THE flowering of nations is the most interesting fact of their life. When all things accord and the hour has come, the stem seems to carry up the whole force of a particular race, the vigorous sap mounts, and behold, the flower. And like a flower, while force is implied in this flowering, it often overflows in beauty.
In Egypt the quality of the air where nothing decays seems to have moulded with eternity the thoughts of this nation, and their outward expression.
In Greece, tender as the skies of Ionia, this flower seemed the symmetrical blooming of man’s longing for an ideal in literature and sculpture. The Greeks made an ideal for us all. Our best eyes see the world as Homer saw it, we ourselves seem to have built the Parthenon in some lucky dream. When in Greece and Egypt, a person of sensibility feels the influence which made them what they were still acting on him. In his single life then he apprehends something of the forces which went to make up the great life which we call Greece or Egypt. He understands with tingling surprise why under that delicate sky, above those great headlands of rock and seas of azure, arose the lowly but lovely temple of Theseus and the still lovelier Parthenon. Form there has a meaning it has nowhere else, every outline is majestic, and invites the mind to withdraw from the garishness of color to its pure control. For while this flowering of a race separates it from others and makes it national, the great human heart is still at home in all nations. They make but a province for its possession. What they were we also could have been in their place and with their advantages.
Every fresh year seems to bring the nations into more cosmopolitan relations. The world is spread out like a map before us, and time and space are annihilated as we bend in sympathetic curiosity above it. The longing for the future is matched by the hunger for the past; and both shall be gratified. God does not disappoint Ins children, nor does he give them desires only to mock them. All our wishes are imperious predictions of a possession not far off. It is not without a reason that Herculaneum is still sealed to us.
At the right moment the lost books of Livy will leap forth, and the lost poems of Sappho. Did not Nineveh keep its secret till the fit hour and the fitting man came ? Do we not see its mystic bulls read by the text of Isaiah, as we should not have seen them till now ? The confidence of so many that the Tiber shall yet, like the grave, give up its secrets, and the astonishing preservation of the bas-relief of the holy candlesticks on the arch of Titus (as if some unseen angel had had watch and ward over the place) be more than matched by the recovery of the august originals, — is this all in vain ? No, the good Father keeps his toys from his children till their age best suits the use of them, and then, lo ! an America, a California, a Japan.
Is not this the very hour when the wonderful flowering of the Japanese mind could best influence, and for most good, the Western mind ? The bizarre thoughts, the picturesque, yet restrained art of Japan, have flowed like water into all Christendom, and left on a thousand mantel-pieces a waif of beauty. Even with us in our growing mental hospitality we too take up the isles of the sea as a very little thing. They accommodate themselves to us now as easily as Mexico or Texas did once. They give us a hint of how serene and at home we may be among the inconceivable wonders of the world to come.
This flowering of nations becomes at the north, like its own flowers, a difficulty and a delight. Yet as the glacier will hide the Alpine harebell, so the heartbeat of a nation under the pole will not be denied its vital expression.
Lost in these forlorn latitudes, all that the Northern races had done was for long hidden in polar darkness.
Nor is the light about them too much now. When attentively considering the meaning of races, how each is fitted for its mission, and how it now strikes all that to the children of those Northern races is given and more yet in the future is to be given, the earth and its fulness, we are humiliated at our ignorance of them.
Not without meaning, at the head of that swarm which beats and buzzes upon this new continent, God has placed what we call the Anglo-Saxon race. And these mixed bloods, tempered in every way by movement and collision, owe their best qualities to the great North.
There were found the romantic soul, the adventurous spirit, the persistent strength, which has conquered the world.
You find them all in the brief story, “ the short and simple annals of the poor” Icelanders and the kindred Northern nations. When Rollo, asked to do fealty at Rouen to the king of France by kissing his foot, said, “ No, but I will shake hands with him,” the seed was in him of republican simplicity; and when his lieutenant, instead of Rollo, agreed to kiss the king’s foot, and in the act overturned the king, amid shouts of laughter, the fire was there, Rabelaisque and grim, in which in the future so many bawbles and shams should dissolve.
In the airy dancing of the northern lights of poesy, the melancholy outlook into a world where death seemed needed to give value even to sensuality, we have the strain which runs through the English verse. Thence came the Elegy of Gray and the unimpassioned mournfulness of Wordsworth. It is water of the same cup. It feeds our Northern souls, longing for immortality, and is worlds away from the sparkle and worldliness of the Latin poets. Horace could not have written “ To be or not to be,” nor could even Shakespeare have given the Southern light which rests on the lyrics of Horace, as the Roman sun lies on grape clusters, or cuts into bright relief the flowers of the Pamfili Doria.
The Latin races are now being weighed in the balance and found wanting.
