Emerson writes about the character of the English, albeit 150 years or so ago. I find it poignant since so much of the melacholic disposition is ingrained in my disposition, and I am content with that. But I do sometimes wonder what it would be like to have a less rigorous personality, one more capable of lightness of being. That said, I am what I am, and Emerson is still extremely observant and unwittingly hilarious. Quotations are from ‘ English Traits’ written in 1856.
The English race are reputed morose. I do not know that they have sadder brows than their neighbors of northern climates. They are sad by comparison with the singing and dancing nations: not sadder, but slow and staid, as finding their joys at home. They, too, believe that where there is no enjoyment of life, there can be no vigor and art in speech or thought: that your merry heart goes all the way, your sad one tires in a mile……. When he wishes for amusement, he goes to work. His hilarity is like an attack of fever. Religion, the theatre, and the reading the books of his country, all feed and increase his natural melancholy. The police does not interfere with public diversions. It thinks itself bound in duty to respect the pleasures and rare gaiety of this inconsolable nation; and their well-known courage is entirely attributable to their disgust of life……
The reputation of taciturnity they have enjoyed for six or seven hundred years; and a kind of pride in bad public speaking is noted in the House of Commons, as if they were willing to show that they did not live by their tongues, or thought they spoke well enough if they had the tone of gentlemen. In mixed company, they shut their mouths. A Yorkshire mill-owner told me, he had ridden more than once all the way from London to Leeds, in the first-class carriage, with the same persons, and no word exchanged. The club-houses were established to cultivate social habits, and it is rare that more than two eat together, and oftenest one eats alone.
Take them as they come, you shall find in the common people a surly indifference, sometimes gruffness and ill temper; and, in minds of more power, magazines of inexhaustible war, challenging
“The ruggedest hour that time and spite dare bring
To frown upon the enraged Northumberland.”
They are headstrong believers and defenders of their opinion, and not less resolute in maintaining their whim and perversity.
The young men have a rude health which runs into peccant humors. They drink brandy like water, cannot expend their quantities of waste strength on riding, hunting, swimming, and fencing, and run into absurd frolics with the gravity of the Eumenides. …..There are multitudes of rude young English who have the self-sufficiency and bluntness of their nation, and who, with their disdain of the rest of mankind, and with this indigestion and choler, have made the English traveller a proverb for uncomfortable and offensive manners.
They do not wear their heart in their sleeve for daws to peck at. They have that phlegm or staidness, which it is a compliment to disturb. “Great men,” said Aristotle, “are always of a nature originally melancholy.” ‘Tis the habit of a mind which attaches to abstractions with a passion which gives vast results. They dare to displease, they do not speak to expectation. They like the sayers of No, better than the sayers of Yes. Each of them has an opinion which he feels it becomes him to express all the more that it differs from yours. They are meditating opposition. This gravity is inseparable from minds of great resources.
But the English stand for liberty. The conservative, money-loving, lord-loving English are yet liberty-loving; and so freedom is safe: for they have more personal force than any other people. The nation always resist the immoral action of their government.
….and the civil service, in departments where serious official work is done; and they hold in esteem the barrister engaged in the severer studies of the law. But the calm, sound, and most British Briton shrinks from public life, as charlatanism, and respects an economy founded on agriculture, coal-mines, manufactures, or trade, which secures an independence through the creation of real values.
Those real values have been somewhat eroded with the demise of our manufacturing industries, and yet a class of Britons still retain a disdain for the sham of party politics and the tawdry bling of the advertising and marketing , industries, a healthy cynicism of the financial sectors.
For the first time in a long time , the strength of the British spirit emerged during the Olympics, and was nurtured and developed by the brilliance of the opening ceremony. It hasn’t disappeared, it has gone underground and now maybe the time to harness the talent of a nation and to identify the qualities of character and backbone inherent in the English character. We have some battles to win, not least our National Health Service remaining in the hands of the public authority and not privatised out to individual companies; the emergence of education to retake its place in world rankings;the vision to invest in research and innovation, and the leadership to steer our way through a new global landscape .