BEING STRAY LEAVES FROM A NOTE-BOOK.
EVERY living author has a projection of himself, a sort of eidolon, that goes about in near and remote places making friends or enemies for him among persons who never lay eyes upon the writer in the flesh. When he dies, this phantasmal personality fades away, and the author lives only in the impression created by his own literature. It is only then that the world begins to perceive what manner of man the poet, the novelist, or the historian really was. Not until he is dead, and perhaps some long time dead, is it possible for the public to take his exact measure. Up to that point contemporary criticism has either overrated him or underrated him, or ignored him altogether. Contemporary criticism has been misled by the eidolon, which always plays fantastic tricks with the author temporarily under its dominion. It invariably represents him as either a greater or a smaller personage than he actually is. Presently the simulacrum works no more spells, good or evil, and the deception is unveiled. The hitherto disregarded poet is recognized, and the flimsy idol of yesterday, which seemed so genuine, is taken down from his too large pedestal and carted off to the dumping-ground of inadequate things. To be sure, if he chances to have been not entirely flimsy, and on cool examination is found to possess some appreciable degree of merit, then he is set up on a new slab of appropriate dimensions. The late colossal statue shrinks to a modest bas-relief. On the other hand, some scarcely noticed bust may suddenly become a revered fulllength figure. Between the reputation of the author living and the reputation of the same author dead there is ever a wide discrepancy. It is the eidolon that does it.
SAVE us from our friends — our enemies we can take care of. The wellmeaning rector of the little parish of Woodgates, England, and several of Robert Browning’s local admirers have recently busied themselves in erecting a tablet to the memory of “ the first known forefather of the poet.” This lately turned up ancestor was also named Robert Browning, and is described on the mural marble as “formerly footman and butler to Sir John Bankes of Corfe Castle.” Now, Robert Browning the poet had as good a right as Abou Ben Adhem himself to ask to be placed on the list of those who love their fellow men; but if the poet could have been consulted in the matter he probably would have preferred not to have that particular footman exhumed. However, it is an ill wind that blows nobody good. Sir John Bankes would scarcely have been heard of in our young century if it had not been for his footman. As Robert stood day by day, sleek and solemn, behind his master’s chair in Corfe Castle, how little it entered into the head of Sir John that his highly respectable name would be served up to posterity— like a cold relish — by his own butler ! By Robert!
A MAN is known by the company his mind keeps. To live continually with noble books, with “high-erected thoughts seated in the heart of courtesy,” teaches the soul good manners.
THE deceptive Mr. False and the volatile Mrs. Giddy who figure in the pages of seventeenth and eighteenth century fiction are not tolerated in modern novels and plays. Steal the burglar and Palette the artist have passed on. A name indicating the quality or occupation of the bearer strikes us as a too transparent device. Yet there are such names in contemporary real life. That of our worthy Adjutant-General Drum, for example. Neal and Pray are a pair of deacons who linger in the memory of my boyhood. The old-time sign of Ketchum & Cheetam, Brokers, in Wall Street,New York, seems almost too good to be true. But it was once, if it is not now, an actuality.
LOWELL used to find food for a great deal of mirth in General George P. Morris’s line,
Lowell’s well-beloved Dr. Donne, however, had an attack of the same platitude, and probably inoculated poor Morris with it. Even literature seems to have its mischief-making bacilli. The late “incomparable and ingenious Dean of St. Paul’s ” says, —
I think Dr. Donne’s case rather worse than Morris’s. Chaucer had the disease in a milder form when he wrote:
THE thing one reads and likes, and then forgets, is of no account. The thing that stays, and haunts one,and refuses to be forgotten, that is the sincere thing. I am describing the impression left upon me by Mr. Howells’s blankverse sketch called Father and Mother: A Mystery — a strangely touching and imaginative piece of work, not unlike in effect to some of Maeterlinck’s psychical dramas. As I read on, I seemed to be standing in a shadow cast by some half-remembered experience of my own in a previous state of existence. When I went to bed that night I had to lie awake and think it over as an event that had befallen me. I should call the effect weird, if the word had not lately been worked to death. The gloom of Poe and the spirituality of Hawthorne touch cold finger-tips in those three or four pages.
