Over the Teacups



Personal and Confidential.

SOME of my friends may remember that an article bearing the above title appeared in the number of this magazine for March, 1888. It was my hope to have continued my contributions to The Atlantic, under the same title, for a number of successive months. I made no positive engagements, but I hinted my hopes and intentions clearly enough, as I remember. The course of events interrupted all my plans, and it is only very recently that I have felt able or willing to resume any kind of literary labor.

I know that it is a hazardous experiment to return to these pages, where in days long past I have found a generous welcome. But my readers have been, and are, a very kind constituency. I think there are many among them who would rather listen to an old voice they are used to than to a new one of better quality, even if the “ childish treble ” should betray itself now and then in the tones of the over-tired organ. But there must be others, — I am afraid many others, — who will exclaim : “ He has had his day, and why can’t he be content ? We don’t want literary revenants, superfluous veterans, writers who have worn out their welcome and still insist on being attended to. Give us something fresh, something that belongs to our day and generation. Your morning draught was well enough, but we don’t care for your evening slip-slop. You are not in relation with us, with our time, our ideas, our aims, our aspirations.”

Alas, alas ! my friend, — my young friend, for your hair is not yet whitened, — I am afraid you are too nearly right. No doubt, — no doubt. Tea-cups are not coffee-cups. They do not hold so much. Their pallid infusion is but a feeble stimulant compared with the black decoction served at the morning board. And so, perhaps, if wisdom like yours were compatible with years like mine, I should drop my pen and make no further attempts upon your patience.

But suppose that a writer who has reached and passed the natural limit of serviceable years feels that he has some things which he would like to say, and which may have an interest for a limited class of readers, is he not right in trying his powers and calmly taking the risk of failure ? Does it not seem rather lazy and cowardly, because he cannot “ beat his record,” or even come up to the level of what he has done in his prime, to shrink from exerting his talent, such as it is, because he has outlived the period of his greatest vigor ? A singer who is no longer equal to the trials of opera on the stage may yet please at a chamber concert or in the drawingroom. There is one gratification an old author can afford a certain class of critics : that, namely, of comparing him as he is with what he was. It is a pleasure to mediocrity to have its superiors brought within range, so to speak; and if the ablest of them will only live long enough, and keep on writing, there is no pop-gun that cannot reach him. But I fear that this is an unamiable reflection, and I am at this time in a very amiable mood.

I confess that there is something very agreeable to me in renewing my relations with the readers of this magazine. Were it but for a single number, it would give me a pleasant glimpse of the time when I was always to be found somewhere between its covers. Many of my readers — if I can lure any from the pages of younger writers — will prove to be the children, or the grandchildren, of those whose acquaintance I made something more than a whole generation ago. I could depend on a kind welcome from my contemporaries, — my coevals. But where are those contemporaries? Ay de mi! as Carlyle used to exclaim, — Ah, dear me ! as our old women say, — I look round for them, and see only their vacant places. The old vine cannot unwind its tendrils. The branch falls with the decay of its support, and must cling to the new growths around it, if it would not lie helpless in the dust. This paper is a new tendril, feeling its way, as it best may, to whatever it can wind around. The thought of finding here and there an old friend, and making, it may be, once in a while a new one, is very grateful to me. The chief drawback to the pleasure is the feeling that I am submitting to that inevitable exposure which is the penalty of authorship in every form. A writer must make up his mind to the possible rough treatment of the critics, who swarm like bacteria whenever there is any literary material on which they can feed. I have had as little to complain of as most writers, yet I think it is always with reluctance that one encounters the promiscuous handling which the products of the mind have to put up with, as much as the fruit and provisions in the market-stalls. I had rather be criticised, however, than criticise ; that is, express my opinions in the public prints of other writers’ work, if they are living, and can suffer, as I should often have to make them. There are enough, thank Heaven, without me. We are literary cannibals, and our writers live on each other and each other’s productions to a fearful extent. What the mulberry leaf is to the silk-worm, the author’s book, treatise, essay, poem, is to the critical larvæ that feed upon it. It furnishes them with food and clothing. The process may not be agreeable to the mulberry leaf or to the printed page ; but without it the leaf would not have become the silk that covers the empress’s shoulders, and but for the critic the author’s book might never have reached the scholar’s table. Scribblers will feed on each other, and if we insist on being scribblers we must consent to He fed on. We must try to endure philosophically what we cannot help, and ought not, I suppose, to wish to help.

