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The Morals Of Beans
by [?]

“Nine bean-rows will I have there,” cries Mr Yeats in describing his Utopia in The Lake Isle of Innisfree. I have only two. They run east to west between the second-early potatoes and the red-currant bushes. They are broad beans. They are in flower just now, and every flower is a little black-and-white butterfly. That, however, is the good side of the account. If you look closer at them, you will see that each of them appears as if its head had been dipped into coal-dust. There is a congregation of the blackest of all insects hiding in horrid congestion among the leaves and flowers at the top. Compared to them, the green-fly on the roses has almost charm. There is something slummy and unwashed-looking about the black blight. These insects are as foul as a stagnant pond. Though they have wings, they seem incapable of flight. They are microbes of a larger growth–a disease and a desecration. On the other hand, there is one good point about them: they are very stupid. Instead of spreading themselves out along the entire extent of the bean and so lessening their peril, they mass themselves in hordes in the very tops of the plants as though they had all some passionate taste for rocking in the wind like the baby on the tree-top. This is what gives the gardener his opportunity. He has but to walk along the rows, pinching off the top of each plant, and filling his flat little basket (called, I believe, a trug) with them, and lo, the beans are safe, and produce all the finer and fuller pods as a result of their having been stunted.

At this point the moral thrusts out its head. There are those who believe that beans have no morals. To call a man “Old bean” gives him, it is said, a pleasant feeling that he is something of a dog. Gilbert, again, in Patience has a reference to “a not-too-French French bean” that suggests a ribald estimate of this family of plants. The broad bean, on the other hand, seems to me to exude morality–not least, when it parts with its head to save its life. There is no better preacher in the vegetable garden. It is the very Chrysostom of the gospel of frustration–the gospel that a great loss may be a great gain–the gospel that through their repressions men may all the more successfully achieve their ends.

Nor is this gospel confined to the sect of the beans (which are by a happy paradox both broad and evangelical). The apple-trees bear the same message in their unpruned branches–unpruned owing to a long absence from home during the winter. It is an amazing fact–I speak as an amateur–but it is an amazing fact, if it is a fact, that an apple-tree, if it is left to itself, will not grow apples. It has an entirely selfish purpose in life. Its aim is to be a tree, living to itself, producing a multitude of shoots and leaves. It succeeds in living a rich and fruitful life only when the gardener has come with the abhorred shears and lopped its branches till it must feel like a frustrate thing. The fruit is the fruit of frustration. Were it not for this frustration, it would ultimately return to a state of wildness, and would become a crabbed and barren weed, fit only to be a perch for birds.

Thus, it seems to me, the broad bean and the apple-tree are persuasive defenders of civilisation and of those concomitants of civilisation morality and the arts. Heretics frequently arise, both in ethics and in the arts, who say: “No more restraints! Give the bean its head.” There are psycho-analysts who appear to regard frustration as the one serious evil in life, and the apostles of vers libre denounce metre and rhyme because these merely serve to frustrate the natural impulses of the imagination. As a matter of fact, it is this very frustration that gives poetry much of its depth and vehemence. Great genius expresses itself, not in the freedom of formlessness, but in the limitations of form. Shakespeare’s passion turned instinctively to the most frustrative of all poetic forms–that of the sonnet–in order to express itself in perfection. It is, as a rule, those who have nothing to say who wish to say it without the terrible frustrations of form. Obviously, there is a golden mean in the arts as in all things, and there comes a point at which form passes into formalism. Genius requires just enough frustration to increase its vehemence, and so to transmute nature into art. It is possible that some frustration of a comparable kind is needed in order to transmute nature into morality, and that the man who would, in Milton’s phrase, make of his life a poem must submit to commandments as difficult as those of metre or rhyme. It is not merely the Christians and the Stoics who have maintained this; Epicurus himself was a believer in virtue as a means to happiness. This, indeed, is a commonplace written all over the face of nature. There is no great happiness without opposition except for children. The climber struggles with the hill, the rower with the water, the digger with the earth. They are all men who live on the understanding that the pleasures of difficulty are greater even than the pleasures of ease.