A Timid Man's Complaint of Babie
ALTHOUGH a bachelor, I have no natural antipathy to babies; if I complain of their behavior it is only because I am grieved at the failure of a high ideal. I never could, with Charles Lamb, drink sympathetically to King Herod, nor tell a fluttering young mother that I “ liked them best boiled.” On the contrary, there was a time when I could read the Ode on the Intimations of Immortality with relish and approval; it pleased my youthful fancy to believe that primeval wisdom still might lie entrenched behind the silent, deep stolidity of babyhood — having nowhere else a refuge upon earth. In those days I thought it a high and holy privilege of infancy to share the secrets of another world. Now I have learned to question whether any one becomes a more agreeable acquaintance from the mere fact of possessing exclusive information, even from a previous existence. Exclusive information always tends to make the possessor arrogant, and in this case the arrogance is heightened by the rare consciousness of being able to keep the secret. Then again, knowledge may be of good, or of evil. The infant comes from heaven “trailing clouds of glory,” But so did Lucifer.
Infants of former days, with the joyous innocence of those dark, unhappy ages, may have exulted in the consciousness of immortality. Infants of our day, if it is really the Wordsworthian problem that they ponder, seem rather inclined to ask that essentially modern question: “Is immortality desirable ? ” Infants I have met have glared at me in a manner to suggest the most baleful possibilities. Even on the Wordsworthian theory there follows no necessary implication that infancy is the happiest and most innocent portion of life. When we have granted that infants come to us direct from heaven, there yet remains the question, “ Why do they come ? ” Were they silly enough to leave celestial blessedness of their own accord, or were they forcibly expelled — doubtless for sufficient reason ? Is it a knowledge of Eden they bring into the world, or merely a knowdedge of sin ?
Parents and poets like to talk of the pretty innocence of childhood, but philosophers know better. Take that stern old bishop of Hippo in Africa, mighty both as saint and sage, who gave to the world his Confessions nearly fifteen hundred years ago. For the sins of my infancy, he says, I must grieve not the less in that I do not remember what they were. “ Who then remindeth me of the faults of my infancy ? Who remindeth me ? Doth not each little infant in whom I see what I remember not about myself ? ” And for infant playfulness: “ Was it good, then, even for a while, to cry for what if given would hurt ? bitterly to resent that persons free, and its elders, yea, even its own parents, obeyed it not ? to strive to strike and hurt with all its might because its biddings were not obeyed, which had been obeyed to its peril ? In weakness, then, of baby limbs, not in its will, lies its innocence. Myself have seen and known jealousy even in a babe.” I have attempted to say something like this to the young mothers who have held up babies for my admiration, but the young mothers never listen.
An infant, I believe, is shrewder than his older brothers and sisters; he employs his wiles and graces in the home circle, and shows his true character only to strangers. Parents and relatives are the last persons in the world to know his true character. They like to feel that they are protecting helpless innocence, and they pride themselves on drawing out the dawning intelligence with their playful endearments. The guileless infant encourages them. They should see how he receives the same playful endearments from persons whom he has no deeplycalculated interest in pleasing. My own experience of infants has been acquired mainly in railway carriages, over the backs of plush-covered seats, when the infant was free from parental supervision. Somebody once told me that infants are the only true judges of character, and I have labored for years to establish my own self-respect by entering into amicable relations with every infant whose attention I could attract. The result has been appalling. Either I have no character, or else those infants, catching me at a disadvantage, have vented on me the concentrated scorn that all infants feel, but are too prudent always to express, against adults in general.
In the days when I still trusted to find an entrance to the infant heart, I thought it a bright idea to carry about in my pockets certain small propitiatory offerings which are currently supposed to find favor in a baby’s eyes. I soon discovered that it would be as easy to offer stick candy to Milton’s terrible Lucifer as to one of these cold-eyed, bald-headed little mortal “ cherubs.”
Above them all the archangel; but his face
Deep scars of thunder had entrenched, and care
Sat on his faded cheek.
It is in words such as these that I would like to describe those infants, not with any sentimental chatter of innocence and joy. Infants have looked into me, and through me, and over me, but have seldom smiled either at me or with me. The tiniest insignificant little mite, that seems hardly old enough to keep its eyes open, meets me squarely with a stare that is not insolent only because it is so entirely disdainful. I have nodded, and grimaced, and jingled keys until I was breathless, while some unblinking young Chinese idol would regard my performance with contempt. Then, when I had sunk back in my seat, discouraged and weary, the cold, hard eyes would follow me with a reproof too scornful for words. “ You began this nonsense of your owm free will, now why stop ? ” I have felt more abashed before one of these odious little pulpy wretches than Gulliver before the King of Brobdingnag.
Grown people who persist in believing that infancy is the happiest and best portion of life are not only ignorant of facts, but are strangely blind to their own interest. For my part I wish to believe that the happiest portion of my life is before, and not behind me. I confidently hope that my second childhood will be happier than the first, if only because I am determined that it shall be a great deal more humble and generally human. What has infancy to offer like the innocent, shrewd garrulity of Izaak Walton, or the genial, full-ripened philosophy of our own Oliver Wendell Holmes P Old age may have to rely less on memory than on faith for its intimations of immortality, but, for all that, the “ last, best days ” of a good man move upwards, while the infant keeps its back turned to the higher world.