Poetry of the Atlas
I DISCOVERED a new kind of poetry one evening not very long ago, and, in doing so, gave myself a curious mental “turn ” which I shall not soon forget. I had been to a concert in the afternoon, a concert so beautiful that I had been lifted to the topmost peaks of being. It is not so ordinary a thing to climb or be carried so high that the full wonder of stout Cortez should fail me. I was determined not to come down, but to finish the day up there. I ale a frugal supper,with care; then,hardly looking to right or left, I drew King Lear from the bookcase and sat down by the lamp.
Shakespeare kept me on my peak, but (a confession) he did not satisfy me. My soul had had enough of reception, it wanted action now, something wherewith to exercise its new-found joy and vision. I found myself reading slower and slower, with frequent pauses of vacancy, and at last I closed the book altogether and glanced at the clock. One may be never so mortally tired, but one cannot court sleep with any success at half-past eight in the evening. What in the world was I going to do ? Restlessness grew upon me. I should be over the edge of the precipice in another moment.
I know there is some one (who is it ?) who says you must never let any great impulse pass without bodying it in some noble deed, such as speaking kindly to your aunt. But I have no aunt. Moralists should consider these hampering possibilities. There was absolutely not one duty at my hand. And heaven defend us from the barren pride and self-complacency of a manufactured duty! I suppose we have all of us mental odd jobs —that rank with the darning of stockings in the material world — lying around waiting for our convenient performance. I had had the locating of the scenes of the Russian and Japanese War on hand since February, 1904. It was now August, 1905, and the Peace Conference was in progress. It really seemed time to lie about this geographical task. Very well, I would do it this evening. Mysterious psychological moment of the doing of odd jobs!
I got out the Atlas and propped it wide on the two arms of my chair. I did not know exactly to which page to turn, for my knowledge of geography resembles that of Charles Lamb as set forth in The Old and the New Schoolmaster, or again that of a good friend of mine who burst forth, musing, at the dinner table the other day, “Where is Indiana?” So I selected the map of the world and plunged into it headforemost. I began quietly enough in the islands of Japan. Over the Chinese Empire I roamed, vaguely inquiring ; but, finding small sustenance of interest there, (I had promptly forgotten the Japanese War in larger investigations), I wandered down into the countries bordering the Arabian Sea. So that was where Persia came in. How very interesting ! I had thought it was more remote — Persia — beyond all reach. And Turkey a part of Europe; could it be ? It appeared so at least, joining on there to Austria, with Italy a stone’s throw away. Austria, Italy — daylight countries, tangible, part of the everyday present. But Turkey—withdrawn in mists of surmise, unknowable, distant far, far, far. I could not associate them. The closeness of Africa startled me too. The desert, the Garden of Allah, so near ? One could go there from Italy without first setting sail for the moon ?
This wonder and mild bewilderment of my investigating mind formed, however, but the first stage of my great experience. They served to introduce me, immerse me; then gradually came the trance. I realized notiiing at the time, — of course, or the thing could not have happened,— but I know now, looking back, that I was quite lost to all sense of my actual surroundings, that the map, as a map, dissolved before me, and I was turned loose in the universe, carried off, swept away to strange unknown lands with the speed of an Ariel.
I made instinctively for the north. I love wildness and loneliness and desolation, I love the weird half-lights of Arctic nights, I love cold and storm and windtumult. I was there in an instant, at Spitsbergen, out in the midst of the gray heaving sea. I had stopped at Iceland on the way, mindful of Pierre Loti, but Spitzbergen lured me; I could not stay, the wind drave hard behind. It was so glorious up there. I cannot set it. forth. The wide gray reach of the tossing water, the scud of the ragged clouds, the cold gleam of the eternal snow. Then the clouds broke and a pale sunlight came flying, sweeping across the waste, touching the ice into strange blue lights, dancing, keen, prismatic. But they closed again, those rushing clouds, and all was gray and stern again, a sea of desolation.
