The Contributors' Club
IT is interesting to notice what a difference there is in words as to their atmosphere. Two terms that the dictionaries give as being nearly or quite synonymous may have widely different values for literary use. Each has its own enveloping suggestiveness, — “ airs from Heaven,” or emanations from elsewhere. Of two words denoting the same object or action, one may come drawing with it “ a light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud ; ” the other bringing a disagreeable smudge. Accordingly, in the literary art, it is not enough to use language with an exact sense of definitions ; one must add to this logical pre-
cision a nice instinct for atmospheric effect. Just as a tone of a particular pitch is one thing on a flute, and another on a horn, each having its own timbre, so a term having a precise meaning is one thing if it has dropped caroling out of Grecian skies, and from the delicate hands of Keats and Shelley, but quite another thing if it has come clattering and rumbling up out of clod-hoppers’ horse-talk. Moreover, just as the difference between tones on various instruments is due to their diverse groups of harmonic over-tones, one superposed on another, so the individual atmosphere of any word comes from its having its own composite set of associations, some faint and vague, some strong and definite, that have through all its history been clustering upon it.
Now, this timbre or clang-tint of words cannot be learned from any dictionary. It must be caught, little by little, from a kind of household familiarity with the choicest writers. Euphuists, we may call these best writers of every age; for that much-misunderstood movement of old times, known and ridiculed as euphuism, was in reality only a product of this instinct of refinement in the choice of terms. In that passage from Wordsworth’s Brougham Castle, — a warm bit of color that stands out from a cold poem like a flash of red sunset on bare trees in the snow,—
On the blood of Clifford calls;
‘Quell the Scot! ’ exclaims the Lance;
‘Bear me to the heart of France! ’
Is the longing of the Shield,”
what could have been substituted for “ quell ” ? “ Crush,” “ beat,” “ kill,” “smash,” — either one would have been out of the question. Or what could have been used instead of “ bear ” ? “ Bring,” “ take,” “fetch,” “ lug,” — each is impossible. “ Quell ” and “ bear,” by the way, are not terms of every-day use in common speech; yet this is the poet who is popularly supposed, by those who have read about him more than they have read him, to have abjured all merely literary language. The truth is, his distinction is rather that of having passed honest coin instead of counters. He used language not for the sound of it, but for the sense of it. The versecarpenters had been in the habit of patching up their products with unfelt and unmeant “ poetic words ; ” their work was called " poetry ” because it was not prose. But Wordsworth never used a word, whether big or little, Latin or Saxon, except to carry an idea ; and he picked them not only according to their exact sense, but according to their exact clang-tint as well.
No doubt one of the most charming among the atmospheric qualities of words is that inevitable suggestion of sincerity in their use which clings about the homely diction of every-day intercourse. Not only Wordsworth, but all of the good modern poets, sing for the most part in the same language in which they would talk ; and, for that matter, did not Chaucer, and did not Shakespeare ? The best literature and the best conversation contrive to get on with but one vocabulary. It is only the dreary scribblers that persist in prodding our inattentive brains with startling forms of speech. It is already merry times in literature when we are not any longer afraid of our mother tongue. We instinctively sheer off from any writer who uses what Rogers (“ the poet Rogers”) called “album words.” Certain type-metal terms have come to serve as ear-marks of insincerity and of the mere ambition to write something, — terms that are never used in honest speech, and the employment of which in conversation would make a man feel absurd. When we find the ideas common and the words uncommon we have learned that we may as well put down the volume, or turn the leaf of the magazine. The newspapers have some words of this sort, dear to them, but the bêtes noires of all lovers of straightforward English ; such are “ peruse ” and “ replete.”
