What Is the Oldest Thing in the World?
— The human mind is pretty hard to suit. It gets tired of old things, but when everything in the environment seems brand-new it experiences a still more profound dissatisfaction. Then an inveterate craving for something ancient asserts itself. Thus we are as “ difficult ” as the boarding-house boy of whom my bachelor friend tells me : when they help him to syrup on his buckwheat cake, and ask with fond solicitude, “ Do you want it drizzle-drozzle or crinkle-crankle ? ” he responds only with a vague scowl ; and when the honeyed stream descends in the latter form he whines, “ You knew I wanted it drizzle-drozzle ! ”
When the hunger for something good and old is strong upon us, we Americans are driven to cross the ocean in search of it. But even in the old countries it is not everything that can satisfy us. A comrade of mine, who has been roaming up and down Europe, writes me that “ Nürnberg is the only city that really keeps its promise of seeming old.” When we cannot conveniently travel for it, this periodical want of the flavor of antiquity sends us to the Old Curiosity Shops. We accumulate old truck of various sorts. Worm-eaten furniture may for the moment soothe our madness. Moss-grown and tumble-down houses become captivating to our fancy. We are even patient of old jokes. We seek the society of the elders, and hear with constantly renewed pleasure their castanean anecdotes. We refuse to read any book that has a clean new cover. The gleam of fresh paint vexes our eyes, as we walk along the rows of spick-span houses. Even our letter-paper must have torn and ragged edges, as if we had found it in our great-grandmother’s portfolio, in a chest in the garret.
This hankering is itself an old trait. Infallible Bartlett, in that volume of inexhaustible interest to those who like to turn over the quintessential distillations of the wit and wisdom of all times, — the Familiar Quotations, — gives quaint illustrations of it under the head of “ Old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust! ” It was this same mood that made Dan Chancer assert (as everybody remembers, but as nobody resents hearing over again, — it is, would say our friend the Judge, “ so deliciously wrong ”), —
Cometh al this new corne fro yere to yere,
And out of olde bookes, in good faithe,
Cometh al this new science that men lere.”
Yet, in the form in which we feel it in this country, this hunger for the old is one of the six or seven thousand traits which our British cousins find it difficult to comprehend. We cross the sea to find a cathedral that is truly ancient, and they point us with pride to this summer’s restorations; but while the group stands admiring them, the American slides away quietly, and “ slips behind a tomb,” or is found rapt on some dear unrestored nook of the ivied cloister. Just so it is on the Continent: Paris is always too wonderfully new and shining, as if Orpheus had strummed it up only this very morning from entirely new materials. My favorite spot is in the Louvre, between the five-footed bull of Assyria and tire rose-colored granite sarcophagus of Rameses III. The Hague is delightfully swept-up and washed-down and immaculately fresh and resplendent; but my best moment there was when, in the museum, I took in my hand a gold coin of Alexander, and as it lay cool and smooth in my palm I thought it was probably one that the conqueror himself flung ringing against the tub-staves of Diogenes, the day that worthy growled at him to “ get out of his sunshine.”
Sometimes the question has presented itself, What is the very oldest thing in the world that was seen by the men of yore and is still visible to us ? What is the object, or line, or point, which we can now behold, that was gazed on by human eyes farthest back in antiquity? It is certainly not to be looked for in this country. We are ridiculously new. It was only the other day that Columbus discovered us, and it was but a little while previous that, as red Indians, we had appeared on the scene ; not long enough, obviously, to have thinned out the deer and partridges. As moundbuilders, we had only a short time before thrown up our queer constructions for the puzzling of the antiquaries. The very soil here under me, as I write, is painfully recent. It was but a few thousand years ago that some sportive glacier came capering down from the Pole, and plastered it, in the shape of rockmeal, over our bare sandstones. Over in the Sierra Nevadas, it is true, I lay one sunshiny afternoon along a gleaming slope of the primeval granite, and cooled my cheek against its ice-planed polish, and admitted that here at last was something pretty old. Yet “ rockribbed and ancient as the sun” as was this gigantic adamantine couch, there was a still older thing playing at that very moment about us. It was the mountain wind. I could put out my hand to it, and reflect that it might have been this very identical breath of air that bubbled up through the sea when the towers of Atlantis went down; or it may have flickered the flame on Abel’s altar. “ You need not,” I might have said to it, “ think to palm yourself off as a freakish young zephyr, just born of yonder snow-streak and the sun-warmed rock ; you have been roaming this planet ever since its birth. You have whirled in cyclones, and danced with the streamers of the aurora ; it was you that breathed Job’s curses, and the love-vows of the first lover that was ever forsworn.”
But there is still an older thing to link us with the earliest of our race : it is the nightly procession of the stars. How old are the names of these familiar constellations ? Ptolemy gives a list of forty-eight of them ; and some were certainly known to Homer and to the eldest of the Hebrew writers. Is it an utterly wild speculation that they may be so ancient as to have once fairly represented the outlines of the bears and lions, archers and hunters, whose names they carry ? The stars, we know, are forever shifting their relative positions, if only a few hair’sbreadths every thousand years. Now the Scorpion is still a fairly suggestive scorpion, and Draco a tolerable dragon, winding his scaly length about the Little Bear. May it not be that Ursa Major took his name so many æons ago that he was then a veritable ursine figure, instead of the later Wain and the Great Dipper of our own day ? Let not the severe scientist frown at this fancy of a mere literary man. Let him keep his temper, remembering the dictum of that other and more solemn literary man who averred that only “ the undevout astronomer gets mad,”or words more or less to that effect.
At least we may have the satisfaction of feeling, when we look up at the stars, that our eyes are fastened on the very oldest things we know of in the world. We can be sure that human eyes traced out, night after night, those very lines, — squares, triangles, rings, the arrow of the Archer, the wings of the Swan, the scales of the Balance, the “ bands of Orion,” — longer ago than in the case of any shapes and forms that our eyes can now behold; unless it be the wrinkled visage of the Man in the Moon, or the fiery circle of the sun itself.