On the Planting of Cabbages
DR. JOHNSON, once on a time, remarked, “ I think one could say a great deal of cabbage.” He did not go on to say it. As on another occasion reported by Boswell, when he was questioned by a friend concerning the nature of the spiritual body, “ he left the subject in obscurity.”
The planting of cabbages is ” no newerected business, but a thing of ancient standing.” Perhaps the fields of Eden first brought sweetly forth plants of choice crispness. The patriarchs may have culled leaves for a noontime salad. Perchance they looked greenly in the paradise of Alcinous, and prospered magically in Circe’s garden.
Their cultivation has not been unattended with rich recompense. A sultan of good old times — the story goes — noticed the peculiar skill which a gardener displayed in planting his cabbages, and thereupon promoted him to the position of Viceroy of the Isle of Cyprus, —a piece of business, by the way, that almost equals the feats of latterday “ promoters.” Whether or no the viceroy made also to flourish the cabbages’ kindred, “ distant in humanity,” on his isle, we are not told.
In later days, the man who had the pleasure of introducing the vegetable into England was honored, by a grateful posterity, with a monument whereon the benefactor appears with a cabbage curled up at his feet.
Cabbage-planting is usually, however, its own exceeding great reward. There was a Roman emperor, you remember, who turned from the tumults and splendors of courts, and went away to a quiet spot by the Adriatic, built him a pleasant dwelling, and thereafter devoted his days to the training of rose trees and the planting of cabbages. Happy man! it pleases me to fancy that soldier-emperor sauntering, with a heart at ease, in the cool of the day, among his gardens by the sea. Instead of the clamor of camps, a bird’s song in the hedge; in the place of a crowded palace, where treason lurked in every whisper, the sweet serenity of fields; instead of the tossing hordes of Asia ready to fling themselves upon him, those ordered rows of cabbages, “ looking tranquillity.” If some of the predecessors of Diocletian had been likewise blessed with the solace of a lodge in a garden of cabbages, Roman history would be pleasanter reading.
No less than half-crazed rulers of Rome, do we who are living in days like these stand in grievous need of the lulling charities of the cabbage plantation. Our abiding-place, like the city of which the prophet complained, is “ full of stirs.” Motors, promoters, sky-scrapers, the “ over-man,” progressive whist, — all our commonly used words have to do with pushing ahead. The wired air over us hums with business, the tunneled earth beneath rumbles with traffic. Journeys are not journeys, but “ motor-flights,” and the guide-books have all to be made over to meet the requirements of autoviewers, who take their landscape, not by townships, but by counties. Our telegraph poles march with the giraffes through African jungles. Our dynamos whirr an accompaniment to the ” merry dancers” of the North Pole. The toys of a three-year-old must wind up to go, and his brother of seven is enamoured, like his elders, of “ moving pictures.” In truth, as the White Queen said to Alice, “ Here, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”
O shade of Galileo, wherever you stray and speculate, you were right! We do move! But the poet who spoke of “the soft journey which a planet goes ” must be relegated to the ranks of naturefablers. He wrote not with his ear to the object. We do not go softly. If ever our orb did join in the quiring of young-eyed cherubim, it has long since abandoned such primitive music. Now, we shriek like a Sinfonia Domestica rehearsed by an unruly band of five thousand amateur musicians. Rasping dissonances from murder and divorce trials; shrill outbursts from hydra-headed unionism, from socialists, and woman-suffragists; a deafening racket from stock-exchanges and political conclaves; commands and cheers from Captains and Rough Riders of Industry; vociferous harangues on “ Peace; ” deep-mouthed expression of horror provoked by countless calamities; all this, going up incessantly with the roar of a tremendous traffic, must, ere this, have reached the ears of those airy dwellers in Mars to whom we have given a local habitation.
There is always a “ new movement ” on foot, coming as an army with banners. Before the fife and drums of one column are out of hearing, we are assailed by the music of another column. One can never be sure which movement he is trying to keep step with, while, if he attempts to join in all of them, he is ever doubling on his track like a bewildered rabbit, and never gets anywhere in particular.
