From At Large, 1908
By Arthur Christopher Benson
Some philosophers have devoted time and thought to tracing backwards all our emotions to their primal origin; and it is undoubtedly true that in the intensest and most passionate relationships of life—the love of a man for a woman, or a mother for a child—there is a large admixture of something physical, instinctive, and primal. But the fact also remains that there are unnumbered relationships between all sorts of apparently incongruous persons, of which the basis is not physical desire, or the protective instinct, and is not built up upon any hope of gain or profit whatsoever. All sorts of qualities may lend a hand to strengthen and increase and confirm these bonds; but what lies at the base of all is simply a sort of vital congeniality. The friend is the person whom one is in need of, and by whom one is needed. Life is a sweeter, stronger, fuller, more gracious thing for the friend’s existence, whether he be near or far: if the friend is close at hand, that is best; but if he is far away, he is still there, to think of, to wonder about, to hear from, to write to, to share life and experience with, to serve, to honor, to admire, to love…
Of course, it does sometimes happen that we think we have made a friend, and on closer acquaintance we find things in him that are alien to our very being; but even so, such a friendship often survives, if we have given our heart, or if affection has been bestowed upon us—affection which we cannot doubt. Some of the richest friendships of all are friendships between people whose whole view of life is sharply contrasted; and then what blessed energy can be employed in defending one’s friend, in explaining him to other people, in minimizing faults, in emphasizing virtues!
Who shall explain the extraordinary instinct that tells us, perhaps after a single meeting, that this or that particular person in some mysterious way matters to us? The person in question may have no attractive gifts of intellect or manner or personal appearance; but there is some strange bond between us; we seem to have shared experience together, somehow and somewhere; he is interesting, whether he speaks or is silent, whether he agrees or disagrees. We feel that in some secret region he is congenial. Est mihi nescio quid quod me tibi temperat astrum, says the old Latin poet—’There is something, I know not what, which yokes our fortunes, yours and mine.’ Sometimes indeed we are mistaken, and the momentary nearness fades and grows cold. But it is not often so. That peculiar motion of the heart, that secret joining of hands, is based upon something deep and vital, some spiritual kinship, some subtle likeness.
Of course, we differ vastly in our power of attracting and feeling attraction. I confess that, for myself, I never enter a new company without the hope that I may discover a friend, perhaps the friend, sitting there with an expectant smile. That hope survives a thousand disappointments; yet most of us tend to make fewer friends as time goes on, partly because we have not so much emotional activity to spare, partly because we become more cautious and discreet, and partly, too, because we become more aware of the responsibilities which lie in the background of a friendship, and because we tend to be more shy of responsibility. Some of us become less romantic and more comfortable; some of us become more diffident about what we have to give in return; some of us begin to feel that we cannot take up new ideas—none of them very good reasons perhaps; but still, for whatever reason, we make friends less easily. The main reason probably is that we acquire a point of view, and it is easier to keep to that, and fit people in who accommodate themselves to it, than to modify the point of view with reference to the new personalities. People who deal with life generously and large-heartedly go on multiplying relationships to the end.
Of course, as I have said, there are infinite grades of friendship, beginning with the friendship which is a mere camaraderie arising out of habit and proximity; and everyone ought to be capable of forming this last relationship. The modest man, said Stevenson, finds his friendships ready-made; by which he meant that if one is generous, tolerant, and ungrudging, then, instead of thinking the circle in which one lives inadequate, confined, and unsympathetic, one gets the best out of it, and sees the lovable side of ordinary human beings. Such friendships as these can evoke perhaps the best and simplest kind of loyalty. It is said that in countries where oxen are used for ploughing in double harness, there are touching instances of an ox pining away, and even dying, if he loses his accustomed yoke-fellow. There are such human friendships, sometimes formed on a blood relationship, such as the friendship of a brother and a sister; and sometimes a marriage transforms itself into this kind of camaraderie, and is a very blessed, quiet, beautiful thing.
And then there are infinite gradations, such as the friendships of old and young, pupils and masters, parents and children, nurses and nurslings, employers and servants, all of them in a way unequal friendships, but capable of evoking the deepest and purest kinds of devotion: such famous friendships have been Carlyle’s devotion to his parents, Boswell’s to Johnson, Stanley’s to Arnold; till at last one comes to the typical and essential thing known specially as friendship—the passionate, devoted, equal bond which exists between two people of the same age and sex; many of which friendships are formed at school and college, and which often fade away into a sort of cordial glow, implying no particular communion of life and thought. Marriage is often the great divorcer of such friendships, and circumstances generally, which suspend intercourse; because, unless there is a constant interchange of thought and ideas, increasing age tends to emphasize differences. But there are instances of men, like Newman and Fitzgerald, who kept up a sort of romantic quality of friendship to the end.
