The Trumpet

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By G. K. Chesterton.

THE brown fog grew quite red down by the river; the obscurity of it had something instant and menacing, as of something too big and too close to be seen. It was as if the sky had thrust its own huge face into mine. As I groped through this strangling darkness, I distinctly heard from somewhere in the innumerable cells or caverns of that darkness the distinct noise of a trumpet. What it was and whence it came I cannot tell. It may have been some young bugler of the Horse Guards blowing his bugle for fun; it may have been some young angel endeavoring to have a trump of doom and a small day of judgment on his own account. It may have been an Imperialist somewhere in his own top bedroom blowing his country's trumpet or his own. I only know that it was the sound of a trumpet, and I should know it again in the thick of a crashing orchestra of all the instruments upon earth.

* * *

And as I listened for some repetition of the sound there came back into my mind, I cannot tell why, a fragment which I read last week from a report of Mr. H. G. Wells' speech at the City Temple. Mr. H. G. Wells was endeavoring to soothe the audience or congregation on the subject of Socialism. He assured them that Socialism would not be a sudden revolution, the success of which would be announced "with trumpets from Tower Hill." It would be a slow and scientific process, which would gradually adapt itself to us or us to itself.

This, at least, was the substance of his view. It is a view commonly taken by modern thinkers discussing modern tendencies, and it is a view which I for one can never manage either to understand or to endure. Why is it comforting to be told that a thing will come slowly, and alarming to be told that it will come quickly? To my simple mind it would always seem that it all depended what the thing was. It is not against the thing that it is swift, or in its favor that it is slow. On the one hand, energy is all the finer if it is sudden energy. On the other hand, paralysis is not any nicer because it is creeping paralysis.

If Socialism is the best human solution of our hideous modern problem, if Socialism can really make men comfortable without making them comfortable slaves, if it really is a human answer to an inhuman riddle, if its really will lift off all our consciences the unbearable burden and waking nightmare of human poverty, if it will do this without interfering with any necessary human freedom or essential human dignity, then in God's name fight for it, and blow from Tower Hill every trumpet you can find. I shall not blame you if you blow trumpets from the Tower, yes, and fire guns from the Tower for such a fulfilment as that. You have blown trumpets and fired guns for much meaner things.

But if, on the other hand, Socialism has some spiritual quality of slavery, if it is against the instinct of the freedom and ownership of man, if it goes against something ancient in the human heart, then it is no sort of comfort to be told that it will come slowly and without any special shock. If it is slavery, it is no comfort to be told that we shall be slowly enslaved. If it is fundamentally non-human, it is no comfort to be told that we shall be slowly dehumanized. If it is absolutely necessary that my favorite brother should be turned into a chimpanzee, I certainly think that I should prefer him to be turned into a chimpanzee at once, by a magician or a witch out of a fairy tale touching him with a wand. Even that would be more tolerable than sitting down with him to dinner night after night, and seeing every night that he looked a shade more like a chimpanzee than he had looked the night before.

* * *

If Socialism is a rescue, let is come quick; that is the essence of a rescue. If it is a disease, there is nothing pleasant about the idea that it comes slowly, like the worst diseases. In Mr. H. Belloc's Book of Rhymes, just published (it is called "Cautionary Verses for Children," and is intended partly to please children, but more especially to displease politicians)—in this work, I say, there occurs the excellent description of how Jim left his nurse in a crowd and was in consequence eaten by a lion.

With open jaws a lion sprang.

This strikes the note of dogma and revolution, and there is nothing necessarily evil about it. The lion may be the noble lion of mediaeval legend, who spared the weak, especially the virgin and the dead. But having once discovered that the lion was of the cruel and devouring sort, it is no pleasure to us to learn in the simple words of Mr. Belloc that he

Began to eat

The boy, beginning with his feet.

Then the poet, unconsciously alluding surely to the theory of humanity transformed by a slow and scientific process, goes on to say pathetically:

Now just imagine how it feels
When first your toes, and then your heels,
And then by gradual degrees
Your shins and ankles, calves and knees
Are slowly eaten bit by bit.
No wonder Jim detested it!

And no wonder, I should say, humanity has always detested it and will continue to do so. A bad revolution is a much worse evolution. A good evolution would be a much better revolution. Humanity loves the trumpet: the fierce and final note. It cannot understand that sort of semi-Fabian intellect which can take the huge responsibility of scheming for a thing and yet cannot take the responsibility of fighting for it.

Mr. H. G. Wells endeavors to win over the mass of men sitting in the City Temple by saying that he does not mean to blow trumpets of revolution from the Tower. I beg to assure him with tears in my eyes, and with the pathos of a perpetual and perpetually renewed admiration, that he will never win over any real mass of men anywhere until he is prepared to blow trumpets from the Tower. I can only go onward through the fog which seems in parts the color of mud and in parts of blood, but I strain my ears to hear the trumpet. And I have not heard it again.—London Daily News.

  • G. K. Chesterton, “The Trumpet,” Mother Earth 2, no. 12 (February 1908): 562-565.