It is the custom at our table to vary the usual talks by the reading of short papers, in prose or verse, by one or more of The Teacups, as we are in the habit of calling those who make up our company. Thirty years ago, one of our present circle — “ Teacup Number Two,” the Professor — read a paper on Old Age, at a certain Breakfast-table, where he was in the habit of appearing. That paper was published in this magazine, and has since seen the light in other forms. He did not know so much about old age then as he does now, and would doubtless write somewhat differently if he took the subject up again. But I found that it was the general wish that another of our company should let us hear what he had to say about it. I received a polite note, requesting me to discourse about old age, inasmuch as I was particularly well qualified by my experience to write in an authoritative way concerning it. The fact is that I — for it is myself who am speaking — have recently arrived at the age of threescore years and twenty, — fourscore years we may otherwise call it. In the arrangement of our table, I am Teacup Number One, and I may as well say that I am often spoken of as The Dictator. There is nothing invidious in this, as I am the oldest of the company, and no claim is less likely to excite jealousy than that of priority of birth.

I received congratulations on reaching my eightieth birthday, not only from our circle of Teacups, but from friends, near and distant, in large numbers. I tried to acknowledge these kindly missives with the aid of a most intelligent secretary ; but I fear that there were gifts not thanked for, and tokens of good-will not recognized. Let any neglected correspondent be assured that it was not intentionally that he or she was slighted. I was grateful for every such mark of esteem; even for the telegram from an unknown friend in a distant land, for which I cheerfully paid the considerable charge which the sender knew it would give me pleasure to disburse for such an expression of friendly feeling.

I will not detain the reader any longer from the essay I have promised.

This is the paper read to The Teacups.

It is in A Song of Moses that we find the words, made very familiar to us by the Episcopal Burial Service, which place the natural limit of life at threescore years and ten, with an extra ten years for some of a stronger constitution than the average. Yet we are told that Moses himself lived to be a hundred and twenty years old, and that his eye was not dim nor his natural strength abated. This is hard to accept literally, but we need not doubt that he was very old, and in remarkably good condition for a man of his age. Among his followers was a stout old captain, Caleb, the son of Jephunneh. This ancient warrior speaks of himself in these brave terras " Lo, I am this day fourscore and five years old. As yet, I am as strong this day as I was in the day that Moses sent me ; as my strength was then, even so is my strength now, for war, both to go out and to come in.” It is not likely that anybody believed his brag about his being as good a man for active service at eighty-five as he was at forty, when Moses sent him out to spy the land of Canaan. But he was, no doubt, lusty and vigorous for his years, and ready to smite the Canaanites hip and thigh, and drive them out, and take possession of their land, as he did forthwith, when Moses gave him leave.

Grand old men there were, three thousand years ago! But not alt octogenarians were like Caleb, the son of Jephunneh. Listen to poor old Barzillai, and hear him piping : “ I am this day fourscore years old ; and can I discern between good and evil ? Can thy servant taste what I eat or what I drink ? Can I hear any more the voice of singing men and singing women ? Wherefore, then, should thy servant be yet a burden unto my lord the king? ” And poor King David was worse off than this, as you all remember, at the early age of seventy.

Thirty centuries do not seem to have made any very great difference in the extreme limits of life. Without pretending to rival the alleged cases of life prolonged beyond the middle of its second century, such as those of Henry Jenkins and Thomas Parr, we can make a good showing of centenarians and nonagenarians. I remember Dr. Holyoke, of Salem, son of a president of Harvard College, who answered a toast proposed in his honor at a dinner given to him on his hundredth birthday.

