Read CHAPTER IV. - THE POET AND THE PALAEONTO-THEOLOGIST of 'That Very Mab' , free online book, by Andrew Lang., on

     ’Puis nous fût dit que chose estrange ne leur sembloit estre
     deux contradictoires Vrayes en mode, en figure, et en
     temps.’  Pantagruel, v. xxii.

Moved by an uncontrollable impulse, they all three rushed out into the garden; and far beyond them, in the sunlight, they did indeed catch one parting gleam of gauzy wings, as the fairy vanished.  When the professor led the way into the room again, and, rather crestfallen, looked at the tall empty bottle and the stopper, which in his hurry he had thrown down upon the floor.

‘She is gone!’ sobbed the child.  ’My beautiful Dala.  I shall never see her again.’

He was right; the professor and the theologian, between them, had scared Queen Mab away pretty successfully.  She would certainly never revisit that part of the city if she could help it.  The divine looked uncomfortable.  In spite of himself he had recognised something strange and unusual in the appearance of this last capture of his friend’s butterfly-net, and almost unconsciously he began to ponder on the old theory that the Evil One might occasionally disguise himself as an angel of light.  The poet, meanwhile, was more voluble.

‘Your soul is sordid!’ he said indignantly to the professor.  ’You have no eyes for the Immaterial, the intangibly Ideal, that lies behind the shadowy and deceptive veil that we call Matter.’

‘My soul,’ said the professor with equal indignation, ’that is, if I have got one, is as good as yours.’

‘No, it isn’t,’ said the poet; ’I am all soul, or nearly all.  You are nothing but a mass of Higher Protoplasm.’

‘No one need wish to be anything better.  I should like to know,’ cried the professor angrily, ‘where we should all be without Protoplasm.’

‘My friends,’ said the theologian, still rather confused, ’this heat is both irreverent and irrational.  Protoplasm is invaluable, but is it not also transient?  The flight of that butterfly may well remind us-

‘Stop!’ interrupted the philosopher. ’Was it a butterfly?  Now I come to think of it, I hardly know whether to refer it to the lepidoptera or not.  At all events, it is a striking example of the manner in which natural and sexual selection, continued through a series of epochs, can evolve the most brilliant and graceful combinations of tint and plumage, by simple survival of the favourable variations.’

‘It is indeed,’ suggested the theologian, ’a remarkable proof of the intelligent construction of the universe, and of the argument from design, that this insect should have been framed with such exquisite perfection of form and colour to delight the eyes of the theologian.’

‘Not at all,’ said the professor irritably.  ’It was to delight the eyes of butterflies of the opposite sex.  It is no more an argument from design than I am!’

‘Do stop that!’ said the poet.  ’How can a fellow write a sonnet with you two for ever sparring away at your musty scholasticisms?  Haven’t we heard enough about Paley and Darwin?  You have frightened away the fairy between you, and that is plenty of mischief for one day.

’Fair denizen of deathless ether, doomed For one brief hour to languish and repine.

Entombed?  That will do, but I’m afraid there are not many more rhymes to “doomed.”  “Loomed,” “boomed,” “exhumed,” “well-groomed.”  My thoughts won’t flow, hang it all!’

‘You are an argument for design,’ said the theologian, taking no notice of the poet, ’though you won’t admit it.  Why won’t you take up with my scientific religion?-a religion, you know, that can be expressed with equal facility by emotional or by mathematical terms.  It is as easy, when you once understand it, as the first proposition in Euclid.  You have two points, Faith and Reason, and you draw a straight line between them.  Then you must describe an equilateral triangle-I mean a scientific religion, on the straight line, F R-between Faith and Reason.’

‘Oh!’ said the professor.  ‘How do you do it?’

‘First,’ said the theologian hopefully, ’taking F as your centre, F R as your radius, describe the circle of Theology.  Then, taking R as your centre, F R as your radius, describe the circle of Logic.  These two circles will intersect at Science, indicated in the proposition by the point S. Join together S F, and then join S R, and you will have the equilateral triangle of a scientific religion on the line F R S.’

‘Prove it,’ said the professor grimly.

‘Science and Faith,’ replied the theologian readily, ’equal Faith and Reason, because they are both radii of the same circle, Man being the Radius of the Infinite.  Theology-

‘Stop!’ ejaculated the professor in the utmost indignation.  ’What do you mean by it?  I never in my life listened to such unmitigated nonsense.  Who gave you leave to talk of a scientific religion as an equilateral triangle?  If it is a triangle at all, which there is not the remotest reason to suppose-but I cannot argue with you?  You might as well call it a dodecahedron, or the cube root of minus nothing.’

‘Oh, very well,’ said the theologian with exasperating coolness.  ’I thought it possible that even your blind prejudice might not refuse to listen to a simple mathematical demonstration of the possibility of a true scientific religion, but I find that I was mistaken.  I am not annoyed-not at all.  I prefer to look with lenity upon this outburst of passion, which might, I admit, have roused the anger of a theologian of the old school.  But, believe me, I personally feel towards you no enmity-only the profoundest compassion.’

Inarticulate sound from the professor.

‘I find in you,’ continued the theologian with benevolence, ’much to tolerate, much even to admire.  I regret that, formerly, some of my predecessors may have been led, by your aggressive and turbulent spirit, to form unnecessarily harsh judgments of your character, and put unnecessarily tight thumbscrews on your thumbs; but as for me, I desire to win you by sympathy and affection and physico-theological afternoon parties, not to coerce you by vituperation.  Your eye of Reason, as I have often observed, is already sufficiently developed; supplement it with the eye of Faith, and you will be quite complete.  It will then only remain for you to learn which objects it is necessary to view with which eye, and carefully to close the other.  This takes a little practice (which must not be attempted in Society), but I am sure that a person of your attainments will easily master the difficulty.  We will then joyfully receive you into our ranks.  No sacrifice on your part will be required; you will retain the old distinction of F.R.S., of which you have always been justly proud; but we shall take the liberty of conferring upon you the additional privilege of the honorary title of D.D.’

