A Flight in the Dark
THE newly cropped meadows lay level and dun to the distant boundary of a swift silvery river, in the sunshine of a July afternoon. The higher peaks were softened by a blue haze; the nearer mountains showed tints of purple in their dark greens, and were dashed with shadows fallen from loose white clouds. The air, everywhere fresh, was cool in the red-brown shade made by a group of tall pine-trees on a steep upland knoll. Agatha, lying on the pine needles, with hands clasped behind her neck, was aware of a mountain breeze blowing across her face ; aware, too, although her eyes were half closed, of the sweet familiar New Hampshire landscape, and the clouds floating in blue depths overhead. A spare New England figure, in a short mountain dress, she had the careless attitude of a girl; yet she had passed the second crisis of a mental life, when the revelation which has come to us in youth as intuition is forced to give way to or be supplemented by a revelation of insight. She no longer felt a strenuous necessity for solving the latest problem before the sun had finished his day’s round ; and a smile of amusement as well as of affection came to her face as the sense of another presence stole in upon her, and she sat up at the approach of a younger and rounder figure, in a fresh summer dress of light blue and a wide straw hat.
The new-comer threw aside the shawl which she had brought with her, sat down on the pine sward, and, with a little birdlike movement of her head, turned her brown eyes, burning with a steadfast glow of earnestness, to her friend.
Agatha. Julia, I did not see you coming. “Farewell the tranquil mind ! ” I don’t mean to suggest that your presence is not welcome, but I know you will be talking to me about the Infinite ; and I have been lying for the last hour on Mother Earth, for all the world like one of her own stones.
Julia. I am sure I have not come to disturb you. I can play the daughter to Nature as quietly and with as much content as anybody. Looking at the dear old mountains is occupation enough for me. I do not even need to measure their sides with my eye, as you are always doing, to see what ridge will be the best line of ascent.
Agatha. I do. It’s an inveterate habit. I should start from that gray rock, make a bee-line through the woods to the next clearing —
Julia. And you think it is I who cannot rest and enjoy ! I can “sit without ambition, hope, or aim.”
Agatha. Physically, perhaps; but mentally you are a terrible embodiment of all three. My poor old mind has to be up and doing the moment it sees you approach.
Julia. Your idea of your mind is the most curious contradiction to the reality. You insist on squaring it to your general life-theory of passive acquiescence. It is absurdly inconsistent in you to think at all. But you can’t help yourself.
Agatha. I won’t be attacked in this manner. Lie down on the pine needles, and be sensible. I have done more talking— I will not say thinking — than usual this summer ; but you have had hold of the other end of the string.
Julia. As I don’t see you when I drop the string, I have no answer ready. But how good it seems to live, on such a day as this, with mountain air to breathe, and the big pine-trees overhead, shading us without shutting away our view !
Agatha. They talk about the everlasting hills, but those New Hampshire worthies across the intervale don’t wear a very permanent look, after all. In this light even the sombre and scriptural Moriah looks not unlike a lazy old cloud that will presently pick itself to shreds and disperse.
Julia. Yes, but come back to-morrow, and see him stand blank and solid against an uncompromising sky. No, I can’t get away from the stability of the hills. Their changing glory is mere illusion : I find myself irritated, sometimes, when their aspect is most dreamily wonderful, by the knowledge of the prosy reality to which they will return.
Agatha. Of course there is the constant and understood aspect of permanence. All my wonder was that I should be allowed even momentarily to forget it. But why should reality be irritating to you ? There is your Utopia. You dwell upon the thought of what might be and ought to be, and you have inevitably to bump against the knoll, on which I am reposing, of what is.
Julia. Nonsense. What irritates me is inconsistency. Nature should agree with herself. She has no right to follow one law with the mountains and another with the man. Yesterday’s storm surged around the mountain summit; yet there it stands this afternoon, serene, unchanged. Our storms don’t blow over its and leave us the same men and women ; they alter our deepest natures. The mountain contradicts the principle of development: there you have my quarrel.
Agatha. I’m inclined to think that spiritual storms, various and considerable as their effects may be, do yet leave behind the old individual nature that they found. I may have given up lying and stealing, but the being who lied and stole is still under my roof-tree.