No man has ever yet succeeded in painting an honest portrait of himself in an autobiography, however sedulously he may have set to work about it. In spite of his candid purpose he omits necessary touches and adds superfluous ones. At times he cannot help draping his thought, and the least shred of drapery is a disguise. It is only the diarist who accomplishes the feat of self-portraiture, and he, without any such end in view, does it unconsciously. A man cannot keep a daily record of his comings and goings and the little items that make up the sum of his life, and not inadvertently betray himself at every turn. He lays bare his heart with a candor not possible to the self-consciousness that inevitably colors premeditated revelation. While Pepys was filling those small octavo pages with his perplexing cipher he never once imagined that he was adding a photographic portrait of himself to the world’s gallery of immortals. We are more intimately acquainted with Mr. Samuel Pepys, the inner man — his little meannesses and his generosities — than we are with half the persons we call our dear friends.
EVERY one has a bookplate these days, and the collectors are after it. The fool and his bookplate are soon parted. To distribute one’s ex-libris is inanely to destroy the only significance it has, that of indicating the past or present ownership of the volume in which it is placed.
AMONG the delightful men and women whom you are certain to meet at an English country house there is generally one guest who is supposed to be preternaturally clever and amusing — “so very droll, don’t you know.” He recites things, tells stories in costermonger dialect, and mimics public characters. He is a type of a class, and I take him to be one of the elementary forms of animal life, like the acalephæ.
His presence is capable of adding a gloom to an undertaker’s establishment. The last time I fell in with him was on a coaching trip through Devon, and in spite of what I have said I must confess to receiving an instant of entertainment at his hands. He was delivering a little dissertation on “the English and American languages. ” As there were two Americans on the back seat — it seems we term ourselves “Amurricans ”— his choice of subject was full of tact. It was exhilarating to get a lesson in pronunciation from a gentleman who said boult for bolt, called St. John Sin′ Jun, and did not know how to pronounce the beautiful name of his own college at Oxford. Fancy a perfectly sober man saying Maudlin for Magdalen! Perhaps the purest English spoken is that of the English folk who have resided abroad ever since the Elizabethan period, or thereabouts.
IN the process of dusting my study, the other morning, the maid replaced an engraving of Philip II. of Spain upside down on the mantelshelf, and his majesty has remained in that undignified posture ever since. I have no disposition to come to his aid. My abhorrence of the wretch is as hearty as if he had not been dead and otherwise provided for these last three hundred years. Bloody Mary of England was nearly as cruel, but she was sincere and uncompromising in her extirpation of heretics. Philip II., when it was politic to do so, could mask his fanaticism or drop it for the time being. Queen Mary was a maniac; but the successor of Torquemada was the incarnation of cruelty pure and simple, and I have a mind to let my counterfeit presentment of him stand on its head for the rest of its natural life. I cordially dislike several persons, but I hate nobody, living or dead, excepting Philip II. of Spain. He seems to give me as much trouble as the head of Charles I. gave the amiable Mr. Dick.
THE average Historical Novel is wonderfully and fearfully made. The stage itself at its worst moments is not so melodramatic. In romance-world somebody is always somebody’s wholly unsuspected father or mother or child — and the reader is not deceived five minutes. The “caitiff” is always hanged from “ the highest battlement ” — the second highest battlement would not do at all; or else he is thrown into “the deepest dungeon of the castle ” — the second deepest dungeon was never known to be used on these occasions. The hero invariably “cleaves” his foeman “to the midriff” — the “midriff” being what the properly brought up hero always goes for. A certain fictional historian of my acquaintance makes his swashbuckler exclaim: “ My sword will [shall] kiss his midriff; ” but that is an exceptionally lofty flight of diction. His heroine dresses as a page, and in the course of long interviews with her lover remains unrecognized — a diaphanous literary invention that must have been old when the Pyramids were young. The heroine’s small brother — with playful archaicism called “a springald ” —puts on her skirts and things and passes himself off for his sister or anybody else he pleases. In brief, there is no puerility that is not at home in this particular realm of ill-begotten effort. Listen — a priest, a princess, and a young man in woman’s clothes are on the scene: —
The Princess rose to her feet and approached the priest.
“ Father,” she said swiftly, “this is not the Lady Joan, my brother’s wife, but a youth marvellously like her, who hath offered himself in her place that she might escape. . . . He is the Count von Löen, a lord of Kernsburg. And I love him. We want you to marry us now, dear Father — now, without a moment’s delay; for if you do not they will kill him, and I shall have to marry Prince Wasp ! ”
This is from Joan of the Sword Hand, and if I ever read a more silly performance I have forgotten it.
