THE Grammarian’s Funeral is as the shadow of a rock in a weary land, as the
Of the plunge in a pool’s living water.”
Not that it is alone in this grateful distinction, in Browning’s work, or in a generation’s results, but that it has happened to occur to me more than once in pessimistic moments, and to justify the function of verse. The legal pleadings of your Sidneys and Shelleys are nothing to the purpose. “ Poesie ” needs no defense in the spirit, but it needs bones in the body. It is better as a vertebrate than as a mollusk. In those pessimistic moments I had fancied it fallen in the “dim dreaming life ” of chambered nautili, monotonously musical, hazily emotional,intellectually edgeless, either solemnly futile or cleverly trivial. I desired something to “break the shins of mine apprehension ” upon; some acid and tang; something to say, “One who was like no other did pleasurably conceive in a knot and socket of his brain, and in travail gave me birth, that I might assert two things, namely, He was, and I am.”
It is the thirst for this distinction which drives one back to older and older poets. I am much for Herbert and Donne and Crashaw and Andrew Marvell. They had their conventions, but at least their conventions are not mine. I can draw a longer line from them to me, construct a wider angle, and measure more distant stars. But the Grammarian’s Funeral is an individual and a vertebrate. With all lyrical pulses and pauses testifying organic life, it never leaves inspection of a chosen vista. It means intensely and means itself. A work of art never means any interpretation of it, or means anything but itself. I was thinking, in coming down the mountain side of Perugia, that the Grammarian’s Funeral was more realistic than I had supposed. Digging Greek roots never seemed to me a spiritual enterprise, but it was such to the Revivers of Learning in the fifteenth century. Did they not have their visions like other visionaries ? It was a search after lost treasures of infinite value. They dug for the jasper and topaz wherewith to rebuild fallen gates and walls, the celestial city of an old culture. The man who “gave us the doctrine of the enclitic De ” set his jewel in the walls. So that it was no more than the truth that he was of those who dwell in high places,
Lightnings are loosened,
Stars come and go,”
and had a right to
On a tall mountain, citied to the top,
Crowded with culture.”
It was the latter passage that occurred to me, in coming down the mountain from Perugia,as unexpectedly accurate.
For one comes southward and “slopes to Italy by green degrees,” finds mountains whose steep sides are crowded with orchards, gardens, and villages, whose summits are ringed with city walls. Yet the Umbrians so built cities above their great plain not out of aspiration, but out of extreme combativeness. Perugia was distinguished among them for an unpleasant neighbor. Not even did she keep peace with herself, but shed blood more familiarly than others in her own streets, and splashed it on the steps of her gaunt unfinished cathedral, that stands on one side of the little square, with the Municipio on the other and the triple-basined fountain in the middle. Her family of tyrants was of the most savage and given to throat - cutting. The painter who is known by her name painted most of his delicate-lipped Madonnas and light-footed angels for Florence, where life was more thoughtful and on the whole less bad-tempered than in this wild cat of a Perugia. The Tiber flows past her feet, a cheerful little river, and useful for mill wheels, larger, muddier, and less cheerful when it comes to Rome. Between the Tiber and the mountain the ashes of the Volumnii lie, since the Punic Wars, in their family tomb some yards underground, in sculptured stone boxes and cinerary urns, and the Perugians thought it as indifferent a spot as any for the common uses of fighting Assisans or raising olive trees. Its use now is the collection of francs from passing tourists. They furnish the custodian a better living than the spoils of a few olive trees or Assisans would do. The Volumnii chose a decent sepulture on the plain, well underground in “ the level and the night, ” as if they thought such morning heights, as the Grammarian’s pallbearers sought for him, belonged rather to those who were still alive, ambitious, and combative. They have their reward in being useful to the custodian, and to the tourists, according to the tourists’ belief.
We took a vettura for Cortona from Magione, ten miles beyond Perugia, not because of the combativeness of Perugia, — the vetturino of Magione turned out to be combative, —but because the ten miles lay through the level monotony of the Umbrian plain, and because something nearer the country’s normal scale of wages for man and horse may be met with by stepping out of the beaten paths and halting-places. The pursuit of economy is as exciting a game in Italy as the pursuit of wealth in goldmining states. It has the same strange successes and failures. Its methods are complicated, its possibilities limitless, its issue not to be calculated. It involves eloquence, feeling, sophisms, casuistries, and leads to the conclusion that the Italian is on the whole very likable; in whose mind it is probably a secret feeling that the Northern invader is still as of old a barbarian, a brute force, not to be directly resisted, but persuaded, outwitted, and undermined by the supple intelligence of civilization.