Julia. That is the bluest sky through the pine branches! Look at it beside the dazzling white of those cumuli, — pure color, attached to no deadening reality of substance. Do you realize, Agatha, that your last speech makes you out a thorough-going pessimist ? You imply — or would, if I had the heart to make you logical on such a morning — that there is no real development possible, for the individual or for the race. Take it back !
Agatha. I ’ll take back all but the residuum. In an age of science, to deny development would be to argue one’s self non-existent. Look at the grass which has grown an inch since yesterday, and the train spinning along with our mail on the other side of the valley. Progress of some sort or other is an understood factor in life. But is n’t the progress in a series of cycles, alternate growth and decay ; a circle which returns as the earth to the sun, and moves onward, if it moves, like the solar system, always in the same medium ?
Julia. Cycles, if you will, but not circles. A circle must return on itself, but a cycle swings upward in spiral curves.
Mounts through all the spires of form.”
Agatha. I confess that history and human nature alike bring me back a little fondly to my notion of the circle. But if we try to look too definitely into the future, we may find ourselves walking off the edge of thought. At all events, the circle, if circle it be, is large enough to give free play.
Julia. Then you don’t mind the fact of limitation if the limits are sufficiently wide ? We differ : for my part, if I have to retrace my steps in the end, I can take no comfort in the thought that I have the universe for my treadmill. Let me be a spinning dervish and done with it.
Agatha. But don’t we have to retrace, however eager our desire to go on ? We have all space and thought to wander in, but despite the apparent carte-blanche we are always coming up against walls of circumstance and the limitations of our nature.
Julia. Only till we stop knocking our heads against the walls, and take the onward path the walls protect. Moreover, no barriers impede one skyward.
Agatha. No, that is a direction in which there will he no need of fences till our wings are grown.
Julia. A characteristic speech, from the surface of your mind. You, the follower of Emerson, to talk of the tyranny of circumstance !
Agatha. Emerson regards the tyranny of circumstance as an aid to growth, checking effort in the wrong direction.
Julia. That was exactly my point.
Agatha. But then you agree with me that we can’t aim at indefinite expansion on all sides ? Life brings within our grasp a possibility, limited, but to our vision still high and marvelous, — the development of our own highest being within the bounds of our personality. But in the idea of a perfected race, which plays such a part in modern literature, personality has no place. The ideal man has gone to seed, so to speak, — has carried all the virtues together as far as they can logically go, and disposed of that difficult element, human nature, as it will never be disposed of save in theory.
Julia. I too object to that ideal individual. He would be the least interesting of companions. But my objection applies also to your statement that each man is to “ get his growth,” as it were, and then stop. I dislike this idea of fixed limits, both for the individual and for the race. The normal life, either collective or individual, does not grow, ripen, decay. Neither does it stop. That may be the law of nature, but the law of the spirit is progressive and endless development. Is not this the case with the individual, even though in old age physical decay supersede for the time the higher law of growth? And, though fewer people grant it, humanity as a whole repeats the experience of the individual. It manifests new powers in every age, losing nothing, advancing to ever new heights. So long as our reach exceeds our grasp, progress must continue : and that means that progress will never stop, for our reach is towards the Infinite.
Agatha. I told you that you would be talking about the Infinite! My objection to the ideal man is that qualities developed collectively have all lost something of their individual force. In the compound, no one element has its full flavor.
Julia. That is the value of the new idea of humanity as an organism. It insures variety in unity. The old idea was that each man set out for himself, grew more or less, then passed into the life beyond the grave. The modern idea is more complex. Based scientifically on the principle of inheritance, philosophically on the unity of the race, it sees humanity as a whole, the final organism to which each man contributes his own special function, advancing constantly in this present world to a higher and fuller perfection.
Agatha. And yet, as Emerson warns us, “ Nature cannot be cheated. Man’s life is but seventy salads long, grow they swift or grow they slow.” One man lives, accumulates, and dies. He leaves an inheritance of thought and knowledge, but of this his heir has only such portion as he in his turn can apprehend. To each the problem is the same, and the experience of others is no more than a suggestion to him as he gains and works out his own.
Julia. But each brings a new element to the whole.