BOOKS that have become classics — books that have had their day and now get more praise than perusal — always remind me of venerable colonels and majors and captains who,having reached the age limit, find themselves retired upon half pay.
FORTUNATE was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus who in early youth was taught “to abstain from rhetoric, and poetry, and fine writing ” — especially the fine writing. Simplicity is art’s last word.
THERE is a phrase spoken by Hamlet which I have seen quoted innumerable times, and never once correctly. Hamlet, addressing Horatio, says : —
“ Give me that man That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart.”
The words italicized are invariably written “heart of hearts ” —as if a person possessed that organ in duplicate. Perhaps no one living, with the exception of Sir Henry Irving, is more familiar with the play of Hamlet than my good friend Mr. Bram Stoker, who makes his heart plural on two occasions in his recent novel, The Mystery of the Sea.
WHAT is slang in one age sometimes goes into the vocabulary of the purist in the next. On the other hand, phrases that once were not considered inelegant are looked at askance in the period following. The word “brass” was formerly an accepted synonym for money; but at present, when it takes on that significance, it is not admitted into the politer circles of language. It may be said to have seen better days, like another word I have in mind — a word that has become slang, used in the sense which once did not exclude it from very good company. A friend lately informed me that he had “fired ” his housekeeper — that is, dismissed her. He little dreamed that he was speaking excellent Elizabethan.
THIS is the golden age of the inventor, He is no longer looked upon as a madman or a wizard, incontinently to be made away with. Two or three centuries ago Marconi would not have escaped a ropeless end with his wireless telegraphy. Even so late as 1800, the friends of one Robert Fulton seriously entertained the luminous idea of hustling the poor man into an asylum for the unsound before he had a chance to fire up the boiler of his tiny steamboat on the Hudson River. In olden times the pillory and the whipping-post were among the gentler forms of encouragement awaiting the inventor. If a man devised an especially practical apple-peeler he was in imminent danger of being peeled with it by an incensed populace. To-day we hail a scientific or a mechanical discovery with enthusiasm, and stand ready to make a stock company of it.
THE man is clearly an adventurer. In the seventeenth century he would have worn huge pistols stuck into a wide leather belt, and been something in the seafaring line. I shall end badly some day by writing an historical novel with him for hero. The fellow is always smartly dressed, but where he lives and how he lives are as unknown as “what song the Sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women.” He is a man who apparently has no appointment with his breakfast and whose dinner is a chance acquaintance. His probable banker is the next person. A great city like this is the only geography for such a character. He would be impossible in a small country town, where everybody knows everybody and what everybody has for lunch.
THE unconventional has ever a morbid attraction for a certain class of mind. There is always a small coterie of highly intellectual men and women eager to give welcome to whatever is eccentric, obscure, or chaotic. Worshipers at the shrine of the Unpopular, they tingle with a sense of their tolerant superiority when they say, “Of course this is not the kind of thing you would like.” Sometimes these impressionable souls almost seem to make a sort of reputation for their fetish.
WHENEVER I take up Emerson’s poems I find myself turning automatically to his Bacchus. Elsewhere, in detachable passages embedded in mediocre verse, he rises for a moment to heights not reached by any other of our poets; but Bacchus is in the grand style throughout. Its texture can bear comparison with the world’s best in this kind. In imaginative quality, austere richness of diction, and subtilty of phrase, what other verse of our period approaches it? The day Emerson wrote Bacchus he had in him, as Michael Drayton said of Marlowe, “those brave translunary things that the first poets had.”
I HAVE thought of an essay to be called On the Art of Short-Story Writing, but have given it up as smacking too much of the shop. It would be too intime, since I should have to deal chiefly with my own ways, and so give myself the false air of seeming to consider them of importance. It would interest nobody to know that I always write the last paragraph first, and then work directly up to that, avoiding all digressions and side issues. Then who on earth would care to be told about the trouble my characters cause me by talking too much ? They will talk, and I have to let them. But when the story is finished, I go over the dialogue and strike out four fifths of the long speeches. I fancy that it makes my characters pretty mad.