The dance of circumstance is kept up without a stay. One may be minded like Sancho Panza when he sighed, “ How pleasant it is to go about in expectation of accidents; ” but it is not amusing to be hunted down by a whole pack of accidents, — to be constantly “ at home ” to crowds of happenings, when “ every minute is expectancy of more arrivance.” To move in the still-vexed air of dizzy tarentelles is to invite disaster upon more substantial dwellings than Dolls’ Houses.
Everybody is strained up to the highest point of possible activity, a-tiptoe to snatch not only the day, but the night, too. Mrs. B., a neighbor of mine, is apparently a woman of leisure, but she is engaged in the most arduous of occupations, — climbing, at a lavish outlay of spirit, mind, and guineas, an invisible ladder by which she mounts to social distinction. “ Higher, still, and higher! ” But one cannot, in all honesty, add
Some deflection in the poise of that ladder is possible. I met her, this morning, and “ We are going to launch Rose into society this winter,” she said. They talk as if Rose were some mighty Cunarder equipped to outride the tempests of the deep. What is a jaunty little pinnace like her to do in a maelstrom ?
I was a good deal bewildered, myself, in a recent conversation with a young woman of my acquaintance, who, after a year or two spent as one of a personally-conducted party traveling in the direction of Culture, is said to have reached that Mecca of the expedition.
We used to start out on that journey, pilgrimwise, on foot, with staff and scrip. Some of the up-hill roads were pretty steep, but the view from the mountaintops was inspiring. If the plain was, at times, sandy and unrewarding, how pleasantly the springs bubbled in the shade! Now, we travel in quite another fashion, — in a 60-horse-power touring car. The machine (an Assurance, preferably) mounts those hills like a chamois, it skims over the plains like a swallow. The milestones appear only to vanish; and, trailing clouds of inglorious gasoline, we “ arrive.”
Directly motor-balloons are perfected, we can survey mankind from China to Peru, as the philosopher would have us do, but in a manner that he wot not of, — in a morning, at one “ ascension.” The traveler of whom I was speaking, if she had evaded some of the discomforts of a pilgrimage, had missed not a few of its pleasures. Having no need to rest at the top of the hills, she had not watched the landscape unfold new beauties in new lights. Of the sparkling water of some of the wells in the plain she had not tasted, because she had nothing to draw with, and the wells were deep. The “ snapshots ” that she took in her passage were blurred by the dust raised in the going. Some of the views appeared to be of the nature of “ composites,” owing to the speed of the car. The photographed groups of the fellow travelers, posed in various attitudes, however, came out clear and strong. I recall one in particular, taken when they stopped a moment to look at Maeterlinck’s “ Buried Temple.” The temple, of course, was not to be seen in the picture, but “ you felt that it was there,” my friend said. They had not considered it worth their while to visit Milton or Wordsworth, but of Verlaine and Omar Khayyám she discoursed affably, and over the domain of Yeats, where —
she waxed rhapsodical.
I soothed my momentary irritation by poking the log-fire, murmuring to myself, “ Doubtless Milton and Wordsworth are poets, if Symbolists be ignorant of them, and Decadents acknowledge them not.” Aloud, I only ventured to wish that some of our present-day versifiers would give over climbing trees in the Hesperides, and return to plough and plant undragoned home-pastures. The heraldic device recommended by the old essayist as ancient and honorable, “ a plough in a field arable,” always seemed to me a fitting coat-of-arms for a writer.
“ Cabbages do not grow on Parnassus,” my friend said. Not on the upper slopes. But if a man discover, or his friends discover for him, that he cannot breathe on the heights, he is not bound to stay there until he expire. The lowerlying fields know also the sun and the stars and the winds; “ all sweet things, brother!”
Ever since a wise man said, in his haste, “ Hitch your wagon to a star,”the stars have been cruelly overworked. Astronomers may yet see their calculations set at naught by some celestial rebellion that will result in the wreck of wagons, if not the crash of worlds. Meantime, the dazed eyes and stumbling feet of these ill-advised who are ever looking aloft, must cause us disquietude. The Interpreter, we believe, did not intend that the Pilgrim should be always gazing crown-ward. When he walks in a valley where the path is exceeding narrow, between the deep ditch on his right hand and the dangerous quagmire on his left, he must needs look well to his going. The engineer of a train that is rounding curves and crossing high trestles is not expected to study the constellations.
