Edward Carpenter's Autobiography
The Edward Carpenter Archive
by Simon Dawson


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(August 29, 1914).

In offering you our congratulations on the completion of your seventieth year, we would express to you (and we speak, we are sure, the thoughts of a very large number of other readers and friends) the feelings of admiration and gratitude with which we regard your life-work.

Your books, with no aid but that of their own originality and power, have found their way among all classes of people in our own and many other lands, and they have everywhere brought with them a message of fellowship and gladness. At a time when society is confused and overburdened by its own restlessness and artificiality, your writings have called us back to the vital facts of Nature, to the need of simplicity and calmness; of just dealing between man and man; of free and equal citizenship; of love, beauty, and humanity in our daily life.

We thank you for the genius with which you have interpreted great spiritual truths; for the deep conviction underlying all your teaching that wisdom must be sought not only in the study of external nature, but also in a fuller knowledge of the human heart; for your insistence upon the truth that there can be no real wealth or happiness for the individual apart from the welfare of his fellows; for your fidelity and countless services to the cause of the poor and friendless; for the light you have thrown on so many social problems; and for the equal courage, delicacy, and directness with which you have discussed various questions of sex, the study of which is essential to a right understanding of human nature.

We have spoken of your many readers and friends, but in your case, to a degree seldom attained by writers, your readers are your friends, for your works have that rare quality which reveals "the man behind the book," and that personal attraction which results only from the widest sympathy and fellow-feeling. For this, most of all, we thank you the spirit of comradeship which has endeared your name to all who know you, and to many who to yourself are unknown.



In thanking my friends on the occasion of my seventieth birthday (29th August) for the many hearty letters of congratulation I have received, and in particular for the widely signed and very friendly Address which on the same occasion has been presented to me, I should like to say a few words.

At a moment like this when Europe is plunged in a monstrous war one naturally does not wish to dwell on one's own affairs. Yet some of us who have worked for thirty years or more in connection with the great Labour Movement at home and abroad may perhaps be excused if we cannot help looking on the strange events of the last few weeks in a somewhat personal light. For those events surely connect themselves by a kind of logical fatality with that very Labour Movement. They seem to point to the break-up all over Europe of the old framework of society, and (like the Napoleonic wars of a century ago) to bear within themselves the seeds of a new order of things.

Insane commercial and capitalistic rivalry, the piling up of power in the hands of mere speculators and financiers, and the actual trading for dividends in the engines of death all these inevitable results of our present industrial system have now for years been leading up to this war; and in that sense indeed all the nations concerned are responsible for it England no less than the others. But the mad vanity of the Prussian military clique, and its brutal eagerness for imperial expansion at all costs, have precipitated the fatal move. The German Government is now involved in a conflict which the more socialistic section of its population absolutely detests, and for which its masses have little desire or enthusiasm; it is alienating from itself the loyalty of the warm-hearted and very human and brotherly folk whom it professes to represent; and is sowing the seed of its own destruction. Curiously enough too, by supplying the Russian Autocracy with an excuse for gratifying its lust of conquest (an excuse which is welcome no doubt as a means of discounting the revolutionary movement at home) this action of Germany is destined to lead to a disorganization of Russia similar to that which awaits herself.

On the other hand, the same action has already caused an extraordinary and astounding development of solidarity and enthusiasm among the more pacific peoples of Western Europe - this partly no doubt in sheer self-defence, but even more, I think, as an expression of their hatred of militarism and bullying Imperialism. The enormous growth during the past few years of democratic and communal thought and organization on the Continent generally is well known; and the events of which we are speaking have suddenly crystallized that into definite consciousness and into a fresh resolve for the future - the resolve that never again shall the peoples be plunged in the senseless bloodshed of war to suit the ambition or the private interests of ruling classes. Furthermore, in Britain, where, for so long, the forward movement has seemed to hang fire and fail to define itself, we have developed most swiftly and in almost miraculous fashion a whole programme of socialist institutions, and (what is more important) a powerful and democratic sentiment of public honour and duty.

In view of all this it is impossible, as I have said, not to hope for a great move forward - when this present nightmare madness is over among the Western States of Europe towards the consolidation of their respective democracies and the establishment of a great Federation on a Labour basis among them; as well as to expect a sturdy reaction, perhaps amounting to revolution, among the Central and Eastern peoples against the military despotism and bureaucracy from which they have so long suffered. In both these directions, in aiding the Federation of the democracies of the West and in hastening the disruption of the military bureaucracies of the East, England - if she rises to her true genius, and to a far grander conception of foreign policy than she has of late years favoured - will have a great work to do. Nor is it possible to doubt that the new order thus arriving will largely be the outcome of those years of work all over Europe in which the ideal of a generous Common Life has been preached and propagated as against the sordid and self-seeking Commercialism of the era that is passing away.