One gets a vivid sense of the different atmosphere about words substantially synonymous in trying to make substitutions in a proof-sheet. For example, the lynx-eyed proof-reader has some day conveyed to you, by means of the delicately unobtrusive intimation of a blue-pencil line, the fact that you have repeated a word three times in the space of a short paragraph. You have to find a substitute. It is easy to think of half a dozen terms that stand for very nearly the same idea, but it is in the incongruous implications of them all that the difficulty lies. You consult your Book of Synonyms, and find there nearly all you have already thought of, but never any others. There is, however, one further resource. You have had from boyhood the Thesaurus of English Words. Hundreds of times, during all these years, you have referred to its wonderful wealth of kindred terms. You seem dimly to remember that on one occasion in the remote past you did find in it a missing word you wanted. It shall have one more chance to distinguish itself. Perhaps the sentence to be amended reads thus : “ As he tore open the telegram a smile of bitter mockery flickered across his haggard features, and he staggered behind the slender column.” Suppose, now, it is the word “ mockery ” for which you seek a substitute. The Thesaurus suggests, a smile of bitter bathos, bitter buffoonery, bitter slip-of-the-tongue, bitter scurrility. Or suppose it is “ staggered” that is to be eliminated. You find as alluring alternatives, he fluctuated, he curveted, he librated, he dangled. If each one of these would seem to impart a certain flavor that is hardly required for your present purpose, you may write, he pranced, he flapped, he churned, he effervesced, behind the slender column. Or should the word to be removed be “ haggard,” you have your choice between his squalid features, his maculated features, his besmeared features, his rickety features. Or, finally, if you are in search of something to fill the place of “ column,” your incomparable hand-book allows you to choose freely between the slender tallness, the slender may-pole, the slender hummock, promontory, top-gallant-mast, procerity, monticle, or garret. The object of this work, says the title-page, is “ to facilitate the expression of ideas, and assist in literary composition.”
— What is the essential quality in that view of life which we are accustomed to call “romantic”? What is it that constitutes yonder amiable friend of ours a “ romantic ” person ? What was it about that pretty notion, expressed a moment ago, that made us call it a “ romantic ” notion ? To begin with, it is plainly something that we regard with disfavor. It evidently implies, in a character, a lack of good sense ; in an idea, a lack of solid truth. Furthermore, it appears to belong to the region of views concerning the future ; we do not speak of “ romantic ” ideas of what has happened, but of what will happen. A “ romantic ” person is one who indulges in “ romantic ” expectations. Will not this, then, answer for a definition ? A romantic disposition is a disposition to expect ends without means; a romantic notion is a notion that the desirable thing will somehow happen, without our having made any adequate provision for it. This use of the word originated, of course, from the term romances ; the idea being that things in real life may be expected to turn out as they do in the story-books. We must not make the mistake of supposing that the romances are therefore responsible for the prevalence of romantic notions. If there is a relation of cause and effect here at all, it is the other way round. The irrational views of life in the storybooks have always had their origin in the perennial romanticism of the human mind.
For, if we are willing to come to the dissecting-room for a moment, who of us will not be found to have his mind infested with romantic ideas of life? Dear youth, you step up trippingly to the examination, for you have not yet so much as come to the knowledge that there are false views of life, — illusions, idola; as yet, whatsoever impressions you find in your fresh young brain seem to you, as a matter of course, to be the correct, and the only possible correct, ones. But, nevertheless, as I tenderly remove the os frontis and the dura and the pia mater, there come swarming out a wonderful flight of preposterous notions, thick as the vague moth-imps from Pandora’s casket. And you, mature world-citizen, that have arrived at full knowledge of the abundant existence of illusions in other men’s minds, — I know you for the sport of many a delusive expectation ; there are muscæ volitantes as big as moons dancing about over your wise-looking eyes. And even you, too, my ancient Jaques, my self-confident old cynic, — we understand why you have found life a perpetual disappointment : it is because you have perpetually expected some metaphysical fourth dimension of happiness to develop itself spontaneously in your affairs.
But Francis Bacon said all this much more briefly, and therefore much better. “ Doth any man doubt,” quoth he, “ that if there were taken out of men’s minds vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds of a number of men poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?” His drift just here is to the point that these unsubstantial pith-contents of men’s brains make, on the whole, for contentment and agreeable living. But this might well be disputed. In the days when the youngsters used to beset me for questions suitable to debate in their clubs and societies, I wonder I never thought to give them this : Whether illusions be conducive to happiness. Bacon, it should be noted, takes care to say just afterward, “ But howsoever these things are thus in men’s depraved judgments and affections, yet truth ... is the sovereign good of human nature.” So that, after all, the boys might quote the philosopher on both sides of their question.
“ Flattering hopes,” " imaginations as one would,” —I have italicized these as belonging especially to the brain-pith of the romantic disposition. Do we not know them very well, and recognize them as we lean carefully over the edge of our mind and peer down into the dark mirror of our own consciousness ? — the hope to have friends without being friendly, and to be loved without being lovely ; the hope to become famous without ever producing “ works meet for ” fame-winning ; the hope to be rich without the work or the wit to effect it, or any reliable lien on luck that should be trusted to help ; the hope that she — some definite or some “ not impossible she ” — will fall into our arms, unwooed and unwon, like a ripe apple into a basket left accidentally under the tree. “ Flattering hopes,” because they all imply that we are somehow favorites of the Powers, exceptions to the laws of inertia and gravitation. “ Imaginations as one would,” — not only the dreaming of what we wish things were (which would be a harmless enough amusement), but the dreaming that things are as we wish them, — this marks well the distinction between the positive or scientific mind and the fanciful or romantic mind. The one tries to imagine how things really are ; the other tries to imagine things as they are not and cannot be.
