The Celestial Omnibus

by E. M. Forster

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 877

E. M. Forster has filled this modern fantasy with wordplay and hidden allusions that allow it to function as an allegory on literary snobbery. The unnamed protagonist, a boy, has begun to discover the joy of literature; untutored, he plunges ahead uncritically and appreciates the popular and the classical with equal enthusiasm. He is, however, spiritually imprisoned in his parents’ suburban home in “Surbiton,” Agathox Lodge, appropriately a corruption of agathos, the Greek word for “good.”

The adults who surround the boy merely stifle his curiosity. For example, when he naïvely asks the meaning of the sign that points toward a blind alley but reads “To Heaven,” his flustered mother answers that it had been placed there by “naughty young men.” She elaborates, though she still does not answer, by adding that one of them wrote verse and was expelled from the university, an oblique reference to Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mr. Bons (“snob” spelled backward), a family friend and frequent guest, wants the adults to know that he has caught the reference, though he does not tell the boy what he wants to know. The boy innocently admits that he has never heard of Shelley, and Mr. Bons is aghast (“no Shelley in the house?”). There are “at least” two Shelleys in the house—not, however, collections of Shelley’s poems but rather framed prints, both of which were wedding presents. (Mr. Bons has seven Shelleys.)

Surbiton at sunset has, for the boy, the beauty of an Alpine valley. He is filled with vague stirrings “for something just a little different,” and he finds it in a cryptic paper posted on the wall of “the alley to heaven.” Shelley had his skylark; the boy has a celestial omnibus, which leaves for Heaven twice daily from that very alley opposite his home.

The boy’s journey is a Wagnerian spectacular straight out of Der Ring des Nibelungen (1852). The driver (the essayist Sir Thomas Browne) heads upward through lightning and thunder, which synthesize to create a rainbow bridge to Heaven. Color and sound become one for the boy. Sir Thomas Browne and the boy pass the gulf between the real and ideal and hear the song of the Rhinemaidens. The boy does not recognize the music as being from Das Rheingold (1852). He knows only that it is very beautiful. His journey is an adventure into the world of literature and art, naïvely but genuinely appreciated. It is also a determined striking out against the boredom and oppression of Agathox Lodge and Surbiton. When he returns home, his father punishes the boy for the disappearance with a sound, middle-class caning and by forcing him to memorize poetry. With typical ignorance, he assigns John Keats’s sonnet “To Homer” in praise of the blind poet’s ability to see the enchanted world described in the Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e., English translation, 1614). Forster does not explicitly identify the poem, though he has the boy quote its first line: “Standing aloof in great ignorance.” The boy’s father applies the words to his son; the reader realizes that they more fittingly apply to those such as the father, who would punish joyful discovery and naïve enthusiasm.

Mr. Bons is present at the recitation and perversely curious at the boy’s sudden knowledge of literary lore. He determines to “cure” the boy by accompanying him the next evening on his search for the omnibus. Indeed they find it, though the driver this time is not the freethinker Sir Thomas Browne but someone identified explicitly only as “Dan.” That the driver is Dante is clear from the emended Inferno quotation that is placed above the door of the coach: “Lasciate ogni baldanza voi che entrate” (“Abandon all self-importance, you who enter here”). Mr. Bons explains in a voice that “sounded as if he was in church” that “baldanza” is obviously a mistake, that it should read “speranza” (“hope”). The reader, however, knows that with Mr. Bons in the omnibus, “baldanza” is undoubtedly more appropriate.

Mr. Bons corrects the boy’s literary errors during the journey. It is wrong for him to prefer Sir Thomas to Dante, Mrs. Gamp (a Charles Dickens character) to Homer, Tom Jones (the protagonist of the Henry Fielding novel) to William Shakespeare. He also lectures the boy on how to behave toward literary immortals. The boy, though he resolves to become “self-conscious, reticent, and prim,” cannot resist meeting Achilles, who raises him on his shield. Mr. Bons is frightened out of his wits and wants to return; the boy would remain with Achilles forever.

Great books are the means, not the end, as Dante tells Mr. Bons, who wants to return to his vellum-bound copies of Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) and his comfortable, secondhand knowledge rather than pursue this actual experience. Mr. Bons tries to escape and return to the world, but he falls through a moonlit rock, no doubt because he does not believe that it exists. The postscript “quotation” from the Surbiton Times reporting the discovery of Mr. Bons’s mutilated body near “Bermondsey Gas-Works” provides a fittingly ironic death for a “windbag.” Because Mr. Bons held both return tickets, the boy is presumably still enjoying life among the immortals.

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