E. M. Forster, the English novelist, short story writer, and essayist whose work was one of my earliest inspirations, remains one of my favorite English authors. Forster’s creed of life can be summed up in two words, “only connect”, taken from the epigraph to his novel, Howard’s End.
The first of Edward Morris Forster’s work I read was his essay, What I Believe, and his words had a very personal affect on me. It seemed as though I had met a new friend with whom I shared a “secret understanding” and felt reassured about my own beliefs.
But, The Celestial Omnibus, the short story published in 1911 with a collection of other stories in a book by the same name touched my soul, affecting me intensely, more than any other writer until that time had. The most impressive statement in the story has to be “For poetry is a spirit, and they that worship it must worship in spirit and in truth.”
The boy in the story easily sees the spirit of poetry, the essence of which is beauty and goodness. He is physically impacted by the imagery of its presence, as illustrated in the following words: “. . . by the glory of the fir and the silver birch and the primrose.” But it is a gift, the boy’s ability to be touched by the poetic. He knew the art before he knew the artist. The art was within him, and all the great writers he came to know through their creations, were kindred spirits who beckoned him to follow them, to indulge himself in the poetic world of imagery until he was totally and completely embraced by it.
Just as the story is filled with biblical allusions, I am struck with one more: “Many are called but few are chosen.” Mr. Bons, in the story, falls into that category, for although he knew the artists intellectually, in his snobbery, and knew all their names, and words, he could never be among the chosen who knew the spirit of the words. He used the great works of art to line his shelves, as decoration, to impress society, to feed his own ego. He could never enter the Kingdom, as the boy could. In fact, it was impossible for him to enter, and impossible for the boy not to.
In all his literacy, Mr. Bons simply missed the point. He is like the pious minister of the gospel who clothes himself in all the holiness, all the rhetoric, all the condescending righteousness he can claim as a “doer of the word” while the Word itself, the primordial Thought, eludes him. Like that minister, Mr. Bons is so blinded by the glare of the Names who wrote the words (or spoke them), so concerned with being ‘cultured’, that he is unable to intercept the Light that penetrates the darkness. He found value in “displaying” the covers of the books: “I believe we have seven Shelleys” he boasted. Mr. Bons idolized London, the “center” of culture, only wanted to see London. For this he lost his life.
I don’t believe, however, that it is possible for everyone to see the rainbow, to hear the tune, to stand upon ‘the living rock.” These things are spiritual, and the spirit, because it is a gift, cannot be “acquired.” But this does not quelch the desire, as demonstrated by the boy, to have everyone we love, or admire, to join us aboard “The Celestial Omnibus.” We are helpless, and sadly, must leave them in their poverty, and watch them starve from the lack of the experience, without “eyes to see or hands to feel, the experiment of earthly life” as Forster wrote in “What I Believe.”