The Lost Art of Ambling
THE word preamble might as well be omitted from the dictionary. Words must not loiter about, cumbering the language, when that which they stand for has become obsolete. Too many new recruits stand waiting for a place in the ranks. And we no longer indulge in ambles. The race of amblers is as undeniably extinct as the mound-builders. An ingenuous youth, like him of Oxford who queried “What are Keats?” might reasonably suppose the Preainblers to have been cousins-german of the Pre-Adamites.
Yet ambling was once considered an exceeding pleasant mode of progression, and the preamble a sensible way of making ready, getting in tune, for an excursion in any direction whatsoever. There was a time when a prologue was quite an essential part of the performance, on the opening night of a play. Garrick came down to the footlights to pronounce serious lines written, perhaps, by Johnson, for the occasion; or Peg Woffington or Mrs. Abington tripped from behind the scenes to recite, with smiles and curtsies, a witty prelude by a Restoration dramatist.
Once, too, it was considered eminently fitting that an author provide a preface for his book, setting forth the reason of his sally into print, the direction in which he was going, and the way he proposed to manage the expedition. What with dedicatory epistles, apologies, and introductions of all sorts, the preliminary exercises wellnigh equaled in length the subject-matter that followed. As an old essayist once candidly admitted to his readers, they were kept standing a long time in the porch.
Even in works of fiction, a preface stood to introduce the tale. Scott furnished his novels with whole chapters in which one is conducted slowly to the story by such voluble gentlemen-ushers as Captain Clutterbuck and Jedediah Cleishbotham. On the way one learns a little about the story-in-waiting, and a good deal concerning the Captain’s penchant for Gothic arches, and the worthy Jedediah’s responsible position in the renowned town of Gandercleugh. But who ever wished the way shorter or the guides dumb ?
Preluding remarks are no longer in order. Were Garrick himself to revisit the stare of the footlights, his prologue would languish unheard; for we do not arrive at the play until sometime during the first act. Stories are expected to plunge in medias res, shallow or deep, as the case may be, without hesitation. The solitary horseman who used to take his way, in the first chapter, through the landscape illumined by the rays of a setting sun, proceeded at so slow a pace along the winding road, that we became tolerably well acquainted with him by the time be reined in his steed at the castle gate. We could greet him, as free from embarrassment as the servant who answered his summons.
But now, our stories begin somewhat in this wise: “She looked at him with a radiant smile that led him to believe he had found a clue to the mystery.”
Such a lack of ceremony is perturbing to any one naturally diffident. One feels as if a lasso had suddenly coiled about one’s neck, slung from the hand of a galloping horseman rods away. One can but gasp — and run — urged forward by the jerks of that speed-compeller.
A good deal of the “ reviewing ” that attends this seven-league-booted fiction keeps pace with it. Judgments are meted out with the rapidity and vehemence of a Gatling gun, if not with its capacity for sure aim, or the effectiveness of its missiles. “A gripping story of tremendous power.” “ The greatest novel of the year.” “ The most remarkable work of the age.” Met in every direction by these “ criticisms,” we cannot but reflect regretfully on the caution — and the temper — of those three early critics in the land of Uz, who, when they came into the presence of their “ subject,” sat down upon the ground seven days and nights and spake not a word. We need a few reviewers like Zophar the Naamathite, with his curt remonstrance, “Should a man full of talk be justified ? ”
There used to be a fine saying, extremely popular as a theme for Commencement eloquence, “ Italy lies over the Alps.” Some of those who wrote dissertations on the subject, strewn with metaphors as Vallombrosan brooks with leaves, afterwards sought a real Italy, over real Alps, remembering, with a smile and a sigh, their youthful effusions. It was all there, — just as they had described it: the dolorous passes, the bleak heights, the threatening precipices, the stress, the danger. But they discovered the enthralling interest of that august mountain wall, and were astonished to find that Italy, smiling at the foot of those southern slopes, lost something of the glamour it had worn as the end of pilgrimage, and one’s heart remained in the highlands, that Via Mala which had been the barrier to the goal.