“ Father Cleveland,” our venerated city missionary, was born June 21, 1772, and died June 5, 1872, within a little more than a fortnight of his hundredth birthday. Colonel Perkins, of Connecticut, died this year after celebrating his centennial anniversary.

Among nonagenarians, three whose names are well known to Bostonians, Lord Lyndhurst, Josiah Quincy, and Sidney Bartlett, were remarkable for retaining their faculties in their extreme age. That patriarch of our American literature, the illustrious historian of his country, is still with us, his birth dating in 1800.

Ranke, the great German historian, died at the age of ninety-one, and Chevreul, the eminent chemist, at that of a hundred and two.

Some English sporting characters have furnished striking examples of robust longevity. In Gilpin’s Forest Scenery there is the story of one of these horseback heroes. Henry Hastings was the name of this old gentleman, who lived in the time of Charles the First. It would be hard to find a better portrait of a hunting squire than that which the Earl of Shaftesbury has the credit of having drawn of this very peculiar personage. His description ends by saying, “ He lived to be an hundred, and never lost his eyesight nor used spectacles. He got on horseback without help, and rode to the death of the stag till he was past fourscore.”

Everything depends on habit. Old people can do, of course, more or less well, what they have been doing all their lives; but try to teach them any new tricks, and the truth of the old adage will very soon show itself. Mr. Henry Hastings had done nothing but hunt all his days, and his record would seem to have been a good deal like that of Philippus Zaehdarm in that untranslatable epitaph which may be found in Sartor Resartus. Judged by its products, it was a very short life of a hundred useless twelvemonths.

It is something to have climbed the white summit, the Mont Blanc of fourscore. A small number only of mankind ever see their eightieth anniversary. I might go to the statistical tables of the annuity and life insurance offices for extended and exact information, but I prefer to take the facts which have impressed themselves upon me in my own career.

The class of 1829 at Harvard College, of which I am a member, graduated, according to the triennial, fifty-nine in number. It is sixty years, then, since that time; and as they were, on an average, about twenty years old, those who survive must have reached fourscore years. Of the fifty-nine graduates ten only are living, or were at the last accounts; one in six, very nearly. In the first decade after graduation, when we were between twenty and thirty years old, we lost three members, — about one in twenty; between the ages of thirty and forty, eight died, — one in seven of those the decade began with; from forty to fifty, only two, — or one in twentyfive ; from fifty to sixty, eight, — or one in six ; from sixty to seventy, fifteen, — or two out of every five; from seventy to eighty, twelve, — or one in two. The greatly increased mortality which began with the fifth decade went on steadily increasing. At sixty we come “ within range of the rifle-pits,” to borrow an expression from my friend Weir Mitchell.

