V. MERTON ON THE MOORS, 5th March, 1882

Stark Munro Letters

It has been good for me to be here, Bertie. It has brought me in close contact with the working classes, and made me realise what fine people they are. Because one drunkard goes home howling on a Saturday night, we are too apt to overlook the ninety-nine decent folk by their own firesides. I shall not make that mistake any more. The kindliness of the poor to the poor makes a man sick of himself. And their sweet patience! Depend upon it, if ever there is a popular rising, the wrongs which lead to it must be monstrous and indefensible. I think the excesses of the French Revolution are dreadful enough in themselves, but much more so as an index to the slow centuries of misery against which they were a mad protest. And then the wisdom of the poor! It is amusing to read the glib newspaper man writing about the ignorance of the masses. They don’t know the date of Magna Charta, or whom John of Gaunt married; but put a practical up-to-date problem before them, and see how unerringly they take the right side. Didn’t they put the Reform Bill through in the teeth of the opposition of the majority of the so-called educated classes? Didn’t they back the North against the South when nearly all our leaders went wrong? When universal arbitration and the suppression of the liquor traffic comes, is it not sure to be from the pressure of these humble folks? They look at life with clearer and more unselfish eyes. It’s an axiom, I think, that to heighten a nation’s wisdom you must lower its franchise.

I often have my doubts, Bertie, if there is such a thing as the existence of evil? If we could honestly convince ourselves that there was not, it would help us so much in formulating a rational religion. But don’t let us strain truth even for such an object as that. I must confess that there are some forms of vice, cruelty for example, for which it is hard to find any explanation, save indeed that it is a degenerate survival of that war-like ferocity which may once have been of service in helping to protect the community. No; let me be frank, and say that I can’t make cruelty fit into my scheme. But when you find that other evils, which seem at first sight black enough, really tend in the long run to the good of mankind, it may be hoped that those which continue to puzzle us may at last be found to serve the same end in some fashion which is now inexplicable.

It seems to me that the study of life by the physician vindicates the moral principles of right and wrong. But when you look closely it is a question whether that which is a wrong to the present community may not prove to have been a right to the interests of posterity. That sounds a little foggy; but I will make my meaning more clear when I say that I think right and wrong are both tools which are being wielded by those great hands which are shaping the destinies of the universe, that both are making for improvement; but that the action of the one is immediate, and that of the other more slow, but none the less certain. Our own distinction of right and wrong is founded too much upon the immediate convenience of the community, and does not inquire sufficiently deeply into the ultimate effect.

I have my own views about Nature’s methods, though I feel that it is rather like a beetle giving his opinions upon the milky way. However, they have the merit of being consoling; for if we could conscientiously see that sin served a purpose, and a good one, it would take some of the blackness out of life. It seems to me, then, that Nature, still working on the lines of evolution, strengthens the race in two ways. The one is by improving those who are morally strong, which is done by increased knowledge and broadening religious views; the other, and hardly less important, is by the killing off and extinction of those who are morally weak. This is accomplished by drink and immorality. These are really two of the most important forces which work for the ultimate perfection of the race. I picture them as two great invisible hands hovering over the garden of life and plucking up the weeds. Looked at in one’s own day, one can only see that they produce degradation and misery. But at the end of a third generation from then, what has happened? The line of the drunkard and of the debauchee, physically as well as morally weakened, is either extinct or on the way towards it. Struma, tubercle, nervous disease, have all lent a hand towards the pruning off of that rotten branch, and the average of the race is thereby improved. I believe from the little that I have seen of life, that it is a law which acts with startling swiftness, that a majority of drunkards never perpetuate their species at all, and that when the curse is hereditary, the second generation generally sees the end of it.

Don’t misunderstand me, and quote me as saying that it is a good thing for a nation that it should have many drunkards. Nothing of the kind. What I say is, that if a nation has many morally weak people, then it is good that there should be a means for checking those weaker strains. Nature has her devices, and drink is among them. When there are no more drunkards and reprobates, it means that the race is so advanced that it no longer needs such rough treatment. Then the all-wise Engineer will speed us along in some other fashion.

I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about this question of the uses of evil, and of how powerful a tool it is in the hands of the Creator. Last night the whole thing crystallised out quite suddenly into a small set of verses. Please jump them if they bore you.