Agatha. Undoubtedly. Yet one or another of these elements must develop for a time, and decay to make room for its successor. You cannot say, in looking at the field of history, that humanity loses nothing. Look at the growth and decline of nations, the rise and fall of arts, the loss in a great artistic period of the convictions and moral force of a religions epoch, and the neglect in the latter of the artistic side of life. Julia. Was the time of Homer devoted to art rather than to action ? Did Æschylus and Phidias belong to an age ineffective in dealing with realities, or to the most solemn and exalted period of Hellenic history ? Was Dante’s enthusiasm purely artistic ? I deny your alternation. The great ages of faith have been the great ages of art, and the times of indifference to moral issues are inevitably times when art dies away in critical prettinesses. Faith and art go hand in hand, and, penetrating constantly farther into the truth that surrounds us, they add constantly fresh power to life.
Agatha. As to the age of Homer, what do we know about it ? The great poets in all ages have dealt with the realities of life ; for poetry in its truest and deepest significance is essentially one with religion. In all times men have had access to truth, and the truest have apprehended it. We are not the first to climb the mountains; as far back as we can look there are figures standing on the peaks.
Julia. True men have always seen the truth, but that truth has not always been the same. With each generation it has been deeper and finer. A vision was vouchsafed to Dante to which the eyes of Æschylus were blind. Not that Dante was greater than Æschylus, but that into the world of common men and women there had come a new life and a new power ; and the poet, then as always starting from the vantageground of the past, led men on to clearer glimpses of the Celestial Vision, heading the long procession that advances through the ages
Oil to the City of God.”
Agatha. You state the point of our discussion. Is there that continuous advance ? Between Æschyhts and Dante there had come into the world with Christianity a new spirit, a revelation of love and hope which is beyond the Greek idea of fate, or rather the universal idea of cause and effect which the Greeks so strongly perceived. Dante was the poet of the new idea. But Dante was a lonely man in an uncomprehending age. And even if his age had stood with and around him, you would still have missed in its new insight and depth something of the artistic perfection, the primal lofty poetry, of the Greeks.
Julia. You grant that Christianity introduced a new power; I think it hardly to the point of the main issue to discuss how far the noblest exponents of that power were comprehended by their time. But your main question is undoubtedly of gravest interest and significance. I think there is that clear onward movement. Not to speak just now of modern life, I think that the world of the Middle Ages stood on a higher level, both artistically and spiritually — I won’t say than the world of the cavedwellers, but than that of the finest period of Hellenic civilization.
Agatha. It pleaseth you to be paradoxical. Please explain !
Julia. You think that mediæval Christianity sacrificed artistic power. Of course you have the surface truth: no art has ever so perfectly expressed its ideal as that of the Greeks. But do we care more for the method of expression or for the thing expressed ? Art, like character, finds its highest glory in humility, in struggling to render something too great for it. Thus I say that the cathedral is artistically nobler than the Grecian temple. Its roughness, inconsistency, and weakness have a higher aim than the calmly perfect symmetry of the Greek. Thus it really reveals to us more beauty, since it arouses higher, purer, fuller emotion.
Julia. And the two arts are symbolic. The pagan presented a conception of life perfectly possible to attain : so some of those old Hellenic characters have a noble poise, an august and complete calm, such as we no longer see. But the Christ gave us an ideal that no man has yet attained, for he opened the life upward as well as outward ; and in the imperfect, crude, sorrowful struggles of humanity to reach that perfect life we see a more touching beauty, a more inspiring power, than in the old completeness within set and narrow limitations. Do we not ? Only the lower forms of life reach the perfection of their type. The oyster fulfills its ideal; the man cannot. Which is the nobler, which the more lovely ?
Agatha. The cathedral marks another height, with a beauty of detail, and also a feeling of earnestness and aspiration. that the temple has not. But in going on to the Gothic we did not cast away the Greek standard. That has been ever since the measure of art as art, whereas the power of rising to that standard has been utterly lost.
Julia. Of course a certain kind of loss is involved in every gain. We have advanced immensely in artistic technique, but we have left behind us forever the naive charm, the birdlike lilt, of the folk-song.
Agatha. The beauty of the ballad is the beauty of childhood,—of a simplicity which is inevitably lost amid the more complex conditions of life. It has no poetic quality which has not been improved upon in other forms, save that which belongs to its imperfection. But the beauty of Greek art is that of achievement, the culmination of a long period of artistic growth.