There are always some who choose to defy the elements, and make hazard of aërial voyages in boundless light and space. So there will ever be with us those who elect to dwell in windless, remote, twilighted retreats. Both classes, “ lookers-down,” and “ lookers-out,” are apt to regard with some disdain the multitude who walk the common paths, in the common sunshine. Present-day contributors to literature and art practice so much of this aloofness that we seem to be ministered unto by invisible attendants. Voices come to us from crypts or from “ ivory towers,” but we are sorely puzzled oftentimes to distinguish what the voices are saying.
To be obvious — in sight — is to be uninteresting. To be tangible is “ un crime de lèse-mystère.”
Our intellectual hunger is to be appeased by symbols, essences, overtones, gleams, phantoms, — about as satisfying a reflection as “ a dream of the shadow of smoke.” If Lamb’s theory concerning grace before meat hold good, — that the slenderer the meal, the longer is likely to be the grace, since “ what is least stimulative to appetite leaves the mind most free for foreign considerations,” — then, in truth, we are called upon for a devotional prologue of awesome length.
These frequent, useless word-skirmishes on Realism, Romanticism, Symbolism, Impressionism, and the like, resemble the staircase-encounters in French romances. The dashing swordsmen of France seem to have been enamoured of fighting up and down stairways, — dark, narrow, stony passages where there was no room to give a good swing to a weapon, where friends as well as foes were apt to be slashed, where one made his way painfully up two steps, only to be pushed back three, and where, if one succeeded in getting safely to the upper chamber, the damsel whose rescue was intended was no longer “ so beautifully there.” She had escaped down another stairway.
There is a comfortable character in one of Anatole France’s books, who, when the conversation has turned into a somewhat erudite discussion of imagination, its power and its limitations, stands up boldly with, “ Je suis un homme qui ne sait que planter des choux.” He preferred to fight, like Ajax, in the light; not on the staircase.
The crowds at the gates of sanitariums, Christian Science churches, and other health resorts, would be lessened if women were willing to “ sit still in the soft showers of Providence,” and spin the light and the air and the dews into whatever it is given them to become, — even into a cabbage, if so be that it is one’s nature to be a cabbage, and not an orchid, or a sycamore in the vale. The list of suicides and fugitives from justice would be shorter, if some men could be induced to give up the attempt to scale the Himalayas in a racing-car, and till a small garden in a corner of their minds, — where the owners could sun themselves, and vegetate in the goodly company of cabbages.
Perturbed spirits! for whom there is no voluntary resting! It may well be that the “ balmy power ” of a cabbage-plot would medicine your fever to a “ lengthened drowsiness; ” and the hitherto discredited tale of an old traveler, who said that he had seen a cabbage under whose leaves a regiment of soldiers were sheltered from a tempest, would be proved metaphorically true.
To ” vegetate ” has become a term of reproach, — quite unjustly, it seems to me. To grow robust, and resolute, and clean-hearted, like a cabbage, is far and away removed from gleaming balefully like the slime on a stagnant pool, shot though it be with “ streaks of purple that are straight from Tyre.” Most of us still prefer the daisies that Burns turned over with his plough on his bleak, upland farm, to the “ Fleurs du Mal ” —“ sweetsmelling, pale with poison, sanguinehearted ” — that Baudelaire gathered in Paris gardens. If electing to loiter by still waters, instead of dashing our oars in swifter than Alpine torrents, be vegetating, then we need to vegetate. Even that impetuous youth, Candide, acknowledged the felicity that attended the planting of vegetables. When, after a somewhat lengthy trial of tranquillity in this very occupation, he flung away into the world again only to fall into the usual disasters and dismay, “ O Candide,” cries Dr. Pangloss, “ why were you tired of cultivating your garden ? ” And his pupil wonders why.
In the deepening tumult of the carnival, a voice that pipes for serenity is but a wren in a cyclone. Yet in cool, sequestered spots, and homely, quiet places, it is possible to live in a gracious calm, storing up riches of contentment and charity.
“ Let who will, talk high about happiness and sovereign good. I say that whoever planteth cabbages hath attained happiness.” And Panurge, who said so, could say it in thirteen languages.