They crumble and dissolve. They are a swarm — They fight, pray or work around a head, and in the evil hour die like smoked-out bees. Individuality, the possession of one’s self, is not theirs. The wave of a sword or the lifting of a cross does not make them abdicate their individuality. They had none to lose. They were slaves to the passion and prosperity of the hour from the beginning. The Anglo-Saxon does not abdicate to his priest or his governor the tranquil possession of himself which makes his own conscience and judgment the forum where the world is to be tried.
As a Frenchman visiting England once said : “England dead? No, not while each individual Englishman is so independent and free can it die. You can only kill him by making a slave or sycophant of him, and that he will not become.”
Of course to us Americans the most interesting event in Icelandic history is the visit to America.
When in the year 961 Naddod, a Norwegian rover, stumbled upon Iceland, he planted the seed of one of these flowerings of nations of which we have been speaking ; a small but robust plant which could face the polar blasts and drink life in the fugitive summer sun. A company of Norwegian nobles, restless with the trop plein of the North and in trouble at home, profited by the discovery and planted in Iceland a vigorous colony.
To this day their descendants are distinguished for their stature, strength, and valor. But secluded in the long winter, letters and scholarship developed as one could not have hoped. Through their help the records of wonderful visits to an unknown Western continent have been preserved. They had been for a century in Iceland before Columbus went there. In so small an island, where nothing would be better understood than these visits to Vinland, could Columbus escape hearing of them ? That the country was his country, the India he was seeking, it does not matter to know, but to him it proved the land beyond the sea, which he believed in, and made his suspicion certainty. Nor is it wonderful that an Italian should not speak of it. He had his point to gain, and frankness is not a Latin characteristic.
How we stare at the dates of these early visits, and fancy the strange slumbering silence of a continent before the coming of the Icelanders! And the scenery they hint at, the same that we know so well, how homelike it seems ! How the vines of Vinland must have stooped to be plucked by the race, brothers to that one which should later sit under their pleasant branches ! And the great Kirik, vast looming in his misty proportions, shows a fine figure against the background of the past. A sea-rover, a strong, fighting soul, one to delight the conscience of Thomas Carlyle, is seen there in Massachusetts Bay somewhere in the year 1000. It was a bud from the flowering of the Alpine rose.
During that century and its predecessor great waves of conquest beat upon the shores of England from Denmark, and finally in Rollo’s successors from the South. These men become our blood relations. It is their energy which is filling California and the West. The “ Jötuns of the West ” is hardly a metaphor. Their clumsy horse-play, good humor, and endurance came from the North.
And to one speculating, it is striking that Christianity, the moral seed force of the successful Puritan colony, should divide Eirik’s life with paganism. On his first visit to New England he was a pagan; he died in Massachusetts Bay (as is supposed by many) a Christian. The Greenland colony seems to have had a fresh Christian life which reminds one of the Puritans.
Their large and well-built cathedral still remains to prove their sacrifices and their devotion. And they might have founded a successful colony in New England. The natives were too strong and many for them, and were not providentially thinned by pestilence as for the Puritans before their arrival. The nearest approach to a settlement was under Thorfinn, a rich and powerful noble, who on visiting Iceland married the daughter of Eirik ; and perhaps she was the cause of the failure of the colony. Against the plan of Thorfinn, she was among those who came with him to Vinland.
There the colony must have at first thriven, for the company remained three years, and but for Freydisa might have secured a longer footing. But she introduced discord and bloodshed, getting the deaths of thirty men accomplished to slake her fury, and returning to Iceland to be shunned and hated, but permitted to live as Eirik’s daughter,— a Lady Macbeth of a north still colder and sterner than that of Scotland.
It has been thought by many that some recognition of the first visitor from Europe to our New England should now be made,—a recognition so well deserved and so tardily bestowed.
A manly figure, clad in shirt of mail, and with the simple spiked helmet of the Norsemen, or unhelmeted and with his beard and hair streaming in the wind, while the wolf-skin flies from his shoulder, would be admirable in bronze. His legs should be wound with thongs, and with one foot leaving the boat the other should be planted on New England soil. A barberry or other peculiar New England plant could make the place of landing intelligible.
The yawning void of the place where was Scollay’s Building calls aloud for use and shelter from abuse.
A fountain there need not take up much space. It would make a centre to a formless square, and delight the eye and ear with the beauty of water; and this fountain could be surmounted with the picturesque figure of Eirik or his son Leif, who was the first to visit Vinland, as his father was first in Greenland.
The fountain would be befriended by the Society for Animals, as man and beast droop in the dusty space there. It would make a shelter and gatheringplace for the women using the horsecars, and a centre worthy of a square which so many streets command and which some day will have a frontage worthy of the situation and worthy of the fountain which we hope to see placed there.
T. G. Appleton.