Hilaire Belloc: On Unkown People



You will often hear it said that it is astonishing such and such work should be present and enduring in the world, and yet the name of its author not known; but when one considers the variety of good work and the circumstances under which it is achieved, and the variety of taste also between different times and places, one begins to understand what is at first so astonishing.

There are writers who have ascribed this frequent ignorance of ours to all sorts of heroic moods, to the self-sacrifice or the humility of a whole epoch or of particular artists: that is the least satisfactory of the reasons one could find. All men desire, if not fame, at least the one poor inalienable right of authorship, and unless one can find very good reasons indeed why a painter or a writer or a sculptor should deliberately have hidden himself one must look for some other cause.

Among such causes the first two, I think, are the multiplicity of good work, and its chance character. Not that any one ever does very good work for once and then never again--at least, such an accident is extremely rare - but that many a man who has achieved some skill by long labour does now and then strike out a sort of spark quite individual and separate from the rest. Often you will find that a man who is remembered for but one picture or one poem is worth research. You will find that he did much more. It is to be remembered that for a long time Ronsard himself was thought to be a man of one poem.

The multiplicity of good work also and the way in which accident helps it is a cause. There are bits of architecture (and architecture is the most anonymous of all the arts) which depend for their effect to-day very largely upon situation and the process of time, and there are a thousand corners in Europe intended merely for some utility which happen almost without deliberate design to have proved perfect: this is especially true of bridges.

Then there is this element in the anonymity of good work, that a man very often has no idea how good the work is which he has done. The anecdotes (such as that famous one of Keats) which tell us of poets desiring to destroy their work, or, at any rate, casting it aside as of little value, are not all false. We still have the letter in which Burns enclosed 'Scots wha' hae,' and it is curious to note his misjudgment of the verse; and side by side with that kind of misjudgment we have men picking out for singular affection and with a full expectation of glory some piece of work of theirs to which posterity will have nothing to say. This is especially true of work recast by men in mature age. Writers and painters (sculptors luckily are restrained by the nature of their art - unless they deliberately go and break up their work with a hammer) retouch and change, in the years when they have become more critical and less creative, what they think to be the insufficient achievements of their youth: yet it is the vigour and the simplicity of their youthful work which other men often prefer to remember. On this account any number of good things remain anonymous, because the good writer or the good painter or the good sculptor was ashamed of them. ...

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