The Philosophy and Poetry of Tears

I WAS in company the other day with my friend, the professor of chemistry, and, being in a reflective mood, I chanced to say, " Professor, tears are a curious thing.”

“ By no means,” replied he promptly. “ Their composition is quite simple: about ninety-eight parts water, and two parts salt, albumen, and mucus.

I did not pursue the conversation, but thought, without saying so, that if tears are not a curious thing, a professor of chemistry certainly is.

I happened, a few days after, to repeat the conversation to our professor of physiology, who, bringing his superciliary muscles into play, said, “ Simple as it may appear to Dr. Atom, the genesis of tears is quite a complex process, and they have multiple mechanical functions. They are secreted by the lachrymal gland, and partly by the orbicularis muscle are conveyed into the lachrymal canal, and thence into the eye, which they flood, and thus effectuate detersion, facilitate the movement of the eyeball, and preserve the transparency of the so-called cornea.”

I could only respond, “ I dare say. All you tell me is very wonderful and very complex, but how on earth do the little babies learn to cry so early and so well ? ” I did not tell him that I did not comprehend a word he had uttered, and hence the wonder,—omne ignotum pro magnifico. Much less did I reveal what was passing in my mind. It seemed to me that science is like a pin, — very useful for sticking things together, and very nicely contrived for this purpose ; but one man spends his whole life in coiling the head, another in shaping the shaft, and another in sharpening the point, while each understands nothing but his own part of the pin.

It next occurred to me to find out what the poets say about tears. They travel from earth to heaven very rapidly, in a daring, desultory way, and always through mists and clouds, seeing things and parts of things very indistinctly, and rarely telling the truth about what they do see ; yet notwithstanding, they now and then seem to find out some things, of more or less value, which other people do not know.

As we do not at present keep a professor of poetry at our university, I began to rummage among my books. The first lines that met my eye were these : —

“ Tears, feelings bright, embodied form, are not
More pure than dewdrops, Nature’s tears.”

Here is a definition of tears that we can accept without aversion, — tears are the bright, bodily form of feeling. The poet does not tell us that when we weep we are doing nothing more than secreting a mucous fluid by means of the lachrymal gland, He feels bound, however, to state the fact that tears are not more pure than dewdrops. The whole truth would have been that they are not as pure by a good deal. Perhaps Mr. Bailey did not know that they contain mucus, albumen, and salt. We wish we did not possess the uncomfortable information. We shall never again be able to kiss the tears from her cheek with the relish that once we did.

Voltaire calls tears “the silent language of grief.” Pollock preaches : —

“ Sweet tears ! the awful language eloquent
Of infinite affection, far too big
For words.”

Byron says, ” The test of affection’s a tear.” If this were only true !

Shakespeare gives the necessary caution : —

” Trust not those cunning waters of his eye,
For villainy is not without such rheum;
And he, long traded in it, makes it seem
Like livers of remorse and innocency.”

And Moore says : —

” The smiles of joy, the tears of woe,
Deceitful shine, deceitful flow.”

Again, Shakespeare says more coarsely:

“ If that the earth could teem with woman’s team,
Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile.”

But under the circumstances, perhaps Othello, from whose lips the expression falls, is not more trustworthy than Byron.

Perhaps Tennyson has uttered the real though unsatisfactory truth, —

“Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean.”

Certainly Dr. Young misled his gloomy friend, Lorenzo, in his researches upon this subject: —

” Lorenzo, hast thou ever weighed a sigh,
Or studied the philosophy of tears ?
Hast thou descended deep into the breast,
And seen their source ? If not, descend with me,
And trace these briny riv’lets to their springs.”

The doctor was already too deep for reality, as he not infrequently was. The lachrymal gland, the source of tears, is not in the breast, but high up in the head, near the outer part of the orbit of the eye.

The feelings, as assigned by poets, which start the flow of tears are diverse and even opposite, — mainly, however, misery, grief, and sympathy with the sorrowing; but it has not escaped them that joy often weeps, and that even laughter cries: —

‘‘My plenteous joys,
Wanton in fullness, seek to hide themselves
In drops of sorrow.”

Here is a pretty simile in prose: “ Tears of joy, like summer raindrops, are pierced by sunbeams.”