Italy still lies on the other side of the Alps. But the way to it, for eager tourists, is through the mountains, not over them. One does not “ seek Italy.” One emerges upon Italy from the mouth of a black, smoke - and - cinder - pervaded tunnel. Likewise the young traveler of the essays, who was described as seeking the goal of his endeavors over heights appalling and through gorges fearsome, may now, light of heart, avail himself of the “ short cut.” The short cut is convenient, and convenience is a quality not lightly to be esteemed — but it is not usually picturesque. We feel no lively admiration for a vessel that slides toward its destination over the flat, safe water of a canal, though the canal itself be a marvel of engineering skill; but let that same vessel undertake the voyage through the boisterous waters that welter about Cape Horn, and we follow the story of its passage with thrills and shivers, and greet with cheers the record of its entry into the desired haven.
Moreover, the tolls collected on these short cuts are oftentimes astonishingly large. Some one must pay for the bridge that has been built, for the scooping out of the canal, for the cutting of the tunnel; and each passer-over is called upon, first or last, for a contribution. The greater the difficulties that have been overcome in the construction, so much the heavier the toll. Just as inevitably are contributions levied on those who choose to go “ across lots ” to success in any direction. They pay toll.
One encounters on every side solicitations to enter upon one or another of these short routes; solicitations advanced in the spirit of the old Sunday-School refrain, “ Dare to be a Daniel! ”
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A boy who has set his face resolutely toward commercial enterprise or mechanical devising, thinks he cannot stop to sing of arma virumque, or to learn tha t sunt lachrimœ rerum. He asks that the schools, instead of delaying him in his start into business, shall assist him in that very starting. Hence the sound of the clicking of typewriters, and the buzz of revolving wheels, in rooms once dedicated to the cadences of hexameters. Hence, perhaps, also, the failure of that lad, by and by, to grasp some of the finer meanings in lessons set him by the world, his master, and his pitiful inability to discern, and to share in,
He will not be the one to respond quickly to the “note” sounded by those soldiers of Cromwell who, on the gray morning of conflict, halted in the cold and the mist to pray and sing psalms to the Lord of Battles. The cry of his hero will be, “Up, guards, and at them!”
It is true the world’s business seems to require haste. With specialists burrowing through the mountain of facts like steam-drills, it takes a youth with a farseeing steadfastness, akin to genius, to take up his way over the mountain, in order that he may have clear air and wide prospects, and dream dreams under the stars. Specialists are, doubtless, they who shall inherit the earth. The “ meek ” will have to make shift as residuary legatees. And since for each generation of specialists there is a lengthening road to be run over before the standpoint of the former generation is reached, it will soon be necessary, in the nature of things, for a specialist to start on his career in the cradle.
Something of the kind is already provided for. A kindergartner is taught to distinguish the colors and forms of birds, butterflies, and various other things. As a primary scholar he must name these various things. In the next room he draws them; a little later he collects them; and by the time he graduates from the schools he may be a full-fledged naturalist. Technical high schools are being established through the breadth of the land. Some of our cities are even trying the experiment of allowing a boy to spend alternate weeks in the school and in a specified factory. From the time the specialist has decided “not to live but know,” his line of way is about as straight, and as narrow, and as vacant of romance, as the towing-path of a canal. To urge forward that reluctant horse, to keep his own feet in that narrow path, until nightfall, is what life means to him. Of distant prospects, of humble interests near at hand, of what Stevenson calls “the human scenery” along his route, he must be unregardful. He reminds one of those contemporaries of the letter-writer, James Howell, who provoked the genial old gossip into saying of them, “they travel much, but see little, like Jonah in the whale.”
With such competitors in the field, it is not surprising that most young people scorn the leisurely spirit hinted at in Lamb’s remark: “Mushrooms scramble up in a night, diamonds lie a long time ripening.” Indeed, the account given, in a recent magazine, of examinationpapers submitted at a certain government test, does not encourage the belief that diamonds lie “ripening” in large quantities in the training schools. When a student, after a four years’ course at one of these technical institutions, has become convinced that, “Alexander the Great was a Roman general who conquered Gaul and Palestine,” that the Ganges is in South America; and, when he is asked the cause of the Civil War, gives his opinion that “slavery was the main aggitation. So Carolina done most of the disputting and finely ceceeded,” we may, not unfairly, judge his education to be a “scrambling up.”