Julia. I would rather look at Angelo’s Greek Slave, rough-hewn, half finished, with the anguish of centuries struggling through his sorrowful features, than at the untroubled loveliness of the Venus. The first has the beauty of the soul, a beauty that involves pain and imperfection ; the other has at best the beauty of the perfect body.
Agatha. The Greek a merely technical art! Ye gods and little fishes ! Was perfect body ever created without soul in the creator, from the days of Genesis till now ?
Julia. It was art on the natural plane, at least, and absorbed in the present moment.
In both, of such lower types are we
Precisely because of our wider nature !
For time, theirs — ours, for eternity.
It seethes with the morrow for us and more.”
We reflect in our art the glory of aspiration, the pain of regret. We have learned the artistic value of sorrow, which the Greeks never perceived. We are necessarily suggestive where they were explicit. But I think these changes an advance ; and so do you, if you would but confess it.
Agatha. Well, partly. But I think you drop the balance too strongly on the side of Hebraism, and are unjust to Hellenism; that is, to the idea of beauty. “ Le beau est la splendeur du vrai.” Greek art may be compared to the bird in evolution. After evolving it, Selection went round the corner and started on a new line. She dropped at once to the ornithorynchus. There is undeniable progress from the ornithorynchus to man, but the bird is left behind. We have not wings. And morphologically the bird is the most perfect structure.
Julia. And yet evolution is synonymous with advance.
Agatha. Wings apart, we have certainly developed. The mediæval world had a faith, the modern world has a spirit of sympathy and humanity, which the Greeks lacked. It is gain balanced with loss. Let us follow the gain. Does it lose nothing as it goes on ?
Julia. Wait, wait! Agatha, do you see that chipmunk ? There, under the mullein by the big rock! What is he doing to those tall grasses ? See him reach out that wee paw and bend them down.
Agatha. Julia, come back to the point.
Julia. I will. See how darkly the river flows ! It seems strange to watch the current half a mile away. What were we talking about ?
Agatha. Suppose you try to remember.
Julia. I know. Cycles and spirals, race-ideals, Hellenic civilization, Christian art, birds and the ornithorynchus, progress in general, — ever so many things. We had just taken a flying leap to the modern world, had n’t we ? And you asked if I thought that it had gained very much. Oh, Agatha, the gain seems to me immense !
Agatha. So you lend your voice to the chorus of self-glorification and complacent ecstasy over the progress of the age that makes itself heard in political meetings and magazines?
Julia. I suppose I do. Look impartially at, a few facts.
Agatha. Phonographs? Two-cent stamps? Herbert Spencer’s philosophy?
Julia. No. Take what you spoke of yourself, — the extended sympathy which is the chief note of the modern world. Of course we are familiar enough with its direct effects, but there are indirect effects that nobody talks about, which seem to me even more interesting. In literature, for example —
Agatha. Are you going to say that Wordsworth discovered the poor man, and that the modern novelist shows us the beauty of commonplace lives ?
Julia. No, I am not. I mean something quite different, — an increase of scope in another sense. I mean the extension of our poetic powers till we comprehend and reproduce the life of all peoples and all ages. It is an axiom that art can reflect only its present; and you know what a weariness to the flesh one finds the long galleries of historical pictures in the museums, and what a bore the old-fashioned historical novel is. All attempts to reproduce the past till our own day were frigid and untruthful. Think of the pseudo-classic drama; and the chief apparent exception, the Oriental themes of the early Italian painters, really establish the point, as Raskin shows. Now have n’t you noticed the entire absence of unity of tone in our modern literature ? Every other great literary epoch has unity. We miss it utterly. Think of the Blessed Damozel and Empedocles on Ætna!
Agatha. Or the Earthly Paradise and the In Memoriam. But what are you coming to ?
Julia. Why, this: our absence of unity springs from the wonderful breadth of our sympathy; and this sympathy enables us to give the lie to the old principle, and to reflect all phases that human experience has known. We have perfect reproductions of Greek temper, artistic and ethical, in Swinburne’s Atalanta and in much of Arnold ; we have intimate and beautiful revelations of the soul of the Middle Ages and of the artistic Renascence in Rossetti; and Browning gives us, brilliantly, the Renascence in its subtler and more intellectual phases. We almost seem to be escaping, in our poetry, from the limits of time and space; and this wonderful entrance of literature into the heritage of the ages we owe directly to the new altruism.