There are two little old tales that I like, as illustrating romantic expectations in common life: one, of the rustic lad, who was sent to sell a load of pumpkins in the city, and who returned at night with his cart still heaping full, reporting that he had driven through all the streets, and nobody had said a word to him about pumpkins ; the other, of the dairy-maid, who sat all day in the middle of the field upon her milkingstool, and “not a cow came up to be milked.”
It is a mark of a great poet when we find universal life-truths crystallized into a few lines of a poem, possibly for the first time, or certainly never so well expressed before. In the Spanish Gypsy, Fedalma is seated on a bank in mournful meditation, when Hinda comes to bring her
So sweet, you ’ll love to smell them. ‘T was the last.
I climbed the bank to get it before Tralla,
And slipped and scratched my arm. But I don’t mind.
You love the roses — so do I. I wish
The sky would rain down roses, as they rain
From off the shaken bush. Why will it not ?
Then all the valley would be pink and white
And soft to tread on. . . .
Over the sea, Queen, where we soon shall go,
Will it rain roses ?
“Fedalma. No, my prattler, no!
It never will rain roses: when we want
To have more roses, we must plant more trees.”
Is there anywhere in literature so perfect a picture of the romantic and the positive dispositions of mind ?
— Walking in my garden towards the close of summer, the decadence of various profuse bloomers attracted my attention, and sent me off on an odd train of fancy and speculation. I saw that the scarlet gladiolus sported at the tip of its long staff but one solitary blossom, which seemed to overlook pensively the embers of preceding days’ floral pageantry. Also, the foxglove and perennial larkspur displayed but a remnant of bloom crowning their tall stems,— gay valedictorians, about to doff their caps and bid good-by to the summer world. The dry botanical fact that the common rule for spiked inflorescence is that the flowers unfold from the base upwards, progressively, became on a sudden illuminated for me. I could fancy that nature breathes the watchword, “ Aspire ! ” and that, receiving it, the plant obeys, its flowers seeking the heights and climbing by their own alpenstock ; that an impalpable current, the ruling principle of flower life, ascends through the material and vegetable body of the plant, like a pure flame burning clear and beautiful, mounting by degrees until the apex of the stem is reached. Then whither ? Up and away to its own soliciting heaven! We say that a plant is “ out of blossom,” but is it not rather the blossom that is out of the plant, — its spiritual life and finer love ? Grant that an unnamed virtue or delicate vital effluence is always ascending from the earth, that a plant is its good conductor, — nay, more, that the bloom of the plant is the sign of its passing, as the flash of lightning shows the direction taken by the electric current; then will it appear that
Up its countless ladders springs,
Fleeting back to whence it came, —
Inviolate, ethereal flame!
Hast thou marked its changing shapes,
Coils, and turnings, deft escapes ?
Airy pyramid of grass
At its motion yields a pass;
Through the wind-loved wheat it flows,
Up the tufted sedge-flower goes;
Scales the foxglove’s leaning spire,
Fans the wild lobelia’s fire,
Where beside the pool it flashes ;
And the slender vervain’s lashes,
By the climbing spirit swayed,
All their purple length unbraid : —
Thus the soul of blooming things
Up its countless ladders springs.
— Self-conceit is one of the faults which, in other people at least, we all agree to condemn. It would be idle, or worse, to argue against the justice of a verdict so unanimous. Indeed, the attempt would be only an egregious display of the very foible in question. For what is a love of paradox but a disposition to set one’s individual opinion above the general judgment of mankind? Let me premise, then, that I am not so inhuman but that to me, also, the sight of a prig, whether of the social, intellectual, religious, or whatever other sort, is inevitably, though in varying degrees, offensive. Precisely how meritorious this feeling of mine is, what part of it is a righteous concern for the abstract fitness of things, and how much is merely wounded self-esteem of my own at seeing another rate himself above me,— this I do not pretend to be sure of. My impression is that those who are most unassuming themselves are least troubled with the arrogance of others, though as to this I would gladly believe myself in error. I have discovered that I am inclined to juggle with words, — to tolerate as self-respect in my own case what I denounce as self-conceit in the case of my neighbor. I sometimes mistrust, too, that I am more disturbed at having shown a silly pride than at having had it. My regret, I fear, is mainly chagrin. It hurts my self-conceit that others should have found it out. Why could I not have looked unconscious of my virtue? At the very worst, I might have held my tongue! Then all the world (my world, that is) would not now be laughing at me behind my back. So I go on, berating the fool within me, till by the lapse of time and the distraction of passing events I am put again in good humor. Human nature is a sorry contradiction. Its very repentance, for the most part, needs to be repented of.
