The Northern Way

The Culture of the Teutons


things thrill him, and lead him into ecstasy; he feels and feels till his soul is ready to burst – and then pours forth a lyric flood, plaintive and jubilant, wistfully pondering and earnestly exalting all that delights the eye. A religious ecstasy comes over him, he gives himself up to the invisible, grasping and surrendering himself at once, living the invisible as a reality with real joys and real sorrows; he flings himself over into the full experience of mysticism, yet without losing hold of the visible reality – on the contrary, his inner sense takes its fill of the beauty of nature, of delight in the animal life of earth and air.

The violence of life meets an answering passion in himself; he must go with it, must feel his pulses beating in the same hurrying rhythm as that which he feels without and about him. He can never make his pictures vivid enough, rich enough in colour and shades of colour. Beauty overwhelms him, and in his feverish eagerness to let nothing be lost, he loads one picture on another; the terror and grandeur of life excite him till he paints his giants with innumerable heads and every imaginable attribute of dread; his heroes are of supernatural dimensions, with hair of gold or silver, and more than godlike powers.

Little wonder that the Celt often frightens and repels us by his formless exaggeration. He fills us at times with aversion, but only to attract us anew. Exaggeration is a natural consequence of passionate feeling that derives its strength and its character from the sensitiveness of the soul to everything about it, down to the faintest motions in the life of nature and man.

Such a breadth of soul life is unknown among the Norsemen, not even to be found as an exception.

Compared with the Celt, the Northman is heavy, reserved, a child of earth, yet seemingly but half awakened. He cannot say what he feels save by vague indication, in a long, roundabout fashion. He is deeply attached to the country that surrounds him, its meadows and rivers fill him with a latent tenderness; but his home sense has not emancipated itself into love. The feeling for nature rings in muffled tones through his speech and through his myths, but he does not burst into song of the loveliness of the world. Of his relations with women he feels no need


to speak, save when there is something of a practical nature to be stated; only when it becomes tragic does the subject enter into his poetry. In other words, his feelings are never revealed until they have brought about an event; and they tell us nothing of themselves save by the weight and bitterness they give to the conflicts that arise. Uneventfulness does not throw him back upon his inner resources, and never opens up a flood of musings or lyricism – it merely dulls him. The Celt meets life with open arms; ready for every impression, he is loth to let anything fall dead before him. The Teuton is not lacking in passionate feeling, but he cannot, he will not help himself so lavishly to life.

He has but one view of man; man asserting himself, maintaining his honour, as he calls it. All that moves within a man must be twisted round until it becomes associated with honour, before he can grasp it; and all his passion is thrust back and held, until it finds its way out in that one direction. His friendship of man and love of woman never find expression for the sake of the feeling itself; they are only felt consciously as a heightening of the lover's self-esteem and consequently as an increase of responsibility. This simplicity of character shows in his poetry, which is at heart nothing but lays and tales of great avengers, because revenge is the supreme act that concentrates his inner life and forces it out in the light. His poems of vengeance are always intensely human, because revenge to him is not an empty repetition of a wrong done, but a spiritual sell-assertion, a manifestation of strength and value; and thus the anguish of an affront or the triumph of victory is able to open up the sealed depths of his mind and suffuse his words with passion and tenderness. But the limitation which creates the beauty and strength of Teuton poetry is revealed in the fact that only those feelings and thoughts which make man an avenger and furthers the attainment of revenge, are expressed; all else is overshadowed. Woman finds a place in poetry only as a valkyrie or as inciting to strife; for the rest, she is included among the ordinary inventory of life. Friendship, the highest thing on earth among the Teutons, is only mentioned when friend joins hands with friend in the strife for honour and restitution.


There is abundance of passion in the poetry of the Northmen, but it appears only as a geyser, up and down, never bursting out and flowing forth in lyrical streams. Impressive, but grey; powerful, but sober. His epics are marked by a trustworthy simplicity and restraint of imagination keeping well within the bounds drawn by the grand reality of a warlike existence; his heroes are of a size generally comparable to the heroic figures of everyday life, and their powers are but the least possible in advance of ordinary standards. In life there is none of that fever-pulse so characteristic of the Celts, that comes of over-susceptibility, of the tendency to live every moment at the same pace as one's surroundings, or inability to resist the rhythm of one's environment. The Northman's response to impressions from without is so long in coming that it seems as if his movements were dictated solely from within. An impulse from the world without does nor fall deadly on his soul, but its force is arrested, laid in bonds, on impact with his massive personality.

And there is but one passion that can let loose this accumulated force: his passion for honour. For the Northman to be affected by this or that in what he meets depends on something that has happened, something past, and something ahead, an event which has happened to himself or his ancestors, and an event which must be brought to pass for the betterment of himself and his descendants. He does not live in the moment; he uses the moment to reckon out: how can it serve him to the attainment of his end? He does not hate a thing for its own sake, or on his own account; for if he can purchase a chance of revenge by giving up his dislike, he tears his hate away, and where he can gain a chance by enmity, the hate wells up again in undisguised power. This does not mean that the Northman is temporarily beside himself when he is seeking redress for his wrongs.