The professor uttered a brief but trenchant observation, on which the theologian was about to launch down a reply, less brief but equally trenchant.  But the poet, as his fate would have it, struck in, in the capacity of a lightning conductor, and succeeded in turning the wrath of both combatants upon his own devoted head.

‘If you must quarrel,’ he cried, ’pray don’t quarrel here.  You would fight on the very peaks of Parnassus.  I can’t think of a word that will rhyme except “design.”  Stop, now I have it: 

’Bright messenger of the Celestial Nine, Now in translucent ambience entombed.’

Celestial Nine is commonplace, but what can a man do in this region of trivial souls?  Soar, my mind!  What does “ambience” mean, by the way?  Never mind, if the Sublime is unfettered by literal meaning, all the better for the Sublime!’

At this the divine and the philosopher turned upon him together, as they were wont to do every now and then.

‘This laxity of terms,’ said the professor, ’is unscientific and unpractical.’

‘I am a poet,’ said the poet, ’I bow to no narrow machinery of definitions.  Words have a gemlike beauty and colour of their own.  They are not merely the signs of ideas-of thoughts.’

‘I wish they were!’ groaned the professor.  ‘They are with us.’

‘The idea,’ continued the poet, ’must conform to the word, when the word honours the idea by making use of it.  What care I for the conventional, the threadbare significance?  My heart recognises, through the outer vestment of apparent insanity, the inner adaptability.  Soar, my mind!’

‘And in this way,’ said the professor sternly, ’ignoring the great principles of classification and generalisation, you let a chaos of disordered ideas abroad upon the universe, destroying all method and definite arrangement and retarding the great progress of Evolution!’

‘A jewel-like word, a transfigured phrase,’ replied the poet, ’is worth all your scientific dictionaries and logic threshing-machines put together.  Ruskin was in error.  He tells us that Milton always meant what he said, and said exactly what he meant.

’This had been an ignoble exactitude.  How can a man whose words are unbounded confine himself within the limits of an intellectual bound?

How can he, that is to say, know exactly what he means, in words, or mean exactly what, to souls less gloriously chaotic, his words appear to express?  I have always felt this an insuperable difficulty.’

‘I have no doubt of it,’ said the professor ironically.  ‘Now,’ he went on, turning to the theologian, ’you see what comes of having too much soul.  It is impossible but that such fixed attention to any one organ should prove injurious, even if the organ is not there.  You really have a great deal to answer for, in encouraging this kind of monomania.’

‘Not a bit of it,’ said the theologian indignantly.  ’It comes of not having soul enough, or of allowing the sway the soul should exercise to fall upon the feeble sceptre of imagination.  If our misguided young friend had been thoroughly grounded in Paley’s Evidences and scientific primers-for these should never be separated-do you think we should have heard anything about his chaotic soul?  Not a bit of it.  It would all have been as clear as an opera-glass, or as Mr. Joseph Cook’s theory of Solar Light.  Why didn’t his parents give him my “Mathematical Exposition of Orthodoxy for Children,” or my “The Theology of Euclid,” on his birthdays, instead of Hans Andersen’s “Fairy Tales” and the “Tales from the Norse?” It was very remiss of them.’

‘On the contrary,’ said the professor, ’I should have recommended the entire elimination of doctrinal matter from his studies.  I should have guided him to a thorough investigation of the principle of all the Natural Sciences, with especial devotion to one single branch, as Botany or Conchology, and an entire mastery of its terminology I should have urged our gifted but destitute of all scientific method friend to the observation and definition of objective phenomena, rather than to subjective analysis, and turned his reflections-

‘Flow, my words!’ said the poet dreamily.  ‘Soar, my mind!’

He had flung himself into the solitary armchair in a graceful and distraught pose, and with half-closed eyes had fallen into a reverie.  The divine and the professor stood and gazed at him despondently.

‘Such,’ said the divine, ’are the consequences of the lack of sound ethical and eclectic principles in our day and generation!’

‘Such,’ said the professor, ’are the pernicious results of a classical training, the absence of a spirit of scientific research and a broad and philosophical mental culture.’

Those readers who have not yet perused the poet’s sonnet may recognise it, of course, by the first line: 

     ‘Fair denizen of deathless ether, doomed.’

It attracted a good deal of attention at the time.  The public were informed, in the ‘Athaeenum,’ that the poet was engaged on a sonnet, and the literary world was excited, but, not having the key, could not make out what on earth it meant.  Meanwhile the professor’s paper in ‘Nature,’ which appeared in the course of the same week, being written from a wholly different standpoint, did not tend to elucidate the mystery.  The latter merely described the locality in which the fairy, or butterfly, as the professor called it, was found, and the circumstances of its capture and escape, with such an account of its manifold peculiarities, and the reasons to suppose it an entirely new genus, that Epping Forest was as much haunted for the next two or three months by naturalists on the watch, as by ’Arries making holiday.  Our professor himself visited the fairy’s pond several times, in the company of the poet, with whom he soon patched up a reconciliation.  But Queen Mab, in the meantime, had taken her departure.

The professor also sent to the ‘Spectator’ an account of the Origin of Religion, as developed by his little boy, under his very eyes.  But the editor thought, not unnaturally, that it was only the professor’s fun, and declined to publish it, preferring an essay on the Political Rights of the Domesticated Cat.