I do not recollect an instance (nor has my hasty glance at some poems supplied me with one) of notice by poets that tears are often brought into our eyes not only by sorrow, anger, sympathy, and some other of the stronger emotions, but that even a merely æsthetic apprecition of something heroic, beautiful, tender. affectionate, exquisite, or strikingly appropriate, will sometimes make the throat swell, the voice falter, and the surprised eyes overflow. Many a reader of How Horatius Kept the Bridge, or of the conclusion of Luther’s defense before the Diet of Worms, or of the peroration of Webster’s reply to Hayne, or of Coleridge’s Hymn in the Valley of Chamouni, or of the Ride from Ghent to Aix, will have some experience of this.

Once I was traveling from Dijon to Geneva in company with a party of tourists, who were gayly jesting and laughing under the exhilarating stimulus of the ascent of the Jura range on a faultless day, when suddenly a deep silence fell upon the group. The diligence had stopped on the last mountain crest, and the historic city, with its rushing Rhone, lay beneath us, and Mont Blanc rose in the far distance. We had gazed hardly a minute on the scene when one, perhaps not the least manly of our party, burst into an uncontrollable gush of tears, and was obliged to bury his face in his hat to hide his mortification at being thus startled into such a manifestation of emotion. I knew a similar effect to be produced upon a gentleman of culture by St. Paul’s Cathedral, visited for the first time while service was being celebrated. I suppose most persons have felt their eyes suffused with mist when contemplating the panorama of a calm, early morning, or gazing on a pensive evening landscape.

Shakespeare suggests this æsthetic relation of tears when he makes Jessica say to Lorenzo, —

“ I’m never merry when I hear sweet music.”

It appears in the line quoted from Tennyson’s poem, but there only secondary to an obscure, melancholy regret.

Rossetti says, ” All poetry that is really poetry affects me deeply, even to tears. It does not need to be pathetic, or yet tender, to products such a result. I have known in my life two men, and two only, who are similarly sensitive.” He then mentions seeing tears coursing down the cheeks of Tennyson, occasioned By the reading of a poem. An instance of similar sensitiveness on the part of Rossetti himself is given by the author of the Recollections. It must be borne in mind, however, that Tennyson and Rossetti were themselves the readers, and that the poems were their own !

Upon one point all poets seem to be agreed,—tears, beautiful in a woman, are unbecoming in a man.

“ For Beauty’s tears are lovelier than her smile.”

Byron says : —

“ Oh, too convincing, dangerously dear
in woman’s eye, the unanswerable tear;
That weapon of her weakness she can wield
To save, subdue,—at once her spear and shield.”

And Shakespeare : —

‘' I did not think to shed a tear
In all my miseries, but thou hast forced me
Out of my honest truth to play the woman.”
“ I had not so much of man in me,
And all my mother came into mine eyes,
And gave me up to tears.”
“ Let not woman’s weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man’s cheek.”

Now this was not always so. Once it was quite allowable for men to weep; and it was just about this I happened to be thinking when I remarked to our chemist that tears were a curious thing. For it is not easy to understand how 98 H²O and two parts of serum and albumen can be expressive of pain, sorrow, joy, anger, love, and the rest, — not to mention the want that is made known by “ the infant crying in the night.”

It is still less comprehensible how the lachrymal gland, capillary attraction, and the orbicularis muscle, so out of the range of the beau monde, should be subject to the sway of fashion. Such, however, seems to be the fact. When it was fashionable for men to weep, the organs promptly supplied tears ; while now that it is not considered good form, they are as inert as a politician’s conscience. " And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice and wept.” This early Scripture instance is not only noteworthy on general principles, but is remarkable for two special considerations.

(1.) What in the world had Jacob to weep about ?

(2.) Of two customs of contemporaneous antiquity, it is strange that one should survive in full vigor to the present time, and that the other should have been so completely lost. It is as modern as yesterday that Jacob should kiss Rachel, but not for countless centuries has it been recorded that after the gracious act Jacob falls to weeping! Later, at meeting with his brother Esau. Jacob wept; but the circumstances were very different, and he had ample justification for his tears. The family of Jacob inherited a lachrymose facility. Joseph, that superb historic man, with the large heart, must have also had a large lachrymal gland and an active orbicularis muscle, for his weepings were very frequent. But they were upon such becoming occasions that we feel inclined, through sympathy, to weep with him: whether when he turns his face to the wall to conceal his falling tears, or retires to his chamber to allow their gush, or puts all strangers out of his dining-hall that he may weep his fill with his repentant brethren, or falls in reverential grief upon the face of his dying patriarch father. Of Moses we read only once that he wept, and that was as a babe, in his lonesome cradle among the bulrushes; any modern child might do the like. He was not infrequently angry, and often cried unto the Lord, but he shed no tears. David wept three times. — at parting with his beloved Jonathan, when he heard of the murder of his son Amnon, and once again upon the cruel death of the lordly Absalom. He wept only three times in the presence of others: but David had the emotional nature of a poet, and his Psalms reveal him weeping in secret, often and bitterly. The ancient prophets signalized their monitory mission by the tears they shed for the foreseen calamities of their people, and one of them exclaims, “ Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night! " Jeremiah evidently understood physiology better than Dr. Young.

