The Contributors' Club
MOST people seem to experience an odd difficulty in realizing that the very greatest personages of the past ever were young. Yet this conception is necessary, if we wish to see them as they really were, and not according to the text-books and other sources of illusory tradition. Milton, for instance : who does not think of him habitually as the “ blind old bard” ? To test this, let any one arrange to have the name brought suddenly before the attention at an odd moment, and see what kind of image presents itself to the imagination in response to the word. Ten to one it will prove to be a venerable but sightless and piteous figure; a confused mixture of several superimposed images, of which the most prominent may be some dolorous frontispiece engraving of a stoopshouldered bust, or the blind, pathetic form in Munkacsy’s vivid group. It needs but an instant’s reflection to see that this is a very inadequate and unfortunate conception of the actual Milton in his best days. True, he was both old and blind when the two Paradises were committed to paper, but not when they were first conceived in his creative brain. And what of that long period of his middle manhood, when he was not only poet, but statesman, and diplomate, and terrible fighter for free thought and free government, — an erect, active figure, as full of force and fire as any trooper of them all? What of the still earlier days, when the beautiful young fellow charmed the hearts of man and maid,
“cunning at fence,” of the literal sort, as well as in all the elegant intricacies of Italian sonneteering and polished state-craft? For my part, I like best to remember the outward aspect of Milton as he appears in Vertue’s engraving from the Onslow portrait at the age of twenty-one, — a jocund youngster, with laughing, dark gray eyes and fresh, manly face; full of the sap so soon to mature into the tough oak that helped — he more than almost any man, if we consider his having been both brain and pen to Cromwell, besides his own incessant prose polemics on the side of freedom — to wrestle out our modern liberties in that fierce tug of the Great Revolution, It was at just the time of this lovely boyportrait that he was writing to his college-mate : —
“ Festivity and poetry are not incompatible. Why should it be different with you ? But, indeed, one sees the triple influence of Bacchus, Apollo, and Ceres in the verses you have sent me. And then, have you not music, — the harp lightly touched by nimble hands, and the lute giving time to the fair ones as they dance in the old tapestried room ? Believe me, where the ivory keys leap and the accompanying dance goes round the perfumed hall, there will the songgod be.”
The teachers of literature might well make some effort to rehabilitate these misimagined worthies of the past, to remove from them the disguises of age and senility that a too reverent tradition has thrown about them, and to present them in that bloom of manhood belonging to the period of their greatest activity. If I were a Professor of Literature, I should desire to hang my lecture-room with pictures, — not of the old traditional and forbidding decrepitudes, but of Milton, for example, as the charming young swordsman, with velvet cloak tossed on the ground and rapier in hand ; of Homer, no longer blind and prematurely agonized, as it were, with our modern perplexities in finding him a birthplace, but as the splendid young Greek athlete, limbed and weaponed like his own youthful vision of Apollo, as
Down from the summit of the Olympian mount,
Wrathful in heart ; his shoulders bore the how
And hollow quiver ; there the arrows rang
Upon the shoulders of the angry god,
As on he moved. He came as comes the night,
And, seated from the ships aloof, sent forth
An arrow ; terrible was heard the clang
Of that resplendent bow.”
I would tamper with even such venerated traditional dignities as Mrs. Barbauld, for the sake of their own rehabilitation in the eyes of misguided youth. She should no longer frown formidable behind the stately prænomen of “ Letitia ; ” she should be given back her true girl-name of “ Nancy,” and be represented, after her own account, as lithely and blithely climbing an apple-tree. Pythagoras should he a gracious stripling, crowned with ivy-buds and stretched at a pretty goat-girl’s feet, touching delicately the seven-stringed lyre. Even Moses might be shown as a buxom and frolicsome boy, shying stones at the crocodiles. Only Shakespeare, of all the pantheon, would need no change. His eternal youthfulness has been too much for the text-books and the monument-makers, and we always seem to conceive him as the fresh-hearted and full-forced man he really was.
