ON a memorable day some years ago a certain sub-editor exploring the morning’s mail found his sense enthralled by a weird, sad, delicious odor. Perfumes in the mail were not unheard-of: violets there had been, and musk, and orange blossoms, and tobacco; and the subeditor, with the fantasy appropriate to his station, even prided himself on his ability to close his eyes and pick out a California contribution by the unaided sense of smell. But never before had there been anything like this. Its chief essence was sandalwood, that was clear, but sandalwood so etherealized and mingled with I know not what of exotic scents and incense that it gave to the imagination a provocative ghostly thrill indescribable. The basket of the Muses, hastily tumbled, disclosed a portentous envelope of straw color, with queer blue stamps in one corner, and queer unknown characters in another; yet queerest of all was the address in an odd orientalized hand, done with delicate, curiously curving strokes of the pen. Within, in a script still less Spencerian, these words met the sub-editor’s excited eye:
“ The Dream of Akinosuké
“ In the district called Toïchi of Yamato province, there used to live a gōshi named Miyata Akinosuké;” and so on through some twenty pages, telling a mystical legend of old Japan with exquisitely tinted colors, — in a singularly spare, yet lovely and melodious English style.
This was the writer’s first introduction to Lafcadio Hearn, known to him up to that time only by a somewhat formidable repute as “ the best interpreter of Japan,” and mentally scheduled for perusal on a convenient opportunity which had never come. Since then Hearn’s twenty volumes have been read and reread; there has been correspondence with his family and friends; his complicated life has been investigated in detail. Yet the sharpness, the intensity, of that first experience of his quality is not blurred. Studying his works in their order, studying his recently published Life and Letters,1 one may derive fuller knowledge of the furnishing of his mind, the variety of his experience, the direction of the inner current of his life. Yet the impression that persists is that of weird, sad, delicious savor, of ghostly thrill.
In Elizabeth Bisland (now Mrs. Wetmore) Lafcadio Hearn has a biographer of an exceptional sort. His intimate friend for twenty years, to whom, we may guess, he disclosed only the best that was in him, she has been singularly well prepared to write of him from the angle of the angels; and of Hearn the advocatus diaboli has already said his say. The salient and enduring merit of Mrs. Wetmore’s work is that, without being sentimental, it is finely feminine. It may be doubted whether perfectly even-handed justice, the justice of the quizzical, critical, analytical male mind, is ever quite fair to the peculiar. It is certain, at any rate, that this vivid, affectionate, one may almost say motherly, record of Hearn’s fugitive and feverish life affords a view of him in more illuminating consonance with the quality of his work than any that has been offered by his friends of his own sex.
In one of his earliest letters to Mrs. Wetmore we find Hearn saying: “You have one very remarkable gift - that of creating an impression that remains, with a very few words.” This gift is often in evidence in her narrative, nowhere more effectively, perhaps, than in a cleanly drawn pen portrait of Hearn’s person and manner, which may serve to introduce us to the external semblance of the man whose inner life we are endeavoring to apprehend:-
“He was a most unusual and memorable person. About five feet three inches in height, with unusually broad and powerful shoulders for such a stature, there was an almost feminine grace and lightness in his step and movements. . . . A peculiar physical cleanliness was characteristic of him — that cleanliness of uncontaminated savages and wild animals, which has the air of being so essential and innate as to make the best-groomed men and domestic beasts seem almost frowzy by contrast. His hands were very delicate and supple, with quick timid movements that were yet full of charm, and his voice was musical and very soft. He spoke always in short sentences, and the manner of his speech was very modest and deferential. His head was quite remarkably beautiful; the profile both bold and delicate, with admirable modeling of the nose, lips, and chin. The brow was square, and full above the eyes, and the complexion a clear, smooth olive. The enormous work which he demanded of his vision had enlarged beyond its natural size the eye upon which he depended for sight, but originally, before the accident, — whose disfiguring effect he magnified and was exaggeratedly sensitive about, — his eyes must have been handsome, for they were large, of a dark liquid brown, and heavily lashed. In conversation he frequently, almost instinctively, placed his hand over the injured eye to conceal it from his companion. . . . One of his habits while talking was to walk about, touching softly the furnishings of the room, or the flowers of the garden, picking up small objects for study with his pocket-glass, and meantime pouring out a stream of brilliant talk in a soft, halfapologetic tone, with constant deference to the opinions of his companions. Any idea advanced he received with respect, however much he might differ, and if a phrase or suggestion appealed to him, his face lit with a most delightful irradiation of pleasure, and he never forgot it.
