St Jerome Reading in the Countryside, Giovanni Bellini, 1480-85
by Vernon Lee
Sancte Hieronyme, ora pro nobis!
Litany of the Saints.
Hung in my room, in such a manner as to catch my eye on waking, is an excellent photograph of Bellini’s St. Jerome in his Study. I am aware that it is not at all by Bellini, but by an inferior painter called Catena, and I am, therefore, careful not to like it very much. It occupies that conspicuous place not as a work of art but as an aid to devotion. For I have instituted in my mind, and quite apart from the orthodox cultus, a special devotion to St. Jerome as the Patron of Leisure.
And here let me forestall the cavillings of those who may object that Hieronymus, whom we call Jerome (born in Dalmatia and died at Bethlehem about 1500 years ago), was on the contrary a busy, even an overworked Father of the Church; that he wrote three stout volumes of polemical treatises, besides many others (including the dispute “concerning seraphs”), translated the greater part of the Bible into Latin, edited many obscure texts, and, on the top of it all, kept up an active correspondence with seven or eight great ladies, a circumstance alone sufficient to prove that he could not have had much time to spare. I know. But all that either has nothing to do with it or serves to explain why St. Jerome was afterwards rewarded by the gift of Leisure, and is, therefore, to be invoked by all those who aspire at enjoying the same. For the painters of all schools, faithful to the higher truth, have agreed in telling us that: first, St. Jerome had a most delightful study, looking out on the finest scenery; secondly, that he was never writing, but always reading or looking over the edge of his book at the charming tables and chairs and curiosities, or at the sea and mountains through the window; and thirdly, that he was never interrupted by anybody. I underline this item, because on it, above all the others, is founded my certainty that St. Jerome is the only person who ever enjoyed perfect leisure, and, therefore, the natural patron and advocate of all the other persons to whom even imperfect leisure is refused. In what manner this miracle was compassed is exactly what I propose to discuss in this essay. An excellent Roman Catholic friend of mine, to whom I propounded the question, did indeed solve it by reminding me that Heaven had made St. Jerome a present of a lion who slept on his door-mat, after which, she thought, his leisure could take care of itself. But although this answer seems decisive, it really only begs the question; and we are obliged to inquire further into the real nature of St. Jerome’s lion. This formula has a fine theological ring, calling to mind Hieronymus’s own treatise, Of the Nature of Seraphs, and I am pleased to have found anything so suitable to the arrangements of a Father of the Church. Nevertheless, I propose to investigate into the subject of Leisure with a method rather human and earthly than in any way transcendental.
We must evidently begin by a little work of defining; and this will be easiest done by considering first what Leisure is not. In the first place, it is one of those things about which we erroneously suppose that other people have plenty of it, and we ourselves have little or none, owing to our thoroughly realising only that which lies nearest to our eye—to wit, ourself. How often do we not go into another person’s room and say, “Ah! this is a place where one can feel peaceful!” How often do we not long to share the peacefulness of some old house, say in a deserted suburb, with its red fruit wall and its cedar half hiding the windows, or of some convent portico, with glimpses of spaliered orange trees. Meanwhile, in that swept and garnished spacious room, in that house or convent, is no peacefulness to share; barely, perhaps, enough to make life’s two ends meet. For we do not see what fills up, chokes and frets the life of others, whereas we are uncomfortably aware of the smallest encumbrance in our own; in these matters we feel quickly enough the mote in our own eye, and do not perceive the beam in our neighbour’s.
And leisure, like its sister, peace, is among those things which are internally felt rather than seen from the outside. (Having written this part of my definition, it strikes me that I have very nearly given away St. Jerome and St. Jerome’s lion, since any one may say, that probably that famous leisure of his was just one of the delusions in question. But this is not the case. St. Jerome really had leisure, at least when he was painted; I know it to be a fact; and, for the purposes of literature, I require it to be one. So I close this parenthesis with the understanding that so much is absolutely settled.)