The barbarian appears to him to have been invading under different excuses since the fifth century. The Goth came blundering, the Hun galloped after, the Vandal was destructive; the Frank came in state, and tickled his simple Frankish vanity with the title of Roman Emperor; the Scandinavian came in ships; then the pilgrims, and lately the tourists; and all these have been, as a rule, marked by large bodies, by simplicity and curiosity, by a certain density of intelligence and absence of breeding, in general the characteristics of barbarism. The barbarian fell into the habit and tradition of coming, the Italian into the habit and tradition of expecting him, like the seasons and changes of weather.
I overheard an Englishwoman at a pension in Florence, discarding the butter fork for a knife, remark bitterly, that in civilized countries a butter knife was a knife. It is true that in Italy it is usually a fork, but it seemed to me that the test was imperfect. One classifies advancing stages of civilization according as bronze is substituted for stone and iron for bronze, but between butter knives and butter forks the difference seems something accidental, something debatable.
There is much to say for the Italian’s test, if he really feels in this way, of intellectual suppleness and a pervasive code of manners. He has some claim to the distinction. His manners are apparent to a barbarian. The vetturino seems to differ about the fare more in sorrow than in anger, with a deprecatory regret that he is obliged to differ. To bargain and dispute with these forms of charity, of humane tolerance, is an achievement in culture like the civilizing of mountain tops. The one mayliave sprung from experienced acquiescence to the barbarian, the other from combativeness. The reasons do not prevent one’s liking the Italian’s test, and regretting the Umbrian plain and its cities set about upon mountains.
The road rose slowly from Magione to the summit of a ridge overlooking Lake Trasimene. The lake overlies the borders of Umbria and Tuscany, and is large and round. The sunlight was very bright, the water very blue, and green islands floated calmly about in it.
There is no passage in St. Francis’ Canticle which reaches me so well as that in which he offered choice and perfect terms of praise for the element of water, “utile et humile et pretiosa et casta.” He mentioned and gave praise by name for his elemental kindred, — for the brother sun ; the sisters the moon and stars set clear and lovely in heaven, the wind, air, and cloud, calms and all weathers; the sister water which is serviceable and humble and precious and clean; the brother fire which is bright and pleasant and mighty and strong; and the mother earth which brings forth fruits and colored flowers and grass; for those too who pardon one another for love’s sake and peaceably endure; and for our brother the death of the body, which no one escapes, yet all may be blest therein.
St. Francis once passed Lent on Trasimene, on the larger of the two neighboring islands, fasting forty days and nights, except that he ate a half loaf of bread in delicate scruple not to be presumptuous. And Trasimene is thought to be indebted to the old battle-ground and this forest-domed Isola Maggiore for points of interest. The suave abstracted lake does not look aware of obligations. It helped St. Francis to understand water, and Hannibal to defeat the Romans, in the process of being itself, in fulfilling normally its functions of coolness and cleansing, of shedding mists, rippling under the wind, shining in the sunlight, reflecting clouds, sleeping in the darkness, making fertile its round shores. It does not accept gratitude nor offer it. It gives its help to any wayfarer, such help as it has to give and the wayfarer is able to receive, or will injure him, without noticing him at all. The mist that was good for Hannibal was bad for the Romans and natural for Trasimene, one of a thousand indifferent dim risings, white-shrouded mornings, confusing to Roman armies or fishermen seeking the shore, beneficial to dry olive leaves, results of no interest to Trasimene, communing apart with its kindred elements, the sun and wind, incoming and outgoing streams.
