Swan Song: In Winchester Cathedral

The town seemed an old place. There was something in a cathedral, too; and after breakfast he went to it. The chancel was in activity — some choir practice or other. He entered noiselessly, for his boots were rubbered against damp, and sat down at the point of balance. With chin uplifted, he contemplated the arches and the glass. The place was rather dark, but very rich — like a Christmas pudding! These old buildings certainly gave one a feeling. He had always had it with St. Paul’s. One must admit at least a continuity of purpose somewhere. Up to a point — after that he wasn’t sure. You had a great thing, like this, almost perfect; and then an earthquake or an air-raid, and down it went! Nothing permanent about anything, so far as he could see, not even about the best examples of ingenuity and beauty. The same with landscape! You had a perfect garden of a country, and then an ice-age came along. There was continuity, but it was always changing. That was why it seemed to him extremely unlikely that he would live after he was dead. He had read somewhere — though not in The Times — that life was just animated shape, and that when shape was broken it was no longer animated. Death broke your shape and there you were, he supposed. The fact was, people couldn’t bear their own ends; they tried to dodge them with soft sawder. They were weak-minded. And Soames lowered his chin. They had lighted some candles up there in the chancel, insignificant in the daylight. Presently they would blow them out. There you were again, everything was blown out sooner or later. And it was no good pretending it wasn’t. He had read the other day, again not in The Times, that the world was coming to an end in 1928, when the earth got between the moon and the sun — it had been predicted in the Pyramids — some such scientific humbug! Well, if it did, he, for one, wouldn’t much mind. The thing had never been a great success, and if it were wiped out at one stroke there would be nothing left behind anyway; what was objectionable about death was leaving things that you were fond of behind. The moment, too, that the world came to an end, it would begin again in some other shape, anyway — that, no doubt, was why they called it “world without end, Amen.” Ah! They were singing now. Sometimes he wished he had an ear. In spite of the lack, he could tell that this was good singing. Boys’ voices! Psalms, too, and he knew the words. Funny! Fifty years since his church-going days, yet he remembered them as if it were yesterday! “He sendeth the springs into the rivers; which run among the hills.” “All beasts of the fields drink thereof; and the wild asses quench their thirst.” “Beside them shall the fowls of the air have their habitation; and sing among the branches.” They were flinging the verses at each other across the aisle, like a ball. It was lively, and good, vigorous English, too. “So is the great and wide sea also, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts.” “There go the ships, and there is that Leviathan, whom Thou hast made to take his pastime therein.” Leviathan! That word used to please him. “Man goeth forth to his work, and to his labour, until the evening.” He certainly went forth, but whether he did any work, any labour, was the question, nowadays. “I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being.” Would he? He wondered. “Praise thou the Lord, O my soul, praise the Lord.” The singing ceased, and Soames again lifted up his chin. He sat very still — not thinking now; lost, as it were, among the arches, and the twilight of the roof. He was experiencing a peculiar sensation, not unpleasant. To be in here was like being within a jewelled and somewhat scented box. The world might roar and stink and buzz outside, strident and vulgar, childish and sensational, cheap and nasty — all jazz and cockney accent, but here — not a trace of it heard or felt or seen. This great box — God-box the Americans would call it — had been made centuries before the world became industrialised; it didn’t belong to the modern world at all. In here everyone spoke and sang the King’s English; it smelt faintly of age and incense; and nothing was unbeautiful. He sat with a sense of escape.

—John Galsworthy, Swan Song [A Modern Comedy, The Forsyte Chronicles]

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