Sunday, 25 February 2018

Why Peasant? - Part 1 - the Ideal

from The Vineyard, Christmas 1918
The phrase 'Haslemere Peasant Arts' tends to be met with puzzlement and derision, so what does the word peasant mean in this respect?  The Peasant Art movement's respect for Tolstoy and Peter Rosegger is a large part of their use of this word I think.  In the editorial titled 'Revival' for the New Series of The Vineyard in Christmas 1918, it is explained thus:

"The word peasant strikes the key note, sets the tune for the whole movement.  But there are certain people who while they irresponsibly enjoy and use the fruits of its craftsmanship, still kick against this word.  It savours of Arcadian affectation; or it suggests nothing livelier than a drab inarticulate agricultural labourer; or, as another cheerfully asserts, "We have no peasants" ; and therewith an end.

"The word as we use it is prophetic rather than descriptive of latter-day English fact.  We chose it because it creates a desirable atmosphere in which to work, and it holds up an ideal.  The peasant as we think of him, and as he is at his best in the less industrial countries and districts, in Norway, Sweden, Brittany, Tuscany, gets the inspiration of his play, his art and his festivals from the same sources as his labour and bread.  He is, in the main, a reverent and resourceful being, blest with energies which are not exhausted in his tussle with nature but still run over in singing and dancing and carving nice patterns on the potato bowl or his baby's cradle.  So was it with the English peasant in other centuries and that although certain of the conditions of his existence were very cruel.  And he made innumerable songs out of his daily life and labour - ploughing, reaping, shearing, lambing, harvesting, courting : songs of such sweetness, pathos and grandeur that a fine musician will travel England over to-day to beg an old labouring man, dying in the workhouse, to sing them to him.

This being so, it is plain that the quality of the stuff of the peasant's life is of first-rate importance.  And now - since the war has so speeded up politics and forestalled our sluggish national evolution that even those people who used to describe the gradual extermination of agriculture by industrialism as "inevitable progress" have been made to understand that a nation cannot live for long without peasantry any more than a tree without roots - it is timely to consider who will be the peasant of the future, and what will be the stuff of their life.

For many centuries, but especially since the beginning of the industrial era, all so-called progressive nations have been ill-using those on whom their life depended, the bread-growers; but none have done this so systematically as England.  Our folk must have been virile and spirited indeed to quit themselves so bravely as fighters, craftsmen, pageant-players, singers and dancers, in spite of feudalism Tudor tyranny, Game laws, Land laws, Poor laws, and Enclosure Acts.  And yet the mediaeval peasant was a freer man than his descendant who sought escape from the worst agricultural conditions in industrialism: at least his hand was the master of his tools, and his outdoor labours were a perennial spring of feeling and fancy.  "Out of the ground God made all things grow, including Art."  Out of the factory might come smoke, strikes, and ultimately higher wages: but God Himself could not make anything grow there.  There the man, the master of tools, became tool of the machine, a hard taskmaster that had no use for his heart, or his hand, except as a slave.

None the less when we consider the countryman's martyrdom in the eighteenth century, we do not wonder that when a note of hope sounded along the green lanes, only too many of them, now serfs once more, tramped away towards "freedom" among the dark satanic mills.  There, in the devitalising or exciting air of factory work and city crowd, the rustic lost his creativeness, his energy for personal play; he blurred his type and forgot his songs.  With those of his kin who stayed behind life went hardly enough.  But here and there among the older folk to-day - in their racy talk, their stoicism, their hedgerow thrifts and humours, their exquisite skill in the arts of thatching, huddle-making, hedge-binding, etc. and among the very young children, too, before the town-made schools have drilled them into uniform clerk hood - we get the gleam and grit of a once great peasantry.

And now the world's war - the fine flower and logical result of mechanical civilisation - has in four short years rushed the race nigh such ruin as the slower, surer processes of industrialism in peace time could have accomplished only one or two more generations.  we still have a population of swarming millions, indeed: but out of that incomparable rally of devoted youth and vigour, beauty and genius, who went into the war, comparatively few have lived long enough to hand on life to children.  This sudden almost irreparable loss it is, rather than the slow attrition of industrialism, that has shocked the sleepiest awake to the urgent need of national repairs, as well for the body as the soul, in the re-planting of peasantry.

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