Surely an avenger is all the time a son, husband, father, a member of a legal community; it is not a question of laying aside his humanity, but on the contrary: this wholesale humanity of his puts on the armour of vengeance and comports itself accordingly.

In these very moments of ruthless self-assertion, the Teuton rises to moral grandeur – herein lies to us the test of under-


standing. There is something in the Northman's attitude towards life which chills away our familiarity at first sight, and if the chill is not felt very acutely nowadays, our complacency is largely due to the romantic literature of the nineteenth century.

By a love, too ready and too undiscerning, the poets and historians have smoothed away the strong and wayward features of the saga men and toned down these bitter figures into recognised heroes and lovers. The old characters have been imperceptibly modernised with a view to making them more acceptable. The hardness and implacability of the Northmen have been pushed into the shade of their heroism and generosity and tacitly condoned as limitations, while the fact is that these qualities are based on the very constitution of their culture. If we are brought up suddenly against their everyday life, we are liable to brand them as narrow and even inhuman, and we do not immediately recognise that what we call poverty and inhumanity means nothing more and nothing less than strength and compactness of character. The ancients are just, pious, merciful, of a moral consistency throughout, but on a foundation such as could not suffice to bear a human life in our own day.

The humanity of the Teuton is not the humanity of the modern European – hence our aloofness that no romantic revival has been able to overcome. In the North, the European hovers about with the gratification and lurking uneasiness of a guest; in Hellas he feels at home. The heroes of Homer are as friends and intimates compared with the vikings; these battling and boasting, suffering and weeping heroes and heroines are more of our own flesh and blood than the purposeful men and women of the sagas. We call them natural and human because they take life bit by bit, finding time to live in the moment, giving themselves up to pleasure and pain and expressing their feelings in words. In Greece we find men whose patriotism and self-seeking egoism and affection take a course sufficiently near our own for both to join and flow together. Even their gods are not so very far from what we in our best moments, and in our worst, ascribe to the higher powers. There is hardly need of any adaptation on our part; the gods and men of ancient Greece


can of themselves enter into us and be transformed. In Hellas we soon learn to recognise, under the alien forms, the aims of our own time; and thus, in the words of Greek poets and philosophers, we constantly catch hints that sound as a still, small voice in times of crisis.

The reason is not far to seek: our intimacy with Hellas is the familiarity of kinship. The main stream of our thoughts and ideals flows from the South; and however far we have drifted from classic standards in many respects, our intellectual and religious history, and no less the development of economical and social Europe, have kept our course in the channel of Hellenism and Hellenistic Rome. For this reason we regard the problems and interpretations of Greed as being eminently human and vital.

We are repelled by the Teutons, because their thoughts will not minister to our private needs; but this instinctive recoil at the same time explains a furtive attraction which was not exhausted by the romantic revival of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The concentration of the Teutons exposes a narrowness of another kind in ourselves; every time we are confronted with a people of another type, a stone in the foundation of our complacency is loosened. We are surprised by an uneasy feeling that our civilization does not exhaust the possibilities of life; we are led to suspect that our problems derive their poignancy from the fact that, at times, we mistake our own reasonings about reality for reality itself. We become dimly aware that the world stretches beyond our horizon, and as this apprehension takes shape, there grows upon us a suspicion that some of the problems which baffle us are problems of our own contrivance; our questionings often lead us into barren fastnesses instead of releasing us into the length and breadth of eternity, and the reason may be that we are trying to make a whole of fragments and not, as we thought, attempting to grasp what is a living whole in itself. And at last, when we learn to gaze at the world from a new point of view, revealing prospects which have been concealed from our eyes, we may perhaps find that Hellas also contains more things, riches as well as mysteries than are dreamt of in our philosophy; after all, we have perhaps been


no less romantic in our understanding of Greece than in our misunderstanding of the Teutons and other primitive peoples.

To appreciate the strength and the beauty of the culture of the ancient Teutons we must realise that their harmony is fundamentally unlike all that we possess or strive for, and consequently that all our immediate praising and blaming are futile. All things considered, we have little grounds for counting ourselves better judges than the classical onlookers. In our sentimental moments we lose ourselves in admiration of the heroism and splendid passion of our forefathers, but in our moments of historical analysis we pride ourselves on styling them barbarians, and this vacillation is in itself sufficient to show that in our appreciation we have not reached the centre whence the Teuton's thoughts and actions drew their life and strength. If we would enter into the minds of other peoples we must consent to discard our preconceived ideas as to what the world and man ought to be. It is not enough to admit a set of ideas as possible or even plausible: we must strive to reach a point of view from which these strange thoughts become natural; we must put off our own humanity as far as it is possible and put on another humanity for the time. We need, then, to begin quietly and modestly from the foundation, as knowing nothing at all, if we would understand what it was that held the souls of these men together, and made them personalities.

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