— In what military school or generalled enterprise did the king-bird acquire his training, complete as it is at all points, so that he will not only attack audaciously and with large meed of success, but has the art to worry with small manœuvres the feathered enemy whose size renders him too redoubtable to be vanquished outright, and, last and surest certificate of military worth, is able, if need be, to stand fire with undaunted courage ? From the moment the creamwhite eggs, with their bold tattooings of brown, repose in the rounded nest, till the four young conscripts issue forth from its walls to be enrolled in the service, he is constantly under arms. It is not the timid watchfulness of other birds at nesting-time, fearful for their young, and inspired in the hour of danger to defend them; it is a regular three months’ campaign, fought every year within a small radius of the nest centre, generally from a vantage height above it,—a siege from within, so to speak, proclaimed against all who approach the sacred precincts.
I lately noticed a king-bird returning to his post on the topmost branch of a young apple-tree, after a sortie made against some swallows, the orbit of whose airy flight had described a circle intersecting his own imaginary sphere of possession. They meant no harm, were not pausing to take thought of him, their tiny minds bent on the insects which flew on either side his invisible fence. But the king-bird is a protectionist., and would fain have his flies for his own; so up went the standard. The invaders had been routed ; that fact was apparent in every ruffled feather of the returning hero, in the poise and quiver of his wings, in the triumph of his crested head and the defiant glance from beads of jet. Such conscious, self-heralded elation roused the indignation and pugnacity of two boys, who instantly opened an attack upon the conqueror, in the interests of justice and of the balance of power. A small exercise of force on the part of his tyrannic majesty had driven the swallows to other fields, but a dozen or more large stones, not unskillfully aimed, failed utterly to dislodge the king-bird. Poised in air, a foot or two above his apple-tree twig, he evaded each stone by rising or sinking a little, his courage untouched, his look seeming to indicate that he waited till the tables should turn, and some new line of attack be found, which should enable him to cope with these improved implements of warfare. Such pluck against odds could he accounted for only by the near presence of a nest; and where was there room and hiding-place for one in that scraggy, attenuated tree ? Its scanty leaves clung to the trunk and limbs, as foliage will do on an exposed plain, where the winds give no chance for branches and twigs to expand. The combat was given up. The king-bird returned to the tree to nurse his indignation ; and there, on coming back from our mountain walk, we found him, still dreaming of battles past or to come. Then we spied the nest, set in the short leafage, adorned with tufts of sheep’s wool, doubtless brought home by our Jason from some spring-time quest or conquest. What is the meaning of these few inches of eager, triumphant, pugnacious life ? Lives there some tradition of a defense of Troy in king-bird-dom, as of a lost Atlantis among the lemmings, which each successive generation, imitating rather than remembering the heroism of its ancestors, is bound to take up and continue? There must be a mythology and epic of some sort among the king-birds, if we could but get at it; for war is the life of each one of them, and is not a life, according to both historian and scientist, made up of lives gone before? Any way, the flycatcher has a valiant air about him: he is a true king in the Carlylean sense, doing the fighting which lies before him with courage and persistence ; not flaunting his yellow crown, but keeping it soberly covered with helmet of iron gray ; a robber and marauder, but loyal to those whom it is his province to watch over and defend. Even his predilection for bees, which gets him into so much trouble, is, when we think of it, a Spartan taste.
— The nouveaux riches, as a class, have been a good deal before the public, and their appearance and habits, both in the wild state and under domestication, are pretty familiar to all keen observers of the wonders of natural history. But there is another class in modern society, equally noteworthy, and in some respects even more preposterous and disagreeable, that seems to have escaped classification. It is that species of person whom we may denominate the nouveau cultivé. Sprung from illiterate stock in some uncivilized region, he has suddenly been plunged into an accidental penumbra of culture when well along in years. He has been “ caught late.” He has, accordingly, a most vivid appreciation of those things which seem to him to mark the difference between his present advanced position and his previous backward state. The little that he now knows is very conspicuous to him anti to his relatives. His faith in certain second-rate makers of public opinion, especially since he has traveled and has seen the Building where these powerful things are produced, is very touching. He has religious convictions concerning the great ness of Washington Irving and FitzGreene Halleck, and perhaps of Young, Pollock, and Mrs. Hemans. He has read that Jeffrey said to Macaulay, “Where did you get that style?” and he, too, wonders where such a magnificent thing could have been found. Sometimes he copies passages, in hopes to acquire it for his own contributions to the county paper. He loves to quote from “ quaint old ” this one and that one ; and has bought, but not yet read, a copy of Chaucer, because, as he is proud to explain to his family, he was a “ well of English undefyled.” His wife has presented to him a brief handbook of the history of art, and they have learned a good many of the dates. This gives them a contempt for the plain people who like and tack up wood-cuts and still take comfort in Christmas - cards.