“A more delightful or — at times—more fantastically witty companion it would be impossible to imagine, but it is equally impossible to attempt to convey his astounding sensitiveness. To remain on good terms with him it was necessary to be as patient and wary as one who stalks the hermit thrush to its nest. Any expression of anger or harshness to anyone drove him to flight, any story of moral or physical pain sent him quivering away, and a look of ennui or resentment, even if but a passing emotion, and indulged in while his back was turned, was immediately conveyed to his consciousness in some occult fashion, and he was off in an instant.”
It is a cause for thankfulness that the delicate, some might say ticklish, task of writing the authoritative story of Hearn’s life should have fallen to the lot of one who had “stalked the hermit thrush to his nest.”
But the bulk of the two volumes, and, we may believe, their weight in Time’s scales, consists of the letters written to an astonishing variety of correspondents and covering a period of twenty-five years; and before attempting to reconstruct the spiritual drama of Hearn’s life it will be of advantage to consider his quality as a letter-writer.
The first trait that strikes the attentive reader of Hearn’s letters is a certain impulsive speed, rising at times into an almost lyrical cadence. There is little trace in them of the careful, somewhat mannered neatness of expression which has marked the work of most of the great letter-writers in English,—Gray, Cowper, FitzGerald, Lowell, Stevenson. It is not so much that the classic letter-writers wrote with an eye to the printing-press, as that they regarded epistolization as a bypursuit appropriate to the man of letters, that they were not oblivious of the traditions of the art, that they not seldom thought “What a charming letter this is. Where’s your James Howell now?” With Hearn, on the contrary, there is never the least sense of artifice. His letters are “lyrical” in their self-revelation as in their cadence. They have a certain unpremeditated effusiveness as of a shy and reserved person suddenly at ease with a sympathetic friend. They are to be classed, therefore, so far as flavor is concerned, — there is at present no question of rank, - not with the letters of the neat-handed bookmen, but with those of warmer romanticists, — Shelley, Byron, Richard Wagner. Another and a connected trait is that few bodies of letters have ever shown so much mutuality. Few letter-writers have been so sensitive as Hearn to the personality of their correspondents, so unaffectedly interested in their affairs and thoughts, or have been so ready to take color from their playful, grave, or inquiring moods. This is the source of one great present attraction of the Hearn letters, they are a microcosmic cross section of the lives of himself and his friends, and they have at times a lively dramatic quality.
But it must not be inferred from this that the correspondence is primarily interesting as a “human document,” an artless record of a picturesque and romantic life. Unpremeditated, and in a sense casual, as much of it is, it is, nevertheless, the work of a master of impressionistic prose, and the outpouring of a singularly vivid spirit. There is scarcely a page without its gem of phrase, its memorable sentence. Take a few found by turning at random half a dozen pages of the first volume: “a flash of the eye like the gleam of a black opal;” “a vast and varied ass;” “Whitman’s is, indeed, a Titanic voice; but it seems to me the voice of the giant beneath the volcano, — half-stifled, half uttered, — roaring betimes because articulation is impossible;” “All history is illuminated by the Eternal Feminine, even as the world’s circle in Egyptian mythology is illuminated by Neith curving her luminous woman’s body from horizon to horizon.” There are thousands of phrases and sentences as good or better. And the substance is as striking as the opulent felicity of expression. The book is in a way cosmic as well as microcosmic. It is vastly impressive to see so many regions of this colored world, so much of the grey realm of philosophy, of the black universe of modern science, through the temperament of a shy and passionate dreamer forever peering through the kaleidoscopic lens of his solitary eye.
How suggestive and haunting, to take but a single example, is this passage from a letter written to his friend, Mr. Ellwood Hendrick, on the morning after the birth of Hearn’s first child: —
“What also much impressed me in your letter was the feeling of sadness the spectacle of the great Exposition gave you. But I scarcely think it was due to any reminiscence of boyhood -not simply because of its being certainly a feeling infinitely too complex to have sprung out of a single relative experience in the past (your confession of inability to analyze it, and the statement of others who had the same feeling, would show that), — but also because, if you reflect on other experiences of a wholly different kind, you will find they give the same sensation. The first sight of a colossal range of mountains; the awful beauty of a peak like Chimborazo or Fuji; the majesty of an enormous river; the vision of the sea in speaking motion; and, among human spectacles, a military sight, such as the passing-by of a corps of fifty thousand men, will give also a feeling of sadness. You will feel something like it standing in the choir of the Cathedral of Cologne; and you will feel something like it while watching in the night, from some mighty railroad centre, the rushing of glimmering trains, — bearing away human lives to unknown destinies beyond the darkness. . . .
