Sacred Texts  Miscellaneous  Index  Previous  Next 

The New Word, by Allen Upward, [1910], at

p. 311



The Swedish Academy.—1. The Palm.

THE task to which the Trustees of this bequest are called is the highest and the most difficult yet offered by a man to men.

If this Will is to be carried out it can only be in spite of many mistakes. Many an impostor, many a charlatan, must receive the Nobel Prize. Others, again, must seem to receive it. The prize must be denied to yonder stately Aeneid swelling with the majesty of Rome, and must be given to what incoherent argument, written in what slave's dialect, by this tentmaker of Tarsus.

For the prophet is only against his will a writer. His utterance is most often broken and disjointed. His words are hints, not definitions, and parables rather than commandments. The spirit that moves him is beyond his own control, and when the virtue has gone out of him he is no more, often he is less, than other men.

The Trustees cannot rely on any aid from outside themselves. For the prophet is not without honour save in his own country, and in his own generation, and in his own Academy.

They cannot carry out the Will without taking

p. 312

the place once held by General Councils, and by Colleges of Pontiffs, whose seat was on another sea. They should, by their bestowal of this legacy, choose between the books of hope, and draw up the canon of the scriptures of the new world. The last canon was drawn up by mobs of howling bishops only kept by Roman soldiery from shedding each other's blood. The new one would be drawn up by a committee of men of letters meeting quietly in the far North to dispose of a sum of money not their own, and thereby helping to shape the new hope of mankind.

Was not something like this in the mind of the Testator; and did it not form part of his purpose that his country should renew her old renown, and become in the new age of peace, as once and again in the past ages of war, the sword and buckler of mankind against the enslavers, of the spirit as of the frame? Did not his vision show him the new Hall of the Aesir, rebuilt in the White City of the North, the City of Hope, to be a refuge and a place of comfort for the exiles of the spirit, whither as to a lighthouse voyagers from all lands should turn their eyes in longing; a hearth of glory—

"Whither, as to a fountain, other stars
 Repair, and in their golden urns draw light."

p. 313


Gentlemen of the Swedish Academy,—

If you should ever so far honour these struggling words as to read them, and, if it may be so, find in them anything not written altogether vainly, you may allow me a last word face to face.

It is written in the book of Mang the Learner, whom we are taught to call Mencius, that the great man is he who has kept his child's heart. You are great men, and therefore you have kept your child's heart, and it is to that heart that I am writing, and not to those great men before whose company I have no title by which I may appear. Give me leave to wrestle with the Child in the Swedish Academy on behalf of a child outside.

The child is my client in this case. I have nothing more to say on behalf of the Idealist. He enters into this matter as the Testator's hireling, and not as his heir. The labourer is worthy of his hire, according to his labour. It is for you to mark out the work, and bestow the hire when it is earned. I ask you now to think of the child.

To spell the word childhood with a capital letter, and make of it a new idol such as that word humanity, would be to bring a new folly into a crowded world. For the child is only the coming man; and the question is how he can be helped most to become the best man.

p. 314

Let us ask him. And listen!—that which we call education, the child himself calls cramming.

When you are setting about the drawing up of that great canon of the books of hope, I ask you not to forget the lesson-books of the child. I know of no books of a more materialistic tendency than most of them are. Think it not too far beneath the dignity of letters to begin the new literature where the child begins. It is the first book that counts. By the time you have written the child's catechism you have half written the man's creed.

Deem it not wrong to think a little of the brightest child, as your Testator thought of the brightest man; the child who is to lead the other children, and, by leading, serve them. Let him be your first care. Give light to him. Let his brain grow. Tear off the bandages that will not let it grow. Unscrew the iron clamps. Give the child freedom to become a man.

Before we can have hopeful books we must have hopeful words. That is the gist of all my argument. Let me leave off with one such word.

It shall be the word palm, which lexicographers tell us is the Latin palma, and means a tree that grows in Africa and the Levant. And on a day called in our kalendar Palm Sunday, African-minded men are taking children into their Latin buildings, and putting into their hands dead leaves from the Levant, and bidding them think of children in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. But the country

p. 315

folk on that day take living flowers, and place them on the tombs of their dead, as a sign of the new life, and they call the day Flowering Sunday.

