Charles Eliot Norton

MORE than he could ever have dreamed, the passing of Mr. Norton has stirred among those whose lives came within his influence a deep sense of loss in all familiar things. There can be no more tender consecration of a human memory. What he meant for so many of us is shadowed in the fact that, when one tries to write of him, the pen will hardly trace any prefix to his name. Norton, alone, we have always called him among ourselves, partly in admiration, partly in affection. Any intruding word now seems tinged with perfunctory untruth.

Yet the name by itself would be less truthful still, if it should happen to imply any touch of careless familiarity. We younger men never thought of calling him so, face to face. His presence gently compelled such courtesy as it embodied. A college memory, perhaps, will best define how we felt about him. Years ago the then young Harvard Lampoon, emboldened by his kindly encouragement, published some amiable caricatures of Harvard worthies — a series brought to abrupt end by the intervention of a faculty not yet free from the self-conscious austerity of olden time. The third of them, before me as I write, represents him in his lecture-room, in the spring of 1877. On the table before him reposes the high hat he used to wear, described in a later number of the Lampoon as the “remarkable covering of a head so filled with lines of beauty as to be careless of their external existence in its immediate neighborhood.” When the drawing was shown him, he smiled and gave us leave to use it. We were blundering, no doubt; but we were honestly trying to make trenchant comment on the life about us, and we hated sham. So did he. The lines we selected as a motto for his portrait he never saw till they came to him in print. The scholarly defects displayed by their orthography must have seemed desperate, unless — as I hope - they made him smile again. If he felt, the while, a bit of how truly we meant the motto, it may have pleased him, too. Here it is as it stands on that old page, setting forth how he seemed to us, not only then, but steadfastly to the end: —

He nevere yit no vileinye ne sayde
In al his lyf, unto no maner wight.
He was a verray perfight gentil knight.

CHAUCER, Prologue.

Had that been all, he would have stayed Norton in our hearts — an enduring, gentle memory of college days, when the world was unreal, and we might have given all our better energies to strengthening the ideals which should by and by help us to confront it. There was far more, however, to enforce the sentiment awakened by experience of his presence. It was no mere form of words when I wrote, a little while ago, that his passing, in all the ripeness of his fulfilled years, has meant

“ A loss in all familiar things.”

So far as we might count familiar the things not ignoble, we grew to feel that there was none of them, past or present, with which, as we came to know it, we might not confidently believe him already happily and securely familiar. Even in those days, to be sure, they had a fashion of pretending that, compared with erudite colleagues, he was a man rather of culture than of learning. Temperamentally this was true. Mere information he valued at its own insignificant worth. Whatever he knew, throughout the years of his unceasing acquisition, he cared for only when he could perceive its relation to the system of truth and of wisdom towards which his aspiration stayed courageous. His learning was never a thing apart; it was a part of himself. Yet the better you knew him the more you marveled, not only at its range, but at its accuracy — an accuracy superficially submerged in the ease of his mastery. Thus, whenever we found ourselves in the presence of literature, of fine art, of history or philosophy, of politics, or even of the men and the deeds of each passing year, we grew experienced and secure in faith that Norton knew it all before us — that we might turn to him, at any moment, should opportunity serve, for instant, resolute opinion. This opinion would often differ from your own; it might even excite you to passing resentment; but it could never be ignored It became, you could hardly tell when or how, a factor in your habitual estimates of life. When such an influence has persisted through five and thirty years, the world can never again seem quite the same without it.

What I mean must linger in the memory of almost all those who were ever among his pupils. His courses in the History of the Fine Arts, by which he was best known at Harvard, were elementary, but never superficial. No instruction could more constantly have aroused students to think for themselves. None, at the same time, could have done so by means more apparently remote from conventional appeal to emotion. His supreme trait as a teacher was exquisite precision — of manner, of speech, of knowledge, and even still more of conviction. Such precision could not help lending itself to kindly parody. At class dinners, accordingly, and at other such reunions of men whom he had taught, we have been apt for years to find some pleasant mimics, ready to enliven the occasion by variably happy imitations of Norton’s lectures. Such an imitation would generally begin with a fantastically simple statement of fact, historical, literary, or artistic; it would pass on to some astonishing critical comment so extravagant for exactitude that only the hesitant gentleness of the mimic’s delivery could keep him from seeming explosive; and it would conclude in extensive ethical observations, ranging from political honor to table manners, as remote from the original matter in hand as the Man in the Moon. One laughed happily at these always friendly parodies. He smiled at them himself, when once or twice I heard them given in his presence. They were happily ridiculous; yet hardly anything could more vividly have recalled how he used to make his instruction penetrate natures on which the instruction of so many other men only impinged.