They have read a little of “Dant,” not without some secret struggles with the “ I-talian ” names ; and greatly commiserate those who have not the advantage of familiarity with “ Doar’s ” great illustrations.
All this is before the nouveau cultivé moves to the city. At that epoch the interesting creature enters on a second stage of development, but still very late. If the first was that of the larva, this is that of the chrysalis; but it is too far along in the season ever to produce a perfect butterfly. If the larva was active and aggressive, the chrysalis is appropriately cold and impassive. It has acquired a shell, and has a glazed expression of countenance, indicative of mysterious processes going on within. The man has mastered the code of dress, equipage, and etiquette; and so lately that he is greatly impressed with these things, makes his daughters and nieces shed tears for their errors, and rarely misses, himself. He not only acquires the correct pronunciation of “ clever,” with the genuine imported chiar-oscuro of the final syllable, but he learns to apply the word to the proper books and persons, and does this with almost painful frequency. He is wonderfully sure of the received verdicts on works of literature and art. If you happen to question any of them, or intimate a preference for some new man, it is comical, and yet a little vexing, for all your philosophy, to see how your lifelong weariness of the old orthodox judgment is taken for that ignorance of it from which he himself has so lately emerged. On the other hand, it is with an exquisitely benevolent condescension that he gives you the last twaddle as superseding your view of some one of the immortals.
There is, however, one consideration that should reconcile us to any and all of the social infelicities connected with the existence of this class of the nouveaux cultivés. It is the fact of the better outlook for the next generation that comes from even the slightest lift to this. If the father only gets so far as to perform awkward and ludicrous antics on the front door-steps of culture, the children will certainly have a better chance of entering in than if he never had come out of the woods at all.
— The Thorndale of William Smith is one of those books (it would be interesting to make a list of them, some rainy evening) for which very few people care, but for which those few care a great deal. In certain moods, when the mind is disposed to fall into a fixed contemplation of one or another single great idea, I am reminded of Thorndale’s incident of the ivory amulet. Cyril, who alone, of all their group of perplexed thinkers, has found peace as a Cistercian monk, relates the following : —
“ Fearful of losing all the benefits of a cultus, I resolved to frame some simple ritual of my own upon a piece of ivory, about the size of half-a-crown. I wrote on the one side the single word ‘ God,’ and on the other side the word " Immortality.’ Could I have chosen two words of greater significance? Then, drawing a silken cord through a hole pierced in the ivory, I suspended this amulet about my neck. It was my habit, when alone and thoughtful, to thrust my hand into my bosom. On every such occasion I should touch the silken cord. I should be instantly reminded of the words written on the ivory. This would direct my contemplation. For some brief time my modest ritual seemed to answer very well. But, unhappily, I was analytic as well as contemplative. ‘ Immortality ! ’ I would sometimes say to myself. ‘ I aspire to be transformed into something higher than man, — not merely to be perpetuated.’ Reason was less and less acquiescent. One day I took my ivory, and with a firm and yet no irreverent hand I drew my pen across the word ' Immortality,’ and wrote instead the word ‘ Resignation.’ But now the other uncan celed inscription began to call up interminable questionings. I never doubted of the existence of God, but I asked myselt what conception I, judging by the mere reason, could form of him. The touch of the silken cord became now the signal for still more painful and terrible perplexities. One day, in my rambles, as I sat down by our river Isis, I felt once for all that the reason was utterly unequal to the task I had imposed on it. That silken cord, slight as it was, seemed to be strangling me. I drew it from my neck. I took my ivory amulet in both my hands, and snapped it in two. I threw the pieces into the running river. Thus ended my cultus, or ritual according to the pure reason.”
