After "Our Hundred Days"

AFTER the “ Hundred Days,” the story of which has been published in this magazine during the past year, the natural sequel would seem to be — Waterloo. I thought I had experienced that catastrophe when my attention was called to an anachronism of unusual dimensions, in one of the early numbers. It is made all right in the more recent copies of the collected papers, but stands uncorrected in many of those first printed. No critic, so far as I know, has impaled it and its author in the public prints. I suppose critics are not always in the habit of reading the books they receive, and are therefore liable to overlook their defects, except such as may catch their eye in the intervals of the uncut pages.

How was it possible for a writer with some half dozen academic gowns on his back, a member of the Historical Society and contributor to its annals, to have spoken of the companion of Wolfe in his victory at Quebec, in 1759, as having been commemorated in Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis, which was published in 1667, nearly a century earlier ? It could hardly be ignorance, — the pons asinorum is not long enough to stretch over such an interval. It was in reality a survival of an early accidental impression, dating from the days of half-taught boyhood, the origin of which I could easily explain, if it were worth while. It is enough to mention the strange blunder, and to have had it corrected.

But in these days, when the study of mental action in all its usual and exceptional aspects is attracting very wide attention, one is tempted to try to account for all his mental vagaries. How is it possible that two facts so widely separated should cohere, as if they properly belonged together ?

The analogy between the organ of vision and that of thought is so obvious and familiar that it does not require illustration. Now, just at the entrance of the optic nerve is a small circular area, known as the blind spot. Certain essential anatomical elements are wanting in this little space; and though the visual image is painted on it, the picture is a blank to the perception. Is there not a blind, spot in the organ of intellect as well as in that of vision, — an idiotic area, where ideas are represented, but not transmitted to the intelligent centre ? “ Think a moment I ” we say to a friend who is entertaining some (to us) selfevident absurdity. Paraphrased, this would be, You have got a bit of nonsense on your mental blind spot, your idiotic area. Shift it, if you can, into a place where the mental elements are not deficient, as in that empty region.

I must appeal to the experience of others, if they are not conscious of such a blind spot in their intelligence. If they recognize it as a fact that they have such a spot, they can account for many absurdities and contradictions in their own field of thought and that of others. For this idiotic area is the vacant lot where inconsistent, incoherent, unrelated ideas come together and disport themselves, or lie loose, scattered over it. Many simple puzzles and idle fancies find their way there, and claim a right of domicile, until awakened reflection drives them away. Let me give an instance or two. “ Excuse me,” said the barber to the lantern-jawed man, “if I put my finger in your mouth to press your cheek out.” “ No, no,” said the man he was shaving. “ I am afraid you ’ll bite me.” Dean Swift mentions in one of his letters to Stella an odd whim of his own: “I have my mouth full of water, and was going to spit it out, because I reasoned with myself, ‘ How could I write when my mouth was full ? ‘ ” In the persons we call “ absent-minded,” the idiotic area extends over a wider space than it covers in most individuals.

This theory — for I dare not announce it as a positive discovery — is a very convenient application to cover one’s own mental slips, and to account for those of one’s neighbor. No person of good temper and philosophic habit of mind could take offence at the question, politely asked, “ Does not that view or that argument come from your idiotic area?” When John Stuart Mill suggested the possibility of a universe where two and two would make five, I should have wished to hint in a modest and civil way that this supposition had the idiotic area as its natural habitat.

I said that no critic had, to my knowledge, exposed my blunder in print. But a kind correspondent, whose title was not his chief claim to my attention, wrote to me as follows : —

“ Has any candid friend called your attention to a chronological slip in your preface ? You refer to Admiral Sir Charles Holmes, the companion of Wolfe, as being sung by Dryden as ‘ the Achates of the General’s fight,’ in momentary oblivion of the fact that a whole century separated the comrades of Albemarle and Wolfe. ‘ Achates’ ’ name, too, was Robert. He warred much against the Dutch in Africa and America, and among his feats the following will specially interest his namesake, perhaps his descendant: ‘ He also took from the Dutch a colony in North America, called Nova Belgia, and bestowed on it the name of New York.’ ”

I have to correct another error, into which I was led by some misinformed fellow - visitor at York. A gentleman, writing from England, tells me that the slab bearing the one word Miserrimus is not at York, but in the cloisters of Worcester.

