Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 9, No. 54, April, 1862
Part 1 out of 5
Produced by Joshua Hutchinson, Tonya Allen and PG Distributed
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A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.
VOL. IX.--APRIL, 1862.--NO. LIV.
LETTER TO A YOUNG CONTRIBUTOR.
My dear young gentleman or young lady,--for many are the Cecil Dreemes
of literature who superscribe their offered manuscripts with very
masculine names in very feminine handwriting,--it seems wrong not to
meet your accumulated and urgent epistles with one comprehensive reply,
thus condensing many private letters into a printed one. And so large a
proportion of "Atlantic" readers either might, would, could, or should
be "Atlantic" contributors also, that this epistle will be sure of
perusal, though Mrs. Stowe remain uncut and the Autocrat go for an hour
Far from me be the wild expectation that every author will not
habitually measure the merits of a periodical by its appreciation of
his or her last manuscript. I should as soon ask a young lady not to
estimate the management of a ball by her own private luck in respect
to partners. But it is worth while at least to point out that in the
treatment of every contribution the real interests of editor and writer
are absolutely the same, and any antagonism is merely traditional, like
the supposed hostility between France and England, or between England
and Slavery. No editor can ever afford the rejection of a good thing,
and no author the publication of a bad one. The only difficulty lies in
drawing the line. Were all offered manuscripts unequivocally good or
bad, there would be no great trouble; it is the vast range of mediocrity
which perplexes: the majority are too bad for blessing and too good for
banning; so that no conceivable reason can be given for either fate,
save that upon the destiny of any single one may hang that of a hundred
others just like it. But whatever be the standard fixed, it is equally
for the interest of all concerned that it be enforced without flinching.
Nor is there the slightest foundation for the supposed editorial
prejudice against new or obscure contributors. On the contrary, every
editor is always hungering and thirsting after novelties. To take the
lead in bringing forward a new genius is as fascinating a privilege as
that of the physician who boasted to Sir Henry Halford of having been
the first man to discover the Asiatic cholera and to communicate it to
the public. It is only stern necessity which compels the magazine to
fall back so constantly on the regular old staff of contributors, whose
average product has been gauged already; just as every country-lyceum
attempts annually to arrange an entirely new list of lecturers, and ends
with no bolder experiment than to substitute Chapin and Beecher in place
of last year's Beecher and Chapin.
Of course no editor is infallible, and the best magazine contains an
occasional poor article. Do not blame the unfortunate conductor. He
knows it as well as you do,--after the deed is done. The newspapers
kindly pass it over, still preparing their accustomed opiate of sweet
praises, so much for each contributor, so much for the magazine
collectively,--like a hostess with her tea-making, a spoonful for each
person and one for the pot. But I can tell you that there is an official
person who meditates and groans, meanwhile, in the night-watches, to
think that in some atrocious moment of good-nature or sleepiness he left
the door open and let that ungainly intruder in. Do you expect him to
acknowledge the blunder, when you tax him with it? Never,--he feels it
too keenly. He rather stands up stoutly for the surpassing merits of the
misshapen thing, as a mother for her deformed child; and as the mother
is nevertheless inwardly imploring that there may never be such another
born to her, so be sure that it is not by reminding the editor of this
calamity that you can allure him into risking a repetition of it.
An editor thus shows himself to be but human; and it is well enough to
remember this fact, when you approach him. He is not a gloomy despot,
no Nemesis or Rhadamanthus, but a bland and virtuous man, exceedingly
anxious to secure plenty of good subscribers and contributors, and very
ready to perform any acts of kindness not inconsistent with this
grand design. Draw near him, therefore, with soft approaches and mild
persuasions. Do not treat him like an enemy, and insist on reading your
whole manuscript aloud to him, with appropriate gestures. His time has
some value, if yours has not; and he has therefore educated his eye till
it has become microscopic, like a naturalist's, and can classify nine
out of ten specimens by one glance at a scale or a feather. Fancy an
ambitious echinoderm claiming a private interview with Agassiz, to
demonstrate by verbal arguments that he is a mollusk! Besides, do
you expect to administer the thing orally to each of the two hundred
thousand, more or less, who turn the leaves of the "Atlantic"? You are
writing for the average eye, and must submit to its verdict. "Do not
trouble yourself about the light on your statue; it is the light of the
public square which must test its value."
