The Letter of Lord Chandos

I’m sharing this because I enjoy it: the struggle of putting down feelings into words.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal

The Letter of Lord Chandos

THIS is the letter Philip, Lord Chandos, younger son of the Earl of
Bath, wrote to Francis Bacon, later Baron Verulam, Viscount St. Albans,
apologizing for his complete abandonment of literary ac­tivity.

 

 

For it is, indeed, something entirely un­named, even
barely nameable which, at such moments, re­veals itself to me, filling
like a vessel any casual object of my daily surroundings with an
overflowing flood of higher life. I cannot expect you to understand me
without examples, and I must plead your indulgence for their absurdity.
A pitcher, a harrow abandoned in a field, a dog in the sun, a neglected
cemetery, a cripple, a peasant’s hut-all these can become the vessel of
my revelation. Each of these objects and a thousand others similar, over
which the eye usually glides with a natural indifference, can suddenly,
at any moment (which I am ut­terly powerless to evoke), assume for me a
character so exalted and moving that words seem too poor to describe it.
Even the distinct image of an absent object, in fact, can acquire the
mysterious function of being filled to the brim with this silent but
suddenly rising flood of divine sensation. Recently, for instance, I had
given the order for a copious supply of rat-poison to be scattered in
the milk cellars of one of my dairy-farms. Towards evening I had gone
off for a ride and, as you can imagine, thought no more about it. As I
was trotting along over the freshly-ploughed land, nothing more alarming
in sight than a scared covey of quail and, in the distance, the great
sun sinking over the undulating fields, there suddenly loomed up before
me the vision of that cellar, resounding with the death-struggle of a
mob of rats. I felt everything within me: the cool, musty air of the
cellar filled with the sweet and pungent reek of poison, and the yelling
of the death cries breaking against the mouldering walls; the vain
convulsions of those convoluted bodies as they tear about in confusion
and despair; their frenzied search for escape, and the grimace of icy
rage when a couple collide with one an­other at a blocked-up crevice.
But why seek again for words which I have foresworn! You remember, my
friend, the won­derful description in Livy of the hours preceding the
destruc­tion of Alba Longa: when the crowds stray aimlessly through the
streets which they are to see no more . . . when they bid farewell to
the stones beneath their feet. I assure you, my friend, I carried this
vision within me, and the vision of burning Carthage, too; but there was
more, something more divine, more bestial; and it was the Present, the
fullest, most exalted Present. There was a mother, surrounded by her
young in their agony of death; but her gaze was cast neither toward the
dying nor upon the merciless walls of stone, but into the void, or
through the void into Infinity, accompanying this gaze with a gnashing
of teeth!-A slave struck with help­less terror standing near the
petrifying Niobe must have ex­perienced what I experienced when, within
me, the soul of this animal bared its teeth to its monstrous fate.

Forgive this description, but do not think that it was pity I felt. For
if you did, my example would have been poorly chosen. It was far more
and far less than pity: an immense sympathy, a flowing over into these
creatures, or a feeling that an aura of life and death, of dream and
wakefulness, had flowed for a moment into them-but whence? For what had
it to do with pity, or with any comprehensible concatenation of human
thought when, on another evening, on finding beneath a nut-tree a
half-filled pitcher which a gardener boy had left there, and the pitcher
and the water in it, darkened by the shadow of the tree, and a beetle
swimming on the surface from shore to shor~when this combination of
trifles sent through me such a shudder at the presence of the Infinite,
a shudder running from the roots of my hair to the marrow of mv heels?
What was it that made me want to break into words which, I know, were I
to find them, would force to their knees those cherubim in whom I do not
believe? What made me turn silently away from this place? Even now,
after weeks, catching sight of that nut-tree, I pass it by with a shy
sidelong glance, for I am loath to dispel the memory of the miracle
hovering there round the trunk, loath to scare away the celestial
shudders that still linger about the shrubbery in this neighbourhood! In
these moments an insignificant creature-a dog, a rat, a beetle, a
crippled apple tree, a lane winding over the hill, a moss-covered stone,
mean more to me than the most//beautiful, abandoned mistress of the
happiest night. These mute and, on occasion, inanimate creatures rise
toward me with such an abundance, such a presence of love, that my
enchanted eye can find nothing in sight void of life. Every­thing that
exists, everything I can remember, everything touched upon by my
confused thoughts, has a meaning. Even my own heaviness, the general
torpor of my brain, seems to acquire a meaning; I experience in and
around me a blissful, never-ending interplay, and among the objects
playing against one another there is not one into which I cannot flow.
To me, then, it is as though my body consists of nought but ciphers
which give me the key to everything; or as if we could enter into a new
and hopeful relationship with the whole of exist­ence if only we begin
to think with the heart. As soon, how­ever, as this strange enchantment
falls from me, I find myself confused; wherein this harmony transcending
me and the en­tire world consisted, and how it made itself known to me,
I could present in sensible words as little as I could say any­thing
precise about the inner movements of my intestines or a congestion of my
blood.

About Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a book designer with a Ph.D. in Literature. He's been featured on CNN and spoken at dozens of writing conferences around the world. These days he mostly writes young adult fantasy and science fiction, while helping authors build profitable publishing platforms. Find me

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