Now one day in spring, while I was first pondering what I should write to you, I had been reading a book by a French writer, the name of which was The Cathedral. The writer begins by praising the atmosphere of his cathedral, as he says, with its mild, flat air as of a cellar, and its faint smell of oil.—And laying down the book, I walked out in the fields with some friends of mine, and presently we came to a stream, in whose bed I saw some bushes budding and growing; and I happened to ask my friends what they were.

The answer was that they were palms.

I was puzzled. With my Lathamised mind I could not understand this answer. I could only think of the Mediterranean palms. I asked my friends again; and they told me,—"When they are like that the country people call them palms."

As soon as I heard of the country people I knew of course that I was listening to a greater authority on the English language than Doctor Latham. I questioned my friends further, and learned that this name was given, not only to the bushes by the stream, but to others; that it was not the name of the plants, but of the branches, and even more of the buds; that it was not only a noun but a verb, since the country folk say that the willows are palming, when the life within them begins to swell forth.

p. 316

[paragraph continues] And thus I saw that I was dealing with an old, old word, perhaps not the same word with the Latin palma at all, but only spelt the same way by the monks, perhaps a word carried southward by the forefathers of Rome; at any rate a word rooted in the north for ages before the Romans ever heard of Britain.

I followed this word to the Baltic Sea. I found it beside Lake Wetter, bearing the same meaning to the country folk, dressed in the same foreign spelling by the learned. I found that in Finland, where no Roman monk has ever trod, where Christianity is a thing of yesterday, where neither Aryan words nor Latin spellings have taken root, the Finnish folk went forth on a day in spring, and plucked these living palms, and decked their homes with them. And coming back, I found an old man whom I know very well, born in the Isle of Wight, and long a town-dweller, going out on a day in spring, and plucking these very palms, and decking his home with them, without knowing why.—I have not yet been able to persuade any philologist that this immemorial instinct is not, name and thing, a Roman lesson.

And consider how the materialist, by shutting his eyes to the prophetic significance of words, misses even their history. For the key to this old folk word was given to me by a little Swiss child in the Jura, whom I overheard using the name paume for

p. 317

a ball; the old French name which the French wordbooks now confine to the base of the hand, and the game of tennis. And so the expression palm of the hand is seen to have the same origin as ball of the thumb; and we can follow it up to words like pomme and pommel, and the word paumure, the place on a stag's head from which the horns swell and sprout, and thence to the palming willows. Doubtless the country folk know nothing about the Roman incantations of the learned; for them this word is quick and not dead; and in their ears Palming Sunday suggests the renewal of life, and not the worship of dead Mediterranean leaves.

When I had read that tiny riddle it seemed to me that this word palm might be used to sum up the great question of our day. Whether is it better that, when this day in Spring comes round, we should take White children into that Black building, with its mild, flat air as of a cellar, and its faint reek of oil; and put into their hands dried leaves from the Levant; and say to them,—"This is because of what some little Jewish children did two thousand years ago;"—or is it better that we lead them out into the fields, into the fresh air of Heaven; and show to them the true palms; and say to them,—"This is the Day of the Buds. The winter is over, the spring is here, and the Great Life outside us is renewing itself again. We hope that it is telling us that our life, too, will be renewed, and that we shall go on from life to life, ever learning

p. 318

and knowing more of that Great Life that our forefathers called God."

There is the question that Idealism must answer, or perish. The task of Idealism is not to reconcile Science with Religion, which means to drag down the White Man's faith to the level of the Black Man's fancy; but to reconcile Science with Literature, to put closer knowledge into more glorious words, and, in the beginning, to tell children the truth.

What answer the child wants us to give to the question we know already. No man shall ever tell me that the child does not want to be told the truth. The child cannot be silenced. He cannot be got rid of. He is always coming into the world, and he is always asking to be told the truth. Why not tell the child the truth?

Give the child leave to grow. Give the child leave to live. Give the child leave to hope, and to hope truly. He is my client. I have high warrant for what I do. I set him in the midst of the Swedish Academy. He is the plaintiff in this case. I say he is mankind. I say he is the heir of Alfred Bernhard Nobel, and that his birthright is the truth.


Gentlemen of the Swedish Academy, consider of your verdict.

Next: Author's Note for the American Edition