Do not despise any honest propitiation, however small, in dealing with
your editor. Look to the physical aspect of your manuscript, and prepare
your page so neatly that it shall allure instead of repelling. Use good
pens, black ink, nice white paper and plenty of it. Do not emulate
"paper-sparing Pope," whose chaotic manuscript of the "Iliad," written
chiefly on the backs of old letters, still remains in the British
Museum. If your document be slovenly, the presumption is that its
literary execution is the same, Pope to the contrary notwithstanding.
An editor's eye becomes carnal, and is easily attracted by a comely
outside. If you really wish to obtain his good-will for your production,
do not first tax his time for deciphering it, any more than in visiting
a millionnaire to solicit a loan you would begin by asking him to pay
for the hire of the carriage which takes you to his door.
On the same principle, send your composition in such a shape that it
shall not need the slightest literary revision before printing. Many a
bright production dies discarded which might have been made thoroughly
presentable by a single day's labor of a competent scholar, in shaping,
smoothing, dovetailing, and retrenching. The revision seems so slight
an affair that the aspirant cannot conceive why there should be so much
fuss about it.
"The piece, you think, is incorrect; why, take it;
I'm all submission; what you'd have it, make it."
But to discharge that friendly office no universal genius is salaried;
and for intellect in the rough there is no market.
Rules for style, as for manners, must be chiefly negative: a positively
good style indicates certain natural powers in the individual, but an
unexceptionable style is merely a matter of culture and good models. Dr.
Channing established in New England a standard of style which really
attained almost the perfection of the pure and the colorless, and the
disciplinary value of such a literary influence, in a raw and crude
nation, has been very great; but the defect of this standard is that it
ends in utterly renouncing all the great traditions of literature, and
ignoring the magnificent mystery of words. Human language may be polite
and powerless in itself, uplifted with difficulty into expression by the
high thoughts it utters, or it may in itself become so saturated with
warm life and delicious association that every sentence shall palpitate
and thrill with the mere fascination of the syllables. The statue is
not more surely included in the block of marble than is all conceivable
splendor of utterance in "Worcester's Unabridged." And as Ruskin says of
painting that it is in the perfection and precision of the instantaneous
line that the claim to immortality is made, so it is easy to see that a
phrase may outweigh a library. Keats heads the catalogue of things real
with "sun, moon, and passages of Shakspeare"; and Keats himself has
left behind him winged wonders of expression which are not surpassed by
Shakspeare, or by any one else who ever dared touch the English tongue.
There may be phrases which shall be palaces to dwell in, treasure-houses
to explore; a single word may be a window from which one may perceive
all the kingdoms of the earth and the glory of them. Oftentimes a word
shall speak what accumulated volumes have labored in vain to utter:
there may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a
Such being the majesty of the art you seek to practise, you can at least
take time and deliberation before dishonoring it. Disabuse yourself
especially of the belief that any grace or flow of style can come from
writing rapidly. Haste can make you slipshod, but it can never make
you graceful. With what dismay one reads of the wonderful fellows in
fashionable novels, who can easily dash off a brilliant essay in a
single night! When I think how slowly my poor thoughts come in, how
tardily they connect themselves, what a delicious prolonged perplexity
it is to cut and contrive a decent clothing of words for them, as a
little girl does for her doll,--nay, how many new outfits a single
sentence sometimes costs before it is presentable, till it seems at
last, like our army on the Potomac, as if it never could be thoroughly
clothed,--I certainly should never dare to venture into print, but for
the confirmed suspicion that the greatest writers have done even so. I
can hardly believe that there is any autograph in the world so precious
or instructive as that scrap of paper, still preserved at Ferrara, on
which Ariosto wrote in sixteen different revisions one of his most
famous stanzas. Do you know, my dear neophyte, how Balzac used to
compose? As a specimen of the labor that sometimes goes to make an
effective style, the process is worth recording. When Balzac had a new
work in view, he first spent weeks in studying from real life for it,
haunting the streets of Paris by day and night, note-book in hand. His
materials gained, he shut himself up till the book was written, perhaps
two months, absolutely excluding everybody but his publisher. He emerged
pale and thin, with the complete manuscript in his hand,--not only
written, but almost rewritten, so thoroughly was the original copy
altered, interlined, and rearranged. This strange production, almost
illegible, was sent to the unfortunate printers; with infinite
difficulty a proof-sheet was obtained, which, being sent to the author,
was presently returned in almost as hopeless a chaos of corrections as
the manuscript first submitted. Whole sentences were erased, others
