The Contributors' Club
As we pass away from the period of childhood, most of its wonderful sights lose their fascination. To experienced and disillusioned middle age it almost seems that nothing is any longer wonderful, except perhaps the fact that nothing is any longer wonderful. But for my own part, as I go on in life, I find that two or three of the child’s great spectacles still keep for me their freshness. One of these is the elephant, leading the circus procession through the village street. I never could see it enough, that huge, unearthly shape, moving solemnly along; flapping its wings of ears not for common and mundane fly-guards, but in some mysterious gesture or ceremonial; bending its architectural legs in the wrong place ; waving its trunk in incantation ; seeing none of the trivial street matters to right or left, but absorbed in Oriental dreams. I used to think it strange that people who were rich enough should not have one always pacing about their own back yards.
Another of these spectacles of childhood that keeps its charm for me is the locomotive at full speed. Momentum is but a word in a book, except when I stand as near as I dare to the clattering rails, and take the fearful joy of seeing, hearing, feeling, touching, so to speak, with the trembling antennæ of my mind, the thunderous rush of the iron mass as it reaches me, and is gone. A different and calmer pleasure is to watch the train from a half mile’s distance across the fields, — how slick is its slipping along, “ without haste, without rest,” as if independently of any propelling force; for it is the train that appears to run the driving-wheels, not the drivingwheels the train. It is not momentum, now, but the inertia of motion; not a missile or projectile, hurled from behind or drawn from before, but a thing whose state of speed is as natural and immutable as to other things the state of rest. Only I never can make the forward motion of the engine itself appear steady and uniform. To my eye there is some optical illusion by which the rushing and whizzing creature seems incessantly to hang for the smallest fraction of a second, then leap forward, then hang again ; and so, by alternate infinitesimal checks and boundings ahead, to fly on its swift way.
But the sight in which I still take the most childlike delight is the spring bonfire. Just about the time that the cherrytrees are snowing out into full bloom ; and the blue-birds, loveliest of feathered things, are talking about nesting-boxes in gentle, irresolute voices, soft as their breasts and their flight; and the first round clouds are rolling across a deeper azure than has yet appeared ; and some merry maid, herself freshly blossomed out in a sprigged spring gown, comes in triumphant with the first arbutus, then the sound of the rake is heard in the land. The offending sticks and straws of last year’s garden life are gathered together into dry and light-tossed piles. Now the eager child is permitted, if he is good, the untold felicity of setting off the bonfire. There is
And blue spurt of a lighted match,”
the instant’s breathless suspense while the first pungency of the vaporous odor steals out, the sere sticks keeping at least some fragrant memory of the past summer within them, and giving up this last ghost in reluctant and wavering smoke. It is fairly lighted, and now in a moment blows in freshly the favoring gale that all flames and other aspiring spirits call to themselves out of whatever depth of stagnation around them, and “ up leaps and out sorings ” the crimson, the orange, the scarlet, the vividly flame-colored flame. Always out of soft sheaths of brown smoke the blades of fire dart upward, in curves, and bounding whirls and spirals, and sudden sidelong sword-thrusts. Would it not all seem the very quintessence of voluntary, self-impelled aspiration upward and away from earth ? In sober scientific verity, however, what is at the bottom of all that swift and buoyant skyward impulse? It is no life within; it is all force from without. Atmospheric pressure is the plain prose of it. It is a pretty illusion, but there is really no heavenward striving in the flame. It leaps and bounds upward in beautiful freedom, but it is only — oh, the inexorable fact! — that the weight of the heavier air around it squeezes the flame out of its way in helpless obedience to gravity. And so an uneasy question creeps into the mind, namely, this: If these leaping crests of the flame, these upflung wings, so eager and mad to rise that flame shreds away from flame in the upward rush, leaving detached waves of fire hanging free of the crimson column, and flickering an instant by themselves, — if this is all but the illusory aspect of inert matter under the pressure of outside circumstance, what may we think of our own semblance of free will and aspiration ? As we look from the flame to the man, must we say, “ So he ”? Is each apparently spontaneous out-thrust of free impulse nothing but a blind result of the composition of forces surrounding us in the world ?