If in my small way I have done anything towards the social evolution of which I speak, it is I think chiefly due to the fact that I was born in the midst of that Commercial Era, and that consequently my early days were days of considerable suffering. The iron of it, I suppose, entered into my soul. Coming to my first consciousness, as it were, of the world at the age of sixteen (at Brighton in 1860) I found myself and without knowing where I was in the middle of that strange period of human evolution, the Victorian Age, which in some respects, one now thinks, marked the lowest ebb of modern civilized society: a period in which not only commercialism in public life, but cant in religion, pure materialism in science, futility in social conventions, the worship of stocks and shares, the starving of the human heart, the denial of the human body and its needs, the huddling concealment of the body in clothes, the "impure hush" on matters of sex, class-division, contempt of manual labour, and the cruel barring of women from every natural and useful expression of their lives, were carried to an extremity of folly difficult for us now to realize.

As I say, I did not know where I was. I had no certain tidings of any other feasible state of society than that which loafed along the Brighton parade or tittle-tattled in drawing-rooms. I only knew I hated my surroundings. I even sometimes, out of the midst of that absurd life, looked with envy I remember on the men with pick and shovel in the roadway and wished to join in their labour; but between of course was a great and impassable gulf fixed, and before I could cross that I had to pass through many stages. I only remember how the tension and pressure of those years grew and increased as it might do in an old boiler when the steamports are closed and the safety-valve shut down; till at last, and when the time came that I could bear it no longer, I was propelled with a kind of explosive force, and with considerable velocity, right out of the middle of the nineteenth century and far on into the twentieth!

My friends speak of gratitude, and I am touched by these expressions, because I do indeed think the genuine feeling of gratitude is a very human and lovable thing - blessing in a sense both him that gives and him that takes. Yet I confess that somehow, when directed towards myself, I find the feeling difficult to realize. After all, what a man does he does out of the necessity of his nature: one can claim no credit for it, for one could hardly do otherwise. I have sometimes, for instance, been accused of taking to a rather plain and Bohemian kind of life, of associating with manual workers, of speaking at street corners, of growing fruit, making sandals, writing verses, or what not, as at great cost to my own comfort, and with some ulterior or artificial purpose as of reforming the world. But I can safely say that in any such case I have done the thing primarily and simply because of the joy I had in doing it, and to please myself. If the world or any part of it should in consequence insist on being reformed, that is not my fault. And this perhaps after all is a good general rule : namely that people should endeavour (more than they do) to express or liberate their own real and deep-rooted needs and feelings. Then in doing so they will probably liberate and aid the expression of the lives of thousands of others; and so will have the pleasure of helping, without the unpleasant sense of laying any one under an obligation.

And here I think I ought to say (lest by concealing the fact I should seem to be laying my friends under an obligation and obtaining their seventieth-birthday congratulations under false pretences) that only two or three years ago a horny-handed son of toil - a gold-miner from the wilds of South Nevada - came all the way direct to Millthorpe on purpose to tell me that I should yet live for four hundred years! He stayed, curiously enough, but a very few days in this country, and having delivered his message set sail again the next morning but one for his gold-mines and his quartz-crushing. The prophecy I confess was one of rather doubtful comfort either to myself or my friends, but in order to avoid disappointment in case of its fulfilment I think perhaps I ought to mention it.

Anyhow, referring back to those early Victorian days, I now seem plainly to see that if what was working then in my little soul could have been realized in society at large there would have been no need for you to address me the special letter or letters which I have just received - pleasant though they are to me - because you would have understood that in all reason letters equally grateful and full of recognition ought to be addressed to the joiner, the farm-labourer, the dairy-maid, and the washerwoman of your village, or to the soldier fighting now in the ranks. You would have realized that the lives of all of us are so built and founded one on the work of another that it is impossible to assign any credit to one whose name happens to be known, which is not equally due to the thousands or millions of nameless and unknown ones who really have contributed to his work. We literary folk, I need hardly say, think a great deal too much about ourselves and our importance.

This is of course so very obvious that I am persuaded that most of the signatories on this occasion will understand the matter so. And on that understanding I may say to my friends: I accept your expressions with the greatest pleasure. I appreciate the extraordinarily tender and gracious wording of the Address, and I thank you from my heart.


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