The Contributors' Club

AT the last sitting of the Club a contributor seemed inclined to treat with a certain levity his own suggestion of advertising for a friend. Yet is there not a serious side to what was, no doubt, at bottom, his thought on the matter ? If one cannot exactly publish an advertisement for the purpose, might there not be ways, open to persons even of the most sensitive taste, of extending the possibilities of intimate human relations beyond the small circle of hap-hazard association ? It is a curious thing to reflect on, that this connection of two persons in friendship, while it is one of the most important facts in their lives, is one of the things left most completely to chance. We do not go out, some fine morning, and examine all the diverse characters in our environment, and deliberately choose this or that one for a friend. It is left rather to mere “ accident, blind contact, or strong necessity of loving.” A natural reason for this, it may be said, is that the case of friendship is unique among human relations in the fact that the choice must necessarily be mutual. It would be awkward, that is to say, if, after making a deliberate examination of the whole field, we should choose, and not be chosen. Another difficulty in the way of wisely making a free selection among any great number of persons is that, after all, however wide our circle may happen to be, it is only wide relatively to circles which are very narrow. The largest round of acquaintance has but a small circumference in the great mass of humanity. With the greatest number of those included, moreover, it covers but a “ speaking acquaintance.” The most experienced and the most widely circulated of us have been able to “ summer and winter ” but a very few people. Sometimes I think the only men I really know are those who were in college with me. This is not on the principle “ in vino veritas,” but on another principle that might well be embodied in a Latin maxim, if it is not, “in juventute veritas ;“ which is not quite the same as saying that “ children and fools speak the truth.” This is probably the real reason, by the way, that all through life there are never any friends like the college friends, — there are never any whom we know so through and through ; and out of perfect knowledge comes the only perfect trust.

Whatever the difficulties in the way of a wider reach of friendships, it does not seem reasonable that we should be so shut up to the small geographical limitations of our village, or city, or “ set.” Why might not people seek out friends for their friends? There would be nothing odious about that sort of match-making. I know and love a man in California, for example, who is just suited to a man I know and love in Berlin. Why do I not bring them together? When one prints a book, or even a magazine article, and some kindred spirit, hitherto unknown, is courageous enough to follow his sensible first impulse (instead of letting that sullen goblin, the sober second thought, fling cold water all over it), and writes to say he likes it, why may not this sometimes be followed up, and become the basis of something worth while ? (Of course there are always ear-marks in any such letter, to distinguish that of him who writes because he likes your thought and that of him who writes because he likes to say so.) In some such ways the half-souls that Plato tells about might find their other halves. Or the quartersouls might find their other three quarters ; for was not Plato’s idea inadequate to the fact as to most of us, who need a group of at least three others to make a complete and satisfying integer of companionship ?

It is an interesting and yet after all a melancholy reflection that very likely, at this identical instant, there is sitting down to a dinner-table in London, or putting on his gloves in Munich, or walking through the Common in Boston, a person who is more nearly akin to ourselves, and more fitted in every way to be our dearest friend, than any one of those whom chance has hitherto thrown in our way. For it was chance — or (if we do not like the implications of that word) the concatenation of causes uncontrolled by our own volition — that determined our closest friendship, whatever it is. At the very moment we first took that hand, some other hand, for aught we know, may have brushed by, at no greater distance, on the other side,— a hand that might, it is as likely as not, have fitted our own better in every possible respect. How do I know, even as I write these words, and dip my pen in the ink, and pause, but a letter has been addressed in Calcutta or Stockholm which, had it been addressed to me, would have renewed and illuminated my whole future life? But the man and I are fated to be strangers. We have never met, shall never meet. There is no magic telephone threading the air between us ; and, if there were, we should only exchange some superficial word. Nothing short of living some segment of life together can make two men into friends. Even letters are of little avail. The best of our epistles do not bring the deep places of our minds into communication. They are hardly more than some less abrupt species of telephonic “ hello.”

But, for all that, even the oldest and gnarliest of us keep somewhere a vague belief in new possibilities of intercommunion. and sometimes we are moved to sing (under our breath) in such wise as this following: —


O soul, that somewhere art my very kin,
From dusk and silence unto thee I call!
I know not where thou dwellest: if within
A palace or a hut; if great or small
Thy state and store of fortune; if thou ’rt sad
This moment, or most glad;
The lordliest monarch or the lowest thrall.
But well I know —since thou ’rt my counterpart —
Thou bear’st a clouded spirit ; full of doubt
And old misgiving, heaviness of heart
And loneliness of mind ; long wearied out
With climbing stairs that lead to nothing sure,
With chasing lights that lure,
in the thick murk that wraps us all about.
As across many instruments a flute
Breathes low, and only thrills its selfsame tone,
That wakes in music while the rest are mute,
So send thy voice to me! Then I alone
Shall hear, and answer; and we two will fare
Together, and each bear
Twin burdens, lighter now than either one.