Leisure requires the evidence of our own feelings, because it is not so much a quality of time as a peculiar state of mind. We speak of leisure time, but what we really mean thereby is time in which we can feel at leisure. What being at leisure means is more easily felt than defined. It has nothing to do with being idle, or having time on one’s hands, although it does involve a certain sense of free space about one, as we shall see anon. There is time and to spare in a lawyer’s waiting-room, but there is no leisure, neither do we enjoy this blessing when we have to wait two or three hours at a railway junction. On both these occasions (for persons who can profit thereby to read the papers, to learn a verb, or to refresh memories of foreign travel, are distinctly abnormal) we do not feel in possession of ourselves. There is something fuming and raging inside us, something which seems to be kicking at our inner bulwarks as we kicked the cushions of a tardy four-wheeler in our childhood. St. Jerome, patron of leisure, never behaved like that, and his lion was always engrossed in pleasant contemplation of the cardinal’s hat on the peg. I have said that when we are bored we feel as if possessed by something not quite ourselves (much as we feel possessed by a stone in a shoe, or a cold in the head); and this brings me to a main characteristic of leisure: it implies that we feel free to do what we like, and that we have plenty of space to do it in. This is a very important remark of mine, and if it seem trite, that is merely because it is so wonderfully true. Besides, it is fraught with unexpected consequences.
The worst enemy of leisure is boredom: it is one of the most active pests existing, fruitful of vanity and vexation of spirit. I do not speak merely of the wear and tear of so-called social amusements, though that is bad enough. We kill time, and kill our better powers also, as much in the work undertaken to keep off ennui as in the play. Count Tolstoi, with his terrible eye for shams, showed it all up in a famous answer to M. Dumas fils. Many, many of us, work, he says, in order to escape from ourselves. Now, we should not want to escape from ourselves; we ought to carry ourselves, the more unconsciously the better, along ever widening circles of interest and activity; we should bring ourselves into ever closer contact with everything that is outside us; we should be perpetually giving ourselves from sheer loving instinct; but how can we give ourself if we have run away from it, or buried it at home, or chained it up in a treadmill? Good work is born of the love of the Power-to-do for the Job-to-be-done; nor can any sort of chemical arrangements, like those by which Faust’s pupil made Homunculus in his retort, produce genuinely living, and in its turn fruitful, work. The fear of boredom, the fear of the moral going to bits which boredom involves, encumbers the world with rubbish, and exhibitions of pictures, publishers’ announcements, lecture syllabuses, schemes of charitable societies, are pattern-books of such litter. The world, for many people, and unfortunately, for the finer and nobler (those most afraid of ennui) is like a painter’s garret, where some half-daubed canvas, eleven feet by five, hides the Jaconda on the wall, the Venus in the corner, and blocks the charming tree-tops, gables, and distant meadows through the window.
Art, literature, and philanthropy are notoriously expressions no longer of men’s and women’s thoughts and feelings, but of their dread of finding themselves without thoughts to think or feelings to feel. So-called practical persons know this, and despise such employments as frivolous and effeminate. But are they not also, to a great extent, frightened of themselves and running away from boredom? See your well-to-do weighty man of forty-five or fifty, merchant, or soldier, or civil servant; the same who thanks God he is no idler. Does he really require more money? Is he more really useful as a colonel than as a major, in a wig or cocked hat than out of it? Is he not shuffling money from one heap into another, making rules and regulations for others to unmake, preparing for future restless idlers the only useful work which restless idleness can do, the carting away of their predecessor’s litter?
Nor is this all the mischief. Work undertaken to kill time, at best to safeguard one’s dignity, is clearly not the work which one was born to, since that would have required no such incentives. Now, trying to do work one is not fit for, implies the more or less unfitting oneself to do, or even to be, the something for which one had facilities. It means competing with those who are utterly different, competing in things which want a totally different kind of organism; it means, therefore, offering one’s arms and legs, and feelings and thoughts to those blind, brutal forces of adaptation which, having to fit a human character into a given place, lengthen and shorten it, mangling it unconcernedly in the process.
Say one was naturally adventurous, a creature for open air and quick, original resolves. Is he the better for a deliberative, sedentary business, or it for him? There are people whose thought poises on distant points, swirls and pounces, and gets the prey which can’t be got by stalking along the bushes; there are those who, like divers, require to move head downwards, feet in the air, an absurd position for going up hill. There are people who must not feel æsthetically, in order (so Dr. Bain assures us) that they may be thorough-paced, scientific thinkers; others who cannot get half a page or fifty dates by heart because they assimilate and alter everything they take in.
And think of the persons born to contemplation or sympathy, who, in the effort to be prompt and practical, in the struggle for a fortune or a visiting-list lose, atrophy (alas, after so much cruel bruising!) their inborn exquisite powers.
The world wants useful inhabitants. True. But the clouds building bridges over the sea, the storms modelling the peaks and flanks of the mountains, are a part of the world; and they want creatures to sit and look at them and learn their life’s secrets, and carry them away, conveyed perhaps merely in altered tone of voice, or brightened colour of eye, to revive the spiritual and physical hewers of wood and drawers of water. For the poor sons and daughters of men require for sustenance, as well as food and fuel, and intellect and morals, the special mysterious commodity called charm….