As of words, embodying single great objects of contemplation, so of maxims, adages, apophthegmata : there are recurring periods when we find them of peculiar significance and value. We collect them, write them on various private sign-boards about us, — as the Cistercian on his ivory amulet, — then throw them aside till the period comes round again. For myself, I have latterly a trick of pasting them, in the shape of any chance slip, on the wooden shot-vase above which bristles my little forest of pens and pencils, on the end of the cedar envelope box, and on other convenient surfaces about my desk. Here is one, for example, that just at present stands warningly in the midst of my epistolary stationery : —
“ If you don’t want your letters to reach the ‘private ear’ of any one but the person you send them to, burn them as soon as they are written ; or, better still, burn the paper before you have written on it I ”
I have accumulated several of the class that might be designated takersdown ; they are like the ragged garb of his beggarhood which the king kept in a coffer for occasional contemplation. Such is this : —
“ Wir unterschätzen das was wir haben, und übersehatzen. das was wir sind.”
And this, also, which conspicuously and significantly clasps the receptacle of my favorite pen. It is from Kavanaghi : —
“ We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done.”
Then there is the class which we may call anti-illusioners. Such is this couplet from Gautier: —
Pourquoi nous avez-vous menti ? ”
And this, which came from I forget what “ melancholy Jaques ” of the " gay ” nation : —
“ When the mask falls, the Carnival is ended.”
And this, which looks from the other point of view, and finds something worth seeing even after the Carnival : —
Während ein Feuerwerk abgebraunt wird, sieht niemand dem gestirnten Himmel.”
This from Emerson, too, I have sometimes liked to keep where I might occasionally see it: —
The tyrants of his doom,
The much-deceived Endymion
Slips behind a tomb.”
One more, and a very proper one with which to close, is that of Kant’s: —
“ If a man were to say and write all that he thinks, there would be nothing on earth more horrible than a man.”
— When one is in trouble — and who has not his troubles, " such as they are ” ? — one may resort to certain distinct ways of looking at things, certain points of view, certain accessible platforms in the mind commanding a particular outlook, which have in my own case so often proved medicinal, palliative if not curative, that I am disposed to prescribe them to my friends. One of these is what we may call the bird’s-eye view of the whole affair, A painful personal matter is always like the foreground of a photograph, unnaturally enlarged. An ache in any spot, whether of the body or of the experience, magnifies it like a sort of inner lens. The thing is to get off at such a distance as to shrink our mistake, our misfortune, our mortification, back to its true perspective. In the bird’s-eye view, what does it all amount to, after all? Here are all these myriad affairs of other people, of whole communities, of nations and races and epochs, — how foolish for the little black ant of the mind to see only its own ant-hill, and even there to absorb itself wholly in a trifling scratch on one of its own antennæ ! For this reason I like to keep a large globe standing on a pedestal in one corner of my study.
So it hangs poised,” I say to myself, “ the big, populous ball, swathed in clouds, as I might swathe this mimic microcosm in blue tobacco-smoke : tilted over to the pole-star, and ” — then I swing it smoothly round with the flat of my hand—“rolling merrily on its ancient way, thus, and thus! ” Then I figure to my mind’s eye the sprawling continent, as it slips under, and up, and over the glancing ball ; yonder would lie the minute crinkle of my river, and, covered by a pin-prick, my whole remarkable town, wherein the microscope might reveal the insignificant atomy of myself. “ What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,” or the twain of them to the rest of the starry universe, that they should either weep or be wept for ?
Another of these relief-stations in the mind is the episode point of view. This trouble, this worriment, this failure, this hurt (I say to myself), is not a finality. This is not what I was for. It is all a mere episode. My life went on before it, goes on underneath and over it, and will go on after it. Some time, somewhere, I shall tell all this to some one, and it will, on the whole, be worth the telling. But remember, foolish, deluded mind (still I say to myself), it is not to be regarded seriously, as a part of the main plot. It is all very pretty if the thing in hand succeeds, if the little hour be an agreeable hour, if the curtain rise and fall without sticking, and applause, not jeers, be heard to arise from the temporary audience; but it is likewise “ most tolerable ” and perfectly insignificant, if the thing go with entire badness. Quid refert Caio ? It is only a little momentary speck in the total of existence. Hæc meminisse juvabit. It will do well enough to tell of afterward. It is the merest episode.
