The Daily Theme Eye
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
WHEN I was an undergraduate at Harvard our instructors in English composition endeavored to cultivate in us a something they termed “The daily theme eye.” This peculiar variety of optic, I fear, always remained a mystery to a majority of the toilers after clearness, force, and elegance. Clearness, force, and even a certain degree of elegance, may be acquired ; but the daily theme eye, like the eye for the sights of a rifle, may be discovered, developed, trained — but not acquired. It comes by the grace of Heaven, not of the Harvard or any other English department, and its possession is often one of the marks of the man whose destiny compels him to write. The Harvard English department has but given it a name; it has no local habitation. It is found in Henry James and the police reporter of the New York Sun; it illuminates the pages of The Harvard Monthly (sometimes) and of George Moore. It winks at you in Heine and peers solemnly in Mrs. Humphry Ward. And it flashes and beams in a little lady I know who has written nothing save sprightly letters all the days of her life and never opened Hill’s Rhetoric under the shade of the Washington Elm.
The fairy who stood over my cradle, though he forgot the gold spoon and much else besides, at least bestowed the gift of this wonderful optic. It brought me my college degree; for when other courses failed — which means when I failed in other courses — there was always English; it has brought me a living since; but more than all else it has brought me enjoyment, it has clothed the daily walk with interest, the teeming, noisy town with color and beauty, “the society of my contemporaries,” to use Emerson’s big phrase for my little purpose, with stimulating excitement. It has turned the panorama of existence into a play, or rather a thousand plays, and brought after sorrow or pain the great comfort of composition.
Daily themes in my day had to be short, not over a page of handwriting. They had to be deposited in a box at the professor’s door not later than ten-five in the morning. A classmate of mine, when an epigram was called for, once wrote, “An epigram is a lazy man’s daily theme written at ten-three A. M.” And because of this brevity, and the necessity of writing one every day whether the mood was on you or not, it was not always easy — to be quite modest — to make these themes literature, which, we were told by our instructors, is the transmission through the written word, from writer to reader, of a mood, an emotion, a picture, an idea. I hate to think how few, in fact, of all the thousands that were poured into that yawning box were literature, how seldom the poor instructors could dip their pens into their pots of red ink and write the magic A on the back. Their sarcastic comments were surely excusable. I have even forgiven the young man with hair like yellow corntassels, who scrawled on verses of mine, required to be written in imitation of some poet, “This may be O’Shaughnessy, it is n’t poetry.” Did he think thus to kill two song birds with one stone ? Well, the effort of those of us who were sincere and comprehending in our pursuit of the elusive power to write was to make our themes literature as often as possible; and to do this the first essential was the choice of a subject. Not everything one sees or does or thinks can take shape on a page of paper and reproduce itself for the reader. Selection was the first requirement.
It became needful, then, to watch for and treasure incidents that were sharply dramatic or poignant, moods that were clear and definite, pictures that created a single clean impression. The tower of Memorial seen across the quiet marshes against the cool, pink sky of evening; the sweep of a shell under the bridge and the rush of the spectators to the other rail to watch the needle-like bow emerge, and the bent, brown backs of the crew; the chorus girls, still rubbing the paint from their cheeks with a tiny handkerchief wrapped over the forefinger, coming out of a stage entrance into the snow; the first sharp impression of a book just read or a play just seen, — these were the things we cherished, for these we could put on a page of paper with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and with some show of vividness. What we came to do, then, was to keep a note-book of our impressions, and when in June our themes were returned to us we had a precious record for the year. By training the daily theme eye, we watched for and found in the surroundings of our life, as it passed, a heightened picturesqueness, a constant wonder, an added significance. That hardened cynic, the professional writer, will smile and say, “You saw copy.” Yes, we saw copy; but to see copy is to see the significant, to clarify what the ear and heart and eye receive, to add light and shadow to the monochrome of life.
My college room-mate, a blessed boy full of good humor and serious purpose, was as incapable of acquiring the daily theme eye as a cat of obeying the eighth commandment. His idea of a daily theme was a task, not a pleasure. If there was no chance to write a political editorial, he supplied an anecdote of his summer vacation. Once he described a cliff he had seen in Newfoundland, and, determined to be pictorial, he added “tumbling waterfalls” and “sighing pines.” Unfortunately, the instructor who read it had also been in Newfoundland, and he pointed out that his investigations of the cliff in question had failed to disclose either “tumbling waterfalls” or “sighing pines.” My room-mate treated the matter as a joke; he could not see that he had been guilty of any fault. And yet he is a much more moral man than I, with a far more troublesome conscience. Truth to his principles he would die for. But truth to the picture his mind retained and his hand tried to portray in the medium of literature, to him so trivial and unimportant, he could not grasp. What did it matter ? So it would never occur to him to record in his themes the fleeting impressions of his daily life, to sit up half the night trying to pack into the clumsy frame of words the recollection of a strangely innocent face seen suddenly in the flash of an opened door down a dark, evil alley where the gusts of winter swirled. He went to bed and never knew a headache or jumpy nerve. Yet I could not help thinking then that there was something in life he was missing besides the ultimate mark in our composition course. And I cannot help thinking that there is something in life he misses still.
But perhaps that is only my fancy. George Moore says that happiness is no more than a faculty for being surprised; and it is the sudden vista, the beauty of a city square seen through falling snow, a street car drama, the face of a passing woman, the dialogue of friends, which make the surprises for the man with the eye for copy. George Moore himself has a daily theme eye of preternatural keenness, and he may be speaking only for a class. Happiness for my room-mate lies, I suspect, rather in his faculty for not being surprised. A sudden accession of emotion at the sight of an unexpected view, for instance, would probably be immensely disconcerting. And if he should go into an art museum, as I did the other day, and see a little marble boy with a slightly parted mouth wet his lips with his tongue, I truly believe he would rush off to the doctor’s at once, very unhappy, instead of rushing joyfully home to try to put the illusion into a sonnet! Well, every class has its Pharisaism, which in reality is n’t a form of priggishness, at all, but merely a recognition of difference. He thinks I am impractical, a bit odd, not qiute a grown man. I think he is — a charming fellow. We are about quits on that!