One of the streams came in thick and red on the day of the battle; men ran splashing and gasping into the lake, and others on horses rode after them ; so it is remembered, but not by Trasimene. The Roman historian remarked that the “place was formed by nature for an ambuscade,” a pure assumption. One knows little enough of causes and less of purposes. Hannibal supposed himself to have won by luck and foresight, the Roman historian laid it to the Consul’s impiety, in neglecting the auspices. We are inclined at this day to suppose Hannibal correct, but to add that the habit of mind which the Roman historian showed, his stiff faith in moral causes and divine purposes, was the same habit of mind that caused his people to win in the end.
One would interpret Trasimene then, at first, as a successful pagan, a mirror of immortal health and unserupulousness, to whom the consequences of its acts are of no consequence. We have discovered more sins ourselves than it is possible to avoid. We have searched anxiously after anxiety. We have been very busy to be sorrowful. Trasimene knows nothing that ought to be done unless it is done inevitably, no duty that is not a function.
Yet I suppose Trasimene helped St. Francis not only to understand water and other elements, and to understand that the death of the body was elemental with them, but almost to see that love and sorrow and pardon and endurance, the scruples and the regrets, somehow were elemental too, as functional and natural as that the stars should appear or the clouds shed their rain; that all things somehow were of one family, children, possibly he fancied, of our mother Earth and our father Heaven, brothers and sisters at any rate of himself ; that one might see all this without understanding how it could be or how he was able to see it. This would be a peculiarity of Trasimene’s instruction. We suppose Hannibal’s opinion of the causes of victory and defeat correct so far as it went, if only so far as his own purposes ; and we admit it was well for the Romans to have had that habit of mind which made them mistaken about the causes of victory and defeat, and the purposes for which mountains and valleys were arranged. And these things seem to be contradictory.
Trasimene gives rise to singular dim questions, like the mist which puzzled the honest Romans, while the swift Carthaginian came down and slew them in the mist. It looks as if it might — if one studied it long enough — smile contradictory things into one placid truth, and show how it could be done — if one were to spend nights and days with it — a wooded island for instance — a little bread and water.
The road ran close to the lake. The vettura rattled into a little fishing village where we stopped for lunch, and then rattled on, turned the corner of a bluff, and came out on the battle plain, an amphitheatre, three sides of it hills and the fourth the lake.
It is recorded, then, that Flaminius came marching south from Cortona in the early morning, very angry to see where Hannibal had passed and left desolation, and so here along the shore in the mist ; and Hannibal reached out with his army over the hilltops above the mist and closed the pass behind, and so fell to work ; and the Roman historian called him a perfidious and untrustworthy person. He won the battles by foresight and supervision, but the Romans won the wars by virtue of a certain irritating obtuseness, an imagination not able to conceive defeat, a Cromwellian recipe in trouble, — to pray to the gods and raise another legion.
I used to read the Punic Wars with a painfully wavering partisanship. The speed and isolated daring of Hannibal, the matching of his brain against the mass of Rome and her looming destiny, the success almost achieved, and the failure, were enough to break one’s heart with hero-worship. On the other hand, the Roman persistence mesmerized one’s admiration. It was hot-hearted reading.
After all, the victory seems to lie elsewhere than with either party, rather with the mortality and vegetation. The “Sanguinetto ” — the Small and Bloody Stream — is not bloody now. The battle-ground is torpid with excessive peace. That rhetorical question asked by the fervid Apostle, “O Grave, where is thy sting? ” expected the answer, Nowhere. Yet it seems to be nearly everywhere, conservative, concealed, superficially disputed by new growths. A hymn writer once allowed the exigencies of his metre to turn the Apostle’s rhetoric into an impertinence, “Where thy victory, boasting grave? ” “ Boasting grave ” is a foolish phrase. Whether victorious or defeated, it is at least silent. It has the Roman qualities and Fabian policy, imperturbable, patient, waiting, persistent. Life is the Hannibal of the two combatants, brilliant, strategic, an energy against a mass. The aboriginal war goes on forever.
It is not clear that war is obsolete or obsolescent. “It’s no use balloting, for it won’t stay,” said Farmer Minot to Emerson in an ante-bellum conversation. “What you do with a gun will stay.” The ideal is not so satisfactory after all of a race grown so malleable and reasonable as never to come to the issue of a gun. If your substance is iron there will be need of the passion of red heat, a hammer and anvil and uncompromising blows. A conviction in iron is more of a result than a conviction in wax. Whenever it comes to the point that convictions in iron must be changed, it seems no more than ever likely that charity and persuasion will take the place of the old smithy and forge and anvil.