Our eminent classmate, the late Professor Benjamin Peirce, showed by numerical comparison that the men of superior ability outlasted the average of their fellow-graduates. He himself lived a little beyond his threescore and ten years. James Freeman Clarke almost reached the age of eighty. The sixth decade brought the fatal year for Benjamin Robbins Curtis, the great lawyer, who was one of the judges of the Supreme Court of the United States; for the very able chief justice of Massachusetts, George Tyler Bigelow ; and for that famous wit and electric centre of social life, George T. Davis. At the last annual dinner every effort was made to bring all the survivors of the class together. Six of the ten living members were there, — six old men in the place of the thirty or forty classmates who surrounded the long, oval table in 1859, when I asked, “ Has there any old fellow got mixed with the boys?” — “boys" whose tongues were as the vibrating leaves of the forest; whose talk was like the voice of many waters ; whose laugh was as the breaking of mighty waves upon the seashore. Among the six at our late dinner was our first scholar, the thorough-bred and accomplished engineer who held the city of Lawrence in his brain before it spread itself out along the banks of the Merrimac. There, too, was the poet whose National Hymn, “ My Country, 't is of thee,” is known to more millions, and dearer to many of them, than all the other songs written since the Psalms of David. Four of our six were clergymen ; the engineer and the present writer completed the list. Were we melancholy ? Did we talk of graveyards and epitaphs ? No, — we remembered our dead tenderly, serenely, feeling deeply what we had lost in those who but a little while ago were with us. How could we forget James Freeman Clarke, that man of noble thought and vigorous action, who pervaded this community with his spirit, and was felt through all its channels as are the light and the strength that radiate through the wires which stretch above us ? It was a pride and a happiness to have such classmates as he was to remember. We were not the moping, complaining graybeards that many might suppose we must have been. We had been favored with the blessing of long life. We had seen the drama well into its fifth act. The sun still warmed us, the air was still grateful and life-giving. But there was another underlying source of our cheerful equanimity, which we could not conceal from ourselves if we had wished to do it. Nature’s kindly anodyne is telling upon us more and more with every year. Our old doctors used to give an opiate which they called “ the black drop.” It was stronger than laudanum, and, in fact, a dangerously powerful narcotic. Something like this is that potent drug in Nature’s pharmacopœia which she reserves for the time of need, — the later stages of life. She commonly begins administering it at about the time of the “grand climacteric,” the ninth septennial period, the sixty-third year. More and more freely she gives it, as the years go on, to her gray-haired children, until, if they last long enough, every faculty is benumbed, and they drop off quietly into sleep under its benign influence.

Do you say that old age is unfeeling? It has not vital energy enough to supply the waste of the more exhausting emotions. Old Men’s Tears, which furnished the mournful title to Joshua Scottow’s Lamentations, do not suggest the deepest grief conceivable. A little breath of wind brings down the raindrops which have gathered on the leaves of the tremulous poplars. A very slight suggestion brings the tears from Marlborough’s eyes, but they are soon over, and he is smiling again as an allusion carries him back to the days of Blenheim and Malplaquet. Envy not the old man the tranquillity of his existence, nor yet blame him if it sometimes looks like apathy. Time, the inexorable, does not threaten him with the scythe so often as with the sand-bag. He does not cut, but he stuns and stupefies. One’s fellow-mortals can afford to be as considerate and tender with him as time and nature.

There was not much boasting among us of our present or our past, as we sat together in the little room at the great hotel. A certain amount of self-deception is quite possible at threescore years and ten, but at threescore years and twenty Nature has shown most of those who live to that age that she is earnest, and means to dismantle and have done with them in a very little while. As for boasting of our past, the laudator temporis acti makes but a poor figure in our time. Old people used to talk of their youth as if there were giants in those days. We knew some tall men when we were young, but we can see a man taller than any one among them at the nearest dime museum. We had handsome women among us, of high local reputation, but nowadays we have professional beauties who challenge the world to criticise them as boldly as Phryne ever challenged her Athenian admirers. We had fast horses, — did not “Old Blue” trot a mile in three minutes ? True, but there is a threeyear-old colt just put on the track who has done it in a little more than two thirds of that time. It seems as if the material world had been made over again since we were boys. It is but a short time since we were counting up the miracles we have lived to witness. The list is familiar enough : the railroad, the ocean steamer, photography, the spectroscope, the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, anæsthetics, electric illumination, — with such lesser wonders as the sewing-machine and the bicycle. And now, we said, we must have come to the end of these unparalleled developments of the forces of nature. We must rest on our achievements. The nineteenth century is not likely to add to them ; we must wait for the twentieth century. Many of us, perhaps most of us, felt in that way. We had seen our planet furnished by the art of man with a complete nervous system : a spinal cord beneath the ocean, secondary centres — ganglions — in all the chief places where men are gathered together, and ramifications extending throughout civilization. All at once, by the side of this talking and lightgiving apparatus, we see another wire stretched over our heads, carrying force to a vast metallic muscular system, — a slender cord conveying the strength of a hundred men, of a score of horses, of a team of elephants. The lightning is tamed and harnessed, the thunderbolt has become a common carrier. No more surprises in this century! A voice whispers, What next ?

