SYMBOLISM is a matter that is commonly looked upon as something misty and vague, though its object is rather to express vividly in simple, concrete and familiar terms, the abstract, the unfamiliar, the invisible, and the intangible. The strategist at dinner will explain the course of a battle with a knife and a fork to represent the trenches, breadcrumbs for battalions, and a spoon for headquarters ; not that any of these bear the least resemblance to the things represented, but with the aid of such labels as he gives them in his description a much clearer idea may be formed of the progress of affairs than without such simple aids. These are crude symbols, needing explanation at the outset. The introduction of the child’s wooden soldiers will add a more obviously intelligible symbol than the bread ; and if the knife, fork and spoon are similarly replaced upon a map of the country a truly vivid and realistic idea may be conveyed. The chess board and men doubtless originated in some such ancient Kriegspiel possibly between two strategists at a dinner table.
Such, of course, are simple examples, since to many the things represented by these symbols are as familiar as the symbols themselves. It is different when it is not a familiar thing, but an unfamiliar idea which has to be represented in such ordinary forms that it may be understood through the eye, where an abstract thought has to be presented in a concrete image, so that the unknown may be expressed or indicated by the known.
Symbols that have been used for centuries have in many cases become as familar and as much part of the common stock as the language. It is difficult to say or hear the word ” angel ” without simultaneously forming an image of a winged being, so much so that to many minds it might seem almost a sacrilege to suggest that this form is not an article of faith, though it is no more than an artistic convention by which the idea of a messenger through space is conveyed, a spirit presumably not being dependent on wings with which to cleave the air. Yet the wings convey the idea as nothing else could. Time itself is a conventiona fiction by which we measure movement in space, and is an entirely relative matter. If the world took suddenly to revolving more or less rapidly we should have to recast our standards ; if it stood still could we measure time at all ? The world has come to look upon Time as an old man with a scythe, from the best known symbol employed ; Watts preferred to represent him as a young man marching boldly forward ; it would be quite consistent to represent him as a new born child, the conception of Time being determined by the view of Eternity. Blake, in a playful lyric, sings ” Why was Cupid a boy ” :
And why a boy was he ?
He should have been a girl
For aught that I can see.
Then to make Cupid a boy
Was surely a woman’s plan,
For a boy never learns so much
Till he has become a man.
A great deal might be said for a general recasting of a symbolism that has become so familiar that the freshness of its appeal has vanished. At any rate, those who use old symbols should endeavour to breathe conviction into them, so that they are no longer wooden puppets and stale abstractions, but are informed with living character, with as much spirit as their first creators put into them.
It is a pity that so few traces of a national mythology remain in Britain in the popular mind ; all that remains to it being such few scraps as Shakespeare and Milton have preserved, like Robin Goodfellow, Queen Mab, and Lob-lie-by-the-fire. Our fairy lore seems to be mainly Teutonic, and of comparatively late introduction to the country. In Ireland they still have the Leprechaun, which is firmly believed in ; and being so, is frequently visible to the eyes of faith. But the fairies seem to have flitted away from England, and an alien race of Gods and Goddesses to have taken their place. The merman is forsaken. Even Wordsworth seems to have felt something of this, and might be sighing for the earlier gods of England, though they are foreigners whom he names :
” Great God I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn ;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea ;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.”
Blake invented a huge mythological system of his own for England, both written and drawn, but the English genius is perhaps too matter of fact and unimaginative to use imagery as a means of national expression, having imported its stock ready-made from Palestine and the nearer East and South ; but these have hardly got into the bones and blood of the people themselves, being rather a cult of the Church and the Universities ; Adam and Eve have become acclimatized as a public-house sign, but the ” Rising Sun ” is a more general and more Pagan one, The ” Apollo ” tavern has disappeared, and Britannia, John Bull and Mrs. Grundy are almost all that we have of popular imagery, though St. George, now that the gold coinage is gone, is sometimes seen as a C3 saint on the popular ” Bradburys.”
The Scots personify their rivers and make them talk grimly :
” Tweed says to Till wha’ gars ye rin sae sla’ ? Till says to Tweed, ‘ Where ye droon ae mon I droon twa’,” or something like that. Milton has Sabrina ; but his Severn flows through Italy rather than England, and this personification of trees, rivers, mountains and lakes belongs generally to a cultivated and artificial poetic convention and fancy without conviction, and we have it at last apologetically introduced as in Tennyson’s Brook, which babbles by machinerynot a product of the countryside so much as of the University.