Agatha. Is it not rather an outcome of the critical spirit, the desire to enter into and comprehend all life, past and present ? I don’t know whether it is confined to our time. Of course the Elizabethan dramatists borrowed rather in form and outline than in spirit from the ancients. Still they must have had a deep sympathy with the pagan world.
Julia. Yes, but colored with the passion and ideas of the Renascence itself.
Agatha. Well, they had more color to lend in that day than our modern artists have.
Julia. Our individuality is clearly enough marked, I think; but it is so curiously complex that there is no phase or attitude which it does not include. So it can interpret all impartially and justly by looking into its own heart. But there’s another line in which the scope of art has extended.
Agatha. “ Go on,” as Hamlet says to the Ghost: “ I ’ll follow thee,” — and with as little idea of my destination.
Julia. We are freeing ourselves from many of the old limitations. I don’t mean in technical matters, such as the unities, but more subtly, in choice of theme and method of treatment. Subjects which did not conform to a certain arbitrary standard of beauty or dignity used always to be neglected, and poetic style had to regard conventional proprieties. All this is of the past. Our own day triumphantly asserts the range of art to be coextensive with life itself; finding nothing common or unclean, free at last to reproduce, in artistic form, every subtlest movement of the soul within. The enlargement of what may be called the grotesque element in art is immensely interesting to me. I can think of nothing more significant, as certainly poetry has never seen anything more daring, than Browning’s Christmas Eve, — the juxtaposition of the vulgar, sordid squalor of the surroundings with the vision of the glorified Christ. It is the epitome of modern life.
Agatha. In power of reproducing in his own intense, massive, penetrating style an immense variety of experience, both outward and inward, Browning has probably never been paralleled. He has individuality, dramatic intensity, lyric sweep. But what we miss throughout in Browning and other moderns is ‘‘that large utterance of the early gods,” that magic beauty and potency of words, which fell, as from heaven, upon the pages of Shakespeare, of Milton; that instinctive poetic utterance which came to Shelley and Keats, and in waves and glimpses to Wordsworth. That is, to my mind, the essential “ poetry stuff,” the divine element.
Julia. Yes. Still, if ideas once get into poetry, they come to stay. The man who first introduces them may stammer, but his successor will find the perfect utterance. So you agree with me on the main issue, that poetic scope has received an amazing enlargement in this century?
Agatha. It has received certain new ideas, acquired new tendencies, without doubt; but an amazing enlargement, no. When I feel wonder, amazement, take possession of me, it is not at the power of analysis or the technical achievement of nineteenth-century poets. It is at that knowledge of the human heart, that glance to the root and centre of things, which produced Lear and The Tempest.
Julia. I’m going to say something shocking to you under my breath. Really, seriously, I’ve never been able to see in Shakespeare much breadth of scope.
Agatha. You might say it aloud. The pine-trees won’t tell, you young Philistine.
Julia. Of course he gives us more than any other poet until our own century ; but there is an immense extension of life that he has n’t touched. Indeed, Agatha, the marvel to me in general is that art has given us, not so much, but so little. How many subtle and fine struggles of the spirit, how many perceptions of things human and divine, are known to each soul that it never finds hinted in literature! Loneliness is often intensified fourfold by the futile effort to find in the poets the reflection of some experience through which one passes of necessity alone so far as human sympathy goes, but which it would be an unspeakable comfort to know not foreign to humanity.
Agatha. Yes, there are moments of restlessness when one searches one’s cherished books in vain for some hint of help. But in others how the right word comes clear and strong from some early century to our hearts! Our craving has been too literal, perhaps. The suggestions are there: we are left to fill them out.
Julia. Yet there are needs that only our own century can meet. It seems to me, for instance, that there always used to be a curious simplicity in people’s relations to each other. Now in Shakespeare —
Agatha. I ‘m glad you ’ve come back to Shakespeare. I was afraid you were going to canter away on a generalization. Come, now, be,as heretical as you like.