SHAKESPEARE is forever coming into our affairs — putting in his oar, so to speak — with some pat word or phrase. The conversation, the other evening, had turned on the subject of watches, when one of the gentlemen present, the manager of a large watch-making establishment, told us a rather interesting fact. The component parts of a watch are produced by different workmen, who have no concern with the complex piece of mechanism as a whole, and possibly, as a rule, understand it imperfectly. Each worker needs to be expert in only his own special branch. When the watch has reached a certain advanced state, the work requires a touch as delicate and firm as that of an oculist performing an operation. Here the most skilled and trustworthy artisans are employed; they receive high wages, and have the benefit of a singular indulgence. In case the workman, through too continuous application, finds himself lacking the steadiness of nerve demanded by his task, he is allowed without forfeiture of pay to remain idle temporarily, in order that his hand may recover the requisite precision of touch. As I listened, Hamlet’s courtly criticism of the grave-digger’s want of sensibility came drifting into my memory. “The hand of little employment hath the daintier sense, ” says Shakespeare, who has left nothing unsaid.
I SOMETIMES get a kind of surreptitious amusement out of inventing shortstory plots that are of no service to me personally as they do not lend themselves to my method. They are tantalizingly apt to be the sort of scheme that would fit some other writer’s hand like a glove. Awhile ago, in the idle mood that constitutes the only soil capable of producing such trivial plants, I evolved a plot which Mr. Frank Stockton 1 could have made much of with his droll gift of presenting impossibilities in so natural a way as to make them appear matters of course. The same indolence that generated the plot kept me from placing the outline of it, the scenario, at his disposal.
The story was to be called The Reformed Microbe, and dealt with a young scientist, Dr. Mildew, who had set up a laboratory in a country village, say in western Massachusetts. Before long he detects the presence of a peculiar and unclassified species of microbe that is getting in its work among the rural maidens. As there is a Young Ladies’ Academy in the neighborhood, no reasonable microbe could ask for pleasanter environment. The premonitory symptom in those infected by the new malady — which in fact is only an exaggerated phase of a well-known complaint — is a certain disconcerting levity of demeanor followed by acute attacks of candor. Affianced young damsels immediately grow so flirtatious that all matrimonial engagements are broken off; and disconnected buds, previously noted for sedateness and shyness of deportment, become a fascinating menace to society. It would seem as if a perpetual leap year had set in. The contagion quickly spreads to widows of every age and rank. None but happily married women are immune.
The young scientist drops his indoor experiments, and sallies forth to capture this interesting and vivacious microbe — the exigencies of fiction require that it should be comparatively gigantic. The doctor finally captures it and takes it to his laboratory, where he talks to it, so to speak, like a father. He points out the dire distress and embarrassments resulting from its thoughtless behavior, and succeeds in impressing the creature with a proper sense of its iniquity. It begins to see itself as others see it — through a microscope. The little animal, or vegetable — it may be either one — bitterly repents, promises to reform, and is set at liberty. It determines to turn over a new leaf, and indulges in as many fine resolutions as a pensive man on the first of January. It seriously thinks of attempting to carry out the agreeable idea of the late Mr. Ingersoll, who said that if he had created the world he would have made good health contagious.
The village now resumes its normal tranquillity; broken engagements are gradually mended and look as good as new; the young ladies of the neighboring academy, when they walk abroad, two abreast, might be taken for so many nuns; Chloe and Daphne are shy once more, and the doctor goes back to his absorbing investigations. He is on the point of discovering and heading off the playful germ that impels young sprigs of the aristocracy to seek spangled brides in the front rank of the corps de ballet, and is giving his days and nights to it. Presently, however, there are fresh indications of the old disturbance in the village, and the flirtatious affection of the heart breaks out with more than its original virulence. “Mic is at it again, yer honor,” remarks the janitor of the sanitarium to Dr. Mildew, as that gentleman ascends the front steps one morning. The fact is painfully apparent. The reformed microbe has fallen in with some of its former roistering boon companions, and is up to its old pranks. It is no easy business this time to catch the little imp, made cautious by its lively recollection of the doctor’s disinfectants; but it is ultimately caught, and confined in a crystal cell in the laboratory, where it is now undergoing a life sentence.
This is only the merest outline and filament of the narrative. The complicated character of the microbe, its soliloquies, its temptations, its struggles, and the final cause of its relapse — a young widow who eventually marries the young specialist — were matters to be fully elaborated. And how ingeniously and divertingly Mr. Stockton would have done it all!
Thomas Bailey Aldrich.
- This page, the lightness of which has turned to sadness on my hands, was written a few days before the death of that delightful story-teller and most lovable man.↩