“Now at the Exposition you had all the elements for what Clifford would call a ‘cosmic emotion’ of sadness. Vastness, which forced the knowledge of individual weakness; beauty, compelling the memory of impermanency; force, suggesting weakness also; and prodigious effort, — calling for the largest possible exertion of human sympathy and love, and pity, and sorrow. That you should feel like crying then, does you honour: that is the tribute of all that is noblest in you to the eternal Religion of Human Suffering.”
But picturesque and variously suggestive as these letters are, interesting as every line of them is to the admirer of Hearn’s work, it does not seem likely that in their present bulk they will preserve a permanent place in literature beyond the lives of his contemporaries. The cargo is too loosely stowed for that. But some day, perhaps, there will be made up from them a volume of pictures of American, West Indian, and Japanese life, of reflections upon the methods of literary art, of curious lore, of humane observations, of philosophical musings and lyrical confessions, that will take its place beside the Journal Intime of the Genevese professor as one of the minor but sincere and significant expressions of the soul of the nineteenth century.
The outline of the external course of Lafcadio Hearn’s life is too well known to need repetition here. Mrs. Wetmore has not materially modified our notions of his career, but she has woven into her narrative a wealth of intimate and revealing detail that will make Hearn, for the first time to many of his readers, a credible, coherent, and even attractive human type. From her work and from the fuller revelation of the letters it is possible to revive a personality more definite and forceful than was to be felt beneath the multi-colored web of his formal writing.
Born in that Ionian Isle where Sappho destroyed herself for love, the child of an Irishman and a Greek, with an added strain of Gypsy blood, Hearn first takes on a human tangibility when we find him deserted by his parents and living in the ultra-religious household of a great-aunt in Wales, a little dark-eyed, dark-faced, passionate boy, “with a wound in his heart and gold rings in his ears.” In the fragments of autobiography dealing with this time, which Mrs. Wetmore has printed, we find his visionary little mind occupied with highly significant images, — the horrors of hell-fire, ghosts, and “the breasts of nymphs in the brake” soon to be blotted out from the plates in his favorite book by the priest who had his education in charge.
After a romantic though somewhat vague Odyssey of misfortune, Hearn finally emerges in Cincinnati at the age of twenty as “Old Semi-Colon,” a proofreader and budding journalist by profession, a flame-hearted artist in words by aspiration. His appearance at this time, as a striking bearded portrait shows, was that of a Parisian poet not yet “arrived; ” and that side of his temperament, which later made him style himself, half in irony, half in penitence “a vicious, French-hearted scalawag,” was then, perhaps, most restive. He attended spiritualistic seances, he tried a little opium, and made other fantastic experiments in life. But these are topics that need not concern us here. The important point for us is that with the Cincinnati period the tale of Hearn’s career as a literary artist begins. He “devours” Hoffmann and writes marvelous murder stories for the Sunday edition of his paper ; he studies the methods of those great prosateurs, Flaubert and Gautier; and finally, before leaving Cincinnati in 1877, he completes the translation of the tales of Gautier which he published some years later as One of Cleopatra’s Nights and Other Fantastic Romances. As a conveying of the flavor of a strongly-flavored writer the work was singularly successful. It was dedicated “To the lovers of the loveliness of the antique world, the lovers of artistic beauty and artistic truth.” A dedication to the lovers of macabre would have been more appropriate. In his choice of tales, in his gusto in the rendering of certain passages, in the “flowers of the yew” which he thought best to add in an appendix, Hearn showed himself more macabresque than his master.
As we look at the decade of Hearn’s life at New Orleans the notable thing now is the growth of his artistic, and still more of his intellectual, power. At first his imagination was captured by the strange, tropical, intoxicating beauty of the old Creole city, its social and ethnological contrasts, its mysterious underworld, and barbaric cults. He felt it to be his artistic duty, he writes, “to be absorbed into this new life and study its form and color and passion.” Yet little more than a year later we find him in a mood of disillusion and of something resembling remorse. He writes to Mr. H. E. Krehbiel:
“I am very weary of New Orleans. The first delightful impression it produced has vanished. The city of my dreams, bathed in the gold of eternal summer, and perfumed with the amorous odours of orange flowers, has vanished like one of those phantom cities of South America swallowed up centuries ago by earthquakes, but reappearing at long intervals to delude travellers. What remains is something horrible, like the tombs here, — material and moral rottenness which no pen can do justice to. You must have read some of those mediæval legends in which the amorous youth finds the beautiful witch he has embraced all through the night crumble into a mass of calcined bones and ashes in the morning. Well, I feel like such a one, and almost regret that, unlike the victims of these diabolical illusions, I do not find my hair whitened and my lips withered by sudden age; for I enjoy exuberant vitality and still seem to myself like one buried alive or left alone in some city cursed with desolation like that described by Sinbad the sailor. No literary circle here; no jovial coterie of journalists; no associates save those vampire ones of which the less said the better. And the thought — Where must all this end? — may be laughed off in the daytime, but always returns to haunt me like a ghost in the night.”