               WITH EITHER HAND.

               God's own best will bide the test,
                   And God's own worst will fall;
               But, best or worst or last or first,
                   He ordereth it all.
               For ALL is good, if understood,
                   (Ah, could we understand!)
               And right and ill are tools of skill
                   Held in His either hand.
               The harlot and the anchorite,
                   The martyr and the rake,
               Deftly He fashions each aright,
                   Its vital part to take.
               Wisdom He makes to guide the sap
                   Where the high blossoms be;
               And Lust to kill the weaker branch,
                   And Drink to trim the tree.
               And Holiness that so the bole
                   Be solid at the core;
               And Plague and Fever, that the whole
                   Be changing evermore.
               He strews the microbes in the lung,
                   The blood-clot in the brain;
               With test and test He picks the best,
                   Then tests them once again.
               He tests the body and the mind,
                   He rings them o'er and o'er;
               And if they crack, He throws them back,
                   And fashions them once more.
               He chokes the infant throat with slime,
                   He sets the ferment free;
               He builds the tiny tube of lime
                   That blocks the artery.
               He lets the youthful dreamer store
                   Great projects in his brain,
               Until he drops the fungus spore
                   That smears them out again.
               He stores the milk that feeds the babe,
                   He dulls the tortured nerve;
               He gives a hundred joys of sense
                   Where few or none might serve.
               And still he trains the branch of good
                   Where the high blossoms be,
               And wieldeth still the shears of ill
                   To prune and prune His tree.
               So read I this—and as I try
                   To write it clear again,
               I feel a second finger lie
                   Above mine on the pen.
               Dim are these peering eyes of mine,
                   And dark what I have seen.
               But be I wrong, the wrong is Thine,
                   Else had it never been.

I am quite ashamed of having been so didactic. But it is fine to think that sin may have an object and work towards good. My father says that I seem to look upon the universe as if it were my property, and can’t be happy until I know that all is right with it. Well, it does send a glow through me when I seem to catch a glimpse of the light behind the clouds.

And now for my big bit of news which is going to change my whole life. Whom do you think I had a letter from last Tuesday week? From Cullingworth, no less. It had no beginning, no end, was addressed all wrong, and written with a very thick quill pen upon the back of a prescription. How it ever reached me is a wonder. This is what he had to say:—

“Started here in Bradfield last June. Colossal success. My example must revolutionise medical practice. Rapidly making fortune. Have invention which is worth millions. Unless our Admiralty take it up shall make Brazil the leading naval power. Come down by next train on receiving this. Have plenty for you to do.”

That was the whole of this extraordinary letter; it had no name to it, which was certainly reasonable enough, since no one else could have written it. Knowing Cullingworth as well as I did, I took it with reservations and deductions. How could he have made so rapid and complete a success in a town in which he must have been a complete stranger? It was incredible. And yet there must be some truth in it, or he would not invite me to come down and test it. On the whole, I thought that I had better move very cautiously in the matter; for I was happy and snug where I was, and kept on putting a little by, which I hoped would form a nucleus to start me in practice. It is only a few pounds up to date, but in a year or so it might mount to something. I wrote to Cullingworth, therefore, thanking him for having remembered me, and explaining how matters stood.

I had had great difficulty in finding an opening, I said, and now that I had one I was loth to give it up save for a permanency.

Ten days passed, during which Cullingworth was silent. Then came a huge telegram.

“Your letter to hand. Why not call me a liar at once? I tell you that I have seen thirty thousand patients in the last year. My actual takings have been over four thousand pounds. All patients come to me. Would not cross the street to see Queen Victoria. You can have all visiting, all surgery, all midwifery. Make what you like of it. Will guarantee three hundred pounds the first year.”

Well, this began to look more like business—especially that last sentence. I took it to Horton, and asked his advice. His opinion was that I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. So it ended by my wiring back accepting the partnership—if it is a partnership—and to-morrow morning I am off to Bradfield with great hopes and a small portmanteau. I know how interested you are in the personality of Cullingworth—as every one is who comes, even at second hand, within range of his influence; and so you may rely upon it that I shall give you a very full and particular account of all that passes between us. I am looking forward immensely to seeing him again, and I trust we won’t have any rows.

Goodbye, old chap. My foot is upon the threshold of fortune. Congratulate me.