Over the Teacups
THERE was a great tinkling of teaspoons the other evening, when I took my seat at the table, where all The Teacups were gathered before my entrance.
The whole company arose, and the Mistress, speaking for them, expressed the usual sentiment appropriate to such occasions. “ Many happy returns ” is the customary formula. No matter if the object of this kind wish is a centenarian, it is quite safe to assume that he is ready and very willing to accept as many more years as the disposing powers may see fit to allow him.
The meaning of it all was that this was my birthday. My friends, near and distant, had seen fit to remember it, and to let me know in various pleasant ways that they had not forgotten it. The tables were adorned with flowers. Gifts of pretty and pleasing objects were displayed on a side table. A great green wreath, which must have cost the parent oak a large fraction of its foliage, was an object of special admiration. Baskets of flowers which had half unpeopled greenhouses, large bouquets of roses, fragrant bunches of pinks, and many beautiful blossoms I am not botanist enough to name had been coming in upon me all day long. Many of these offerings were brought by the givers in person ; many came with notes as fragrant with good wishes as the flowers they accompanied with their natural perfumes.
How old was I, The Dictator, once known by another equally audacious title,— I, the recipient of all these favors and honors? I had cleared the eightbarred gate, which few come in sight of, and fewer, far fewer, go over, a year before. I was a trespasser on the domain belonging to another generation.
The children of my coevals were fast getting gray and bald, and their children beginning to look upon the world as belonging to them, and not to their sires and grandsires. After that leap over the tall barrier, it looks like a kind of impropriety to keep on as if one were still of a reasonable age. Sometimes it seems to me almost of the nature of a misdemeanor to be wandering about in the preserve which the fleshless gamekeeper guards so jealously. But, on the other hand, I remember that men of science have maintained that the natural life of man is nearer fivescore than threescore years and ten. I always think of a familiar experience which I bring from the French cafés, well known to me in my early manhood. One of the illustrated papers of my Parisian days tells it pleasantly enough.
A guest of the establishment is sitting at his little table. He has just had his coffee, and the waiter is serving him with his petit verre. Most of my readers know very well what a petit verre is, but there may be here and there a virtuous abstainer from alcoholic fluids, living among the bayberries and the sweet ferns, who is not aware that the words, as commonly used, signify a small glass — a very small glass — of spirit, commonly brandy, taken as a chassecafé, or coffee-chaser. [This drinking of brandy, “neat.”I may remark by the way, is not quite so bad as it looks. Whiskey or rum taken unmixed from a tumbler is a knock-down blow to temperance, but the little thimbleful of brandy, or Chartreuse, or Maraschino, is only, as it were, tweaking the nose of teetotalism.] Well, — to go back behind our brackets, — the guest is calling to the waiter. “ Garçon ! et le bain de pieds ! ” Waiter ! and the foot-bath ! — The little glass stands in a small tin saucer or shallow dish, and the custom is to more than fill the glass, so that some extra brandy runs over into this tin saucer or cup-plate, to the manifest gain of the consumer.
Life is a petit verve of a very peculiar kind of spirit. At seventy years it used to be said that the little glass was full. We should be more apt to put it at eighty in our day, while Gladstone and Tennyson and our own Whittier are breathing, moving, thinking, writing, speaking, in the green preserve belonging to their children and grandchildren, and Bancroft is keeping watch of the gamekeeper in the distance. But, returning resolutely to the petit verre, I am willing to concede that all after fourscore is the bain de pieds, — the slopping over, so to speak, of the full measure of life. I remember that one who was very near and dear to me, and who lived to a great age, so that the ten-barred gate of the century did not look very far off, would sometimes apologize in a very sweet, natural way for lingering so long to be a care and perhaps a burden to her children, themselves getting well into years. It is not hard to understand the feeling, never less called for than it was in the case of that beloved nonagenarian. I have known few persons, young or old, more sincerely and justly regretted than the gentle lady whose memory comes up before me as I write.