Later, his advantageous connection with the Times-Democrat, his friendship with some of the best and most interesting people of the city, made him happier and wholesomer in his residence there; but from 1881, the date of the passage quoted, his preoccupation is more and more with books, and the things of the intellect and imagination, with “the life of vanished cities and the pageantry of dead faiths,” less and less with “ vampire associates.” He purchases queer books, follows queer subjects, and “pledges himself to the worship of The Odd, The Queer, The Strange, The Exotic, The Monstrous,” which, as he writes, “suits his temperament.” The literary expression of this impulse in its early phase was his Stray Leaves from Strange Literatures, chiefly written before 1883, and published two years later. This, a series of reconstructions of what impressed him as most fantastically beautiful in the most exotic literature he was able to obtain, shows a remarkable growth in mere craftsmanship over his translations from Gautier. The cadences are surer, the weird or gorgeous pictures built up from simpler words, and the exotic atmosphere more enveloping and persuasive. In Some Chinese Ghosts, published in 1887, Hearn’s flair for the black lilies and phosphoric roses of Chinese fancy is still keener, and the current of his prose still more luminous and suave.
The year 1883 marked an epoch in Hearn’s intellectual life. Then for the first time he read Herbert Spencer, and by a singular paradox conceived a passionate adoration for that passionless philosopher who, we may think, had the peculiar advantage of knowing so much about the “Unknowable.” The secret of the paradox seems to have been that Spencer’s vast synthetic panorama of the universe, outer and inner, was precisely the kind of vision to attract Hearn’s gypsy intellect, so long bewildered by the “pageantry of dead faiths,” so long obsessed by the incommunicable sorrow of the world, yet by all the forces of his Celtic and Hellenic ancestry pledged to the quest of “the absolute.” At any rate the philosophy of Spencer came to him with something of the power and unction of an evangelical religion, bringing with it not only conversion, but “conviction of sin,” and “ regeneration.” From this time on, despite some rather eccentric escapades, there was a new seriousness in his life and a new gravity in his work. Henceforth he was concerned about the Exotic and Monstrous chiefly as they could be employed as parables of the gospel according to Herbert Spencer.
A year or two later there came into his work another strain that was to remain potent, — the tropical. As early as 1879 he had felt the spell, and written: “So I draw my chair to the fire, light my pipe de terre Gambièse, and in the flickering glow weave fancies of palm trees and ghostly reefs and tepid winds, and a Voice from the far tropics calls to me across the darkness.” In 1884 he made the visit to Grande Isle in the Mexican Gulf that resulted in his Chita, which is still in many respects his most astonishing tour de force in word-painting, though in it we see how far away he was from the English tradition of creative art in fiction. The only logic in the harrowing conclusion is the emotional logic of a temperament immitigably macabresque, that must make a tale of terror intensify in poignancy to the end.
In 1887, responding more freely to the call, he made his first trip to the French West Indies, and found there a theme perhaps more in consonance with the full current of his vein than any he afterwards encountered. In Youma, his West Indian novelette, the note is certainly falsetto, but in his Two Years in the French West Indies the luxuriant leafiness of his style, heavy with tropical perfumes, subtly interpenetrated with the sense of tropical horrors, rarely goes beyond the bounds of faithful depiction. And underneath it all we begin to see that impressive Spencerian perception of the fatal unity of the world.
In June, 1888, Hearn landed in New York, but drunken as he was with tropic light, he was terrified by the canyoned streets, and returned to Martinique by the same boat that had brought him. In the following year he was in Philadelphia, living with Dr. George M. Gould, a kindred wayfarer in the paths of cosmic speculation, and preparing his West Indian books for the press. At this time he suddenly conceived a passionate and characteristic interest in Japan from reading Mr. Percival Lowell’s The Soul of the Far East. His correspondence is full of it. “How luminous,” he exclaims, “how psychically electric!” It was with boundless delight and with the highest hopes that he welcomed a suggestion that he should go to Japan to prepare for Harper’s Magazine a series of articles upon that country.
Lafcadio Hearn’s position as “the best interpreter of Japan” has been so adequately exploited in the Atlantic, and the peculiar potency of his chemical blending of Spencerian philosophy, Buddhistic theology, and Japanese legend, so ably analyzed with both a qualitative and a quantitative analysis,2 that it only remains to point out in this section some significant rapports between Hearn’s later life and his later work.