If this would seem a dolorous doubt, it has, on second thought, another and more comfortable side. If wills were perfectly free of outside influence, what a jostle and shock of chaotic impulses! It would be like a starry universe in which gravity had fallen asleep, all the planets gone mad and become comets, and every comet an egoistic and resistless force bent on universal destruction. It is curious to consider that, unless the human will were controlled by outside forces, — influenced, at least, and is not every influence to that extent a control ? — it would be impossible to sway any friend for good, impossible to be swayed by any friend for good, since the influencing will is but an outside force to any other will. What would become of education, training, all loving ministrations of gentle control, if every child’s own choice and every evil passion’s propulsion were a supreme free force, a blind flame, leaping hither and thither at its own impulse ? Free will ? — it seems our most priceless possession. Fate? — it seems our deadliest foe. But when we go to another human soul, with some confidence that we may win it to forego an evil opportunity, and to take the better and wiser path, it is because we rely on being able to step, ourselves, into the chain of controlling forces surrounding that other will, and so to become its fate, or some small segment of its fate, as against its own free will. I feel that I am free, and I delight to feel it; but I know that there is at this moment approaching me, unseen, on the train, or across the ocean, or down the street, a friend whose will, an outside force to me, shall bend me this way or that by a word. And at this fact, too, how can I but rejoice ? — although I recognize plainly enough that the more I am loved by any spirit wiser and stronger than my own, the less I shall be free. That as yet unspoken word, I know, is but one among ten million converging forces, in the centre of which my will vibrates and quivers in delicate response to each electric thrill of influence. If it were not so, again, how could one take measures against the questionable possibilities of his own future self ? If my will, at a given hour of next year or ten years hence, is to be a free and uncontrollable impulse, what use for me to legislate for it to-day?
And there is one other and final consolation in that bugbear of a thought that the leaping flame is but the slave of the crowding air : it is from the reflection that, whether it be safe or not for universal exoteric doctrine, “ the evil that we do ” not only “ lives after us ;” it lived before us. The seeds of it were sown within us from without, like the meteoric dust that may have brought the germs of foul weeds upon a virgin planet. Evil deeds, evil thoughts, they are all of the nature of an influenza, — an influence, or a convergence of a multitude of such. For the moment, if only for the moment, we break away from the sane sense of personal responsibility, and, turning on the ghost of our bad deed, we cry, " Thou canst not say I did it! ” And yet —
— Next to the pleasure of finding ourselves different from people in general with regard to great matters is the pleasure of discovering our identity with them in small matters. For my own part, at least, I like to know that I am not so eccentric as I may have feared in various little “ tricks and manners ” of my body or my mind. I am always pleased to meet people who wear their thumbs inside their shut hand; and who have square-toed shoes ; and who like the smell of catnip and the taste of some cates when a little burnt; and who reluct at shaking hands ; and who never sharpen the lead of a pencil; and who say “ good-morning” to the servants ; and who reject the use of a spoon, as being a thing to take powders in, or the milder nourishments of helpless infancy.
So it would be a gratification to me to know that others are subject to a habit of the mind which has always clung to me, and which I suspect of being nearly universal. I mean the habit of forgetting certain words, which have been reached for and have slipped away so many times that they have become permanently slippery, at least about the handle. There are words which are such old offenders in this way that I feel their vicinity before I get to them, in speaking or writing, and I say to myself, There ! I shall have a time, now, to get hold of that word! — and so I always do. Peremptory is one of these slippery words, with me. Complacent is another. Sententious is a third. And there is still another, which even now, as I sought it for an example, escaped my grasp, “as slipper as an eeles sliding :” it is the word deprecatory. The way I took to find it and seize upon it, just at this moment, was by keeping before my mind’s eye the image of a humble small dog standing before a haughty big one, in momentary doubt as to whether the tail will wag or the jaws will devour. By keeping this picture vividly present to one lobe of the brain, while the other lobe strained every nerve to seize the initial syllable, vaguely felt (that most mysterious state of the mind) to be just hovering on the very edge of the memory, “ on the tip of my tongue,” as we say,— thus at last I clutched it and drew it in.