— Do poets often compose in their dreams ? I ask this question because of an occurrence for which I have encountered no psychological explanation, though I find that others have had similar experiences. One morning I awoke from a dream in which I had been composing verse, a stanza of which lingered in my memory a few minutes. As I lay thinking it over and endeavoring to retain the words, the very effort seemed to have an effect like a breath on a snow-flake ; it all slipped elusively away, and the remembrance of it faded utterly, leaving nothing but the consciousness that it had been.

The process of composition was unlike that employed in waking consciousness, in which thoughts gradually centre themselves around a poetic conception, and then are moulded into form with slow elaboration and painful mental exertion. All sense of effort was absent. The finished verse, perfect in rhythm and rhyme, came spontaneously into being, like some natural creation, flowing as freely as a brook flows. My feeling on awakening was one of exquisite delight at the beauty of the operation, mingled with dissatisfaction that such excellent means should be employed upon such meagre material; for the motif struck me as commonplace, if not meaningless.

I lay no claims to poetic rank, although, like hundreds of other writers, I have frequently devoted to verse-making time which probably might have been better employed in other things. It was done more for mental recreation and as a literary luxury than with ambition for the crown of laurel. The fault of such work was mainly, I think, in a failure to give sufficient finish and symmetrical form to what seemed to be a good poetical conception. I could not make adequately manifest to others the image which I clearly perceived in the marble. In my dream-verse, however, there was no fault to find with the form, but the work itself did not appear worth the doing.

I am inclined to account for this phenomenon of composition in sleep on the principle governing the numerous wellauthenticated cases of work performed in a somnambulic state. There have been writers, for instance, who have thus unconsciously done some of their best work. Mental labor of any kind is the more easily accomplished, of course, the less the attention is distracted by consciousness of material surroundings. When our thoughts are concentrated upon what we are doing, then the mind least feels its thralldom to matter. It is for this reason that our work most easily proceeds after we have been at our desks for an hour or so, and the mechanism of the brain has settled down to smooth and steady running, like the engine of an ocean steamer that has worked its way out of tortuous harbor channels into the deep water of the open sea. It seems likely that somnambulistic work is done after a similar fashion. There is a central idea planted firmly in the mind, where lie also the unarranged thoughts on the subject. Certain conditions, akin to those causing crystallization in a liquid where all the requisite elements are in solution, bring about the right adjustment of mental forces ; the thoughts obey this mysterious impulse and quickly gather themselves into shape, while the mind is unconscious of everything but the one object in view, and hand and pen automatically do its bidding.

The most notable case of dream-poetry which has come to my knowledge is that of the writing of the poem called A Rose-Leaf, by the late Mrs. Helen Jackson, who, in a letter to a friend, related how she actually and literally dreamed it, awaking with the words on her lips. She immediately wrote the verses down, and then handed them to her physician, — it was but a few weeks before her death, — with the question, “ Can you tell me what this means? I am sure I do not know, myself ! ” Another curious instance is that of a lady I know, who tells me that she could not possibly write a line of verse, but that, as she is falling asleep, her thoughts invariably take the form of rhyme and rhythm.

It seems as though the work of the improvisators of the Middle Ages might possibly have been done by their throwing themselves into a state of unconsciousness to external influences akin to dreaming; though, after all, their gift appears to have been the same in kind as that of the trained orator, who attains his facility through self-mastery, and at the same time a loss of self-consciousness, as he merges himself in his subject.

As the orator, the singer, the actor, throw themselves, by the force of their will, into their art, and in a greater or less degree lose the consciousness of their surroundings, may there not be some way by which we writers could throw our consciousness so utterly into our work that the mysterious machine, our brain, once set agoing, might keep on, unbeknown to our external selves, until its task were done? Then we might inspect the finished product of our pen in a shape all ready for editorial judgment, which, under such circumstances, would surely be one of approval ! If I could only do this, I am sure I would turn out a better poem than the forgotten one of my dream.