As one who reads his writings chronologically passes from the West Indian books to the Japanese, there is evident a remarkable change, not only of atmosphere but of tone, and, despite the continuity of the Spencerian preoccupation, of what we may perhaps call “soul.” The tropical luxuriance of his earlier manner has been replaced by quieter tints and subtler cadences, and henceforth he gives free rein to his faculty only in rare heightened passages, which rise above the narrow, quiet stream of his habitual prose with an effect incomparably telling. In part this was the result of his sensitive perception of the peculiar color of Japanese landscape, “a domesticated Nature, which loves man, and makes itself beautiful in a quiet grey-andblue way like the Japanese women;” which must in consequence be reproduced in water-color rather than in the oils in which he had been working. In part it was the result of his greater maturity, and his perfected control over his medium, which left him no impulse to mere virtuosity. But still more, one thinks as one reads the letters, it was the result of happier and more normal conditions of life. As a professor of English literature, he had something approaching an assured social and economic position. As the friend of men like Professor Basil Hall Chamberlain, and Paymaster Mitchell McDonald, some of his oddities were neutralized. (He felt always more of a man, he said, after contact with their reality, “like Antæus, who got stronger every time his feet touched the solid ground.”) As the father of three boys and the head of a Japanese household of eleven persons, he had for the first time a stake in the world. And in what was clearly a marriage of almost miraculous suitability for him, his restless spirit found a measure of peace. After Hearn’s autobiographic fragments, quite the most valuable material Mrs. Wetmore possessed for her portrait of his temperament was Mrs. Hearn’s vivid reminiscences. It is the present writer’s good fortune to have in hand Mrs. Hearn’s account of her husband’s death, which came to America too late for incorporation in the Life and Letters. The quaint and tender record will give the reader most convincing evidence of the man “Old Semi-Colon” had become:—
“About 3 P. M. Sept. 19th, 1904, as I went to his library I found him walking to and fro with his hands upon the breast. I asked him: ‘Are you indisposed?’ Husband: ’I got a new sickness.’ I: “What is your new sickness ?’ Husband: ‘The heart-sickness.’ I: ‘ You are always over anxious.' At once I sent for our doctor Kizawa with a jinrikisha furnished with two rikisha men. He would not like let myself and children see his painful sight and ordered to leave him. But I stayed by him. He began writing. I advised him to be quiet. ‘Let me do as I please,’ he said, and soon finished writing. ‘This is a letter addressed to Mr. Ume. Mr. Ume is a worthy man. He will give you a good counsel when any difficulty happen to you. If any greater pain of this kind comes upon me I shall perhaps die,’ he said ; and then admonised me repeatedly and strongly that I ought keep myself healthy and strong; then gave me several advices, hearty, earnest, and serious, with regard to the future of children, concluding with the words, ‘Could you understand?’ Then again he said: ‘Never weep if I die. Buy for my coffin a little earthen pot of three or four cents worth; bury me in the yard of a little temple in some lonesome quarter. Never be sorry. You had better play cards with children. Do not inform to others of my departure. If any should happen to inquire of me, tell him: “Ha! he died sometime ago.” That will do.’ I eagerly remonstrated: ‘Pray, do not speak such melancholy thing. Such will never happen.’ He said: ‘This is a serious matter.’ Then saying, ‘ It cannot be held,’ he kept quiet.
“A few minutes passed; the pain relaxed. ‘I would like to take bath,’ he said. He wanted cold bath; went to the bath-room and took a cold bath. ‘Strange!’ he said, ‘I am quite well now.’ He recovered entirely; and asked me: ‘Mamma San! Sickness flew away from me. Shall I take some whisky ?’ I told him : ‘I fear whisky will not be good for heart. But if you are so fond of it I will offer it to you mixed with some water.’ Taking up the cup, he said: ‘I shall no more die.’ He then told me for the first time that a few days ago he had the same experience of pain. He lay down upon the bed then with a book. When the doctor arrived at our house, ‘What shall I do ?’ he said. Leaving the book, he went out to the parlour; and said: ‘Pardon me, doctor. The sickness is gone.’ The doctor found no bad symptom, and jokes and chattering followed between them.
“He was always averse to take medicine or to be attended by a doctor. He would never take medicine if I had not been careful; and if I happen to be late in offering him medicine he would say: ‘I was glad thinking you had forgot.’ If not engaged in writing, he used to walk in meditation to and fro in the room or through the corridor. So even in the time of sickness he would not like to remain quiet in confinement. . . .