And here let me open a parenthesis of lamentation over the ruthless manner in which our century and nation destroys this precious thing, even in its root and seed. Charm is, where it exists, an intrinsic and ultimate quality; it makes our actions, persons, life, significant and desirable, apart from anything they may lead to, or any use to which they can be put. Now we are allowing ourselves to get into a state where nothing is valued, otherwise than as a means; where to-day is interesting only because it leads up to to-morrow; and the flower is valued only on account of the fruit, and the fruit, in its turn, on account of the seed.
It began, perhaps, with the loss of that sacramental view of life and life’s details which belonged to Judaism and the classic religions, and of which even Catholicism has retained a share; making eating, drinking, sleeping, cleaning house and person, let alone marriage, birth, and death, into something grave and meaningful, not merely animal and accidental; and mapping out the years into days, each with its symbolic or commemorative meaning and emotion. All this went long ago, and inevitably. But we are losing nowadays something analogous and more important: the cultivation and sanctification not merely of acts and occasions but of the individual character.
Life has been allowed to arrange itself, if such can be called arrangement, into an unstable, jostling heap of interests, ours and other folk’s, serious and vacuous, trusted to settle themselves according to the line of least resistance (that is, of most breakage!) and the survival of the toughest, without our sympathy directing the choice. As the days of the year have become confused, hurried, and largely filled with worthless toil and unworthy trouble, so in a measure, alas, our souls! We rarely envy people for being delightful; we are always ashamed of mentioning that any of our friends are virtuous; we state what they have done, or do, or are attempting; we state their chances of success. Yet success may depend, and often does, on greater hurrying and jostling, not on finer material and workmanship, in our hurrying times. The quick method, the rapid worker, the cheap object quickly replaced by a cheaper—these we honour; we want the last new thing, and have no time to get to love our properties, bodily and spiritual. ‘Tis bad economy, we think, to weave such damask, linen, and brocade as our fathers have left us; and perhaps this reason accounts for our love of bric-à-brac; we wish to buy associations ready made, like that wealthy man of taste who sought to buy a half-dozen old statues, properly battered and lichened by the centuries, to put in his brand new garden. With this is connected—I mean this indifference to what folk are as distinguished from what they do—the self-assertion and aggressiveness of many worthy persons, men more than women, and gifted, alas, more than giftless; the special powers proportionately accompanied by special odiousness. Such persons cultivate themselves, indeed, but as fruit and vegetables for the market, and, with good luck and trouble, possibly primeurs: concentrate every means, chemical manure and sunshine, and quick each still hard pear or greenish cauliflower into the packing-case, the shavings and sawdust, for export. It is with such well-endowed persons that originates the terrible mania (caught by their neighbours) of tangible work, something which can be put alongside of others’ tangible work, if possible with some visible social number attached to it. So long as this be placed on the stall where it courts inspection, what matter how empty and exhausted the soul which has grown it? For nobody looks at souls except those who use them for this market-gardening.
Dropping metaphor; it is woeful to see so many fine qualities sacrificed to getting on, independent of actual necessity; getting on, no matter why, on to the road to no matter what. And on that road, what bitterness and fury if another passes in front! Take up books of science, of history and criticism, let alone newspapers; half the space is taken up in explaining (or forestalling explanations), that the sage, hero, poet, artist said, did, or made the particular thing before some other sage, hero, poet, artist; and that what the other did, or said, or made, was either a bungle, or a plagiarism, or worst of all—was something obvious. Hence, like the bare-back riders at the Siena races, illustrious persons, and would-be illustrious, may be watched using their energies, not merely in pressing forward, but in hitting competitors out of the way with inflated bladders—bladders filled with the wind of conceit, not merely the breath of the lungs. People who might have been modest and gentle, grow, merely from self-defence, arrogant and aggressive; they become waspish, contradictory, unfair, who were born to be wise and just, and well-mannered. And to return to the question of Charm, they lose, soil, maim in this scuffle, much of this most valuable possession; their intimate essential quality, their natural manner of being towards nature and neighbours and ideas; their individual shape, perfume, savour, and, in the sense of herbals, their individual virtue. And when, sometimes, one comes across some of it remaining, it is with the saddened feeling of finding a delicate plant trampled by cattle or half eaten up by goats.
