the grand gesture. There you have the " good lines " that Kettle had always desired.
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