Whether Alexander the Great was a Roman conquering Palestine, or an early Briton campaigning in China, may seem an entirely irrelevant question; whether Carolina decided “ to ceceed or not to ceceed,” may appear a small matter to a scurrying student in the twentieth century. Perhaps they are small matters, but the pity of it is that he is content to think so. He is paying toll, without being aware of it. When a government official decides that because of this disregard of small matters the boy is not the one to attend to the coveted greater matters at West Point, then he feelingly pays toll.
As long ago as Swift was recording the foibles that his keen eyes were noting in those about him, he wrote, “ Because to enter the palace of learning at the great gate requires an expense of time and forms, therefore men of much haste and little ceremony are content to get in by the back door.” The much haste and little ceremony are familiar enough nowa-days. We are accustomed to little else. In our frequenting of public edifices we are pretty sure to seek the door in the basement from which an elevator ascends, in preference to climbing the flight of steps toward the great hall where the architectural effects, so carefully planned, open out to the sight. It is considered a mere waste of time and breath (as a people we are scant o’ breath) to toil up the long way. Moreover the “ great gate ” is apt to make us look — and feel — small. The postern gate is nearer the measure of a man. Perhaps it is this “ feeling small,” as much as the lack of leisure or shortness of breath, that causes the reluctance of some to climb to the great gate of which Swift speaks. Humility is a difficult virtue to “ assume.” When creation widens on the view, and one begins to feel like an ant setting out to explore a Californian giant sequoia, one wishes that he had undertaken something better proportioned to his size, — like a mullein-stalk.
As I listened, half consciously, the other day, to the tuning of the stringed instruments in a great orchestra, previous to the concert, I fell to thinking how much depended upon that teasing prelude. Not one of the players would so much as think of joining in the great symphony on the programme until he was sure that his violin, or ’cello, or harp, was tuned to the pitch, absolutely right. And when the grand chords of Beethoven filled the hall, we were all minded how beautiful a thing is the harmony of instruments in accord. Yet we seem perversely disposed, in all our undertakings, major and minor, to slur over, or give up altogether, the tuning of the strings. We get our cue, perhaps, from the much-advertised ability of the pianola to “ take you at once into the presence of the great masters.” A good deal of the sentiment we unroll, not a little of the emotion we put into play, when brought into touch with the finer issues of life, is pianola emotion. We hasten “ into the presence of the masters ” when there has been, on our part, no preparatory tuning of the strings. To expect any one to be edified, or in any way stirred, by our interpretations, is to expect him to be warmed by the fire of glow-worms.
The truth is, I take it, that preambling, as a fine art, called for qualities that are alien to the present-day disposition. It was closely allied to that other art, sauntering, which was so fervently preached — and conscientiously practiced —by Thoreau. The milder attributes of his saunterer — his “ Holy-Lander ” — are what we moderns sadly lack. The zeal and the strenuousness we have no need to pray for. A double portion of that part of the crusading spirit seems to have fallen upon us. We can accomplish a prodigious flourish of the trumpets; we can march up to the walls, and demand surrender with admirable resoluteness; we can fight, if need be, with valor; but we are not conspicuous for the virtues that shine when lances are at rest and trumpets are silenced.
A little wayside chapel that stands in the English village of Houghton-in-theDale, a mile or more from the ruins of Walsingham Abbey, remembers in its name a custom of the old pilgrimages. It is still called the Shoe-House, because here, tradition has it, the pilgrims bound to the shrine of Our Lady put off their shoes, to walk the remaining way barefoot. A toilsome march they found it, in all likelihood, but it was the only way to reach the ear of the miracle-working Madonna. Whoever was found unwilling to humble himself so far was judged unworthy to ask favor at her altar. Would that something of the patience, the reverence, the humility, which that little chapel commemorates, could be bestowed upon the hurrying crowds bent upon reaching the temples which contain the objects of their adoration. How “ this visible scene of things ” would gain in impressiveness if the devotees of those temples would approach in seemly delay, to the halting music of a Song of Degrees.