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The Glory Of English Prose
Sir William Butler
by Coleridge, Stephen


My Dear Antony,

Like the author of the Peninsular War, Sir William Butler was great both as a soldier and as a writer. His autobiography sparkles with humour, irony, and felicitous diction; but it was in his Life of Gordon of Khartoum that he rose to his full stature as a contributor to the glory of English prose.

The spell of Gordon seems to have, as it were, transfigured all who approached him, and raised them out of themselves. One man alone, of all those whose lives touched his, has shown that his own pinched and narrow mediocrity was proof against the radiance of Gordon's spirit, and has feebly attempted to belittle the soldier saint for his own justification. But he has failed even to project a spot upon the sun of Gordon's fame, and he is already forgotten, while the great soldier's name will endure in the hearts of his countrymen till England and its people fail.

If Sir William Butler's final noble periods, which I here reproduce, do not deeply move him who reads them, then must that reader have a heart of stone:—
"Thus fell in dark hour of defeat a man as unselfish as Sidney, of courage dauntless as Wolfe, of honour stainless as Outram, of sympathy wide-reaching as Drummond, of honesty straightforward as Napier, of faith as steadfast as More. Doubtful indeed is it if anywhere in the past we shall find figure of knight or soldier to equal him, for sometimes it is the sword of death that gives to life its real knighthood, and too often the soldier's end is unworthy of his knightly life; but with Gordon the harmony of life and death was complete, and the closing scenes seem to move to their fulfilment in solemn hush, as though an unseen power watched over the sequence of their sorrow.

"Not by the blind hazard of chance was this great tragedy consummated; not by the discord of men or from the vague opposition of physical obstacle, by fault of route or length of delay, was help denied to him. The picture of a wonderful life had to be made perfect by heroic death. The moral had to be cut deep, and written red, and hung high, so that its lesson could be seen by all men above strife and doubt and discord. Nay, the very setting of the final scenes has to be wrought out in such contrast of colour that the dullest eye shall be able to read the meaning of it all. For many a year back this soldier's life has been a protest against our most cherished teaching. Faith is weakness, we have said. He will show us it is strength. Reward is the right of service. Publicity is true fame. Let us go into action with a newspaper correspondent riding at our elbow, or sitting in the cabin of the ship, has been our practice. He has told us that the race should be for honour, not for 'honours,' that we should 'give away our medal,' and that courage and humility, mercy and strength, should march hand in hand together. For many a year we have had no room for him in our councils. Our armies knew him not; and it was only in semi-savage lands and in the service of remote empires he could find scope for his genius. Now our councils will be shamed in his service, and our armies will find no footing in our efforts to reach him. We have said that the Providence of God was only a calculation of chances; now for eleven months the amazing spectacle will be presented to the world of this solitary soldier standing at bay, within thirty days' travel of the centre of Empire, while the most powerful kingdom on the earth—the nation whose wealth is as the sands of the sea, whose boast is that the sun never sets upon its dominions—is unable to reach him—saving he does not want—but is unable to reach him even with one message of regret for past forgetfulness.

"No; there is something more in all this than mistake of Executive, or strife of party, or error of Cabinet, or fault of men can explain. The purpose of this life that has been, the lesson of this death that must be, is vaster and deeper than these things. The decrees of God are as fixed to-day as they were two thousand years ago, but they can be worked to their conclusion by the weakness of men as well as by the strength of angels.

"There is a grey frontlet of rock far away in Strathspey—once the Gordons' home—whose name in bygone times gave a rallying-call to a kindred clan. The scattered firs and wind-swept heather on the lone summit of Craig Ellachie once whispered in Highland clansmen's ear the warcry, 'Stand fast! Craig Ellachie.' Many a year has gone by since kith of Charles Gordon last heard from Highland hilltop the signal of battle, but never in Celtic hero's long record of honour has such answer been sent back to Highland or to Lowland as when this great heart stopped its beating, and lay 'steadfast unto death' in the dawn at Khartoum. The winds that moan through the pine trees on Craig Ellachie have far-off meanings in their voices. Perhaps on that dark January night there came a breath from heaven to whisper to the old Highland rock, 'He stood fast! Craig Ellachie.'

"The dust of Gordon is not laid in English earth, nor does even the ocean, which has been named Britannia's realm, hold in 'its vast and wandering grave' the bones of her latest hero. Somewhere, far out in the immense desert whose sands so often gave him rest in life, or by the shores of that river which was the scene of so much of his labour, his ashes now add their wind-swept atoms to the mighty waste of the Soudan. But if England, still true to the long line of her martyrs to duty, keep his memory precious in her heart—making of him no false idol or brazen image of glory, but holding him as he was, the mirror and measure of true knighthood—then better than in effigy or epitaph will his life be written, and his nameless tomb become a citadel to his nation. "
The statue of Gordon stands in noble reverie in Trafalgar Square, at the centre of the Empire for whose honour he died.

In St. Paul's Cathedral he lies in effigy, and engraven upon the cenotaph can be seen the most splendid epitaph in the world.

His true greatness has been recorded by Sir William Butler in resounding and glorious English; and his last great act of stainless nobility has received a deathless tribute.

Your loving old,
G.P.

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