I remember a beautiful house among the secluded bluff villas of the North Shore. Great rocks and undisturbed native woods surround it. The grounds are shadowy, cool, silent. One might be very happy within those stately walls — or very unhappy. But out from the porch a curving path leads among the oaks to the edge of the bluff; and there, of a sudden, you find yourself on an open platform in the sun, and the harbor before you, alive with sails like butterflies, and, out beyond, the level sea, that fades shining up into the misty sky. Such paths and such platforms of observation lie all about the dark places of the mind, if we will only remember not to forget their existence.
— Contrary to my custom, I showed some verses — before the ink and my affection for them had taken the time to dry — to a critical friend. Now this lady’s mind is so constructed that when you attack it with ever so casual a remark or question you never know what may happen. On this occasion what happened was a discussion in ethics. But I had better give the lines first of all: —
HIS NEIGHBOR AS HIMSELF.
Ship a tumbling ruin, stripped of spar and helm.
Now she shudders upward, strangled with a sea ;
Then she hangs a moment, and the moon breaks free
On her huddled creatures, waiting but to drown,
As she reels and staggers, ready to go down.
In the foam three struggle; one his love will save.
There’s a plank for two, but, as he lifts her there,
Lo! his rival sinking; eyes that clutch despair.
Only a swift instant left him to decide, —
Shall he drown, and yield the other life and bride ?
Two afloat,—one missing. Which one ? Did he fail, —
Coward, merely man? Or did the great sea darken eyes
All divinely shining with self-sacrilice ?
I waited while she read them. Then I waited while she read them again. Then there was a pause, and I said, " Well ? ” Then there was more pause, during which the mercury of my estimate of the verses slowly sank. Then I said, humbly, " I did think of sending them to The Magazine.”
“Yes,” said she, slowly. (The mercury continued to go down.) " But I don’t believe in the ethics of it.”
“ Is that all ? ” said I, brightly.
“ Is that all ? ” said she, darkly.
“ Well, then,” said I, humbled again, “ what is wrong with the ethics? Instance me, good shepherd.”
“ In the first place,” she was good enough to explain, “ I don’t like this handing a girl around as if she were a transferable piece of property. It is wrong, and, what is worse, it is sentimental. Because, of course, the one whom, in a fair field, she loves is the one who has a right to her, and how can he give her up without sacrificing her too ? ”
“ But,” said I, “ the fact that she is his bride does not necessarily imply that she loves him best.”
“ Does n’t it! ” interjected she.
“ At least we may suppose that in the case given the woman’s affection or fancy — for it may as yet be only that — is evenly balanced between the two.”
“ Then,” said she, " let his own love for her decide him. That he knows. He cannot know that the other loves her so well.”
“ But,” still objected I, “ suppose he is a very common-sense, hard-headed person, and his view of love is that, as a mere sentiment, it amounts to nothing ; that the important question is, Whose love is likely to surround her with the most comfortable existence, the best opportunities, — in short, the greatest happiness ? And suppose he is perfectly aware that he himself is the old, sad, and every way undesirable Doe, while the rival is the young, chipper, and every way desirable Roe.”
“You talk,” said she, “as if the man himself had no rights, no claims to happiness on his own account.”
“ Oh, but,” said I, “ must he not recognize as well the other’s rights and claims, and ‘ love his neighbor as himself ’ ? ”
“ But,” she insisted, “ not better than himself.”
“ Would you have him, then, make a cool calculation — on a plank at sea ! — of the exact relative values of himself and the other man, and adjudge the bride and the life to the most worthy ? ” “I know,” she replied, “that in all the small matters of daily intercourse it is the sweeter and more dignified course to give up, regardless of all question of who has the right, or which is the more worthy. But when it comes to the uttermost, when one’s hold on life or on the thing that alone could make life valuable, is at stake, why should not a rational mind look down upon the whole matter as might an unbiased inhabitant of Mars, and give the prize to him who has the most desert?”
“ But,” said I, “ could even the most rational mind ever hope to be an unbiased judge of the relative claims of another and himself? And besides, supposing the two men are justly estimated as precisely equal in value, the world would still be the gainer for the first possessor’s giving up the plank. In either case, it would have had a living man; but now it has the man plus the act of self-sacrifice. To save the other man instead of himself is not merely substituting x for x ; it substitutes x + y. For my part, I must still hold to the ethics of x + y.”
She let me have the last word, and there we left it.