Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Boreham on The Supremacies of Life

Life has a wonderful way of tapering majestically to its climax. It narrows itself up towards its supremacies, like a mountain rising to its snow-capped summit in the skies. Our supreme interests assert themselves invincibly at the last. Our master passions are 'in at the death.' Let us glance at a pair of extraordinarily parallel illustrations.

Paul is awaiting his last appearance before Nero. The old apostle is caught and caged at last. He is writing his very last letter. He expects, if spared, to spend the winter in a Roman dungeon. 'Do your very best,' he says to Timothy, ‘to come to me before winter.' 'And,' he adds, 'the cloak that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments’!

Under circumstances almost exactly similar Paul's great translator, William Tyndale, was lying in his damp cell at Vilvorde awaiting the fatal stroke which set his spirit free a few weeks later. And, as in Paul's case, winter was coming on. 'Bring me,' he writes, `a warmer cap, something to patch my leggings, a woollen shirt, and, above all, my Hebrew Bible'!

Especially the parchments!
Above all, my Hebrew Bible!

The emphasis is upon the especially and upon the above all. Paul knows how isolated he will feel in his horrid cellar, and he twice begs his young comrade to hurry to his side. He knows how cold he will be, and he pleads for his cloak. He knows how lonely will be his incarceration, and he says, 'Bring the books'! Yet he feels that, after all, these do not represent the supremacies of life. It is not on these that he is prepared to make his final stand. 'But especially the parchments'! Much as he yearns for the clasp of Timothy's hand, he is prepared, if needs be, to face the stern future alone. Much as he longs for his warm tunic to shelter his aged limbs, he is prepared, if needs be, to sit and shiver the long winter through. Gladly as he would revel in his favourite authors, he is prepared, if needs be, to sit counting the links in his chain and the stones in the wall. But the parchments! These are life's supreme, essential, indispensable requisites. These represent life's irreducible minimum. 'Especially the parchments'! `Above all, my Hebrew Bible'! These are the supremacies of life.

The hero of romance erects a pyramid upon its apex. He sets out in life with one or two friends. He soon multiplies the number. He counts them, as the years pass, by the score and by the hundred. And he dies at last in the possession of friendships which can be numbered by the thousand. It is a false note. The thing is untrue to experience. `The first true gentleman that ever breathed' found His path thronged with friends at the outset. But, as time wore on, they wore off. 'Many of His disciples went back, and walked no more with Him.' Twelve remained, such as they were; but even that remnant must be sifted, and of the twelve a selection had to be made. And into the chamber of death, and up to the Mount of Transfiguration, and into the Garden of Gethsemane 'Jesus taketh with Him Peter and James and John.' The pyramid is narrowing up towards its apex. And when He passes from Gethsemane to Golgotha John alone stands by the cross, and even he had wavered. `And Jesus said unto John, Son, behold thy mother.' It had tapered sharply to the unit at last. `Especially John.'

Sir William Robertson Nicoll has a story of an old Scotsman who lay a-dying. His little room was crowded with friends. Presently a number of them rose and quietly left. There remained his old wife, Jean, and the trusted companions of a long pilgrimage. As his frame became more feeble and his eye more dim one after another reverently rose, lifted the worn old latch silently, and left the room. At last the old man pressed the withered hand in which his own was clasped, and whispered faintly: 'They will a' gang: you will stay!' And at last he and she were the sole occupants of the little chamber. `Especially Jean.' Which things are an allegory. The pyramid narrows to its apex. Life contracts towards its supremacies. 'Especially the parchments'! 'I have hosts of friends,' wrote Lord Macaulay in one of his beautiful letters to his sister, 'but not more than half a dozen the news of whose death would spoil my breakfast.' And of that half-dozen he would probably at a later stage have made a selection. Friendship has its supremacies.

The same is, of course, true of our libraries. Like the apostle, we are all fond of books; but our book-shelves dwindle in intensity as they grow in extensity. As life goes on we accumulate more and more volumes, but we set more and more store on a few selected classics of the soul. The number of those favourites diminishes as the hair bleaches. We have a score; a dozen; and at length three. And if the hair gets very white, we find the three too many by two. 'Especially the parchments'!

Sir H. M. Stanley set out upon his great African exploration with quite a formidable library. One cannot march eighteen hours a day under an equatorial sun, and he gave a prudent thought to the long encampments, and armed himself with books. But books are often heavy—in a literal as well as in a literary sense. And one by one his native servants deserted him (the pyramid towering towards its apex). And, as a consequence, Stanley was compelled to leave one treasured set of volumes at this African village, and another at that, until at last he had but two books left—Shakespeare and the Bible. And we have no doubt that, had Africa been a still broader continent than it actually is, even Shakespeare would have been abandoned to gratify the curiosity of some astonished Hottentots or pigmies.

It all comes back to that pathetic entry in Lockhart's diary at Abbotsford: 'He [Sir Walter Scott] then desired to be wheeled through his rooms in the bath-chair. We moved him leisurely for an hour or more up and down the hall and the great library. "I have seen much," he kept saying, "but nothing like my ain hoose—give me one turn more!"

Next morning he desired to be drawn into the library and placed by the central window, that he might look down upon the Tweed. Here he expressed a wish that I should read to him. I asked, from what book. He said, "Need you ask? There is but one!" I chose the fourteenth chapter of St. John's Gospel.' He listened with mild devotion, and, when Lockhart had finished reading of the Father's house and the many mansions, he said, 'That is a great comfort!' The juxtaposition of phrases is arresting: `In the great library'—'there is but one book!' The pyramid stood squarely upon its solid foundation, but it towered grandly and tapered finely towards its narrow but majestic summit.

'Come,' says Paul the Aged, `for I am lonely; bring the cloak, for I am old and cold; bring the books, for my mind is hungry; but, oh, if all these fail, send the parchments!' Especially the parchments! Life's supremacies must always conquer and claim their own at the last.

F W Boreham, ‘The Supremacies of Life’, The Luggage of Life (London: Charles H Kelly, 1913), 40-45.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: “Like a mountain rising to its snow-capped summit in the skies.”