Sunshine in Thought


Sunshine in Thought. By CHARLES GODFREY LELAND, Author of “ Meister Karl’s Sketch - Book,” and Translator of “ Heine’s Pictures of Travel.” New York: Charles T. Evans. 16mo.
WE do not exactly know how to characterize this jubilant volume. The author, not content to denounce generally the poets of sentimentality and the prophets of despair, has evidently a science of Joy latent in his mind, of which his rich, discursive, and somewhat rollicking sentences give but an imperfect exposition. He is in search of an ideal law of Cheerfulness, which neither history nor literature fully illustrates, but which he still seeks with an undoubting faith. Every transient glimpse of his law he eagerly seizes, whether indicated in events or in persons. And it must be admitted that he is not ignorant either of the great annalists or the great writers of the world. He knows Herodotus as well as he knows Hume, Thucydides as intimately as Gibbon. Xenophon and Plutarch are as familiar to him as Michelet, Thiers, and Guizot. He has studied Aristænetus and Lucian as closely as Horace Walpole and Thackeray, — is as ready to quote from Plato as from Rabelais,— and throws the results of his wide study, with au occasional riotous disregard of prim literary proprieties, into a fierce defiance of everything which makes against his favorite theory, that there is nothing in pure theology, sound ethics, and healthy literature, nothing in the historic records of human life, which can justify the discontent of the sentimentalist or the scorn of the misanthrope.
Engaged thus in an almost Quixotic assault on the palpable miseries of human existence, — miseries which are as much acknowledged by Homer as by Euripides, by Ariosto as by Dante, by Shakspeare as by Milton, by Goethe as by Lamartine,— he has a difficult work to perform. Still he does not bate a jot of heart and hope, He discriminates, with the art of a true critic, between objective representations of human life and subjective protests against human limitations, errors, miseries, and sins. As far as either representation embodies the human principle of Joy,—whether Greek or Roman, ancient or modern, Christian or Pagan, — he is content with the evidence. The moment a writer of either school insinuates a principle or sentiment of Despair, whether he be a dramatist or a sentimentalist, the author enters his earnest protest. Classical and Romantic poets, romancers and historians, when they slip into misery-mongers, are equally the objects of his denunciations. Keats and Tennyson fare nearly as ill as Byron and Heine. Mr. Leland feels assured that the human race is entitled to joy, and there is something almost comical in his passionate assault on the morbid genius of the world. He seems to say, “ Why do you not accept the conditions of happiness ? The conditions are simple, and nothing but your pestilent wilfulness prevents your compliance with them.”
This "pestilent wilfulness ” is really the key to the whole position. All objective as well as subjective writers have been impotent to provide the way by which the seeker after perfect and permanent content can attain and embody it. It has been sought through wit, humor, fancy, imagination, reason; but it has been sought in vain. Our author, who, after nearly exhausting all the concrete representatives of the philosophy of Joy, admits that nobody embodies his ideal of happiness, surrenders his ideal, as far as it has been practically expressed in life or thought. Rabelais dissatisfies him ; Scarron dissatisfies him; Molière, Swift, Sterne, not to mention others, dissatisfy him. Every ally he brings forward to sustain his position is reduced by analysis into a partial enemy of his creed. But while we cannot concur in Mr. Leland’s theory in his exclusive statement of it, and confess to a strong liking for many writers whom he considers effeminate, we cordially agree with him in his plea for “ Sunshine in Thought,” and sympathize in his vigorous and valorous assault on the morbid elements of our modern literature. We think that poets should be as cheerful as possible; whereas some of them seem to think it is their duty to be as fretful as possible, and to make misery an invariable accompaniment of genius. The primary object of all good literature is to invigorate and to cheer, not to weaken and depress ; it should communicate mental and moral life, as well as convey sentiments and ideas, — should brace and strengthen the mind, as well as fill it; and when it whimpers and wails, when it teaches despair as philosophy, especially when it uses the enchantments of imagination to weaken the active powers, its effect is mischievous. Woe, considered as a luxury, is the most expensive of all luxuries ; and there is danger to the mental and moral health even in the pensive sadness which, to some readers, sheds such a charm over the meditations of that kind of genius which is rather thoughtful than full of thought. For the melodious miseries which mediocrity mimics, for the wretchedness which some fifth-rate rhymers assume in order to make themselves interesting, there can, of course, be no toleration. Mr. Leland pounds them as with the hammer of Thor, and would certainly beat out their brains, had not Naturefortunately neglected to put such perilous matter into craniums exposed to such ponderous blows.
Apart from the general theory and purpose of the book, there is a great deal of talent and learning exhibited in the illustrations of the subject. The remarks on Aristophanes, Rabelais, Switt, Sterne, and Heine, — half analysis, half picture, — are very striking ; and there are, throughout the volume, continual flashes of suggestive thought and vivid portraiture, which both delight and detain the reader. The style is that of animated conversation,— the conversation of a man whoso veins are as full of blood as his mind is of ideas, who is hilarious from abounding health, and whose occasional boisterousness of manner proceeds from the robustness of his make and the cheer of his soul. The whole volume tends to create in thought that “ sunshine ” which it so joyously recommends and celebrates. The reader is warmed by the ardor and earnestness with which propositions he may distrust are urged upon his attention, and closes the volume with that feeling of pleased excitement which always comes from contact with a fresh and original mind.