There are certain proper names that have become thus polished on the handle ; that is to say, on the initial syllable. Sometimes I succeed in getting them by working at the other end, and the final syllable drags in the unwilling first. My best reliance, however, is in the alphabet. By beginning at a, b, c, and going slowly down the letters, watching closely for the least sign of recognition, the smallest indication of that chemical affinity or magnetic attraction which the mental image of the person shows for its proper title when you come to its initial letter, I can commonly find the required proper name. Sometimes it happens that I have to give it up, for the moment, and by and by, when engaged about something else, it “ comes to me,” as the result of unconscious cerebration. I have an acquaintance named Bonstead, a most excellent dealer in some of the necessaries of life. If he had any idea how I have struggled with his name, I believe he would hardly consider it friendly conduct on his part not to go and have it changed. Now there is no assignable reason why this name should slip my memory more than others. It is, on the face of it, a name of good augury, and has been borne by admirable people. To another mind my own name, or that of the reader, would as likely be the erring one. And so of the few exceptional words cited above. Another memory will doubtless have entirely different examples. My explanation is that these happen to be words of which, for some purely accidental reason, I got but a feeble hold when first encountered ; so that, having slipped once, and again, and still again, they acquired the habit of slipping, and became permanently slippery.
— I am convinced that one important way to acquire a profound knowledge of human nature is to study it in chickens. The difference between the mental characteristics of the two sexes, for example: the hen is very peaceable, chanticleer very irascible; the hen is an industrious scratcher, while chanticleer is naturally an idler, and thinks that if he crows and fights, that is enough ; the hen takes care of the chicks all day, chanticleer only occasionally giving them a bug, and oftener a dig ; the hen takes care of them all night also, chanticleer elbowing them off the perch to get the best place for himself ; the hen, having seized another hen about the head, never lets go till the feathers come out, and never stops fighting till nearly dead, while chanticleer fights only for glory, and gives up long before he is hurt much ; when they are fed, the hen attends strictly to business and gets all she can, while chanticleer will pick up a morsel, and wave it up and down with frantic eagerness to be seen of the hen, and values the flattery of having her take it from him more than the food.
These, so far, are well-known observations ; but I wish to put on record one that is perhaps new, and, if new, important to the scientific world. It has been commonly supposed by evolutionists that the development of altruism and the benevolent sentiments in the lower animals reaches no farther than to the parental and sex points of view. But I have seen one of my roosters call his fellow and feed a bug to him. It may have been a bug that he did not specially want, himself, but this would only be a counterpart of much of our higher human benevolence. Does not most of our charity consist in giving away something for which we have no earthly use ourselves ? (By the way, I have known this altruistic rooster to crow with great pride and pleasure when the object of his alms-giving had humbly swallowed the scratchy morsel.) I have seen a mother hen, also, when another brood of little chicks had got mixed up with her own for the moment, making a great pretense of pecking the aliens on the head, to teach them the difference between families in this world, but taking great pains not to hurt the fluffy little strangers. Furthermore, I have noticed that certain other hens, not mothers (but whether any who have never been mothers I have not yet observed), will peck all little chicks with self-restraint, giving them as much salutary discipline as possible without bodily harm.
It may be said that these phenomena occur only among domestic animals, who have caught some morals and manners from their betters by contagion. But I think this is a subtlety, and that we may as well admit that the development of the moral sentiments begins further back than we have been inclined to put it.