It will not do for us to boast about our young days and what they had to show. It is a great deal better to boast of what they could not show, and, strange as it may seem, there is a certain satisfaction in it. In these days of electric lighting, when you have only to touch a button and your parlor or bedroom is instantly flooded with light, it is a pleasure to revert to the era of the tinderbox, the flint and steel, and the brimstone match. It gives me an almost proud satisfaction to tell how we used, when those implements were not at hand or not employed, to light our whale-oil lamp by blowing a live coal held against the wick, often swelling our cheeks and reddening our faces until we were on the verge of apoplexy. I love to tell of our stage-coach experiences, of our sailing-packet voyages, of the semi-barbarous destitution of all modern comforts and conveniences through which we bravely lived and came out the estimable personages you find us. Think of it ! All my boyish shooting was done with a flint-lock gun ; the percussion lock came to me as one of those newfangled notions people had just got hold of. We ancients can make a grand display of minus quantities in our reminiscences, and the figures look almost as well as if they had the plus sign before them.

I am afraid that old people found life rather a dull business in the time of King David and his rich old subject and friend, Barzillai, who, poor man, could not have told a teal from a canvas-back, nor enjoyed a symphony concert, if they had had those luxuries in his day. There were no pleasant firesides, for there were no chimneys. There were no daily newspapers for the old man to read, and he could not read them if there were, with his dim eyes, nor hear them read, very probably, with his dulled ears. There was no tobacco, a soothing drug, which in its various forms is a great solace to many old men and to some old women, — Carlyle and his mother used to smoke their pipes together, you remember.

Old age is infinitely more cheerful, for intelligent people at least, than it was two or three thousand years ago. It is our duty, so far as we can, to keep it so. There will always be enough about it that is solemn, and more than enough, alas ! that is saddening. But how much there is in our times to lighten its burdens ! If they that look out at the windows be darkened, the optician is happy to supply them with eye-glasses for use before the public, and spectacles for their hours of privacy. If the grinders cease because they are few, they can be made many again by a third dentition, which brings no toothache in its train. By temperance and good habits of life, proper clothing, well-warmed, welldrained, and well-ventilated dwellings, and sufficient, not too much exercise, the old man of our time may keep his muscular strength in very good condition. I doubt if Mr. Gladstone, who is fast nearing his eightieth birthday, would boast, in the style of Caleb, that he was as good a man with his axe as he was when he was forty, but I would back him, — if the match were possible,— for a hundred shekels, against that overconfident old Israelite, to cut down and chop up a cedar of Lebanon. I know a most excellent clergyman, not far from my own time of life, whom I would pit against any old Hebrew rabbi or Greek philosopher of his years and weight, if they could return to the flesh, to run a quarter of a mile on a good, level track.

We must not make too much of such exceptional cases of prolonged activity. I often reproached my dear friend and classmate, James Freeman Clarke, that his ceaseless labors made it impossible for his coevals to enjey the luxury of that repose which their years demanded. A wise old man, the late Dr. James Walker, president of Harvard University, said that the great privilege of old age was the getting rid of responsibilities. These hard-working veterans will not let one get rid of them until he drops in his harness, and so gets rid of them and his life together. How often has many a tired old man envied the superannuated family cat, stretched upon the rug before the fire, letting the genial warmth tranquilly diffuse itself through all her internal arrangements ! No more watching for mice in dark, damp cellars, no more awaiting the savage gray rat at the mouth of his den, no more scurrying up trees and lamp-posts to avoid the neighbor’s cur who wishes to make her acquaintance! It is very grand to “ die in harness,” but it is very pleasant to have the tight straps unbuckled and the heavy collar lifted from the neck and shoulders.