Alas, alas, for charm! People are busy painting pictures, writing poems, and making music all the world over, and busy making money for the buying or hiring thereof. But as to that charm of character which is worth all the music and poetry and pictures put together, how the good common-sense generations do waste it.
Now I suspect that Charm is closely related to Leisure. Charm is a living harmony in the individual soul. It is organised internally, the expression of mere inborn needs, the offspring of free choice; and as it is the great giver of pleasure to others, sprung probably from pleasure within ourselves; making life seem easier, more flexible, even as life feels in so far easier and more flexible to those who have it. Now even the best work means struggle, if not with the world and oneself, at least with difficulties inanimate and animate, pressure and resistance which make the individual soul stronger, but also harder and less flower-like, and often a trifle warped by inevitable routine. Hence Charm is not the nursling of our hours of work, but the delicate and capricious foster-child of Leisure. For, as observed, Leisure suspends the pull and push, the rough-and-ready reciprocity of man and circumstance. ‘Tis in leisure that the soul is free to grow by its own laws, grow inwardly organised and harmonious; its fine individual hierarchism to form feelings and thoughts, each taking rank and motion under a conscious headship. ‘Tis, I would show, in leisure, while talking with the persons who are dear, while musing on the themes that are dearer even than they, that voices learn their harmonious modes, intonation, accent, pronunciation of single words; all somehow falling into characteristic pattern, and the features of the face learn to move with that centred meaning which oftentimes makes homeliness itself more radiant than beauty. Nay more, may it not be in Leisure, during life’s pauses, that we learn to live, what for and how?
Life’s Pauses. We think of Leisure in those terms, comparing it with the scramble, at best the bustle, of work. But this might be a delusion, like that of the moving shore and the motionless boat. St. Jerome, our dear patron of Leisure, is looking dreamily over the top of his desk, listening to the larks outside the wide window, watching the white sailing clouds. Is he less alive than if his eyes were glued to the page, his thoughts focussed on one topic, his pen going scratch-scratch, his soul oblivious of itself? He might be writing fine words, thinking fine thoughts; but would he have had fine thoughts to think, fine words to write, if he had always been busy thinking and writing, and had kept company not with the larks and the clouds and the dear lion on the mat, but only with the scratching pen?
For, when all is said and done, ’tis during work we spend, during leisure we amass those qualities which we barter for ever with other folk, and the act of barter is life. Anyhow, metaphysics apart, and to return to St. Jerome. This much is clear, that if Leisure were not a very good thing, this dear old saint would never have been made its heavenly patron.
But your discourse, declares the stern reader or he of sicklier conscience, might be a masked apology for idleness; and pray how many people would work in this world if every one insisted on having Leisure? The question, moralising friend, contains its own answer: if every one insisted on a share of Leisure, every one also would do a share of work. For as things stand, ’tis the superfluity of one man which makes the poverty of the other. And who knows? The realisation that Leisure is a good thing, a thing which every one must have, may, before very long, set many an idle man digging his garden and grooming his horses, many an idle woman cooking her dinner and rubbing her furniture. Not merely because one half of the world (the larger) will have recognised that work from morning to night is not in any sense living; but also because the other half may have learned (perhaps through grumbling experience) that doing nothing all day long, incidentally consuming or spoiling the work of others, is not living either. The recognition of the necessity of Leisure, believe me, will imply the recognition of the necessity of work, as its moral—I might say its hygienic, as much as its economic, co-relative.
For Leisure (and the ignorance of this truth is at the bottom of much ennui)—Leisure implies a superabundance not only of time but of the energy needed to spend time pleasantly. And it takes the finest activity to be truly at Leisure. Since Being at Leisure is but a name for being active from an inner impulse instead of a necessity; moving like a dancer or skater for the sake of one’s inner rhythm instead of moving, like a ploughman or an errand-boy, for the sake of the wages you get for it. Indeed, for this reason, the type of all Leisure is art.
But this is an intricate question, and time, alas! presses. We must break off this leisurely talk, and betake ourselves each to his business—let us hope not to his treadmill! And, as we do so, the more to enjoy our work if luckily useful, the less to detest it if, alas! as so often in our days, useless; let us invoke the good old greybeard, painted enjoying himself between his lion and his quail in the wide-windowed study; and, wishing for leisure, invoke its patron. Give us spare time, Holy Jerome, and joyful energy to use it. Sancte Hieronyme, ora pro nobis!
Essay first published in Limbo and Other Essays, by Vernon Lee, 1897
About the Author:
Vernon Lee (14 October 1856 – 13 February 1935) was a British writer.