One pretty example of this I happen to remember. In a lecture about some aspects of the fine arts of Greece, he uttered devastating comments on the contrast between Greek articles of personal adornment and the machine-made scarf-pins, or watch-chains with dangling appendages, then observable in any company of American youth. A classmate of mine subsequently reproached him, in private, for lack of sentiment. The boy possessed some golden ornament, in the form of a horseshoe, affectionately given him by his mother; he was proud to wear it, he said, for her sake. Norton’s reply, I believe, was gentle but final: an object of piety, he pointed out, is not consequently a thing of beauty. My friend’s ardor of resentment took some time to cool. Years afterwards, though, I met him at a Roman goldsmith’s, choosing some trifle for his wife. The horseshoe still gleamed not very far from his heart, where it belonged; but, as he showed me two pieces of delicate workmanship between which he was hesitating, he asked me, seriously and simply, which I thought Norton would prefer.

Serene courage of conviction, such as was thus trivially shown, pervaded the whole range of Norton’s comprehensive culture. How it expressed itself concerning public matters the whole world knows. His temper, I should think, could never have relished dispute, for its own sake; when feeling ran high his instinctive preference would probably have been for reticence. If so, he overcame insidious temptation, whenever he believed that duty or occasion called on him to speak. He felt so during the war with Spain in 1898, More than I remember before or since, he was publicly denounced in consequence. What public rejoinder, if any, he made, I do not recall. In private, about that time, I heard him utter one of his very few remarks which might have been taken as self-revealing. It was generalized, impersonal, in no wise confidential; but it was memorable. We of America, he said, believe that our country loves freedom of thought and of speech; yet is it not true that no force was ever more pitiless to either than the public opinion of our democracy ? He said this very gently, almost sadly. It flashed itself into unison with something he had let fall elsewhere, and I think long before: the saddest fate in all human history must have been that of a Roman gentleman of culture, faithful to his ideals, in the third or fourth century.

Whether he consciously thought of himself when he made these sayings, one does not even guess. The grace of his personal reticence, counting intrusion beneath the dignity of friendship, stays commanding. When he spoke or wrote, publicly or in private, about friends who had gone before him, he was scrupulous to extenuate nothing nor aught to set down in malice. Above all else, however, he was punctilious in respect for their domesticity. Anecdote he loved; gossip he disdained; scandal he despised; shameless intrusion he so detested that his incessant care was to guard others, perhaps excessively, from the consequences of their own unpremeditated utterance. Not to reverence his example were disloyal. His own example, however does not quite forbid the thought that, if he had deigned to speak of himself, these comments on the merciless tyranny of our public opinion, and on the tragedy of agonizing antiquity, suggest something of how he might have spoken. His mind was too fine for compromise, his sense of duty was too profound for languor, his courage was too alert for shrinking; and he did not always display flexible sensitiveness to the conditions of momentary environment. At times he thus appeared somewhat deficient in tact. Contradiction inevitably sprang from the ruder lips of others. Sympathy is never so loud. In such circumstance, there must hover in the air, even though unawares, a sense of isolation.

Beyond question, too, there was something occasionally and momentarily repellent about the calm certainty of his conviction. In controversy, he would sometimes appear so sure of himself that you were prone to fancy his vision infirm. His noblest qualities, it sometimes seemed, had enmeshed him in prejudice. When confronted with opposition of principle, or even of taste, he would now and then prove so far from sympathetic that you might well have supposed him to have left out of consideration any view of the question but his own. His sense of isolation, if indeed he felt it, you might thus have supposed the normal penalty of conscientious intolerance.

There could be no greater error. Whoever can recall the elasticity of his step when he was almost seventy-five years old, must wonder at the contrast between this physical vitality and the stooping figure which, even in early middle life, had combined with his quietness of manner to produce, at first glance, an impression of bodily frailty. Something similar was true concerning the range, the activity, the alertness, the severity of his mind. Let the question be of life, or of art, or of conduct, — of politics, of literature or painting, of personal honor, — and you could trust him to tell you just what he thought about it. Very likely you might have thought otherwise, and have based your opinion on facts not apparently in his possession. You mentioned them at your peril. In all likelihood, he knew them better than you; only, after due consideration, he had concluded them negligible.

Years ago, for example, certain railways were struggling for the possession of a right of way in the Far West. They came to blows, to actual fighting, the newspapers told us, in the depths of a still unpenetrated cañon. For a while there was little law, of God or man, running in those latitudes. To my youthful mind, however, the conflict recalled the splendor of Elizabethan adventure. Of this I said something in his presence. He brushed it quietly aside, condemning the greed and the lawlessness of brute force, which added the horrors of human baseness and barbarity to the native horror of a desert wilderness. Admitting this, I tried to defend my sentimental enthusiasm, aroused by the magnitude of the game and the stake, by the colossal vigor of the players, and by the stoutness of their pawns. He lost no grace of his courtesy; but there was a gleam of triumph in his quiet smile when he gently made me understand, by casual mention of facts and figures, that for one page of my reading about the matter he had read ten, and that for one detail which I remembered he remembered twenty.