“ If you do not happen to know it already, you will be interested to hear that it marks the grave of Rev. Thomas Maurice, M. A., a curate and a minor canon of Worcester, a non-juror, who died, aged eighty-eight, in 1748, ‘ sorrowing to the last for the fallen dynasty.’ The knowledge of this, I am afraid, rather takes away from the romance of Wordsworth’s beautiful sonnet; but even had it not been so, to many people his interpretation of the word miserrimus seems open to question.”

It is hardly worth while to correct one’s lesser errors, which not one reader in a score would notice if the writer did not call attention to them. An author’s mistakes are stains in his remembrance ; they are spots which easily wash off in his reader’s. But as I have begun a brief list of errata, I may as well add one or two more. I insisted on interpreting the last word in the line —

“ And every shepherd tells his tale,”

as meaning his love-tale, but I did not wish to be taken too seriously. There is no doubt, I think, that Warton is right in saying that it means numbering his sheep. But many a love-tale has been told under the hawthorn blossoms, and I kept the old interpretation by poetic rather than critical license.

Let me insert here an explanation, which relates to a single word in a poem of mine recently published. I spoke of Blandusia’s ” fountain instead of Bandusia, and was corrected by two correspondents : one a true scholar, who made his correction in very lively and pleasant verse, as a private communication. The other, probably more recently from his text-books, treated the error more seriously. The fact is just this : In verifying the quotation, a precaution one ought always to take, and too often neglects, I took the nearest one of the four editions of Horace standing on my shelves, and followed that without questioning its authority. It was a lovely little Elzevir of 1628, which Daniel Heinsius ex emendatissimis editionibus expressit, et reprœsentavit. This edition has Blandusia, as has also the Delphine edition. The two others have the more correct spelling, Bandusia. I will not say malo errare cum Heinsio, — I had rather be wrong with Heinsius than right with the last schoolboy manual ; but if one does make a mistake, one likes to have it a scholarly one. I remember a story which my father, a more accurate writer than his son ever was, told me of one of his boyish experiences, which, after slumbering in my recollection for the greater part of a century, turns up at last to help me out in my apology. He must needs take down a sickle, which the reaper had left hangingon the bough of an old apple-tree, and try his skill at reaping. The consequence was a grand cut near one of his knuckles, of which he used to show me the scar. But he was always pleased to add that the reapers looked at his cut with strong commendation, and assured him that the place and form of the wound showed that he had held his sickle excellently well, and that there was no doubt that by practice he might become a very good reaper. The scar of my classical error shows, at any rate, that I was handling an approved classical implement in the legitimate method.

One misapprehension has been a source of pain to me, — I hope to no one else ; for I can hardly believe a gossiping story which reached our newspapers from England. I was so much delighted with several of the elderly ladies I met in London society that I paid what was meant as the warmest of tributes to the agreeable qualities of the old Londoness of the higher social grades. Thinking of the great strength and endurance required to last the time of two or three generations in the strain of London social life, I could not help remembering the longevity of that pleasant bird which keeps its conversational powers and its comely aspect for an almost indefinite series of years. But the idea that I would make a personal comparison between any individual lady and any bird, except possibly a bird of Paradise, or a nightingale, or one as lovely in look or voice, is a great wrong to my sense of propriety. It had never occurred to me for one instant that the personal application spoken of in the gossiping story could have been made by any one. The published paragraph was the first thing which suggested it to me, and I looked upon it as a foolish story, which could hardly have any real foundation in fact. At any rate, it was utterly devoid of truth; the expression used to illustrate the tenacity of life which belongs to a certain class of ladies whom I found it so pleasant to meet and converse with is not elegant, it may be, but it belongs to generic, and not to individual, description. I mention these small matters, about most of which nobody cares except myself, and I not very much, because it gives me the opportunity of saying something I have wished to say. As for answering criticisms, it is commonly unnecessary and unwise. I have had every reason to he pleased with the reception of my little book, “ Our Hundred Days.” It was very generally accepted just as I could have wished it to be, — as a sort of autobiographical record of a few exceptional months of my life. It served one purpose, at least, namely, that of keeping up my relations with the readers of The Atlantic, and after them with a still larger public. By means of these papers, very much such as I should have written home in private letters, I have held my patient public by the button, as it were, hoping that I should have something more to tell them after they had recovered from any fatigue the reading of my record might have cost them.

It does not become me to look to the future too confidently, but I hope in the course of the coming year to meet my old readers, and perhaps some more youthful ones, as an acquaintance who is at home in these pages, and does not like to leave them entirely so long as he has any good reason to believe that he is not an unwelcome visitant among the crowd of younger writers who are pressing forward to fill them.

Oliver Wendell Holmes.