In other moods, however, I ask myself whether, after all, this innate propensity to see ourselves at our best, or a little better, may not have its good side. Here, now, is my friend Smith, the parish minister. His is not a brilliant intellect. You may hear him preach fifty sermons without being arrested by a profound thought or an original and happy turn of expression. Yet his loyal parishioners have some ground for saying — as they do, in our Yankee dialect — that their minister is “ a pretty smart man.” This very opinion of theirs, indeed, may be taken as a kind of proof that, as the world goes (I might have said as the church goes), he is successful in his calling. Not that he has converted all the sinners or perfected all the saints. There is still a sad want of holiness within the fold, and a miserable superfluity of naughtiness just outside of it. But withal, the Sunday “ services ” are well attended, the pastor’s salary is promptly paid, and everything moves on quite as well as could be expected, — much better, at any rate, than in either one of the three or four adjoining parishes ; and Smith is devoutly complacent. On the whole, he has reason, he thinks, to be encouraged. He is not puffed up, is grateful rather than proud. Nothing could be more unministerial in his eyes than a disposition to strut and swagger ; such a disposition as, alas, he has now and then met with among his professional brethren. He knows his own shortcomings, he avers (he would be wiser than Solomon, if this were true; but Humility is a glib liar) ; he confesses with unction that we are all of us unprofitable servants ; far be it from him to boast, but he may at least be humbly thankful that so unworthy an instrument has been so signally blest. He has been successful; it would be hypocritical to profess otherwise. Moreover, he has not achieved his prosperity by catering to any carnal desire for novelty and false doctrine on the part of his hearers. Brother B. and Brother C., his near neighbors, have fallen into certain erroneous ways of thinking, he grieves to say it. They have begun to question some of the tenets of that system of belief in which they, like himself, were educated, and which, in short, is the truth. But, for one, he has kept to the old paths. Truth is constant, and his preaching of it has been, as preaching ought always to be, without variableness or shadow of turning.
Evidently, my friend the parson has a considerable bump of what in a layman we should not hesitate to characterize as self-conceit. Yet in his own way he is certainly a man to be liked and respected : high-minded, good-hearted, and useful, — more useful, possibly, than he would be were he better aware of the meagreness of his intellectual furniture and the too easy standards by which he has been accustomed to measure himself. As for his absolute certainty touching the hundred and one points of his sectarian “ theology,” it is of course absurd, in one aspect of it.
Abstractly considered, it is nothing short of ridiculous that an ordinary man, here in the village of—, should believe himself infallible on such themes. But looking upon his position as a practical one, we may allow it to be less preposterous, and may even come to doubt whether his exalted opinion of himself and his creed is not in some respects a positive advantage to him. It gives him a standing and authority among his people which it is to be feared that the most perfect humility would never confer. If he were more thoroughly acquainted with modern science, for example (that enemy of all righteousness and child of the devil), would he not find it less easy to refute it every few Sundays in one or two sharp-cornered paragraphs? And would not the faith of the faithful suffer accordingly ? Sometimes, indeed, I have endeavored to imagine what would be the effect were his eyes to be suddenly opened to the depths of his ignorance upon subjects concerning which he now feels the utmost assurance. How his life would go to pieces, like a ship striking at full speed upon an iceberg ! If he could see the truth, indeed, the shock might be worth while ; but merely to find out that the truth is not what he has heretofore taken it to be, — that, in all likelihood, would be nothing but a disaster.
I have cited my friend as an example, simply. We are all of us deluded, and most of us conceited; never more so than when we are surest of the contrary The fact is that we are still children. As such, who knows but we have a right to be somewhat over-confident of our opinions and capacities ? People who think themselves good for nothing usually end with verifying their own estimate ; while those who set out to do wonders are very likely to accomplish something, however they may come short of their ideal.
I fall back upon my old position. If one could only be a little conceited, and yet not play the fool! Taking things as they are, that is perhaps as much as the best of us have any right to hope for.