I waited, looking, wondering, until the loneliness weighed too heavy on me for longer endurance, then moved away to the west, across Greenland, across Baffin’s Bay, to North America. It was wilderness still that I desired, but a wilderness of earth now rather than of sea. I took my way to the chain of mountains running up through the continent, “the great backbone,” in poetical parlance (but I don’t care for anatomy). I have never seen such mountains as those. Great gorges and chasms, high toppling crags, snow summits, dizzy heights. They were quite inaccessible, but I went leaping in and out among them. I exulted on peaks which commanded the world, I stood awe-struck and silent in dark fierce depths of forest solitude. I met wild beasts and they did not care (nor did I, which is more to the point) ! I sprang up the beds of rushing torrents, cliff after cliff; this is the way to do the thing, ye cautious Valkyrie of Broadway. I sang too; oh, I sang! It was the fullest, most perfect experience of wild freedom which I have ever known in my life. The earth, what a wonderful mother! How can people stay in one place all their lives, nor journey to see these great regions ? I at least was wiser, I had come, T —
The library clock struck ten.
I leaned back after my first startled glance around the familiar room, and shut my eyes. Where was I ? Who was I ? Where had I been ? I opened my eyes and looked at the map. Only a book full of circles and lines, only paper and ink.
I got up as soon as I was able, and went out of doors, abroad on the earth, under the starry skies. The universe seemed strangely alive, potent, vibrating through all its spaces. Here, as much as anywhere after all, I shared the life of the whole. I was a free earth-child. I turned my face toward the north and heard the distant washing of those gray seas. I looked toward the west, and there they were, those mighty piling hills. Not distant, unthinkable any more, but a very present integral part of the meadow beneath my feet. For that one hour I dominated the earth so completely that I lost heed of her various tones, and heard only the blended harmony, the unique song that she sends through space to the stars.
THE PASSING OF THE OLD LADY
IT is hard to persuade modern enthusiasts that innovations are not necessarily improvements, and that many inventions of to-day supplant things of yesterday which were inherently better worth preserving, Among other lost arts must be reluctantly mentioned that of growing old. It has been succeeded by something far less lovely, the trick of remaining young. The Old Lady seems to have passed, — or is it possible that she has only temporarily withdrawn for a nice little old-fashioned nap in her easy-chair, while her modern substitute is chasing a golf ball over the links, counting up her gains at the bridge-table, or putting a girdle round the earth in an automobile ? May it be that when the present-day young woman of seventy-five dies from over-atlileticism, or from exposing herself to a draft in a low-necked gown, the dear little old lady of a past era will awake, pick up the dropped stitches of her knitting, rub her spectacles, and resume her interrupted sway? Certainlv it is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
To-day the most flattering tribute we hear paid to a woman in the seventies is the exclamation, “ How young she looks! ” And it is pitifully true that she looks much younger than she has any right to look. Her figure is always erect, often slender, and generally clad according to the latest dictum from the French court of fashion. Her coiffure is much the same as that of her twenty-year-old granddaughter, and she appears cushioned with Pompadour puffs or billowy with Marcel waves, according to her frivolous fancy. A jaunty hat perches coquettishly on her curls, and the young lady of threescore years and ten is ready to compete with two younger generations in their activities social, philanthropic, educational, and worldly.
Of course this false dawn of youth accompanies the inevitable swing of the pendulum forward from the custom of a past day, when old age was assumed in early maturity. Our grandmothers took to caps, false teeth, and knitting before they were forty, and more than half of their allotted years were spent preparing for death instead of enjoying life. Common sense forbid that we should return to so unnnatural a cutting short of youth!
A spirit can never be too young for its body, and fresh sympathies are not incompatible with ripeness of years. But in the older generation to-day the quiet serenity of life’s afternoon is conspicuously lacking, the inevitable result occurs, and we find young people growing up devoid of a sense of respect and of humility.
We blame our girls and boys for their self-confidence, their rudeness, their sense of equality with all, but it seems only fair to look for the cause, of which their complacency is merely the effect. The truth is, there is nothing in human intercourse to-day to call forth the oldfashioned virtue of reverence, formerly bred in the bones of the young. Till the genuine old lady, now obsolete, returns to dethrone the present pretender, till we can see her passing peaceful days in the large leisure of quiet home-staying, — always ready to lend a sympathetic ear or to share the wisdom of an experienced heart, — we shall look in vain for respect and modesty in the young.
The other day a girl of eighteen spoke enthusiastically of her grandmother as “a bully fellow,” and the painful point of the incident is that the elderly relative was pleased with the compliment. We do not wish the pendulum to swing back with the full strength of its present impetus, but may not some cunning artificer, skilled in the adjustment of weights and balances, arise and regulate the clock of time and teach the old that in defying age they are corrupting youth ?
The old lady must be born again ; she cannot be made from existing material, for in this age of doubt and uncertainties one fact shows clear: the New Woman can never grow into the Old Lady.