Julia. Well, it does seem to me that Shakespeare saw only the simplest and most obvious situations. Of course they are typical; but we have to translate them, as our Lord translated the Decalogue, before they appeal to us directly. Think of the themes of the tragedies, — most deeply as most intensely real of all the plays. Envy, uncontrollable passion, shattered faith, — we meet them, indeed, but in forms less elementary. The objective provocations are different, fewer ; the subjective reality is perhaps more absolute. Ambition does not lead to murder now, nor the passionate demand for love to acts of external cruelty. All is driven inward. I can’t imagine a modern girl finding comfort, help, or guidance in the lifehistories of Isabel, Portia, Ophelia; but send her to Maggie Tulliver, let her read the history of Dorothea; and if she is capable of entering, let her into the heart-secrets of Browning’s girlduchess. Then see if her aching solitude is not relieved by the knowledge that other women have seen life as she sees it, and yet have prevailed.
Agatha. You are right so far as the appeal to our own experience of our own literature goes. No writer can come quite as near to us as the poet of our own day, for no other has had just the same conditions of struggle. The elements of life have grown more subtle and complicated ; or, rather, the elemental passions and experiences are overlaid for us with an intricate pattern of ideas which never perplexed any strong mind in earlier, fresher times, but through which we cannot wholly break without deserting our age and shirking the new burden laid upon us, to say nothing of missing many of its most intimate charms and helps.
Julia. This new complexity is surely an advance, is it not ?
Agatha. At least it follows the law of your pet development - theory in nature, — it changes from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous. So does that “ rose-flesh mushroom,” by the way, with the slugs crawling out of it.
Julia. Ours is not, I think, the complexity of decay. We are saved from that by another element which I find in our century. I mean the high spiritual vitality which our literature reflects.
Agatha. I thought this was called the century of doubt.
Julia. And the doubt is the sign of the vitality. Do you suppose people in general ever distressed themselves over their relation to the unseen, in the old days ? A few chosen souls have always done so ; but the majority ? Take life, again, as we find it in Shakespeare. You know Dowden calls him a thorough positivist: his characters are occupied exclusively with their relation to the visible world of their fellow-men; a world governed, indeed, by great moral forces, to which the individual must conform or suffer torture, but with little upward reach. Now take life as reflected by any modern poet. Think of the proportion occupied by man’s relation to the infinite, the ideal, the unseen. Think of the constant aspirations of Shelley, the contemplative ardor of Wordsworth, the struggle of the earthly nature to reach celestial heights which we find in Tennyson and Browning. Glance through a little book like Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and note the gradual change in the reach of the lyric from the first book to the last. Can you imagine the concluding poem — the Ode on the Intimations of Immortality — the product of any century but our own ? The contrast is amazing. I wonder that people don’t talk more about it.
Agatha. Yes, we have a more intimate poetry. And another form of literature peculiarly our own, which relies largely on these spiritual perceptions, and brings out with equal strength this sympathy and earnestness of tone, is the novel. The modern novelist has drawn closer to life, and gives us subtler analysis, more varied phases, and a deeper philosophy, than the earlier novelists had thought of, or than any dramatist could, from the nature of the drama, have attempted. The evolution of the novel was in response to the modern need of interpreting the inner as well as the outer life.
Julia. Now, Agatha, this contemplative tone in our literature — in poetry and romance alike — surely indicates, as I said, a high average level of earnestness and aspiration. People call the century materialistic; it seems to me the era of a spirituality perhaps higher and purer, certainly more general, than has ever been seen before. Materialism and agnosticism have only served to make faith real instead of conventional.
Agatha. Undoubtedly. Even alongside of the scientific materialism and agnosticism of a few years ago we had other and more potent forces. The utilitarian school was a surface influence, and was never really felt in literature. Mill, Buckle, and, to come further down, Herbert Spencer, have made an immense stir among practical people and talking people, but they have not affected literature, nor moved men’s inmost thought.
Julia. And the failure of this school to crystallize in artistic; form their attitude towards life has always seemed to me to argue the attitude transitory and superficial. There were those other forces of which you speak, one force above all, overborne for the time by the clamor of the cruder scientists, — the new democratic idea which found in altruism such as George Eliot’s one of its noblest developments.
Agatha. That seems to me the distinctive phase of our later nineteenth century. Mr. Lilly, in one of his articles, derives it very ingeniously, and I think truly, from the egoism of the Sturm-und-Drang epoch, the self-brooding of René, turned from its own conscious misery to sympathy with other natures and other pains.
