The Heart of a Blue Stocking

OF all the pleasures, I do not know a sweeter than the sense that comes to me so poignantly a few times in the year, of the charm of my own way of life. On such occasions the round of Every Day takes to itself all the airs of romance, and the sun sets above my little quiet world with dramatic importance.

My round is an academic one. College bells ring me up in the morning in my room, tiny as a nun’s cell; the first sight out of my windows is of gray halls and towers; my dress is the black stuff gown that students have worn beyond memory, and for insignia I put on their tri-cornered hood; my way lies all day long through lecture-rooms and cloisters; my occupation is with ink and pens and books and papers. The evening overtakes me in my study, and on many a night I have burned the oil low in my lamp as I read a folio or quarto to its end. For I have no pleasure in your modern ways and little books. I would read in the great tradition — by candles — if I could, and I think a huge tome none too big an armful for a student. Yellowed pages, oddities in spelling, bindings embrowned by time and lettered crookedly in a gilt somewhat bedimmed and rubbed out at the corners, all weave for me illusions of scholarship.

I am so old-fashioned, perhaps, because I am a woman, permitted very late in the ages to partake of “ the sweet food of academic tuition.” It has for me, I daresay, a flavor not sensible to manly palates. They have tasted too often and too greedily of the figurative apple, any longer to be very conscious of its deliciousness.

Not that I am uninformed, deprecatory Reader, — if such you be, — of the very antique origin of Blue Stockings. The little girl in the old library is of course legendary, bending over mouldering books and teaching herself difficult alphabets with a sweet ardor for learning. So, too, is the Queen who loved a Greek tragedy well enough to rise in an early Tudor dawn to read; the Great Lady of an hundred or two years later who prized a Latin history as a first gift from a lover of pedantic humor; and yet the third, who understood the Platonic and Epicurean philosophy — “ judging very well of the defects of the latter ” — and was thoroughly versed in the Seven Errors of Hobbes.

I feel all the sentiment in the world (let me parenthesize) for Stella’s philosophy; indeed, I impugn the learning of no lady; but for nicety of argument I must pronounce these great examples of bookishness, one and all, “ Reading Ladies,” and not, in the honorable old phrase, “ Ladies Collegiate.” The distinction I know to be essential. The Reading Lady loves a book; the Lady Collegiate loves a university. A strange passion for a lady! To forswear gardens and parlors for mere grassy quads and academic porticoes; to exchange silks for the never-changing fashion of a scholar’s rusty serge, and trinkets for goose-quills and inkpots; to prefer the bookish scent of libraries to roses, perhaps; to devote her days to learned discourse, and her evenings to the solitary meditation recommended the student; this, in a word, is the discipline to which the Lady Collegiate vows herself. Its harshnesses Reading Ladies have not the heart for; I have met gentlewomen fleeing in dismay beyond academic bounds, and have come upon piles of their abandoned books. These, I take it, are the due prize of a militant Blue Stocking.

For I know her well, gentle Reader. I have stood her friend. As you have already guessed, I am of her race and sympathies. In fact, from the tender age when first I crept to school, carrying my satchel of books like my brother, my destiny has been written with hers in some not-too-learned configuration; and I have often reflected that, in happy metaphor, I should be said to have lived my life in the schoolroom. By an easy logic, then, I am no friend to those who mark a mere dozen years or so spent there with glances at clock and calendar, and mockery of Dry-as-Dust and Sums and Grammar. For my part, I like the swing of a fine old conjugation — it often echoes me as far as Alexandria; and though I am not by temperament mathematically inclined, I have lived my time under the ferule and ciphered a blackboard full of figures — and the like fantastics — with pleasurable self-respect.

If, however, I have an academic vanity, it is to see the whole world hang round me day after day on parti-colored maps, and on important occasion to turn about a globe of the heavens, following with my finger the celestial paths of suns and planets. I love, too, the proud talk of the schoolroom. Nowhere else does the converse fall so frequently on heroes, gods, and emperors. Nowhere else, moreover, are their renowned tasks and wearinesses so much one’s own. Memorable to me at least is the labor I endured as a slim schoolgirl in the building of Cæsar’s bridge; the fatigue of Cyrus’s forced marches; the temptation, not yielded to in the heroic season of youth, to march down comfortably and gorgeously to the sea with the hosts of Xerxes.