It is natural enough to cling to life. We are used to atmospheric existence, and can hardly conceive of ourselves except as breathing creatures. We have never tried any other mode of being, or, if we have, we have forgotten all about it, whatever Wordsworth’s grand ode may tell us we remember. Heaven itself must be an experiment to every human soul which shall find itself there. It may take time for an earthborn saint to become acclimated to the celestial ether, — that is, if time can be said to exist for a disembodied spirit. We are all sentenced to capital punishment for the crime of living, and though the condemned cell of our earthly existence is but a narrow and bare dwelling-place, we have adjusted ourselves to it, and made it tolerably comfortable for the little while we are to be confined in it. The prisoner of Chillon

regained his freedom with a sigh,

and a tender-hearted mortal might be pardoned for looking back, like the poor lady who was driven from her dwellingplace by fire and brimstone, at the home he was leaving for the “ undiscovered country.”

On the other hand, a good many persons, not suicidal in their tendencies, get more of life than they want. One of our wealthy citizens said, on hearing that a friend had dropped off from apoplexy, that it made his mouth water to hear of such a case. It was an odd expression, but I have no doubt that the fine old gentleman to whom it was attributed made use of it. He had had enough of his gout and other infirmities. Swift’s account of the Struldbrugs is not very amusing reading for old people, but some may find it a consolation to reflect on the probable miseries they escape in not being doomed to an undying earthly existence.

There are strange diversities in the way in which different old persons look upon their prospects. A millionaire whom I well remember confessed that he should like to live long enough to learn how much a certain fellow-citizen, a multimillionaire, was worth. One of the three nonagenarians specially referred to expressed himself as having a great curiosity about the new sphere of existence to which he was looking forward.

The feeling must of necessity come to many aged persons that they have outlived their usefulness; that they are no longer wanted, but rather in the way, drags on the wheels rather than helping them forward. But let them remember the often-quoted line of Milton,—

“ They also serve who only stand anti wait.”

This is peculiarly true of them. They are helping others without always being aware of it. They are the shields, the breakwaters, of those who come after them. Every decades is a defence of the one next behind it. At thirty the youth has sobered into manhood, but the strong men of forty rise in almost unbroken rank between him and the approaches of old age as they show in the men of fifty. At forty he looks with a sense of security at the strong men of fifty, and sees behind them the row of sturdy sexagenarians. When fifty is reached, somehow sixty does not look so old as it once used to, and seventy is still afar off. At sixly the stern sentence of the burial service seems to have a meaning that one did not notice in former years. There begins to be something personal about it. But if one lives to seventy he soon gets used to the text with the threescore years and ten in it, and begins to count himself among those who by reason of strength are destined to reach fourscore, of whom he can see a number still in reasonably good condition. The octogenarian loves to read about people of ninety and over. He peers among the asterisks of the triennial catalogue of the University for the names of graduates who have been seventy years out of college and remain still unstarred. He is curious about the biographies of centenarians. Such escapades as those of that terrible old sinner and ancestor of great men, the Reverend Stephen Bachelder, interest him as they never did before. But he cannot deceive himself much longer. See him walking on a level surface, and he steps off almost as well as ever; but watch him coming down a flight of stairs, and the family record could not tell his years more faithfully. He cut you dead, you say ? Did it occur to you that he could not see you clearly enough to know you from any other son or daughter of Adam ? He said he was very glad to hear it, did he, when you told him that your beloved grandmother had just deceased ? Did you happen to remember that though he does not allow that he is deaf, he will not deny that he does not hear quite so well as he used to ? No matter about his failings ; the longer he holds on to life, the longer he makes life seem to all the living who follow him, and thus he is their constant benefactor.

Every stage of existence has its special trials and its special consolations. Habits are the crutches of old age ; by the aid of these we manage to hobble along after the mental joints are stiff and the muscles rheumatic, to speak metaphorically, — that is to say, when every act of self-determination costs an effort and a pang. We become more and more automatic as we grow older, and if we lived long enough should come to be pieces of creaking machinery like Maelzel’s chess-player — or what that seemed to be.