Julia. Then there is the more practical result of the democratic spirit, — the new philanthropy and the new economics that are working themselves out through experiments ; crude, indeed, and occasionally absurd, but all of them in the main hopeful.
Agatha. Yes, Carlyle inveighed against man’s inhumanity to man, but his own writings stirred a spirit that he never fully realized, of endeavor to raise and help and live with the poor and suffering. That is a marked and beautiful feature of recent English thought; and if it is less felt in our own country, the reason may be that there is less painfully apparent need for it.
Julia. I don’t know about that. But we won’t discuss it. At all events, we are beginning to see difficulties and feel responsibilities.
Agatha. On the whole, the age can be called materialistic only in relation to its worship of machinery and material civilization, and its indifference to the spiritual voices speaking to it and through it. And this indifference is giving way. Within the last twenty, nay, ten years, there is not only a cessation of the confident trumpeting of scientific atheism then in vogue ; there is also, perhaps, a lower tone of boastfulness in regard to the glory of inventions. And while our greatest thinkers, alas! have all left us, there is a world of earnestness and hopeful, active thought in the literature of the day, which testifies to the spirit in which younger writers have taken up the work and continue the teaching. Robert Elsmere, for instance, puts this later religious thought into the mould of fiction.
Julia. But what curious forms the reaction assumes, especially here in New England ! I almost fear that we are swinging too far the other way. It is amazing to see how prevalent is crude and restless speculation on spiritual themes. Materialism is no longer the danger of ordinary minds. Rather they try to escape from all the limits of time and space and common sense, and fly off into Christian Science, Theosophy, Esoteric Buddhism, or some other of the curious fads that thicken our atmosphere. A sober-minded person like myself finds it irritating enough to run constantly against these queer scraps of metaphysics, detached from their connection, and each paraded as the entire and spherical truth. Yet I wonder if the diffusion of this sort of tiling is not a healthful sign. I’m inclined to think it is, and I rejoice in it.
Agatha. Well, I am glad you take comfort in the Theosophy, mind-cure, faith-cure, universal-fad development. It ’s a reaction from materialism, if you will, but to me it is the reaction of people whose conception of the spiritual and of the essence of spirit is of the crudest and most elementary description.
Julia. That is just the encouraging feature : that such people as these should be driven, by the absence of external authority and their inner longing for truth, to seek for some relation — spurious or not does n’t affect the point — with the spiritual world. How much would they have cared about it a century ago ? Agatha. Then you are glad of the overthrow of religious authority?
Julia. I rejoice in the resultant spread of individual effort after the truth. Each individual is likely to reach formulæ cruder and less adequate, I think, than the old formulæ of the consensus of opinion expressed by the Church, or of the world’s leaders. Perhaps we shall return to the old expressions, after all. I have so returned, and should be called, curiously enough, less progressive than you, I suppose, in spite of the sides we have been taking in our talk. But at least, to-day each man’s faith must be true to himself. The inevitable growth and expansion of society have evolved from within, as a necessary condition, that religious liberty, the guarantee of genuine faith, which Protestantism tried in vain to impose as an arbitrary law from without. Don’t you see, then, how these multiform illusions, unsightly though they be, are to me witnesses of the new spiritual era ?
Agatha. Yes ; but has there ever been a time when it was not possible for the individual to look upward and outward, and bring the truth straight to his own heart, and speak from his own revelation ? All religions have had their source in that.
Julia. Assuredly; but till now the average man has had no impulse to look upward. We must look at the movement of the mass.
Agatha. To-day a larger number of people are freed from authority; that is, from the dominant sway of the highest minds. But the two elements which, wrongly used, have gone to make up authority are still in the world, and one day or other must have their own again: the strenuous and deep conviction of the men to whom strong revelations come, imposing itself on other people ; and the tendency inherent in the race to follow each other like sheep, and to make the spiritual truth given them a material truth in their interpretation. Julia. You wander round a large circle, Agatha ; but you, at least, have returned to your starting-point.
Agatha. How so ? I hardly see.