“It was a few days before his departure. Osaki, a maid, the daughter of Otokitsu of Yaidzu, found a blossom untimely blooming in one of the branches of cherry-tree in the garden. She told me about that. Whenever I saw or heard anything interesting I always told it to him; and this proved his greatest enjoyment. A very trifling matter was in our home very often highly valued. For instance, as the following things: —
“Today a young shoot appeared on a musa basjoo in the garden.
“Look! an yellow butterfly is flying there.
“In the bamboo bushes, a young bamboo sprout raised its head from the earth.
“Kazuo found a mound made by ants.
“A frog is just staying on the top of the hedge.
“ From this morning the white, the purple, and the red blossoms of the morningglory began to bloom, etc., etc.
“Matters like those had great importance in our household. These things were all reported to him. They were great delight for my husband. He was pleased innocently. I tried to please him with such topics with all my heart. Perhaps if anyone happened to witness it would have seemed ridiculous. Frogs, ants, butterflies, bamboo-sprouts, morning-glory, . . . they were all the best friends to my husband.
“Now the bloom was beautiful to look. But I felt all at once my bosom tremble for some apprehension of evil, because the untimely bloom is considered in Japan as a bad omen. Anyhow, I told him of the blossom. He was interested as usual. ‘Hello!’ he said, and, immediately approaching to the railing, he looked out at the blossom. ‘ Now my world has come — it is warm, like spring,’ said he; then after a pause, ‘but soon it will become cold and that blossom will die away.’ This blossom was upon the branch until the 27th, when toward the evening its petals scattered themselves lonesomely. Methought the cherry tree, which had Hearn’s warmest affection for these year, responded to his kindness and bade goodbye to him. . . .
“Hearn was an early riser; but lest he should disturb myself and children, he was always waiting for us and keeping quiet in the library, sitting regularly upon the cushion and smoking with a charcoalbrazier before him, till I got up and went to his library.... In the morning of September 26th — the sad, last day — as I went to his library about 6.30 A. M., he was already quietly sitting as usual on the cushion. ‘Ohayo gozaimasu’ (goodmorning) I said. He seemed to be thinking over something, but upon my salutation he said his ‘good morning,’ and told me that he had an interesting dream last night, for we were accustomed to tell each other when we had a pleasant dream. ‘ What was it ? ’ I asked. He said: ‘ I had a long distant journey. Here I am smoking now, you see. Is it real that I traveled or is it real that I am smoking? The world of dream!' . . . Thus saying, he was pleased with himself.
“Before going to bed, our three boys used to go to his library and say in English: ‘Papa! Good-night! Pleasant dream ! ’ Then he says in Japanese : ‘Dream a good dream,’ or in English: ‘The same to you.’
“On this morning when Kazuo, before leaving home for school, went to him and said a ‘good-morning,’ he said: ‘Pleasant dream.’ Not knowing how to say, Kazuo answered: ‘The same to you.’
“About eleven o’clock in the morning, while walking to and fro along the corridor, he looked into my sitting room and saw the picture hung upon the wall of alcove. The picture, entitled ‘Morning Sun,’ represented a glorious, but a little mistic, scene of sea-shore in the early morning with birds thronging. ‘A beautiful scenery! I would like to go to such a land,’ he remarked. . . .
“He was fond of hearing the notes of insects. We kept matsu mushi (a kind of cricket) this autumn. Toward evening the plaintive notes which matsu mushi made at intervals made me feel unusually lonesome. I asked my husband how it sounded to him. He said : ’That tiny creature has been singing nicely. It’s getting cold, though. Is it conscious or unconscious that soon it must die? It’s a pity, indeed.’ And, in a lonesome way, he added: ‘Ah, poor creature! On one of these warm days let us put him secretly among the grasses.’
“Nothing particularly different was not to be observable in all about him that day through. But the single blossom of untimely cherry, the dream of long journey he had, and, the notes of matsu mushi, all these make me sad even now, as if there had existed some significance about them.
“At supper he felt sudden pain in the breast. He stopped eating; went away to his library; I followed him. For some minutes, with his hands upon the breast, he walked about the room. He wanted to lie on bed. With his hands on breast, he kept very calm in bed. But, in a few minutes after, he was no more the man of this side of the world. As if feeling no pain at. all, he had a little smile about his mouth.”