Was it not of Scott and Wordsworth that this difference was remarked ? that the one cared for places where notable events had been, and for scenery so far as it decorated the events; that the other cared for places with such features and harmonies in them as stirred his meditation, and for events so far as they decorated the scenery. The Wordsworthian view is more direct. There is more significance in it. He saw more significant things in the Duddon than Scott saw in the Tweed. It seems more important that the Tweed flows softly and well than that the borderers used to split one another’s heads over it. The ghost of a moss-trooper is not so worth seeing as the spirit “whose dwelling is in the light of setting suns, ” nor the ghosts of the doomed Romans as the drift of the light on Trasimene, its liquid meditation. The Roman ghosts are not there ; they walk in better outline in Titus Livius; but the face of Trasimene looks up at the sky, and appears to teach a remarkable dialectic, a Platonism that I do not understand. It is a large, successfully pagan lake, and does not seem to remember St. Francis,or care a dry marsh reed whether Hannibal defeated the Romans or not.
The plain of the Chiana, that borders Lake Trasimene, was as torpid as the battlefield. Oxen plodded along the road to Cortona at a pace carefully approximated to a standstill. The vetturino’s horse fell into reflection. The pursuits of the few grass birds were intermittent, unessential; the industry of the air and sand insects seemed pretentious.
I do not know why the sluggard should be sent to the ant to consider her ways and her wisdom. He will only observe industry and folly going hand in hand. He will see an industry nine tenths of which is fussiness, and only one tenth efficient. How shall he learn from her that industry is wisdom ? The bee is more efficient. I am exquisitely persuaded of her polity by M. Maeterlinck, but not persuaded by proverbs into indiscriminating labor, to forego “instructive hours of truantry.” Your grass bird is your model of judicious uses. He labors with interested attention, but intermittently. He observes much, meditates much. He has poetized and made love in his springtime. Each spring he does it again. He raises a family. It is an interesting thing to do. He lays up nothing in particular for the morrow, and when winter is at hand, and provident ill-natured creatures make ready to jeer, he emigrates, he goes off cheerfully after tropical possibilities, to some generous indefinite region, African, trans-Mediterranean. It is virtuous to get one’s self such happiness as is packed in the rotund waistcoat of a grass bird. He is so far a good citizen who feeds himself well. Cheerfulness is a communistic property, and a better purse than Fortunatus ’. It has been preached of late as a duty. Yet I cannot somehow fancy it prospering as a duty. We have learned remarkably to know our “R. L. S.” who set himself the “task of happiness, ” and kept to that business very bravely. I think he followed his temperament for the most part. It is simpler to interpret the fulfilling of a function as the performance of a duty, than to train the performance of duty to act as a function. Virtue is happiest when it is temperamental. Let it radiate from a waistcoat if need be. And this happiness is something wherein, in the construction of civilization, among the ends and aims of culture, we have not prospered so well.
The United States Topographical Survey Maps use blue as the symbol of water, and blue lines are the watercourses and shores; brown lines mark and measure elevations above the sea’s level; black signs of any shape, it is stated, indicate “culture,” meaning whatever visible thing men have made on the earth, or adapted for their uses, — houses, fences, bridges, even faint trails in the forest, blazed, or established by passing feet. Culture is a word in much confusion. I heard the late Mr. Moody, in his inimitable way, illustrate what he thought the imperfect nature of education by the parable of a man who, having a field, ploughed it, and then ploughed it again, and yet again; and being asked if he meant to plant anything, said, No, he was satisfied with cultivating. As if planting were not as much cultivation as ploughing, indeed as if Mr. Moody’s work, so far as he planted something of value in his hearers, were not educational and a labor for their culture, that they might receive and assimilate and produce something which did not seem to come to them or from them spontaneously,— else why Mr. Moody’s efforts ?