But the school — the college — that raised my imagination to these great ideas, did not, to my mind and according to popular fallacy, prepare me for “ life in the world.” On the contrary! They taught me to live with the great and to enjoy an adventure every day. After my taste to bite the dust in Homeric warfare, practice a mediæval courtesy, or live hours long enlightened in “ The Age of Reason.” Through the schoolroom, in a word, history and mythology parade; on its tables the whole feast of experience is spread. There you are offered no single portion of homely fare; there no shallow goblet; but you drink, like an old-world god, from inexhaustible cups.

There is a dignity, I think, in thus imbibing knowledge; and pedantry itself is but the sweet intoxication of the student’s mind. I would not, if I could, unlearn the name of Anchises’ nurse, or of Archemon’s stepmother, or forget how long Acestes lived, or how much wine he gave the Phrygians. In all of which, it seems, the greatest spirits have been at one with me, and kings themselves, when they could no longer be scholars, have wished to turn schoolmasters: Alexander the Great, and James of both Scotland and England, and, I daresay, many another, had he but taken occasion to confess his royal will.

So it is that I choose to linger my life away — in fancy or reality — in a dozen universities. (For from old habit and with no more than the principia — the rudiments — of philosophy, I can hale myself from the wide campus of a western world to an Athenian garden, or take my place on the bench of an old English classroom.) I have too long inhaled learning to breathe, though myself not learned, in unscholarly atmosphere. I could not find it in my heart to jostle strangers in the street when I might walk out with important professor or gay student; nor, after all the years, humble my mind to dwell in a house instead of a hall. Custom has bred me to pace daily corridors bordered by effigies of the Cæsars, and to hear my hours rung out by bells swung in a high gray tower. With changing mood I drink in the peace of a cloister garden, or affect the bustle and flurry of examinations. Academic platitudes are become familiar and comfortable to me; academic wit is more elegant to my taste than is worldly. I love a mot with a pedantic point to it, a humor not unburdened by the weight of authority. Even a university bulletin-board has for me the official charm of a great tradition, and names lightly subscribed to notices fluttering there often, as on the crabbed paper before me, live to become immortal.

“The following students have registered for a course in practical philosophy and ethics to be given in the winter semester of this year.

“ I. KANT.

“ Koenigsberg, Oct. 3, 1773.”

I should add that I never see a student sitting at a window without remembering how Erasmus would bend over his book in the old quad at Queen’s; nor ever mount the platform of my lectureroom without an emotion, because of Galileo’s that I know to be rotting away in Padua.

Sometimes, I confess, the walls of my college seem to be narrowing round me. My affections would stretch beyond, would sun themselves a little in the warmth outside. Of a night I have been haunted by a student’s terrors: I have dreamed that scholars were jugglers playing a game with ideas instead of balls; or have figured, with all the lively horror of a vision, as the absurd Latinprating pedant in an old comedy I was reading when I fell asleep. So on waking I have imaged myself — not without awkwardness — on an adventure unacademic.

O ’t is not fit
That all the sweetness of the world in one,
The youth and virtue that would tame wild tigers
And wilder people that have known no manners,
Should live thus cloistered up.

I have felt, too, the wish for a world that is not forever fleeting — vanishing from me through a Gothic archway to let in a troop of strange young smiling creatures. For they, I know, in their turn, will pass through the same cycle, and in their turn will leave me to shiver a little in my cloister under a cold moon.

Not that I would follow the endless procession out through the gate! I have ventured abroad in my time, only to make haste back under collegiate shelter. While the old strongholds of the World of Ideas, the “ Homes of Wisdom,” are to be maintained against the assaults of the World of Affairs, it is not for a militant Blue Stocking, faint though her strength may be, to surrender an antique loyalty.