Lafcadio Hearn has been called a “decadent;” the word does n’t signify, but if by it is meant, as sometimes seems to be, a humanist without the physique, there is a considerable measure of truth in its application. There is, however, nothing more unjust to most human beings than the application to them of cant tags that have taken their color from trite literary usage and hasty popular association with a few notorious characters. This is especially true in Hearn’s case. In 1885 he wrote to W. D. O’Connor: “If my little scraggy hand tells you anything you ought to recognize in it a very small, erratic, eccentric, irregular, impulsive, nervous disposition, — almost your antitype in everything except the love of the beautiful.” The advocatus diaboli himself could scarcely have done better. Erratic, eccentric, irregular, impulsive, nervous, Hearn undoubtedly was; and these qualities, enhanced as they were by self-pity, so far from being what the psychologists call “independent variables,” were of the very essence of his faculty. “Unless,” he writes, “somebody does or says something horribly mean to me I can’t do certain kinds of work;” and again, “I have found that the possessor of pure horse-health never seems to have an idea of the ‘half-lights.’ It is impossible to see the psychical undercurrents of human existence without that self-separation from the purely physical part of being that severe sickness gives like a revelation.” For all his fine Byronic swimming of straits and wide bays Hearn was never the possessor of “pure horse-health,” and it is pretty clear that to his lack of it, to his trembling sense of the hard attrition of the world, we owe his marvelous mastery of the “ half light.” A certain element of unwholesomeness in this there may have been,-in his earlier life his preoccupations were distinctly those of the true Latin decadent,— yet with the growth of his domestic well-being and his artistic and intellectual powers, it became not so much “morbidness” in our English sense, as morbidezza, the quality of mellow-tinted color and soft harmonies. Late in life he wrote, “I like Kipling’s morbidness, which is manly and full of enormous resolve and defiance in the truth of God and Hell and Nature, — but the other—no!” Of “the other” there is little trace in his own latest work.
The chief morbid factor in Hearn’s physical constitution was his vision. One eye was totally blind, the other had, it is said, but one twentieth of normal vision; but too much has been made of this as a qualification of his genius. His monocular vision gave him, of course, landscape “flat,” without perspective and depth; but undoubtedly, like the half-closed eye of the painter, it gave him color in wonderful harmonious intensity, and who shall say that it was with a vividness beyond Nature. The tremendous cumulative rhapsody of blue at the beginning of his Two Years in the French West Indies is said by those who best know the Southern seas not to exceed reality. And there is plenty of evidence that in his quick, comprehending glances through the single eyeglass that he habitually carried, he seized minute significant details of persons or objects which others missed. It has been said by one who should be qualified to know, that he saw his world as partially and obscurely as one who looks through the large end of an opera glass; but the analogy is imperfect unless we remember that objects so seen are given not only with remoteness, but with rich color, and with a curious artistic composition like a Claude Lorrain in miniature.
But after all it was the lens in the brain that counted with Hearn. As opposed to his vision, his visionary faculty was of the first order. From boyhood, “ghostly” was his characteristic, as it finally came to be almost his trick word. He envisaged wraiths and vanished cities with a definition more like that of objective than of subjective sight. Only his skeptical intelligence kept him from being a thorough-going spirit-seer. Perhaps his most characteristic mood was that reflected in his impressive essay on “Dust” in Gleanings from Buddha Fields; — “I have the double sensation of being myself a ghost and of being haunted, — haunted by the prodigious luminous spectre of the world.”
It is not necessary to go much further about to apprehend the inner nature of Lafcadio Hearn. In the same “Dust” there is a “lyrical” paragraph that conveys him very perfectly: —
“ I confess that ‘my mind to me a kingdom is’ — not! Rather it is a fantastical republic, daily troubled by more revolutions than ever occurred in South America; and the nominal government, supposed to be rational, declares that an eternity of such anarchy is not desirable. I have souls wanting to soar in air, and souls wanting to swim in water (seawater, I think), and souls wanting to live in woods or on mountain tops.” And so on through a Homeric catalogue of his souls, till at the end he breaks out, “I an individual, — an individual soul! Nay, I am a population, — a population unthinkable for multitude, even by groups of a thousand millions!”
Half fantastic this passage may very well be, but none the less it is the faithful reflection of a temperament lacking the sane integrity of perfect health, a nature at odds with itself through many warring inheritances and subtle rebellions of the blood, yet mastered at the last in most of its human relations by a character essentially fine.