Oh, if we could all go out of flower as gracefully, as pleasingly, as we come into blossom! I always think of the morning-glory as the loveliest example of a graceful yielding to the inevitable. It is beautiful before its twisted corolla opens ; it is comely as it folds its petals inward, when its brief hours of perfection are over. Women find it easier than men to grow old in a becoming way. A very old lady who has kept something, it may be a great deal, of her youthful feelings, who is daintily cared for, who is grateful for the attentions bestowed upon her, and enters into the spirit of the young lives that surround her, is as precious to those who love her as a gem in an antique setting, the fashion of which has long gone by, but which leaves the jewel the color and brightness which are its inalienable qualities. With old men it is too often different. They do not belong so much indoors as women do. They have no pretty little manual occupations. The old lady knits or stitches so long as her eyes and fingers will let her. The old man smokes his pipe, but does not know what to do with his fingers, unless he plays upon some instrument, or has a mechanical turn which finds business for them.
But the old writer, I said to The Teacups, as I say to you, my readers, labors under one special difficulty, which I am thinking of and exemplifying at this moment. He is constantly tending to reflect upon and discourse about his own particular stage of life. He feels that he must apologize for his intrusion upon the time and thoughts of a generation which he naturally supposes must be tired of him, if they ever had any considerable regard for him. Now, if the world of readers hates anything it sees in print, it is apology. If what one has to say is worth saying, he need not beg pardon for saying it. If it is not worth saying— I will not finish the sentence. But it is so hard to resist the temptation ! That terrible line beginning " Superfluous lags the veteran" is always repeating itself in his dull ear.
What kind of audience or reading parish is a man who secured his constituency in middle life, or before that period, to expect when he has reached the age of threescore and twenty? His coevals have dropped away by scores and tens, and he sees only a few units scattered about here and there, like the few heads above the water after a ship has gone to pieces. Does he write and publish for those of his own time of life? He need not print a large edition. Does he hope to secure a heaving from those who have come into the reading world since his coevals ? They have found fresher fields and greener pastures. Their interests are in the outdoor, active world. Some of them are circumnavigating the planet while he is hitching his rocking-chair about his hearth-rug. Some are gazing upon the pyramids while he is staring at his andirons. Some are settling the tariff and fixing the laws of suffrage and taxation while he is dozing over the weather bulletin, and going to sleep over the obituaries in his morning or evening paper.
Nature is wiser than we give her credit for being; never wiser than in her dealings with the old. She has no idea of mortifying them by sudden and wholly unexpected failure of the chief servants of consciousness. The sight, for instance, begins to lose something of its perfection long before its deficiency calls the owner’s special attention to it. Very probably, the first hint we have of the change is that a friend makes the pleasing remark that we are “playing the trombone,” as he calls it; that is, moving a book we are holding backward and forward, to get the right focal distance. Or it may be we find fault with the lamp or the gas-burner for not giving so much light as it used to. At last, somewhere between forty and fifty, we begin to dangle a jaunty pair of eye-glasses, half plaything and half necessity. In due time a pair of sober, business-like spectacles bestrides the nose. Old age leaps upon it as his saddle, and rides triumphant, unchallenged, until the darkness comes which no glasses can penetrate. Nature is pitiless in carrying out the universal sentence, but very pitiful in her mode of dealing with the condemned on his way to the final scene. The man who is to be hanged always has a good breakfast provided for him.
Do not think that the old look upon themselves as the helpless, hopeless, forlorn creatures which they seem to young people. Do these young folks suppose that all vanity dies out of the natures of old men and old women ? A dentist of olden time told me that a good-looking young man once said to him, “ Keep that incisor presentable, if you can, till I am fifty, and then I sha’n’t care how I look.” I venture to say that that gentleman was as particular about his personal appearance and as proud of his good looks at fifty, and many years after fifty, as he was in the twenties, when he made that speech to the dentist.
My dear friends around the teacups, and at that wider board where I am now entertaining, or trying to entertain, my company, is it not as plain to you as it is to me that I had better leave such tasks as that which I am just finishing to those who live in a more interesting period of life than one which, in the order of nature, is next door to decrepitude ? Ought I not to regret having undertaken to report the doings and sayings of the members of the circle which you have known as The Teacups ?
Dear, faithful reader, whose patient eyes have followed my reports through these long months, you and I are about parting company. Perhaps you are one of those who have known me under another name, in those far-off days separated from these by the red sea of the great national conflict. When you first heard the tinkle of the teaspoons, as the table was being made ready for its guests, you trembled for me, in the kindness of your hearts. I do not wonder that you did,— I trembled for myself. But I remembered the story of Sir Cloudesley Shovel, who was seen all of a tremor just as he was going into action. “ How is this ? ” said a brother officer to him. “Surely you are not afraid ? ” “ No,” he answered, “ but my flesh trembles at the thought of the dangers into which my intrepid spirit will carry me.”
I knew the risk of undertaking to carry through a series of connected papers. And yet I thought it was better to run that risk, more manly, more sensible, than to give way to the fears which made my flesh tremble as did Sir Cloudesley Shovel’s. For myself the labor has been a distraction, and one which came at a time when it was needed. Sometimes, as in one of those poems recently published, —the reader will easily guess which, — the youthful spirit has come over me in such a rush of young blood that it has surprised me as much as the slaughtered Duncan’s manifestation surprised Lady Macbeth. To repeat one of my comparisons, it was as if an early fruit had ripened on a graft upon an old, steady-going tree, to the astonishment of all its later-maturing products. I should hardly dare to say so much as this if I had not heard a similar opinion expressed by others.
Once committed to my undertaking, there was no turning back. It is true that I had said I might stop at any moment, but after one or two numbers it seemed as if there were an informal pledge to carry the series on, as in former cases, until I had completed my dozen instalments.
Writers and speakers have their idiosyncrasies, their habits, their tricks, if you had rather call them so, as to their ways of writing and speaking. There is a very old and familiar story, accompanied by a feeble jest, which most of my readers may probably enough have met with in Joe Miller or elsewhere. It is that of a lawyer who could never make an argument without having a piece of thread to work upon with his fingers while he was pleading. Some one stole it from him one day, and he could not get on at all with his speech, — he had lost the thread of his discourse, as the story had it. Now this is what I myself once saw. It was at a meeting where certain grave matters were debated in an assembly of professional men. A speaker, whom I never heard before or since, got up and made a long and forcible argument. I do not think he was a lawyer, but he spoke as if he had been trained to talk to juries. He held a long string in one hand, which he drew through the other hand incessantly, as he spoke, just as a shoemaker performs the motion of waxing his thread. He appeared to be dependent on this motion. The physiological significance of the fact I suppose to be that the flow of what we call the nervous current from the thinking centre to the organs of speech was rendered freer and easier by the establishment of a simultaneous collateral nervous current to the set of muscles concerned in the action I have described.
I do not use a string to help me write or speak, but I must have its equivalent. I must have my paper and pen or pencil before me to set my thoughts flowing in such form that they can be written continuously. There have been lawyers who could think out their whole argument in connected order without a single note. There are authors — and I think there are many—who can compose and finish off a poem or a story without writing a word of it until, when the proper time comes, they copy what they carry in their heads. I have been told that Sir Edwin Arnold thought out his beautiful “ Light of Asia ” in this way.
I find the great charm of writing consists in its surprises. When one is in the receptive attitude of mind, the thoughts which are sprung upon him, the images which flash through his consciousness, are a delight and an excitement. I am impatient of every hindrance in setting down my thoughts, — of a pen that will not write, of ink that will not flow, of paper that will not receive the ink. And here let me pay the tribute which I owe to one of the humblest but most serviceable of my assistants, especially in poetical composition. Nothing seems more prosaic than the stylographic pen. It deprives the handwriting of its beauty, and to some extent of its individual character. The brutal communism of the letters it forms covers the page it fills with the most uniformly uninteresting characters. But, abuse it as much as you choose, there is nothing like it for the poet, for the imaginative writer. Many a fine flow of thought has been checked, perhaps arrested, by the ill behavior of a goosequill. Many an idea has escaped while the author was dipping his pen in the inkstand. But with the stylographic pen, in the hands of one who knows how to care for it and how to use it, unbroken rhythms and harmonious cadences are the natural products of the unimpeded flow of the fluid which is the vehicle of the author’s thoughts and fancies. So much for my debt of gratitude to the humble stylographic pen. It does not furnish the proper medium for the correspondence of intimates, who wish to see as much of their friends’ personality as their handwriting can hold, — still less for the impassioned interchange of sentiments between lovers; but in writing for the press its use is open to no objection. Its movement over the paper is like the flight of a swallow, while the quill pen and the steel pen and the gold pen are all taking short, laborious journeys, and stopping to drink every few minutes.
A chief pleasure which the author of novels and stories experiences is that of becoming acquainted with the characters he draws. It is perfectly true that his characters must, in the nature of things, have more or less of himself in their composition. If I should seek an exemplification of this in the person of any of my Teacups, I should find it most readily in the one whom I have called Number Seven,— the one with the squinting brain. I think that not only I, the writer, but many of my readers, recognize in our own mental constitution an occasional obliquity of perception, not always detected at the time, but plain enough when looked back upon. What extravagant fancies you and I have seriously entertained at one time or another! What superstitious notions have got into our heads and taken possession of its empty chambers, — or, in the language of science, seized on the groups of nerve-cells in some of the idle cerebral convolutions!
The writer, I say, becomes acquainted with his characters as he goes on. They are at first mere embryos, outlines of distinct personalities. By and by, if they have any organic cohesion, they begin to assert themselves. They can say and do such and such things ; such and such other things they cannot and must not say or do. The story-writer’s and play-writer’s danger is that they will get their characters mixed, and make A say what B ought to have said. The stronger his imaginative faculty, the less liable will the writer be to this fault; but not even Shakespeare’s power of throwing himself into his characters prevents many of his different personages from talking philosophy in the same strain and in a style common to them all.
You will often observe that authors fall in love with the imaginary persons they describe, and that they bestow affectionate epithets upon them which it may happen the reader does not consider in any way called for. This is a pleasure to which they have a right. Every author of a story is surrounded by a little family of ideal children, as dear to him, it may be, as are flesh-and-blood children to their parents. You may forget all about the circle of Teacups to which I have introduced you, — on the supposition that you have followed me with some degree of interest; but do you suppose that Number Five does not continue as a presence with me, and that my pretty Delilah has left me forever because she is going to be married ? No, my dear friend, our circle will break apart, and its different members will soon be to you as if they had never been. But do you think that I can forget them ? Do you suppose that I shall cease to follow the love (or the loves ; which do you think is the true word, the singular or the plural?) of Number Five and the young Tutor who is so constantly found in her company ? Do you suppose that I do not continue my relations with the “ cracked Teacup,” — the poor old fellow with whom I have so much in common, whose counterpart, perhaps, you may find in your own complex personality ?
I take from the top shelf of the hospital department of my library — the section devoted to literary cripples, imbeciles, failures, foolish rhymesters, and silly eccentrics — one of the least conspicuous and most hopelessly feeble of the weak-minded population of that intellectual almshouse. I open it and look through its pages. It is a story. I have looked into it once before, — on its first reception as a gift from the author. I try to recall some of the names I see there : they mean nothing to me, but I venture to say the author cherishes them all, and cries over them as he did when lie was writing their history. I put the book back among its dusty companions, and, sitting down in my reflective rocking-chair, think how others must forget, and how I shall remember, the company that gathered about this table.
Shall I ever meet any one of them again, in these pages or in any other ? Will the cracked Teacup hold together, or will he go to pieces, and find himself in that retreat where the owner of the terrible clock which drove him crazy is walking under the shelter of the high walls ? Has the young Doctor’s crown yet received the seal which is Nature’s warrant of wisdom and proof of professional competency? And Number Five and her young friend the Tutor, — have they kept on in their dangerous intimacy ? Did they get through the tutto tremante passage, reading from the same old large edition of Dante which the Tutor recommended as the best, and in reading from which their heads were necessarily brought perilously near to each other ?
It would be very pleasant if I could, consistently with the present state of affairs, bring these two young people together. I say two young people, for the one who counts most years seems to me to be really the younger of the pair. That Number Five foresaw from the first that any tenderer feeling than that of friendship would intrude itself between them I do not believe. As for the Tutor, he soon found where he was drifting. It was his first experience in matters concerning the heart, and absorbed his whole nature as a thing of course. Did he tell her he loved her ? Perhaps he did, fifty times ; perhaps he never had the courage to say so outright. But sometimes they looked each other straight in the eyes, and strange messages seemed to pass from one consciousness to the other. Will the Tutor ask Number Five to be his wife ; and if he does, will she yield to the dictates of nature, and lower the flag of that fortress so long thought impregnable ? Will he go on writing such poems to her as “ The Rose and the Fern ” or “ I Like You and I Love You,” and be content with the pursuit of that which he never can attain ? That is all very well on the “ Grecian Urn” of Keats, —beautiful, but not love such as mortals demand. Still, that may be all, for aught that we have yet seen.
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare ;
Bold lover, never, never, canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal, — yet do not grieve ;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
“ More happy love ! more happy, happy love!
Forever warm, and still to be enjoyed.
Forever panting and forever young !
And so, good-bye, young people, whom we part with here. Shadows you have been and are to my readers; very real you have been and are to me, — as real as the memories of many friends whom I shall see no more.
As I am not in the habit of indulging in late suppers, the reader need not think that I shall spread another board and invite him to listen to the conversations which take place around it. If, from time to time, he finds a slight refection awaiting him on the sideboard, I hope he may welcome it as pleasantly as he has accepted what I have offered him from the board now just being cleared.
It is a good rule for the actor who manages the popular street drama of Punch not to let the audience or spectators see his legs. It is very hard for the writer of papers like these, which are now coming to their conclusion, to keep his personality from showing itself too conspicuously through the thin disguises of his various characters. As the show is now over, as the curtain has fallen, I appear before it in my proper person, to address a few words to the friends who have assisted, as the French say, by their presence, and as we use the word, by the kind way in which they have received my attempts at their entertainment.
This series of papers is the fourth of its kind which I have offered to my readers. I may be allowed to look back upon the succession of serial articles which was commenced more than thirty years ago, in 1857. “The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table ” was the first of the series. It was begun without the least idea what was to be its course and its outcome. Its characters shaped themselves gradually as the manuscript grew under my hand. I jotted down on the sheet of blotting paper before me the thoughts and fancies which came into my head. A very odd-looking object was this page of memoranda. Many of the hints were worked up into formal shape, many were rejected. Sometimes I recorded a story, a jest, or a pun for consideration, and made use of it or let it alone as my second thought decided. I remember a curious coincidence, which, if I have ever told in print, — I am not sure whether I have or not, — I will tell over again. I mention it, not for the pun, which I rejected as not very edifying and perhaps not new, though I did not recollect having seen it.
Mulier, Latin for woman ; why apply that name to one of the gentle but occasionally obstinate sex ? The answer was that a woman is (sometimes) more mulish than a mule. Please observe that I did not like the poor pun very well, and thought it rather rude and inelegant. So I left it on the blotter, where it was standing when one of the next numbers of “ Punch ” came out and contained that very same pun, which must have been hit upon by some English contributor at just about the same time I fell upon it on this side of the Atlantic. This fact may be added to the chapter of coincidences which belongs to the first number of this series of papers.
The “ Autocrat” had the attraction of novelty, which of course was wanting in the succeeding papers of similar character. The criticisms upon the successive numbers as they came out were various, but generally encouraging. Some were more than encouraging; very high-colored in their phrases of commendation. When the papers were brought together in a volume their success was beyond my expectations. Up to the present time the “ Autocrat ” has maintained its position. An immortality of a whole generation is more than most writers are entitled to expect. I venture to think, from the letters I receive from the children and grandchildren of my first set of readers, that for some little time longer, at least, it will continue to be read, and even to be a favorite with some of its readers. Non omnis moriar is a pleasant thought to one who has loved his poor little planet, and will, I trust, retain kindly recollections of it through whatever wilderness of worlds he may be called to wander in his future pilgrimages. I say “ poor little planet.” Ever since I had a tencent look at the transit of Venus, a few years ago, through the telescope in the Mall, the earth has been wholly different to me from what it used to be. I knew from books what a speck it is in the universe, but nothing ever brought the fact home like the sight of the sister planet sailing across the sun’s disk, about large enough for a buckshot, not large enough for a full-sized bullet. Yes, I love the little globule where I have spent more than fourscore years, and I like to think that some of my thoughts and some of my emotions may live themselves over again when I am sleeping. I cannot thank all the kind readers of the “ Autocrat ” who are constantly sending me their acknowledgments. If they see this printed page, let them be assured that a writer is always rendered happier by being told that he has made a fellow-being wiser or better, or even contributed to his harmless entertainment. This a correspondent may take for granted, even if his letter of grateful recognition receives no reply. It becomes more and more difficult for me to keep up with my correspondents, and I must soon give it up as impossible.
“ The Professor at the BreakfastTable ” followed immediately on the heels of the “ Autocrat.” The Professor was the alter ego of the first personage. In the earlier series he had played a secondary part, and in this second series no great effort was made to create a character wholly unlike the first. The Professor was more outspoken, however, on religious subjects, and brought down a good deal of hard language on himself and the author to whom he owed his existence. I suppose he may have used some irritating expressions, unconsciously, but not unconscientiously, I am sure. There is nothing harder to forgive than the sting of an epigram. Some of the old doctors, I fear, never pardoned me for saying that if a ship, loaded with an assorted cargo of the drugs which used to be considered the natural food of sick people, went to the bottom of the sea, it would be “ all the better for mankind and all the worse for the fishes.” If I had not put that snapper on the end of my whip-lash, I might have got off without the ill temper which my antithesis provoked. Thirty years set that all right, and the same thirty years have so changed the theological atmosphere that such abusive words as “heretic” and “infidel,” applied to persons who differ from the old standards of faith, are chiefly interesting as a test of breeding, being seldom used by any people above the social half-caste line. I am speaking of Protestants; how it may be among Roman Catholics I do not know, but I suspect that with them also it is a good deal a matter of breeding. There were not wanting some who liked the Professor better than the Autocrat. I confess that I prefer my champagne in its first burst of gaseous enthusiasm ; but if my guest likes it better after it has stood awhile, I am pleased to accommodate him. The first of my series came from my mind almost with an explosion, like the champagne cork ; it startled me a little to see what I had written, and to hear what people said about it. After that first explosion the flow was more sober, and I looked upon the product of my winepress more coolly. Continuations almost always sag a little. I will not say that of my own second effort, but if others said it, I should not be disposed to wonder at or to dispute them.
“ The Poet at the Breakfast-Table ” came some years later. This series of papers was not so much a continuation as a resurrection. It was a doubly hazardous attempt, made without any extravagant expectations, and was received as well as I had any right to anticipate. It differed from the other two series in containing a poem of considerable length, published in successive portions. This poem holds a good deal of self-communing, and gave me the opportunity of expressing some thoughts and feelings not to be found elsewhere in my writings. I had occasion to read the whole volume, not long since, in preparation for a new edition, and was rather more pleased with it than I had expected to be. An old author is constantly rediscovering himself in the more or less fossilized productions of his earlier years. It is a long time since I have read the ” Autocrat,’ but I take it up now and then and read in it for a few minutes, not always without some degree of edification.
These three series of papers, Autocrat,” “ Professor,” “ Poet,” are all studies of life from somewhat different points of view. They are largely made up of sober reflections, and appeared to me to require some lively human interest to save them from wearisome didactic dulness. What could be more natural than that love should find its way among the young people who helped to make up the circle gathered around the table ? Nothing is older than the story of young love. Nothing is newer than that same old story. A bit of gilding here and there has a wonderful effect in enlivening a landscape or an apartment. Napoleon consoled the Parisians in their year of defeat by gilding the dome of the Invalides. Boston has glorified her State House and herself at the expense of a few sheets of gold leaf laid on the dome, which shines like a sun in the eyes of her citizens, and like a star in those of the approaching traveller. I think the gilding of a love-story helped all three of these earlier papers. The same need I felt in the series of papers just closed. The slight incident of Delilah’s appearance and disappearance served my purpose to some extent. But what should I do with Number Five? The reader must follow out her career for himself. For myself. I think that she and the Tutor have both utterly forgotten the difference of their years in the fascination of intimate intercourse. I do not believe that a nature so large, so rich in affection, as Number Five’s is going to fall defeated of its best inheritance of life, like a vine which finds no support for its tendrils to twine around, and so creeps along the ground from which nature meant that love should lift it. I feel as if I ought to follow these two personages of my sermonizing story until they come together or separate, to fade, to wither, — perhaps to die, at last, of something like what the doctors call heart-failure, but which might more truly be called heart-starvation. When I say die. I do not mean necessarily the death that goes into the obituary column. It may come to that, in one or both ; but I think that, if they are never united, Number Five will outlive the Tutor, who will fall into melancholy ways, and pine and waste, while she lives along, feeling all the time that she has cheated herself of happiness. I hope that is not going to be their fortune, or misfortune. Vieille fille fait jeune mariée. What a youthful bride Number Five would be, if she could only make up her mind to matrimony ! Inthe mean time she must be left with her lambs all around her. May Heaven temper the winds to them, for they have been shorn very close, every one of them, of their golden fleece of aspirations and anticipations.
I must avail myself of this opportunity to say a few words to my distant friends who take interest enough in my writings, early or recent, to wish to enter into communication with me by letter, or to keep up a communication already begun. I have given notice in print that the letters, books, and manuscripts which I receive by mail are so numerous that if I undertook to read and answer them all I should have little time for anything else. I have for some years depended on the assistance of a secretary, but our joint efforts have proved unable, of late, to keep down the accumulations which come in with every mail. So many of the letters I receive are of a pleasant character that it is hard to let them go unacknowleged. The extreme friendliness which pervades many of them gives them a value which I rate very highly. When large numbers of strangers insist on claiming one as a friend, on the strength of what he has written, it tends to make him think of himself somewhat indulgently. It is the most natural thing in the world to want to give expression to the feeling the loving messages from far-off unknown friends must excite. Many a day has had its best working hours broken into, spoiled for all literary work, by the labor of answering correspondents whose good opinion it is gratifying to have called forth, but who were unconsciously laying a new burden on shoulders already aching. I know too well that what I say will not reach the eyes of many who might possibly take a hint from it. Still I must keep repeating it before breaking off suddenly and leaving whole piles of letters unanswered. I have been very heavily handicapped for many years. It is partly my own fault. From what my correspondents tell me,
I must infer that I have established a dangerous reputation for willingness to answer all sorts of letters. They come with such insinuating humility,—they cannot bear to intrude upon my time, they know that I have a great many calls upon it, — and incontinently proceed to lay their additional weight on the load which is breaking my back.
The hypocrisy of kind-hearted people is one of the most painful exhibitions of human weakness. It has occurred to me that it might be profitable to reproduce some of my unwritten answers to correspondents. If those which were actually written and sent were to be printed in parallel columns with those mentally formed but not written out responses and comments, the reader would get some idea of the internal conflicts an honest and not unamiable person has to go through, when he finds himself driven to the wall by a correspondence which is draining his vocabulary to find expressions that sound as agreeably, and signify as little, as the phrases used by a diplomatist in closing an official communication.
No. 1. Want my autograph, do you? And don’t know how to spell my name ! An a for an e in my middle name. Leave out the l in my last name. Do you know how people hate to have their names misspelled ? What do you suppose are the sentiments entertained by the Thompsons with a p towards those who address them in writing as Thomson ?
No. 2. Think the lines you mention are by far the best I ever wrote, hey ? Well, I did n’t write those lines. What is more, I think they are as detestable a string of rhymes as I could wish my worst enemy had written. A very pleasant frame of mind I am in for writing a letter, after reading yours!
No. 3. I am glad to hear that my namesake, whom I never saw and never expect to see, has cut another tooth ; but why write four pages on the strength of that domestic occurrence?
No. 4. You wish to correct an error in my Broomstick poem, do you ? You give me to understand that Wilmington is not in Essex County, but in Middlesex. Very well; but are they separated by running water? Because if they are not, what could hinder a witch from crossing the line that separates Wilmington from Andover, I should like to know ? I never meant to imply that the witches made no excursions beyond the district which was more especially their seat of operations.
I might go on in this way with my correspondents to an indefinite extent. But I wish to take the opportunity to make certain emendations in that same Broomstick poem. It was written somewhat hastily, and sent off with some imperfections and omissions. After the first two lines the first paragraph should read thus : —
What cares a witch for a hangman’s noose ?
They buried them deep, but they would n’t lie still,
For cats and witches are hard to kill;
They swore they should n’t and would n’t die, —
Books say they did, but they lie ! they lie!
Then there were a few lines which were left out by mere accident, in copying the poem for the press. They should come in after the paragraph that describes the scenery through which we summer residents in Beverly and Manchester are in the habit of driving.
Bathe in the breezes of fair Cape Ann, —
Rest in the bowers that her bays enfold,
Loved by the sachems and squaws of old ?
Home where the white magnolias bloom,
Sweet with the bayberry’s chaste perfume,
Hugged by the woods and kissed by the sea,
Where is an Eden like to thee ?
As I come towards the end of this task which I had set myself, I wish, of course, that I could have performed it more to my own satisfaction and that of my readers. This is a feeling which almost every one must have at the conclusion of any work he has undertaken. A common and very simple reason for this disappointment is that most of us overrate our capacity. We expect more of ourselves than we have any right to, in virtue of our endowments. The figurative descriptions of the last Grand
Assize must no more be taken literally than the golden crowns, which we do not expect or want to wear on our heads, or the golden harps, which we do not want or expect to hold in our hands. Is it not too true that many religious sectaries think of the last tribunal complacently, as the scene in which they are to have the satisfaction of saying to the believers of a creed different from their own, “ I told you so ” ? Are not others oppressed with the thought of the great returns which will be expected of them as the product of their great gifts, the very limited amount of which they do not suspect, and will be very glad to learn, even at the expense of their self-love, when they are called to their account ? If the ways of the Supreme Being are ever really to be “ justified to men,” to use Milton’s expression, every human being may expect an exhaustive explanation of himself. No man is capable of being his own counsel, and I cannot help hoping that the ablest of the archangels will be retained for the defence of the worst of sinners. He himself is unconscious of the agencies which made him what he is. Self-determining he may be, if you will, but who determines the self which is the proximate source of the determination ? Why was the A self like his good uncle in bodily aspect and mental and moral qualities, and the B self like the bad uncle in look and character ? Has not a man a right to ask this question in the here or in the hereafter, — in this world or in any world in which he may find himself? If the Allwise wishes to satisfy his reasonable and reasoning creatures, it will not be by a display of elemental convulsions, but by the still small voice, which treats with him as a dependent entitled to know the meaning of his existence, and if there was anything wrong in his adjustment to the moral and spiritual conditions of the world around him to have full allowance made for it. No melodramatic display of warring elements, such as the white-robed Second Adventist imagines, can meet the need of the human heart. The thunders and lightnings of Sinai terrified and impressed the more timid souls of the idolatrous and rebellious caravan which the great leader was conducting, but a far nobler manifestation of divinity was that when ‘‘the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.”
I find the burden and restrictions of rhyme more and more troublesome as I grow older. There are times when it seems natural enough to employ that form of expression, but it is only occasionally ; and the use of it as the vehicle of the commonplace is so prevalent that one is not much tempted to select it as the medium for his thoughts and emotions. The art of rhyming has almost become a part of a high-school education, and its practice is far from being an evidence of intellectual distinction. Mediocrity is as much forbidden to the poet in our days as it was in those of Horace, and the immense majority of the verses written are stamped with hopeless mediocrity.
When one of the ancient poets found he was trying to grind out verses which came unwillingly, he said he was writing
She will not hear thy call;
She steals upon thee unawares,
Or seeks thee not at all.
Endymion’s fragrant bower,
She parts the whispering leaves of thought
To show her full-blown flower.
The singing birds have flown,
And winter comes with icy blast
To chill thy buds unblown.
As once their arches rung,
Sweet echoes hover round thee still
Of songs thy summer sung.
The rush of heaven-sent wing’s ;
Earth still has music left in store
While Memory sighs and sings.
I hope my special Minerva may not always be unwilling, but she must not be called upon as she has been in times past. Now that the teacups have left the table, an occasional evening call is all that my readers must look for. Thanking them for their kind companionship, and hoping that I may yet meet them in the now and thens of the future, I bid them good-bye for the immediate present.
Oliver Wendell Holmes.