Weeping was not, however, confined to holy men of old. Homer’s ungodly heroes were great blubberers. Not only Ajax. Eneas, Ulysses. Idomeneus, and their peers, together with the Achaians generally, indulge in the luxury of woe, but that brutal athlete, Achilles, sheds lovesick tears when his sweetheart is taken from him ; and his alter ego, Patroclus, cuts a sorry figure when he undertakes to persuade the surly, crossgrained warrior to return to the fight.

Meanwhile Patroclus stood beside his friend,
And slied hot tears, as when a fountain sheds
Dark waters streamingdown a. precipice.
The great Achilles, swift of foot., beheld
And pitied him, and spake these wingëd words:
Why weepest thou, Patroclus, like a girl ? ”

Doubtless prudential considerations restrained Patroclus from retorting upon Peleus’ wrathful son, in words which, if not winged, would have been barbed :

“ Why didst thou weep, Achilles, for a girl ?

The very steeds about Troy caught the contagion from their masters : thus they mourned the death of Patroclus : —

“ So stood
The coursers, yoked to that magnificent car.
With drooping heads, and tears, that from their lids
Flowed hot, for sorrow at the loss of him
Who was their charioteer.”

When Virgil gathers up the Trojan relics, out of which he composes his epic, his wandering hero finds many occasions for weeping, and he bountifully improves them all, except one, — when gracious tears were due to forlorn Dido, piteously begging not to he left behind, deserted. But with hard, dry eyes, he pleaded the Fates against the Sidonian queen. When afterwards, in the regions across the Styx, he met her injured shade, lachrymas demisit. But very justifiably, Dido deemed the apology too late, leaving the hero to his usual resort of 98 H²O lachrymans longe. This habit of the chief is readily caught up by all his army, and his warriors weep indiscriminately throughout the Æneid. His gallant opponent on the Latian shore, the youthful Turnus, is in this respect in marked contrast to the pious old widower, who deprives him of his betrothed, his kingdom, and his life. Turnus scorns to weep.

The Romans of the last days of the Republic were too selfish and too hardened by the sight of universal ruin to weep. True, Antony, according to Shakespeare, called on them, if they had tears to shed, to prepare to shed them then, but it does not appear that they were prepared. Sylla, Cæsar, Pompey, Brutus, and the rest had to keep a sharp lookout for their lives and fortunes, and could not allow their eyes to be blurred. Cicero occasionally melted, but this was only to spread a liquid varnish over his eloquence. Marius sniveling amidst the ruins of Carthage, is an apocryphal exception.

In short, for men to shed tears, once deemed altogether appropriate, is now considered only a weakness. This may he attributed, undoubtedly, in part, to acquired self-control. But only in part; for not only is the habit discontinued, but the inclination no longer exists in force, and for one half of our population the lachrymal apparatus is wellnigh eliminated. Darwin’s theory of evolution is just reversed in this process of devolution or revolution, or whatever may be the fitting term. An organ, by continued use. has not been developed, but destroyed. It may, however, illustrate the survival of the fittest, as being the result of advancing civilization. For it may he stated as a general fact that the higher the pitch of refinement, the less the fall of tears. This is true of both sexes, but especially of men, and in men in proportion to the fullness of their manhood. Children, of whichever sex, cry at their own cross will, but the schoolboy will hardly shed tears when he is flogged ; the young man is ashamed to weep when he is hurt by a fall, except into love ; while the fullbearded adult has completely triumphed over feeling. By the way, it is noticeable how men, under emotion, are inclined to stroke down a long beard ; it serves somehow to draw off the electric fluid. In old men, iterum pueros, Nature reasserts herself, and the watery eye, uncontrolled by their weakness, will readily fill up, and not unfrequently overflow. All these statements are true with a difference among nations, due to climatic, historic, or other influences. The English more than all other people refuse to allow this manifestation of emotion. Perhaps we get our self-control through our German lineage. Tacitus says of our rude ancestors that among them

“ Feminis lugere honestum est ; viris meminisse.”