The final estimation of Hearn’s work is impeded by its bulk and by a certain repetitiousness in the Japanese volumes. To the student of Japan all of the studies, however similar in texture and substance, will doubtless continue to have a certain value; but “the best of Hearn,” in a set of three or four volumes, would make him look considerably more like a classic than he does in the mass of twenty. Such an edition, in the judgment of the present writer, should contain, of his West Indian writings, Chita and the earlier sections of his Two Years in the French West Indies; of his Japanese studies, “The Japanese Smile,” “Of a Dancing Girl,” “Dust,” “Incense,” “A Passional Karma,” “The Screen Maiden,” “The Corpse Rider,” “ Fuji-no yama,” “Frogs,” “A Woman’s Diary,” “A Drop of Dew,” “The Dream of Akinosuké,” “Mosquitoes,” and “The Romance of the Milky Way;” of his cameos of weird ancestral sensation, “A Mystery of Crowds,” “Sadness in Beauty,” “Parfum de Jeunesse,” “A Serenade,” “Frisson,” and “Azure Psychology.” Some such selection as this would quite adequately represent the range of his power, and, unless I greatly err, stand very high in the second class of English prose, the class of the self-conscious prosateurs, Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas De Quincey, Walter Pater.
Had he lived longer his rank might have been higher still. He had outgrown his old, fallacious conception of style as separable from substance, as an end to be attained in itself, to be arrived at by miners’ work in dictionaries and thesauri. His work never ceased to be conscious art, but in his very latest writing there is a more perfect fusion of his vigorous imaginative thought in the melancholy music of his cadenced prose. Towards the end of his life he had dreams more ambitious even than the stylistic ambitions of his youth so amply realized. In 1895 he wrote, “I really think I have stored away in me somewhere powers larger than any I have yet been able to use. Of course I don’t mean that I have any hidden wisdom or anything of that sort, but I believe I have some power to reach the public emotionally if conditions allow.” Still later the project is explicitly stated: “a single short, powerful philosophical story, of the most emotional and romantic sort.” “I feel within me,” he writes, “the sense of such a story — vaguely, like the sense of a perfume or the smell of a spring wind which you cannot define. But the chances are that a more powerful mind than mine will catch the inspiration first, as the highest peak most quickly takes the sun.” Whether his imagination, with all its activity, had quite the creative, shaping energy ever to fulfill this dream, may be doubted. But it iscertain at any rate that the last of his work, published posthumously, shows both a broadening and a deepening of what, despite the artifice of his method, we may justly call his inspiration. Had he lived to complete the imaginative autobiography of which fragments are printed in his Life and Letters, it might have proved his masterpiece. The fragments have a sincere and haunting poignancy, and his prose was never more vivid and musical. For all that “population” within him, his own imaginative life had been marked by a unity that would doubtless have induced a corresponding unity in the book, with striking artistic results.
The integrity of Hearn’s imaginative and intellectual life consisted in his strangely single-hearted devotion to both artistic beauty and scientific truth. And precisely in this lies the final representative significance of his work. He is the most Lucretian of modern writers. It has been said that, as Spinoza was “a man drunk with God,” so Lucretius was a man drunk with natural law. Well, Hearn was drunk with Herbert Spencer, and in all save the accident of form he was the poet of Spencerian evolution. As Lucretius, preaching his tremendous doctrine of the monstrous, eternal writhing of atoms through the world, wove into his great poem the glory of the old mythology, and the tragedy of passionate humanity, so Hearn, in his gentler fashion, steadily envisaged the horror that envelops the stupendous universe of modern science, and by evoking and reviving ancient myths, ancestral shudders, and immemorial longings, cast over the darkness a ghostly light of vanished suns.
In the final paragraph of his “Romance of the Milky Way,” — the River Celestial along which, in Japanese mythology, the spirits of the dead return to meet their loves beneath the moon, - we have the very quintessence of Lafcadio Hearn: —
“Perhaps the legend of Tanabata, as it was understood by those old poets, can make but a faint appeal to Western minds. Nevertheless, in the silence of transparent nights, before the rising of the moon, the charm of the ancient tale sometimes descends upon me, out of the scintillant sky, — to make me forget the monstrous facts of science, and the stupendous horror of Space. Then I no longer behold the Milky Way as that awful Ring of the Cosmos, whose hundred million suns are powerless to lighten the Abyss, but as the very Amanagowa itself, — the River Celestial. I see the thrill of its shining stream, and the mists that hover along its verge, and the water-grasses that bend in the winds of autumn. White Orihimé I see at her starry loom, and the Ox that grazes on the farther shore; — and I know that the falling dew is the spray from the Herdsman’s oar. And the heaven seems very near and warm and human; and the silence about me is filled with the dream of a love unchanging, immortal, — forever yearning and forever young, and forever left unsatisfied by the paternal wisdom of the gods.”
If, as some hold, the problem of modern romantic literary art is to portray the human spirit caught in a magic web of necessity, “penetrating us with a network subtler than our subtlest nerves;” to marry strangeness with beauty; to accomplish this in a style as express and gleaming as goldsmith’s work; then few writers have solved it more brilliantly than Lafcadio Hearn. In this, rather than in his elaborate interpretation of Japan, may lie his enduring achievement.