— There is a certain small and yet in the long run important hindrance that I often encounter in the act of writing, for which I should very much like to find the exact psychological explanation. It is very possibly a common experience with all toilers in pen and ink. When I am deeply absorbed in a piece of work, and my whole mind is fixed on a train of thought which I am trying to follow out and express in precise language, a sudden interruption (as by my wife’s asking me a question) causes a peculiar and specific mental wrench or jar that is more than an annoyance, and amounts to a positive pain. What is it that happens in the brain as the physical concomitant or cause of this ? I observe that the shock varies in intensity with the completeness of the absorption or abstraction of the mind in its work. This is so much a matter of instinct that I find myself, during any perceived liability to such interruption, withholding my attention from complete concentration on my writing, in order to lessen the force of the painful blow that I feel may come at any moment. (This secondary effort, by the way, or voluntary restraining of the mind from its desired track, always seems to produce in me, no matter how much I may resist it, a kind of irritation or sub-irritation of temper, after a little, which soon destroys the possibility of any satisfactory production.) Is the physical explanation of this interruption-shock, perhaps, that the sudden back-flow of the nerve currents, inundating tracts in the brain left empty by the concentration of the whole mind on its task, gives a kind of stab or jerk to the nervous centres ? And does the effort to withhold a part of the attention, while consciously subject to interruption, correspond, physically, to a forcible keeping of all the channels partially filled against a too sudden wave, or jet, of energy ?
The condition of things in the mind at such a time always seems to me (to suggest it by the merest inadequate hint of metaphor) as if the effort to hold and carry on a train of thought were a muscular struggle, while grasping tightly a number of separate lengths of bamboo rod to keep them close together, end to end, and in a perfectly straight line, as the necessary condition of having a new length continually sprout out from the growing extremity. Now if, at the moment when every nerve is strained to hold these pieces in position, some one were to give us a sudden shove in the back, — such seems the kind of interruption I speak of.
Whatever be the correct explanation of the phenomenon, the suffering and hindrance from it are considerable, in the course of a lifetime ; and we hereby bring it to the attention of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Wri— But, come to think, there is no such benevolent organization as yet in existence.
— I sometimes occupy as a summer study a room in the Old House. Who knows not the Old House, that, having given place to the new, is still retained, at no great distance, as a convenient adjunct of the latter, to receive the overplus of domestic chattels, the half-worn and supernumerary things which either economy or sentiment cannot altogether dispense with ? In this respect the Old House is a sort of kitchen attic on the ground-floor. The roof is mossy, and the eaves are well honey-combed by the boring-bees, whose low humming makes a pleasing accompaniment to a summerafternoon reverie. The raspberry brambles which have sprung up by the wall bring the birds in a bickering company to dispute the feasts of small fruits. In at the window where I read or write a grape-vine sends a succulent branch, a yard in length. Tentative, delicately poising, it would like to attach itself, but can find no stay. I have a notion that if I would but reach out my finger the tendrils would take the hint, and soon begin to curl and clasp about the proffered support. Thus, in the course of a summer, one might, if patient, become the trellis of a luxuriant vine growth, or even counterfeit the woody metamorphoses of classic story. At the opposite window hangs a curtain of morning-glory leaf and flower, often gently stirred by the breeze. From a crack in the sagging doorsill, containing a pinch of earth, there has sprung up a plant like those in the figured curtain before the window. This seedling has been an object of tenderest solicitude with me. Its cramped circumstances seemed to call for a special providence, and I have looked upon it as a pensioner in the doorway. In the two months since I first observed it there, it has attained the prodigious height of four inches ; having been fretted by insects, it has but the fraction of a leaf remaining.
One morning a surprise awaited me. My poor, liberal plant, from which one could in reason expect no return for care bestowed upon it, had put forth a flower, small but perfect, uplooking of necessity, white-throated and rosylipped. Its hardihood and tact suggested the habits of arctic and alpine plants that bloom close to the ground. Those whom I brought to see my threshold flower had various opinions regarding it. One said, “ Escaped from cultivation ; you will find plenty of that sort in Oberon’s garden.” Another thought it represented infinite riches of summer in small room. A third remarked, “ A tract left for you to read and reflect on.” To this last opinion I incline.