Emerson was sixty-three years old, the year I have referred to as that of the grand climacteric, when he read to his son the poem he called Terminus, beginning, —

“ It is time to be old,
To take in sail.
The God of bounds,
Who sets to seas a shore,
Came to me in his fatal rounds
And said, ' No more ! ' ”

It was early in life to feel that the productive stage was over, but he had received warning from within, and did not wish to wait for outside advices. There is all the difference in the world in the mental as in the bodily constitution of different individuals. Some must “ take in sail ” sooner, some later. We can get a useful lesson from the American and the English elms on our Common. The American elms are quite bare, and have been so for weeks. They know very well that they are going to have storms to wrestle with ; they have not forgotten the gales of September and the tempests of the late autumn and early winter. It is a hard fight they are going to have, and they strip their coats off and roll up their shirt-sleeves, and show themselves barearmed and ready for the contest. The English elms are of a more robust build, and stand defiant, with all their summer clothing about their sturdy frames. They may yet have to learn a lesson of their American cousins, for notwithstanding their compact and solid structure they go to pieces in the great winds just as ours do. We must drop much of our foliage before winter is upon us. We must take in sail and throw over cargo, if that is necessary, to keep us afloat. We have to decide between our duties and our instinctive demand of rest. I can believe that some have welcomed the decay of their active powers because it furnished them with peremptory reasons for sparing themselves during the few years that were left them.

Age brings other obvious changes besides the loss of active power. The sensibilities are less keen, the intelligence is less lively, as we might expect under the influence of that narcotic which Nature administers. But there is another effect of her “black drop” which is not so commonly recognized. Old age is like an opium-dream. Nothing seems real except what is unreal. I am sure that the pictures painted by the imagination — the faded frescos on the walls of memory — come out in clearer and brighter colors than belonged to them many years earlier. Nature has her special favors for her children of every age, and this is one which she reserves for our second childhood.

No man can reach an advanced age without thinking of that great change to which, in the course of nature, he must be so near. It has been remarked that the sterner beliefs of rigid theologians were apt to soften in their later years. All reflecting persons, even those whose minds have been half palsied by the deadly dogmas which have done all they could to disorganize their thinking powers, — all reflecting persons, I say, must recognize, in looking back over a long life, how largely their creeds, their course of life, their wisdom and unwisdom, their whole characters, were shaped by the conditions which surrounded them. Little children they came from the hands of the Father of all; little children in their helplessness, their ignorance, they are going back to Him. They cannot help feeling that they are to be transferred from the rude embrace of the boisterous elements to arms that will receive them tenderly. Poor planetary foundlings, they have known hard treatment at the hands of the brute forces of nature, from the control of which they are soon to be set free. There are some old pessimists, it is true, who believe that they and a few others are on a raft, and that the ship which they have quitted, holding the rest of mankind, is going down with all on board. It is no wonder that there should be such when we remember what have been the teachings of the priesthood through long series of ignorant centuries. Every age has to shape the Divine image it worships over again, — the present age and our own country are busily engaged in the task at this time. We unmake Presidents and make new ones. This is an apprenticeship for a higher task. Our doctrinal teachers are unmaking the Deity of the Westminster Catechism and trying to model a new one, with more of modern humanity and less of ancient barbarism in his composition. If Jonathan Edwards had lived long enough, I have no doubt his creed would have softened into a kindly, humanized belief.

Some twenty or thirty years ago, I said to Longfellow that certain statistical tables I had seen went to show that poets were not a long-lived race. He doubted whether there was anything to prove they were particularly short-lived. Soon after this, he handed me a list he had drawn up. I cannot lay my hand upon it at this moment, but I remember that Metastasio was the oldest of them all. He died at the age of eighty-four. I have had some tables made out, which I have every reason to believe are correct so far as they go. From these, it appears that twenty English poets lived to the average age of fifty-six years and a little over. The eight American poets on the list averaged seventy-three and a half, nearly, and they are not all dead yet. The list including Greek, Latin, Italian, and German poets, with American and English, gave an average of a little over sixty-two years. Our young poets need not be alarmed. They can remember that Bryant lived to be eightythree years old, that Longfellow reached seventy-five and Halleck seventy-seven, while Whittier is living at the age of nearly eighty-two. Tennyson is still writing at eighty, and Browning seems in flourishing health and vigor at seventyseven.