This power of voluntary restraint has its counterpart, more singular still, in the power possessed by some persons of producing a flow of tears absolutely mechanical, and unaccompanied by any corresponding mental or emotional condition. Actors will weep appropriately when performing their parts in a play, repeated so often as to make impossible anything beyond feigned emotion. Some advocates, too, have a facility in weeping for their clients and their fees. I knew a lawyer who had this gift in an eminent degree, and who was notorious for his exercise of it. On one occasion, in the defense of a criminal, he was associated with a brother lawyer, who had caught the trick, and both of them shed tears in their speeches. The prosecuting attorney, a man of sharp sarcasm as well as great learning, opened his speech by saying, with much gravity, “ May it please the court, I am taken at a disadvantage to-day. I have no tears prepared to shed; and, if I had, I could not cry against two at once! ” The jury smiled audibly, and the sympathy excited by the professional tear was dissipated.

A curious instance of the possession of this power of weeping at will is related of Miss Seward, a literary lady of the last century, who, it will be remembered, burdened her friend. Sir Walter Scott, by leaving to him her poems as a legacy, with the request that he would edit them. This he did, though reluctantly. Miss Seward had the strange power of shedding floods of tears, without any exciting cause whatever, and was frequently called on to do so for the entertainment and mystification of her friends. This power seemed as mechanical as that of the weeping tree, which all visitors to the garden at Chatsworth will recall.

In this connection (as the preachers sometimes say, when the connection is more than usually obscure) it is quite noticeable that a change has taken place in the habits of the colored people of the South in two respects, among others of much more importance. In slavery times, they did not kiss, nor did they often weep. Husbands, wives, and children met, and felt glad, no doubt, but there was no kissing; even mothers fondled their children without this customary endearment. And when they were separated by death, and sometimes by what was sharper than death, the women shed few tears, and the men none. Now they seem to find osculation very pleasant, and, upon suitable occasions, betake themselves to tears as readily as to smoking cigarettes or weaving bustles.

One of the mysteries of tears is that though, as the ministers of emotion, they start to assuage sorrow, yet when a mighty grief strikes us they withhold their relief. Said the Roman philosopher, Curœ leves loquuntur: ingentes stupent,—a saying quite as felicitous in its form as it is impressive by reason of its truth. Petty troubles not only express themselves, but are garrulous ; the great are silent from sore amazement. Friends, brothers, sisters, and children can weep over the pallid face ; but the wife or mother looks on her dead with wild, unmoistened eyes. Niobe is turned to stone ; and, most dreadful of all, she is conscious that she has been petrified to her inmost soul.

In all the range of literature, we know nothing that more powerfully sets forth the inadequacy of tears to express the full despair of anguish than these noble lines of Mrs, Browning : —

“ I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless ;
That only men, incredulous of despair,
Half taught in anguish, through the midnight air
Beat upward to God’s throne, in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach. Full desert ness
In souls, as countries, lieth silent, bare,
Under the blenching, vertical eye-glare
Of the absolute heavens! ”

But it is time to lay aside the pen that has indulged itself to an extent disproportionate, perhaps, to the apparent unsolidity of its topic. And yet there is a serious philosophy belonging to tears.

Weeping is a characteristic of humanity. Only man sheds tears ; and ever since

“ Man’s first, disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,”

weeping has been as universal and as inevitable as death. For sorrow is the genesis of tears, and tears are the language of sorrow ; and there is no language where their voice is not heard. There are no happy isles where clouds do not precede and return after the rain, and darken the light of the sun. Every page of earth’s history is stained by tears; and for every man, high and low, king and beggar, wise and simple, front the time we enter upon the way of all the earth until our feet arrive upon the banks of the silent stream that all must cross, tears are the companions of our progress; and when we go to our long home, mourners go about the streets.

Is man’s life therefore grievous? Nay ; for our sorrows are fewer than our joys, and have always their alleviation for those who will accept it. And best of all, the book of sorrow has its lessons of truth well worth the pain involved in learning them, — lessons not to be found elsewhere,

“ As darkness shows us worlds of light.
We never saw by day.”

And finally, sorrow passes away with this mortal life, of which it is an accompaniment ; but joy, like the soul in which it has its seat, is immortal.

J. T. L. Preston