So I grow emulous to strive with thee,
What though my lot remote and straitened be,
Of kindly sun and dew my portion scant
The shrewd denying Fate is ministrant,
And yet my life its hour of bloom shall see.
— I am not a musician professionally, or in any strict sense of the word ; but I am fond of music, and, having a correct ear and some facility of touch, I have played on a good many instruments without acquiring much skill with any one of them. One musical endowment there is which might have been strong in me, if it had ever received any proper cultivation : it is the power of composing tunes, of improvisation, on a very limited and unimpressive scale. Tunes make themselves in my head, — such as they are. When I " whistle as I go, for want of thought,” it is neither classical nor popular music, but such as makes itself as it goes along. It is very indifferent whistling, considered from the point of view of the “ distinguished amateur ” whistler, but unconsciously the tune, if “ a poor thing, sir,” is nearly always “ my own.”
All this personality only by way of prelude to a curious fact. From about the age of twenty I have found more and more frequently coming into my mind a peculiar sort of tune ; a queer minor melody, like the Scotch, and yet not like the Scotch. Its angular yet taking wildness is more like the Irish tunes that one occasionally hears a genuine native Irish girl singing, or half humming, with unconscious pauses and sudden crescendos that follow the vicissitudes of her work. This habitual presentation in the mind of these broken, wavering melodies, always on a halffierce and half-pathetic minor key, had continued for some ten years when I made my first acquaintance, by chance, with the folk-music of the Welsh. It was on a Cunarder in mid-ocean, on the voyage to Liverpool. One evening I was loitering up and down the deck in the warm moonlight, when a group of steerage passengers, sitting or reclining about the foot of the foremast, began to sing in a low and half-unconscious strain in the midst of their talk. They were, it seems, Welsh people, who were choosing this particular time to revisit the fatherland because of an approaching Eisteddfod, somewhere in South Wales. It was, I perceived instantly, the “music of my dreams.” To the best of my knowledge and belief, I had never heard these tunes, or any such tunes, sung, whistled, or played anywhere before. It had so happened that I had never lived in or near any Welsh settlements. I had never chanced to make the acquaintance of so much as one solitary Welsh person, so far as I know. Yet here, sung by these returning Cymric exiles in the yellow moonlight, as we rose and fell on the gently heaving waves, — here were the very strains that had for years been floating, unbidden and unrecognized, through my brain. I do not mean to say that the precise phrases and cadences were here. But the character, the musical moods and tenses, the tonecolor, were the same.
My explanation of the fact is simple, but to most will probably be incredible. I have Welsh blood in my family, far back on my mother’s side. By some freak of heredity the music of my Welsh ancestors has come down through six, eight, or ten generations, as a dormant germ, and come to life again — a dim, somnolent, imperfect life, to be sure — in a corner of my brain. I could almost fancy (though this I do not soberly believe, for it is explicable in other ways) that there has come down with it a visual picture of wild torchlight marchings and countermarchings in savage Welsh glens. So plainly do I see in my brain, ever since that night on the steamer, and especially ever since the corroboration of that instantaneous recognition through a collection of Cymric songs which I afterward obtained, visions that befit this strange, barbaric music. I see mountain gorges at night, black-clad in stunted and leaning trees, under a wild sky, where an unshapely waning moon dives among scudding rags of storm. Winding along the pass comes a procession of my Keltic ancestors: it is a burial, or some savage midnight gathering against the Saxon invader. Red torches flare in the midst of their dying smoke; some indistinct dark mass is borne among the leaders; and now and again there are metallic gleams along the vanishing line. They are small, dark men, half clothed in skins of beasts, and their wild eyes shine under streaming locks of black hair. A mountain stream beside them flashes its white bursts of foam out of the darkness under the crags, and continually there rises and mingles with its roar that fierce yet woful music, half shouted and half sung.