Julia. You assume that inherent tendencies remain constant, and will always reassert themselves with all their initial power. Of course, on this hypothesis progress is impossible, and our discussion has no ground to stand on. But I deny your assumption, and I’ve been trying to knock it from under you all the afternoon. I say that we can alter our natures ; eradicate some things, grow into others. Humanity was unconsciously and innocently materialistic at first: but the function assigned it as the culminating product of natural evolution was to bridge the gulf between matter and spirit; to reach the reality back of sensuous appearance, conquering the innate lethargy, the force of gravitation, that pulls it constantly earthward.
Agatha. Wait a moment. My ambitions are small, low if you will. I don’t want to conquer gravitation, to put myself in opposition to any fundamental natural law.
Julia. Look at that slender birch gleaming on the hillside opposite, and do not arrogantly assume knowledge of all the possibilities of natural law. Gravitation continues, but organic life appears ; and see, the upward growth.
Agatha. Skyward, but not to the sky. But all this is theory.
Julia. But our talk has been one long appeal to experience. You grant my facts, Agatha ; you deny all my inferences. We have said that modern life possesses a breadth and intensity of sympathy never seen before; that, so far as we can judge from the mirror of poetry, the soul of man has gained a new subtlety and sensitiveness, has entered into a new ardor of aspiration: and we see signs around us that all men, not only the favored few, are struggling for this new breadth and height. All this you grant. All of it, except the last point, you acknowledge to be gain. Even in this last fact, though you find it distasteful, you must recognize progress. It means that religion, like society, is becoming democratic ; and we can’t escape from democracy, though we be never so fine - spun aristocrats at the shallow heart of us.
Agatha. Never before was I stigmatized as an aristocrat!
Julia. You are one, though, through and through. All these facts which I allege and yon allow move you not one whit from your original assumption. I suppose we must leave the matter there ; but I sliould like to ask you one question, if I may : How can you preserve the good cheer that you always show, the high faith that I know you to possess, in the face of your conviction ? You believe that the life of the race simply spins around like a whirligig at a fair, and that humanity in general, whatever may be true of a fortunate individual here and there, knows no advance towards an unseen glory and perfection which shall compensate it for the sordid, degrading, painful life of its earlier generations. Now I know you not selfish, to rest in the hope of personal attainment; not narrow, to hold yourself content with the attainment of a few high and starry spirits. How then do you live ? I cannot apprehend you, I cannot understand.
Agatha. Do you know, my Julia, that you are urging me to definition of things which I shrink from defining even to myself ? I can only answer you in a tentative way. Under all the changes which make up the course of life, the unity of its essential conditions does not seem to me impaired, the truths which underlie it remain the same. If we in this day can enter into and reproduce the lives of the past, it is because we perceive that their battle was the same as ours. In discussion we separate things, to examine and define them; but the silent thought of the soul unites them. It apprehends a light which is universal. Whether we are to be admitted, either here or elsewhere, to the full glory of that light we cannot tell. As regards this world, I see no reason to expect it, and the other does not concern me yet. But neither of these hopes is necessary to my faith, any more than a miraculous past is necessary. We do not invent faith ; we receive it. To each soul that has struggled to be true and to adjust itself to the life before it, there comes, sooner or later, something worthy to be called a revelation; and when that has spoken we have no need to measure the gain. The soul that can say, “ I have walked with God to-day,” is in no mood for bargaining. He may have revealed only some breath of His spirit, some fragmentary perception of the working of His law. It suffices. To receive this and to assimilate it to our daily life is task and privilege enough. At least for myself I find in such light enough to make life perennially sacred ; and it satisfies my thought of the race to which I belong to know that each man is open to a similar or analogous revelation, and that many can receive more abundantly of the joy than I.
Julia. Yes, it suffices. These flashing moments of insight known to ourselves and to the race are indeed inestimably precious. Yet do they reveal nothing ? To me, they show a God who cannot rest till each one of His children, till the race that He has made, conform to the image of the Perfect Humanity. I cherish them ; for they are foreshadows of the time to come, when not transitory gleams alone shall constitute the light of all our seeing, but when, here on this very earth it may be, we shall live in eternal peace and perpetual light shall shine on us. The sun is setting behind Baldcap, Agatha; see the radiance on the eastern hills. It is the earnest of sunrise. Come, let us go down.
S. K. & V. D. S.