The usage of the Survey Maps is sound so far as it goes. Browning’s tall mountain, crowded with culture, whose citied summit the pallbearers claimed for the proper sepulchre of their Grammarian, was a far-reaching symbol. Kulturgeschichte is commonly translated The History of Civilization, the history of the conquest of the wilderness, moral, intellectual, and material, from the first instrument or uttered word to the latest machinery or broadest generalization or highest aspiration, the slow-building house of humanity. And if the word culture may be used more narrowly and still without confusion, it must be by using it selectively, meaning by it the farthest, or, if you choose, the best results of civilization; and the sense in which it is so used implies the user’s judgment as to what are these farthest or best results. The Englishwoman at the pension quoted the preference of butter knives for butter forks. The Italian was imagined as inclined to select intellectual^suppleness and pervasive manners. Goethe remarked that “one ought every day at least to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words.” If another were to acid that he thought it quite as essential in the course of the day to do a compassionate deed, and say an honest prayer, it would imply his opinion that the sage’s selection of the farthest or best results of culture was deficient. And if another still were to add, with the same implication upon both, that he thought it quite as essential every day for a few moments at least to be immaculately happy, he need not be so far from reason. Again, in saying that “ the ideal of asceticism represents the sacrifice of one part of human nature to another, that it may live more completely in what survives of it, while the ideal of culture represents a harmonious development of all the parts of human nature, ” in this passage Pater implied that asceticism was not an aspiration and an effort in culture, but somehow outside of it, which seems to me quite impossible and to imply a deficient selection. One had best start again from the definition of the Survey Maps, which is sound so far as it goes.
So, too, this our late increase of sympathy with what we deficiently call “nature,” meaning perhaps unhumanized and outlying nature, seems but a promising extension of the foundation of this house of humanity, or, better, an extension of its garden, into the wilderness ; whereby there are found to be tongues, sermons, books, in trees and stones and running brooks, and it becomes possible to gather from such spread waters as Trasimene, that our building and adapting are somehow as normal as the inflowing of streams and the outbreathing of mists, and so, by analogy, that we speak of “failures” and “mistakes ” only as forms of speech, if they too are adapted and built in with the rest. And so this our new speculative attention to the subject of cheerfulness would seem to show a feeling, that our house and garden of humanity have not prospered so well in this matter as in other directions, but that if it had been one of the results of culture it would be one worth selecting. It is humiliating, in a way, to watch cheerfulness radiating from the waistcoat of a grass bird.
Cortona is a thousand feet or more up from the plain, and one goes there for that reason, and because it is small and very old, and possesses an Etruscan wall, and paintings in its cathedral by Luca Signorelli, who was born at Cortona. But I should think it best on the whole to go first to the little shed of a Baptistery, which looks as if built for some humble domestic use, not ecclesiastical. It contains an Annunciation by Fra Angelico, an angel and madonna in dim robes, with gray faces against their brilliant haloes. It may turn out to be, if not the reason for having come, then the reason, having come, for being contented, which is a better use of reason.
At least the meeting with it in the course of wayfaring, at the end of a long ascent and Hill of Difficulty, seemed to me a grateful incident, especially for the announcing angel, who comes so swiftly, so absorbed in his mission. And its keeping shelter in the poor bare shed called a Baptistery, in the old Etruscan town on its cultivated mountain, seemed to offer something farther, some obscure comment, on the question of those best results of culture, the question of selection. Fra Angelico was a monk, who worked apart from the work of his contemporaries, and thought himself working for another observation and approval than theirs. He would have thought the Cortona Annunciation more in its fit place, more at home in its shed, than the Annunciations in the Florentine galleries. So it is more in its place, more as they were in their places, the
“ bards who died content on pleasant sward,
Leaving great verse unto a little clan,” — and sang
“ . . . unheard, Save of the quiet primrose and the span Of heaven, and few ears.”
And the understanding of greatness as an attribute of quality, consistent with its being obscure, instead of an attribute of extension and celebrity, as very well off without measure or price, instead of only measured by its price, this too would seem to be one of those far results to be selected for culture, something desirable in the house of humanity.
Cortona is small, but it has spacious centuries to remember. Toward evening the little shepherdesses drive the sheep up past the olive orchards and under the Etruscan wall. The Cortonese live closely together, but there is room for the eye. It can swing from the northern Apennines, and ride purple distances and broken skylines, over towns and railroads and rivers, to Trasirnene on the south and to the range that guards the Umbrian plain.