He had learned to use his faculty of acquisition with remarkable swiftness and certainty. This least salient phase of his culture was perhaps its most extraordinary. A single example will illustrate it better than generalization. In 1891 a committee of which we both were members authorized me to select, during a short visit to London, a number of books, to be given as prizes to Harvard students. At different times, for a good many days, the matter engaged my punctilious attention. The books, finally chosen, were sent to America. Lists of them, left in my possession, reminded me from time to time of what they were. If any one could carry in mind what that invoice contained, I should have supposed it would have been I. Meanwhile, having agreed with other members of the committee to entrust the purchase to me, he never saw either list or books until we assembled at Harvard, one autumn afternoon, to assign the prizes. The books were spread on a large table. For ten minutes or so, he looked them over; and I like to remember that he said something approving my choice. Then he sat down in some comfortable place from which he could not see the titles. The assignment of prizes began; one book allotted to this student, the next to that, and so on. By the time we had dealt with a half dozen, I could not have told you what was on the table, or what had never been there, — still less what had been assigned to whom, and what not. Norton, meanwhile, not only kept the whole fortuitous collection, of forty or fifty volumes, clearly and firmly in mind. From his distant chair, he reminded us with unfailing accuracy of just how we had disposed of every book already dealt with. To him, I dare say, the incident seemed commonplace, for it was only a casual example of how his mind worked. To me it was like some incredible feat of trained skill on the part of some famous player at chess or at cards.

It is hard thus to recount memories of him without seeming to imply that his distinction of mind and of manner, of nature, of habit and of taste, kept him separate from other men, whose lives touched his. To some slight degree, this may have been the case. Yet the difference involved less separation from others than you will generally find between college students and some worthy young instructor unknown beyond the catalogue, where you must turn to verify his existence. Norton had something like the simplicity of unconscious greatness. Combined with this was his impulsive friendliness to aspiration. I have touched already on one instance of this — his cordial welcome to the Harvard Lampoon. in its early days, when its effort to sustain good-humored satire was unabated, and its later taint of comic journalism was still dormant. It may serve as an example of instances innumerable. He not only encouraged us; he was always willing that we should turn to him for counsel. Of the men who thus youthfully came within range of his influence, all who survive are now older than he was then. None of us, I think, has been very close to him in later life; yet none has ever forgotten him. So far as we have accomplished anything in literature or in art, — and even though our work may mostly have little endurance, we have tried to make it sweeten life and never vulgarize, — a constant element of our strength has sprung from the welcome he gave us when want of welcome might have meant starvation. He never pretended to approve us without reserve; but he understood that we were trying to be real. We can never fail in gratitude for our passing share in the greatness of his friendship.

For that way lay the power most wonderfully his, — not in creation, not in isolation of conscientious standard, not even in unswerving faithfulness to unrelinquished ideals. Apart as his spirit may sometimes have seemed to linger from the inexorable infirmities of earthly circumstance, fantastic or at best fastidious as the æsthetic purity of its aspiration may sometimes have made it appear, its unique force sprang from its faculty of communion. We have touched on lesser and incessant phases of this, shown in his relations with the students who sat under his teaching, or with little groups who knew the inspiration of his encouragement. Had it gone no further, the presence of him on earth would have been justified. And yet, in times to come, every trace of the matters on which we have been dwelling may fade from human memory without menace to the endurance of his fame. We have only to remember the tributes paid him far and wide when they bore him to his grave, a little while ago, in the eighty-first year of his age. Hardly a child in the English-speaking world but has thus been reminded how, throughout his time, he was greatly and equally the friend of men themselves held great.

Inevitably this must sometimes have seemed to imply in him some shade rather of weakness than of strength. Carlyle, Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, and Rudyard Kipling have creative individuality, beyond peradventure, each in his peculiar way; so, in our own country, have Emerson, and Longfellow, and Lowell, and Howells. Godkin had it, and George William Curtis; Arthur Clough and Leslie Stephen. The names come at random; the list of his friends might lengthen long, and never unworthily. Throughout, it would remind us of their achievements, so various that we may well marvel how he could reconcile such excellent divergences in the happy communion of his friendship. Uncompromising though he were, we can begin to feel him nobly flexible in his generous recognition of aspiration. To the present through which he lived he was at once as severe and as open-hearted as to the past which he had taught himself so comprehensively to understand. In both alike he sought excellence; in both he gave it greeting sure to evoke loyal response, from the admirers of the dead, and from the hearts of the living. No man ever dwelt amid a nobler company. When we repeat their names, and utter his beside them, it is no marvel that theirs sound the more memorable; that his, sweet and pure though the note of it be, sounds in some manner secondary.