I remember the daughter of an old clergyman of my acquaintance telling me a pathetic and yet typical story of the end of one of these friendships. Her father and another elderly clergyman had been devoted friends in boyhood and youth. Circumstances led to a suspension of intercourse, but at last, after a gap of nearly thirty years, during which the friends had not met, it was arranged that the old comrade should come and stay at the vicarage. As the time approached, her father grew visibly anxious, and coupled his frequent expression of the exquisite pleasure which the visit was going to bring him with elaborate arrangements as to which of his family should be responsible for the entertainment of the old comrade at every hour of the day: the daughters were to lead him out walking in the morning, his wife was to take him out drives in the afternoon, and he was to share the smoking-room with a son, who was at home, in the evenings—the one object being that the old gentleman should not have to interrupt his own routine, or bear the burden of entertaining a guest; and he eventually contrived only to meet him at meals, when the two old friends did not appear to have anything particular to say to each other. When the visit was over, her father used to allude to his guest with a half-compassionate air:— ‘Poor Harry, he has aged terribly—I never saw a man so changed, with such a limited range of interests; dear fellow, he has quite lost his old humor. Well, well! it was a great pleasure to see him here. He was very anxious that we should go to stay with him, but I am afraid that will be rather difficult to manage; one is so much at a loose end in a strange house, and then one’s correspondence gets into arrears. Poor old Harry! What a lively creature he was up at Trinity to be sure!’ Thus with a sigh dust is committed to dust.
‘What passions our friendships were!’ said Thackeray to Fitzgerald, speaking of University days. There is a shadow of melancholy in the saying, because it implies that for Thackeray at all events that kind of glow had faded out of life. Perhaps—who knows?—he had accustomed himself, with those luminous, observant, humorous eyes to look too deep into the heart of man, to study too closely and too laughingly the seamy side, the strange contrast between man’s hopes and his performances, his dreams and his deeds. Ought one to be ashamed if that kind of generous enthusiasm, that intensity of admiration, that vividness of sympathy die out of one’s heart? Is it possible to keep alive the warmth, the color of youth, suffusing all the objects near it with a lively and rosy glow? Some few people seem to find it possible, and even add to it a kind of rich tolerance, a lavish affectionateness, which pierces even deeper, and sees even more clearly, than the old partial idealization. Such a large-hearted affection is found as a rule most often in people whose lives have brought them into intimate connection with their fellow-creatures—in priests, doctors, teachers, who see others not in their guarded and superficial moments, but in hours of sharp and poignant emotion. In many cases the bounds of sympathy narrow themselves into the family and the home—because there only are men brought into an intimate connection with human emotion; because to many people, and to the Anglo-Saxon race in particular, emotional situations are a strain, and only professional duty, which is a strongly rooted instinct in the Anglo-Saxon temperament, keeps the emotional muscles agile and responsive.
Another thing which tends to extinguish friendships is that many of the people who desire to form them, and who do form them, wish to have the pleasures of friendship without the responsibilities. In the self-abandonment of friendship we become aware of qualities and strains in the friend which we do not wholly like. One of the most difficult things to tolerate in a friend are faults which are similar without being quite the same…It [is] a case of each desiring the unalloyed pleasure of an admiring friendship, without accepting the responsibility of discovering that the other was not perfection, and bearing that discovery loyally and generously. For this is the worst of a friendship that begins in idealization rather than in comradeship; and this is the danger of all people who idealize. When two such come together and feel a mutual attraction, they display instinctively and unconsciously the best of themselves; but melancholy discoveries supervene; and then what generally happens is that the idealizing friend is angry with the other for disappointing his hopes, not with himself for drawing an extravagant picture…
The truth is that a friendship cannot be formed in the spirit of a tourist, who is above all in search of the romantic and the picturesque. Sometimes indeed the wandering traveller may become the patient and contented inhabitant; but it is generally the other way, and the best friendships are most often those that seem at first sight dully made for us by habit and proximity, and which reveal to us by slow degrees their beauty and their worth.
Last updated: July 24, 2016