A Plea for Immortality
AT the breakfast given in honor of Dr. Holmes, nothing, to one observer, was so impressive as the contrasts. There were gathered over one hundred people, presumably of intellectual power, dedicated to one pursuit, inspired by a common purpose, and met in a holiday mood to salute a prince of their line. At first thought, the elements of sympathy and likeness seemed the telephonic wires that encircled the bright scene; as one studied it, the distabces and distinctions started out like the true natures of men seen in their dreams.
There, for instance, were the wellnourished lives, — it was easy to distinguish them : the people whose paths had fallen in pleasant places, and whose soul’s bread had been eaten by still waters ; the men and the women who had become what they were by possession, not bereavement, — who had been expressed, not repressed. We did not need to be told who or where these were. It was not necessary to know that the gentleman with the quick smile, alert eye, and placidly whitening hair was the great Mr. Smith who wrote the treatise on The Hopes of the Happygoluckies ; who had a home at Cambridge, belonged to the Literary Club, knew everybody, went everywhere, saw everything, heard everything else, — in short, who was born in Boston. It was not necessary to have pointed out to us the celebrated Mrs. Jones, familiar to us from infancy as the author of the epic poem on New England Sewing Societies, — Mrs. Jones, with the radiant brow, the conversational electricity, the absence of care and becoming bonnet which mark the woman whom the critics respect, whose books sell, who spends her summer at the mountains and her winter in town, and who feeds — and thrives, too — on the adulation of her intellectual inferiors and the recognition of those beyond her. We know her at once, — fair, fresh, and frolic, pulsating with hope and proud with achievement, rounded by attrition with the world, and grown muscular by the “passive exercise” which the soul, like a Massage patient, receives from a full and varied life. Hers is a happy story and a high mission, — may both be spared to us !
Then there are the other faces, into which one cannot look long without tears, — the faces of the “ starving authors.” Of course, as we are often told, nobody starves in America, and I do not mean that any of our guests went without a supper, or wrote their last Lines to keep creditors from carrying away the cook stove. Yet ah, here, and there, and there, I know you, and you, and you, and I know the famishing you come from, and I read the hunger in your eyes. You are the care-worn and the care-broken, to whom your own gift is hid treasure. I know you, brave fellow ! You are bowed with secret burdens that no man may number ; you know what it is to be poor as death and hopeless as the grave. You have six children and an ailing wife; you support them by preaching in a parish in Sahara, or you cash checks in a bank in East Petroleum. The struggle for existence and the evil of it press hard upon you. Now and then your voice rings out, and you speak a word as tense as fever and as clear as duty. You do not speak it very often. You are tired when you get home at night, and cannot have a quiet study where the children may not come. Yet when you speak, we listen, and we always shall. Be comforted, and eat your breakfast!
And you, ah, you I know, — the little woman in the corner, looking out upon us all with thoughtful, clear, and yet half-deprecating eyes. She lives sixty miles up country, with a sick mother. She cannot come to Boston often. Under her quiet lady’s uniform of black silk and crépe de lisse, she hides impatient, crippled life enough to stir the world. Her eye is keen, her forehead good. Her story in The Atlantic commands attention. She is young. Life is before her. She is ambitious. She has power ; she knows it, and so do we. All the sibyl in her chafes. She must go home to-night, and to-morrow tell the invalid about the breakfast, and a few people in the village will like to hear. Quivering yet with the friction of mind on mind, the stir of presence, the fine wine of select society, she will sit down now and think it over, and tell us what it meant to her. She begins a new story. Her mother is taken worse. She herself caught cold, riding out sixty miles in her thin best clothes in the chilly evening after the breakfast was over. It begins to snow. The torpor of death settles on the village. The editor of something returns a manuscript of hers, with his regrets and thanks. A literary life seems as impossible to the poor girl as a dragoon’s or a drayman’s. She finishes her story for the village church fair.
How shall we tell her to be patient, — how bid her to go to her Goethe and read what he said of the power that developed best by long suppression? It needs a greater than Goethe to help that woman, — to teach her that the lesson learned in endurance may be the one which the world wants, the message spoken from denial the benison for which it waits, and that it was in the voice of one crying in the wilderness that it first heard the word, Repent.
Keener still, perhaps, in just such a group as this, are the heavily-drawn lines between the young and the old.
“ The young,” it has been finely said, " are never happy unless they are enjoying pleasure. The old are happy when they are free from pain.” At our breakfast party, how eager the faces of the men and women on the hither side of fifty, —how nervous, how unrestful, insistent, how full of the stir of ambitions satisfied or thwarted, of aspirations nurtured or famished, of the jar of doing, not the calm of done !
Peacefully beside them rise, like statues in their niches, the figures of those to whom life is already as a tale that is told. The prophets, the priests, the kings, of our tribe are all of these. We do not need to name them. Every heart contains “ their vision.” Theirs is the glory, not the grasping, now. They seem to tower above us high as a solemn thought above a light one. It occurs to me, as I watch them, that they are already set apart from us by an invisible line as silent as death, which yet God grant for years upon blessed years to come may be as near and dear as life! What do they see with eyes that look over into the eternal mystery ? How shall they tell us ? How should we understand ? Does achievement seem less, far less, to them looking back than to us looking on? Does fame look small ? Already the fret of life has fallen from them, like superfluous garments, dropped at home. They approach the Home of the soul. Do they see that it knows no exile and no burden, no loneliness, no denial, and no end ?
One of the best appeals for immortality ever made by mortal was urged by Victor Hugo, not long ago, at a literary dinner in Paris. It is easy to understand, in such a company as that which gathered to honor our great poet and Professor, how a man came to pursue an argument for the eternal life of the human soul at an after-dinner speech. Let the wit flash, the thought leap, the feeling burn, but still the unsaid outmeasures the said, and the unfulfilled outweighs fulfillment. The success is there, and the struggle, the hope, and the dismay, the crown and the thorn of gifted life.
The great Frenchman, absorbing, as the great soul wall, the solemn view of a merry scene, rebuked the sneer of youth with the faith of years, and flung his proud personality into the meek scale of truth.
He needed no other proof of eternal life than the fact that Victor Hugo existed. He knew that Victor Hugo’s work was not yet finished.
“ Messieurs, I perceive that the soul shall live forever because I know what I have done; I perceive that I shall never die, because I know what I have not completed.”
O Poet and O Friend, whose birthday still in our hearts keeps festival! in the music thou hast given, in the strains thou hast not struck, in the New Song thou shalt sing, in deepening reverence for truth, in deepening gentleness towards error, in deepening dreams of holiness, we feel thine immortality begun !
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps.