ON COMING BACK.

I.

ONE of the least flattering experiences of my childhood, which had its share of incidents well fitted to keep me diffident of my importance to the world I was beginning to grope my way in, was my return to the town where I used to live, after I had been away from it a year. At that time a year was very much longer than it is now; it was more like one of our modern centuries; and in my absence I had grown a good deal older, if not wiser. I had always been homesick for the place, but with my tenderest longing for it there had mixed a certain complacent feeling that the town was even more eagerly and fondly expecting me back. I felt that it had been thinking of me and valuing me at my true worth, and was, perhaps, impatient to make up to me some former slights which too great familiarity had tempted it to put upon me. In this view I easily forgave it, and if I patronized it a little in my thoughts, and forecast something rather too like a popular ovation from it in my reveries of our meeting, still I was resolved not to be outdone in a show of affection with everybody and everything in it. In fine, I prepared myself for anything but the blank and vague event, which I will not dwell upon. Time had not been standing still with the inhabitants of that town, either ; they had not been lost in a rapture of desire for my visit, but in the year that had elapsed they too had grown older, if not wiser. I can impart some sense of the event only by saying that if I had been a ghost coming back to its old circumstance and proposing to take up its old relations to this life, I could hardly have been more embarrassingly met.

Once more, after the passage of some thirty years, or thirty centuries, I had a renewal of the same experience in an ampler and prouder scene, where the bitter but very tonic cup, whose taste I had never forgotten, was again pressed to my lips. It was at Venice, where I had lived from 1861 till 1865, and then had not been again until 1883. In the mean time I had thought a good deal about Venice, and even written somewhat, and the old illusion of a mutual concern, a reciprocal fondness, had grown up in me. I will not say that I expected Venice to know me as I should know her, — for one thing, I had not been so much photographed, — and I will not pretend that I hoped in any sort to find her waiting to welcome me I was no longer a child, and I could not quite be guilty of that folly. But I will own that my nerves were in a tremor for acceptance upon something like the old terms. I was to be a citizen as before; I was to be at home ; I was to be recognizably different from the strangers arriving by the same train ; and I was to enjoy all the freedoms of the place which only long residence can win. The gondoliers would know me, and would not try to cheat me or pester me with invitations to take turns upon the Grand Canal. The beggars would perceive that I was an old inhabitant, and would not pursue me after a first note of my intelligent and wary expression. The guides who haunt the Piazza San Marco, ready to pounce upon the tourist with an offer of their services, would discern at a glance that I knew a good deal more about Venice than they did. The sacristans, when I entered the churches, would see that I was familiar with the pictures, and would not offer to show them. The men who sold small puppies and turtles in front of Florian’s would recognize that I was too wise for their wares. In the shops, the salesmen would ask me their last prices first, and spare themselves the pain of trying to overreach me. None of these various agencies of curiosity and commerce would attempt to use their peculiar French with a person so obviously versed in Venetian as I.

On the contrary, as soon as I stepped out of the railway station I was hailed with loud cries in that well-known extraordinary mixture of languages spoken only at Venice to new arrivals, of “ Commandez-vous la gondeule, m’sciu ? ” and from the first moment to the last I was pursued as an utter stranger during my stay in Venice. This would not have been so bad, so painful and shameful for me, if there had been any spiritual response of the city to my sense of our former life in common. But there was none. I had died out of that as effectively as if I had passed away from earth, and again I found myself among familiar scenes, as alien, as denaturalized, as disfranchised as a spectre.

One need not be very proud, very vain, to dislike this sort of thing; and though I hope it was not without edification, I confess that the one-sided encounter in which I seemed nothing at all, or something altogether and irrevocably estranged, was not to my taste.

II.

I have since thought of these unpleasing episodes with the will to philosophize upon them, and it appears to me that in both cases the painful effect was more from the cold and reluctant behavior of my former self, which I had left in each of those places, than from the attitude of their actual inhabitants. I was not on terms with that self ; we did not wish to see each other, though we had long pretended the contrary. If I could have gone back the same person I went away, it would have been all very well, and I should much more imaginably have met the warm welcome I missed ; but this feat, which seems so simple, would perhaps have been difficult. In spite of our saying it so much, we do really change a great deal. We change in spite of being immutably fixed in perfection, as I hope we all are, and as I know all persons of my way of thinking are ; and I had changed so much that my old self and I felt it keenly. I could only wonder, “ Was that what I really used to be ? ” and what I used to be could only ask, “ Is that all I have come to ? ” This involved a mutual displeasure of such an obscure sort that I should despair of appealing from the reader’s instinct to his reason with it.

But I am almost ready to say, in view of it, that one had better never go back anywhere. This seems to be the rule of those who leave the world altogether, and the several exceptions collected by the Society for Psychical Research do not invalidate it. If we come hack, it is as ghosts, and that was the trouble with my own returns, as I have said already; for a ghost, though endowed by the popular imagination with a certain mystical power upon the still embodied spirit, is after all, I fancy, a very miserable thing, with little or no influence in its former sphere of being. The ghosts of the dead appear to understand this, but the ghosts of the living are not so wise, and from time to time they commit the imprudence I had been guilty of. They are, perhaps, the less welcome because there are so many of them; for though it is generally supposed there is but one ghost, actual or potential, to each personality, my experience is that there are at least a dozen to each of us, formed of our cast qualities and forces. I have known quite that number of my own, but I will merely instance my Boston ghost, which was evolved mainly during my relation to this magazine, and which I abandoned to it fifteen years ago, without an attempt to resume it since. Now that I come to the old place where I was once at home, and very substantial, I feel myself strangely thin, and, as I may say, flittering, with a lax hold upon my own thoughts, and a tendency to sway and waver in the reader’s breath, as if there were nothing of me but that ghost.

III.

I wonder who the reader is, and if he is any of those I used to know here ; but I do not deny that he has quite as much right to wonder who I am. I do not insist that he shall believe — for I have a sort of misgiving of it myself — that I formerly held all Atlantic readers at my mercy, more or less, and gave them to read this or that as I chose. When I first came to the place, to be Mr. Fields’s understudy in this autocracy, we sometimes took counsel together and wished that this or that contributor would die, but we always wished that our readers might live and increase and multiply ; and if our prayers were heard, they are still reading The Atlantic, in thrice the number of that far-off time between 1866 and 1881. I will suppose, therefore, that it is some old reader, or some new reader of the old tradition, that I am now appearing to ; and I confidently trust the realization of my emotions to him. He will know how I must feel, and what I should like to say.

He will easily conceive that though that long - outlawed malevolence may have been fatal to some contributors, yet it could not be a real malevolence ; and I will explain that it was a wish born of our despair of ever getting their contributions into the magazine, after we had accepted them. In those days everybody wanted to write for The Atlantic, and did, so that Mr. Lowell left Mr. Fields several bushels of unprinted manuscripts. As fast as the authors of these passed to their reward we piously rejoiced, and destroyed their contributions, with such effect that when Mr. Fields retired only a barrel of them remained to me. I do not believe I transferred more than a half-barrel to Mr. Aldrich, death had so wasted their authors’ ranks. I suppose that he may not have laid upon Mr. Scudder’s conscience more than a peck, but I have no means of knowing, and I have no wish to verify the fact by even an incorporeal encounter with the writers. They must be haunting these pages, too, poor ambitious fellows, poor eager, sprightly maids once young, and with each issue of the magazine still expecting a posthumous publication. The reader will allow that it must be uncomfortable for me, even in my own apparitional quality, to meet them here ; and to tell the truth, I would rather avoid them, for though I never meant them harm, and did not by any means suppress them all, I am apprehensive that they might collectively wreak their disappointment upon me. At sight of this wandering essay, they might accuse the present powers and ask, “ Ah, you here ? Why are not you at the bottom of the barrel, the bushel or the peck measure, too ? ” They do not know that they are no longer even there.

IV.

But if we leave this fancy of apparitionality, and recur to the other, I have a misgiving of the kind of welcome I should have from my old self whom I should find in possession here, if I came back. As I remember that self, it was much severer than my present self, quite Rhadamanthine, inexorably editorial, and at sight of the present paper it would recognize the work of an ancient contributor with grave doubts whether it was the sort of thing that was wanted now, and the disappointed expectation of something better.

In that double character which I have labored so hard to suppose, I stand before myself to be judged, to be accepted or rejected. I know very well that The Atlantic readers are not all what they were, — that they are often the sons and daughters, the nephews and nieces, of what they were ; and in the second person of that duplex personality, I question if they will like this poor old fellow’s style, his careful whimsicality, his anxious humor. Is not it all rather out of date ? People tolerated it through the sixties and seventies of the century; but these later nineties are another thing. What shall be done about it ? He will feel that his old-contributorship gives him a sort of freedom of the magazine, and he will be hurt if I return his paper. There is nothing else for it, and I appeal to myself. “Now,” I say, “if you were still what you were, if you were what you left me to be in your place when you went away, would you expect to be welcomed with this sort of thing ? Upon the whole, would not it have been better for you to stay away altogether ? ”

It is a question that one must always ask one’s self on coming back.

W. D. Howells.

THE POET AND THE MODERN.

IT has been assumed that our modern industrial age — machinery, commerce, railroading, engineering, etc. — affords as ample opportunities for the poet as did the past ages of war and adventure. In any case, I suppose the poetry has to be supplied by the poet; it resides in his handling and interpretation of the fact, But the poet who deals with the modern world has a harder task than the poet of eld, undoubtedly. There is no machine as interesting as a man. The steam whistle does not appeal to the imagination like the huntsman’s horn or the soldier’s bugle. The indoor pursuits are not as pleasing to contemplate as voyaging, or farming, or exploring. A sordid motive like money-getting does not awaken poetic enthusiasm. A manufacturing town is ugly. The roundhouse or machine-shop of a railroad is not a place where one would care to linger. Primitive natural things and conditions seem more akin to the spirit of poetry than artificial things and conditions. What shall we say, then ? The modern age in its material and industrial aspects is unpoetic, or anti-poetic, and it is so because there is less free play of man in it, of human qualities and emotions, than in the world of the past. To use it as material in poetry requires a man to match, — a man who can supply what the theme lacks. But modern life and passion, — love, death, anger, hope, aspiration, the soul, the unknown. — these themes are always the same, like the phases of nature, the seasons, or day and night. The movements of our population, the setting up of new states, the tides in politics, the fall of political leaders, strikes and lockouts, etc., all these are themes as fruitful in poetic motifs as the wars and social upheavals of the past. Why should not a poet make something of such an event as the rise of California ? Would not a modern Homer find material there ? Would not a Shakespeare find all the elements of fate and tragedy in the fall of such a political leader as Conkling, or the death of Garfield, or the rise of Cleveland, or the overthrow of Tammany ? The great social cankers and ulcers of our day, the greed of capital, the grip of the millionaire, the fury of faction, the vulgarity of wealth, the hollowness of society, the heroism of labor, etc., all afford artistic motifs to the man who is capable of seizing and using them. He will need a powerful human equipment; no dainty, fine-drawn, attenuated poetling will do here.

Whitman had the breadth, the copiousness, the stomach and port, but he had not, and did not claim to have, the shaping, manipulating gift. He can give us the whole thing as Walt Whitman, but not as separate, independent entities and individualities. What Whitman did that is unprecedented was to take up the whole country into himself, fuse it, imbue it with soul and poetic emotion, and recast it as a sort of colossal Walt Whitman. He has not so much treated American themes as he has identified himself with everything American, and made the whole land redolent of his own quality. He has descended upon the gross materialism of our day and land and upon the turbulent democratic masses with such loving impact, such fervid enthusiasm, as to lift and fill them with the deepest meaning of the spirit, and disclose in them the order of universal nature. His special gift is his magnetic and unconquerable personality, his towering egoism united with such a fund of human sympathy. His power is centripetal, so to speak, — he draws everything into himself like a maelstrom ; the centrifugal power of the great dramatic artists, the power to get out of and away from himself, he has not. It was not for Whitman to write the dramas and tragedies of democracy as Shakespeare wrote those of feudalism, or as Tennyson sang in delectable verse the swansong of an overripe civilization. It was for him to voice the democratic spirit, to show it full grown, athletic, haughtily taking possession of the world and redistributing the prizes according to its own standards. It was for him to sow broadcast over the land the germs of larger, more sane, more robust types of men and women, indicating them in himself.

John Burroughs.

ON READING THE FIFTIETH VOLUME OF BALZAC.

WE can all, I suppose, look back to the perusal of some book that has marked an epoch in our lives. We delight to recall as far as possible the joy and enthusiasm we then felt, regretting the while that it is impossible for us ever again to experience in their primitive freshness the emotions that once mastered us. For these epoch-making books (from the individual’s point of view) generally encounter us in our youth, and does not the poet tell us that when youth is past,

“ nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower ” ?

Yes, when middle or old age is nearly upon us, and when our critical faculties have become sharpened, there is little chance that we shall ever be able to lay down a book with the feeling that it will mark an epoch in our intellectual lives.

But the unexpected sometimes happens, as I discovered recently when I finished the fiftieth volume of M. Cahnann Lévy’s popular edition of the works of Balzac. I had thought that the completion of Horace’s Odes, of Shakespeare’s plays, and of the Odyssey marked the three chief epochs in my own intellectual life, and that I was not likely to be so stirred, so swept away again, by any book or by any author. But I had erred. Balzac, whose novels taken singly had moved me powerfully, but had not often swept me away, whom I had made a companion of for years without fully comprehending, — this Balzac, when viewed in the light of his total and stupendous achievement, suddenly stood out before me in his full stature and might, as one of the few genuine world geniuses that our race can point to with legitimate and unshakable pride. I had emerged from the Comédie Humaine just as I had emerged from the Homeric poems and from the plays of Shakespeare, feeling that I had traversed a world and been in the presence of a veritable creator.

Filled with this idea, I began to recall what the chief critics have said of the great French novelist, and I could not resist the conclusion that he has had scant justice done him. It is true that he is steadily gaining popular favor in this country and in England, and that he has never wanted doughty adherents in France, but, with a few exceptions, notably M. Taine and Mr. George Moore, the critics, it seems to me, fail to appreciate the full scope and grandeur of his genius. Many of them, like our own Mr. Henry James, say admirable things about him, but too frequently even their highest praise has a note of reserve, of hesitation. Now the note oh reserve and hesitation is out of place when we are praising Homer and Shakespeare, and if I am right in feeling that Balzac’s proper station is with these, it is out of place when we are praising the creator of the Comédie Humaine. It is lawful, of course, to fault particular passages in Homer and Shakespeare, just as it is lawful for M. Taine to point out certain obvious defects in Balzac’s style; but it is not lawful to praise in a guarded manner the great passages in Homer and Shakespeare, or to feel anything but reverent admiration for the work of each in its totality. Just so, it is not lawful, me judice, for any critic to “hint a fault and hesitate dislike ” with regard to the marvelous total achievement of Balzac.

It would be folly for me to venture to be dogmatic about this matter, or to try to justify in any formal way an expression of opinion which many will feel to be extravagant. I will say merely that I think most critics have failed to see that while the Balzac of each of the novels taken separately may not rise to the level of a world genius, the Balzac of all the novels taken together does rise to this level. For Balzac is not, like Scott, the author of a great number of separate noble works, but is the author of one noble work, the Comédie Humaine, which, though unfinished, has a unity and a coherence and a verisimilitude with life that at once warrant its comparison with the Homeric poems and the Shakespearean plays. Balzac’s almost prescient conception of society as an organic whole led him to take a great step forward in the art of fiction. It led him to interweave through the entire series of his works the fortunes of his various characters, and to bring into relief the effects of their environments upon them, with the result that he gave his reader, for the first time in the annals of prose fiction, the vivid and inevitable sense of traversing a real and tangible and unlimited world. This sense of traversing a real and unlimited world is what makes the reader of Homer and Shakespeare set them apart from all other poets; but if Balzac also gives us this sense, should he not be admitted to the fellowship of these great Realists ? He is not as great as they are, of course, for they are noble poets, while he is a prose writer whose style is seldom entirely satisfactory. He has given us no such characters as Achilles or Hamlet; indeed, he has not, perhaps, equaled such creations of his fellow novelists as Joseph Andrews or Don Quixote, He is not always wise in the judgments he passes on church and state and society. He is even guilty at times of prosing, and, as some say, of posing. But he knew the human mind and heart as only Shakespeare knew them, and if the purpose of creative art be to reproduce through various media life in its totality, then I do not see how we can deny to Balzac supreme success in that category of art which is lower only than the epic and the poetic drama, the category of prose fiction. For my own part, I cannot but rank him with Homer and Sophocles and Virgil and Dante and Chaucer and Shakespeare and Molière and Milton and Goethe, and I am constrained to believe that the completion of the reading of the Comédie Humaine should be a momentous epoch in any man’s intellectual life.

W. P. Trent.