So let it stay, if you will; yet there is another side to all this. Of the past, such reflection must forever seem recurrently true. The human generations can never quite lose that piety which makes each believe itself of lesser stature than the fathers. But if we ponder, for never so short a while, on the fifty years of his maturity, we can hardly fail to perceive that throughout them he was unique, at least in England and America. To tell why, we may best turn, perhaps, to the analogy of music. Grant that others than he struck the higher notes, instantly accosting the ear, vibrating clearest in memory. Liken his part, if you will, to that of one who should sustain pure notes or melodies, themselves almost wavering into thinness, with firm and vibrant undertones. Recognize that enduring spiritual harmonies demand the full strength of such undertones, to uphold the seemingly higher strains, dominant by reason of their distinctness rather than of their volume. Reverently admit that we need both players alike, neither sufficient alone. And then, turning back from the mist of metaphor, remember how many utterances, various in all things but nobility of aspiration, were sustained, all his life long, by the vibrant undertone of his friendship. Seek, and you shall not find a single one, among the seemingly greater about him, ignobly distorted by his companionship; seek, and you shall find almost all happily the stronger for it. If a life like his have not true greatness, of its own gracious kind, then there has never been any approach to greatness in our modern world. For it was given to him to sound, far and wide, the noblest undertones of our ancestral spirit throughout the culminating period of the nineteenth century.

Those three words — our ancestral spirit — bring us home to our New England, where he was born, and lived, and died in his father’s house, itself embodying the simplicity and the dignity of the generation ancestral to him. The spirit would not be ours if it were ours alone. There are fibres of it filming from the primal glory of Greece, and from the imperial grandeur of Rome. Intermingled with them are fibres from the cloudy and fiery antiquity of the Hebrews, and from the divine humanity of Christian story. There is barbarian strength and candor in it, as well; and all the mystic aspiration of the Middle Ages, striving towards the unearthly realization of a Holy Roman Empire. Chivalry has part in it, and sainthood; Normans, too, have theirs, and Saxons, and Celts. The Renaissance has thrilled it with culture, wakened from the sleep of a thousand years. The Reformation has stirred its depths, with tremendous faith that human sight may penetrate the veil which enshrouds divinity. Together these forces surged throughout the England of Queen Elizabeth.

And then our New England was planted, rude and solitary in its beginnings, a seed on the coasts of a continent unsubdued to the use of man. And it stayed rooted through generations aspiring towards righteousness with all the concentration of faithfully accepted Puritanism. Theocracy struggled and fell. The Revolution severed us from the Mother Country. Our Federal Republic was born, and grew, and strengthened. New England, still remote and narrow persevered in righteous purpose; and from the seed of its persistent leaders there had come unperceived into being a race for a little while apart. Then, with the full nineteenth century, came the season of its efflorescence, and, if so must be, of its passing. Theology broke free from ancient shackles. For a season hope ran high that enfranchisement of the spirit should bring enduring enlightenment to all the future. Perhaps it shall: but not so swiftly as men dreamed in those buoyant days, nor yet in such guise as they fancied close at hand. The whole nineteenth century is history now, like the centuries numbered, and numberless, before it. To the world at large, the story of it stretches so vast that our New England, aspiring and fated, may soon fade forgotten. To us, the while, lingering in these parts, and to our children’s children, the spirit of New England stays, and shall stay, ancestral — a noble sequel to the phases of the spirit from which its life was drawn, a noble forerunner, like each of them, for the still unrevealed spirit of the days to come. Hereabout the nineteenth century of New England has unique virtue. Even though the men who embodied it may never loom great in the full story of humanity, the loftier among them, bred through generations of aspiring leadership, attained a height of distinction rare throughout human record. It was not only that in their final ripeness they had gentle distinction of bodily presence. More still, they were graced with the ineffable distinction of spiritual purity. That is what our ancestral spirit means to us of New England. From the heart of it came the vibrant certainty of Norton’s marvelous undertone.

That certainty had root in the austere certitudes of Puritan theology, for him outworn. For him, indeed, they say that all theologies had come to seem so. Consecrated by common aspiration towards righteousness, all could afford inspiration, none could assure truth. Truth he found more nearly shadowed in the avowed creations of human imagination, and most of all in the supreme allegory of Dante. Of his actual works, none seem more sure to endure than his teaching and his versions of the Divine Comedy. Because of these, perhaps, there gathers about the image of him now a fantasy so vivid that, taking leave of him, I cannot refrain from setting it down. If, by chance, his eyes should open to another world than this, there would come over his features a hesitant look of wonder. If some voice should then call his name, he would rise unfaltering, ready to hear his sentence. And the words that he should hear could be none other than these: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” And thereupon, with no downcast eye, he would gently bow his head, in courteous response to what Dante has called the courtesy of God.