On the other hand, Mr. Edgar Saltus, who is nothing if not melancholy, would fain persuade us that the “gift of tears,” which Swinburne prized so highly and Mrs. Browning cultivated with such transparent care, finds its supreme expression in man, only because of man’s greater capacity for suffering. Yet if it be true that the burden of life grows heavier for each succeeding generation, it is no less apparent that we have taught ourselves to stare dry-eyed at its blankness. An old rabbinical legend says that in Paradise God gave the earth to Adam and tears to Eve, and it is a cheerless doctrine which tells us now that both gifts are equal because both are valueless, that the world will never be any merrier, and that we are all tired of waxing sentimental over its lights and shadows. But our great-grandfathers, who were assuredly not a tender-hearted race, and who never troubled their heads about those modern institutions, wickedly styled by Mr. Lang “Societies for Badgering the Poor,” cried right heartily over poems, and novels, and pictures, and plays, and scenery, and everything, in short, that their great-grandsons would not now consider as worthy of emotion. Jeffrey the terrible shed tears over the long-drawn pathos of little Nell, and has been roundly abused by critics ever since for the extremely bad taste he exhibited. Macaulay, who was seldom disposed to be sentimental, confesses that he wept over Florence Dombey. Lord Byron was strongly moved when Scott recited to him his favorite ballad of Hardyknute; and Sir Walter himself paid the tribute of his tears to Mrs. Opie’s dismal stories, and Southey’s no less dismal Pilgrimage to Waterloo. When Marmion was first published, Joanna Baillie undertook to read it aloud to a little circle of literary friends, and on reaching those lines which have reference to her own poems,
When she the bold enchantress came,
With fearless hand, and heart in flame,
the “uncontrollable emotion” of her hearers forced the fair reader to break down. In a modern drawing-room this uncontrollable emotion would probably find expression in such gentle murmurs of congratulation as “Very pretty and appropriate, I am sure,” or “How awfully nice in Sir Walter to have put it in that way!”
Turn where we will, however, amid the pages of the past, we see this precious gift of tears poured out in what seems to us now a spirit of wanton profusion. Sterne, by his own showing, must have gone through life like the Walrus, in Through the Looking Glass,
Holding his pocket handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes;
and we can detect him every now and then peeping slyly out of the folds, to see what sort of an impression he was making. “I am as weak as a woman,” he sighs, with conscious satisfaction, “and I beg the world not to smile, but pity me.” Burns, who at least never cried for effect, was moved to sudden tears by a pathetic print of a dead soldier, that hung on Professor Fergusson’s wall. Scott was always visibly affected by the wild northern scenery that he loved; and Erskine was discovered in the Cave of Staffa, “weeping like a woman,” though, in truth, a gloomy, dangerous, slippery, watery cavern is the last place on earth where a woman would ordinarily stop to be emotional. She might perhaps cry with Sterne over a dead monk or a dead donkey, — he has an equal allowance of tears for both, — but once inside of a cave, her real desire is to get out again as quickly as possible, with dry skirts and an unbroken neck. It may be, however, that our degenerate modern impulses afford us no safe clue to those halcyon days when sentiment was paramount and practical considerations of little weight; when wet feet and sore throats were not suffered to intrude their rueful warnings upon the majesty of nature; when ladies, who lived comfortably and happily with the husbands of their choice, poured forth impassioned prayers, in the Annual Register, for the boon of indifference, and poets like Cowper rushed forward to remonstrate with them for their cruelty.
Let no low thought suggest the prayer,
Oh! grant, kind Heaven, to me,
Long as I draw ethereal air,
wrote the author of The Task, in sober earnestness and sincerity.
Then oh! ye Fair, if Pity’s ray
E’er taught your snowy breasts to sigh,
Shed o’er my contemplative lay
The tears of sensibility,
wrote Macaulay as a burlesque on the prevailing spirit of bathos, and was, I think, unreasonably angry because a number of readers, his own mother included, failed to see that he was in fun. Yet all his life this mocking critic cherished in his secret soul of souls a real affection for those hysterical old romances which had been the delight of his boyhood, and which were even then rapidly disappearing before the cold scorn of an enlightened world. Miss Austen, in Sense and Sensibility, had impaled emotionalism on the fine shafts of her delicate satire, and Macaulay was Miss Austen’s sworn champion; but nevertheless he contrived to read and re-read Mrs. Meek’s and Mrs. Cuthbertson’s marvelous stories, until he probably knew them better than he did Emma or Northanger Abbey. When an old edition of Santa Sebastiano was sold at auction in India, he secured it at a fabulous price, — Miss Eden bidding vigorously against him, — and he occupied his leisure moments in making a careful calculation of the number of fainting-fits that occur in the course of the five volumes. There are twenty-seven in all, so he has recorded, of which the heroine alone comes in for eleven, while seven others are distributed among the male characters. Mr. Trevelyan has kindly preserved for us the description of a single catastrophe, and we can no longer wonder at anybody’s partiality for the tale, when we learn that “one of the sweetest smiles that ever animated the face of mortal man now diffused itself over the countenance of Lord St. Orville, as he fell at the feet of Julia in a death-like swoon.” Mr. Howells would doubtless tell us that this is not a true and accurate delineation of real life, and that what Lord St. Orville should have done was to have simply wiped the perspiration off his forehead, after the unvarnished fashion of Mr. Mavering, in April Hopes. But Macaulay, who could mop his own brow whenever he felt so disposed, and who recognized his utter inability to faint with a sweet smile at a lady’s feet, naturally delighted in Mrs. Cuthbertson’s singularly accomplished hero. Swooning is now, I fear, sadly out of date. In society we no longer look upon it as a pleasing evidence of feminine propriety, and in the modern novel nothing sufficiently exciting to bring about such a result is ever permitted to happen. But in the good old impossible stories of the past it formed a very important element, and some of Mrs. Radcliffe’s heroines can easily achieve twenty-seven fainting-fits by their own unaided industry. They faint at the most inopportune times and under the most exasperating circumstances: when they are running away from banditti, or hiding from cruel relatives, or shut up by themselves in gloomy dungeons, with nobody to look after and resuscitate them. Their trembling limbs are always refusing to support them just when a little activity is really necessary for safety, and, though they live in an atmosphere of horrors, the smallest shock is more than they can endure with equanimity. In the Sicilian Romance, Julia’s brother, desiring to speak to her for a minute, knocks gently at her door, whereupon, with the most unexpected promptness, “she shrieked and fainted;” and as the key happens to be turned on the inside, he is obliged to wait in the hall until she slowly regains her consciousness.