Shall a man who in his younger days has written poetry, or what passed for it, continue to attempt it in his later years? Certainly, if it amuses or interests him, no one would object to his writing in verse as much as he likes. Whether he should continue to write for the public is another question. Poetry is a good deal a matter of heartheats, and the circulation is more languid in the later period of life. The joints are less supple ; the arteries are more or less “ossified.” Something like these changes has taken place in the mind. It has lost the flexibility, the plastic docility, which it had in youth and early manhood, when the gristle had but just become hardened into bone. It is the nature of poetry to writhe itself along through the tangled growths of the vocabulary, as a snake winds through the grass, in sinuous, complex, unexpected curves, which crack every joint that is not supple as india-rubber.

I had a poem that I wanted to print just here. But after what I have this moment said, I hesitated, thinking that I might provoke the obvious remark that I exemplified the unfitness of which I had been speaking. I remembered the advice I had given to a poetical aspirant not long since, which I think deserves a paragraph to itself.

My friend, I hope you will not write in verse. When yon write in prose you say what you mean. When you write in rhyme you say what you must.

Should I send this poem to the publishers, or not ?

“ Some said, ‘ John, print it; ’ others said, ‘ Not so.’ ”

I did not ask “some” or “others.” Perhaps I should have thought it best to keep my poem to myself and the few friends for whom it was written. All at once, my daimōn, — that other Me over whom I button my waistcoat when I button it over my own person — put it into my head to look up the Story of Madame Saqui. She was a famous danseuse, who danced Napoleon in and out, and several other dynasties besides. Her last appearance was at the age of seventy-six, which is rather late in life for the tight rope, one of her specialties. Jules Janin mummified her when she died in 1806, at the age of eighty. He spiced her up in his eulogy as if she had been the queen of a modern Pharaoh. His foamy and flowery rhetoric put me into such a state of good-nature that I said, I will print my poem, and let the critical Gil Blas handle it as he did the archbishop’s sermon, — or would have done, if he had been a writer for the Salamanca Weekly.

It must be premised that a very beautiful loving cup was presented to me on my recent birthday, by eleven ladies of my acquaintance. This was the most costly and notable of all the many tributes I received, and for which in different poems I expressed my gratitude.



“ Who gave this cup ? ” The secret thou wouldst steal
Its brimming flood forbids it to reveal :
No mortal’s eye shall read it till he first
Cool the red throat of thirst.
If on the golden floor one draught remain,
Trust me, thy careful search will be in vain ;
Not till the bowl is emptied shaft thou know
The names enrolled below.
Deeper than Truth lies buried in her well
Those modest names the graven letters spell
Hide from the sight; but wait, and thou shalt see
Who the good angels be
Whose bounty glistens in the beauteous gift
That friendly hands to loving lips shall lift:
Turn the fair goblet when its floor is dry, —
Their names shall meet thine eye.
Count thou their number on the beads of Heaven, —
Alas ! the clustered Pleiads are but seven ;
Nay, the nine sister Muses are too few, —
The Graces must add two.
“ For whom this gift ? ” For one who all too long
Clings to his bough among the groves of song ;
Autumn’s last leaf, that spreads its faded wing
To greet a second spring.
Dear friends, kind friends, whate’er the cup may hold,
Bathing its burnished depths, will change to gold:
Its last bright drop let thirsty Mænads drain,
Its fragrance will remain.
Better love’s perfume in the empty bowl
Than wine’s nepenthe for the aching soul;
Sweeter that song than ever poet sung,
It makes an old heart young!

Oliver Wendell Holmes.