transposed, everything modified. A second and a third followed, alike
torn to pieces by the ravenous pen of Balzac. The despairing printers
labored by turns, only the picked men of the office being equal to the
task, and they relieving each other at hourly intervals, as beyond
that time no one could endure the fatigue. At last, by the fourth
proof-sheet, the author too was wearied out, though not contented. "I
work ten hours out of the twenty-four," said he, "over the elaboration
of my unhappy style, and I am never satisfied, myself, when all is
Do not complain that this scrupulousness is probably wasted, after all,
and that nobody knows. The public knows. People criticize higher than
they attain. When the Athenian audience hissed a public speaker for a
mispronunciation, it did not follow that any one of the malcontents
could pronounce as well as the orator. In our own lyceum-audiences there
may not be a man who does not yield to his own private eccentricities of
dialect, but see if they do not appreciate elegant English from Phillips
or Everett! Men talk of writing down to the public taste who have never
yet written up to that standard. "There never yet was a good tongue,"
said old Fuller, "that wanted ears to hear it." If one were expecting to
be judged by a few scholars only, one might hope somehow to cajole them;
but it is this vast, unimpassioned, unconscious tribunal, this average
judgment of intelligent minds, which is truly formidable,--something
more undying than senates and more omnipotent than courts, something
which rapidly cancels all transitory reputations, and at last becomes
the organ of eternal justice and infallibly awards posthumous fame.
The first demand made by the public upon every composition is, of
course, that it should be attractive. In addressing a miscellaneous
audience, whether through eye or ear, it is certain that no man living
has a right to be tedious. Every editor is therefore compelled to insist
that his contributors should make themselves agreeable, whatever else
they may do. To be agreeable, it is not necessary to be amusing; an
essay may be thoroughly delightful without a single witticism, while a
monotone of jokes soon grows tedious. Charge your style with life,
and the public will not ask for conundrums. But the profounder your
discourse, the greater must necessarily be the effort to refresh and
diversify. I have observed, in addressing audiences of children in
schools and elsewhere, that there is no fact so grave, no thought so
abstract, but you can make it very interesting to the small people, if
you will only put in plenty of detail and illustration; and I have not
observed that in this respect grown men are so very different. If,
therefore, in writing, you find it your mission to be abstruse, fight to
render your statement clear and attractive, as if your life depended on
it: your literary life does depend on it, and, if you fail, relapses
into a dead language, and becomes, like that of Coleridge, only a
_Biographia Literaria_. Labor, therefore, not in thought alone, but in
utterance; clothe and reclothe your grand conception twenty times, until
you find some phrase that with its grandeur shall be lucid also. It is
this unwearied literary patience that has enabled Emerson not merely to
introduce, but even to popularize, thoughts of such a quality as never
reached the popular mind before. And when such a writer, thus laborious
to do his utmost for his disciples, becomes after all incomprehensible,
we can try to believe that it is only that inevitable obscurity of vast
thought which Coleridge said was a compliment to the reader.
In learning to write availably, a newspaper-office is a capital
preparatory school. Nothing is so good to teach the use of materials,
and to compel to pungency of style. Being always at close quarters with
his readers, a journalist must shorten and sharpen his sentences, or he
is doomed. Yet this mental alertness is bought at a severe price; such
living from hand to mouth cheapens the whole mode of intellectual
existence, and it would seem that no successful journalist could ever
get the newspaper out of his blood, or achieve any high literary
For purposes of illustration and elucidation, and even for amplitude of
vocabulary, wealth of accumulated materials is essential; and whether
this wealth be won by reading or by experience makes no great
difference. Coleridge attended Davy's chemical lectures to acquire new
metaphors, and it is of no consequence whether one comes to literature
from a library, a machine-shop, or a forecastle, provided he has learned
to work with thoroughness the soil he knows. After all is said and done,
however, books remain the chief quarries. Johnson declared, putting the
thing perhaps too mechanically, "The greater part of an author's time is
spent in reading in order to write; a man will turn over half a library
to make one book." Addison collected three folios of materials before
publishing the first number of the "Spectator." Remember, however, that
copious preparation has its perils also, in the crude display to which
it tempts. The object of high culture is not to exhibit culture, but
its results. You do not put guano on your garden that your garden may
blossom guano. Indeed, even for the proper subordination of one's own
thoughts the same self-control is needed; and there is no severer test
of literary training than in the power to prune out one's most cherished
sentence, when it grows obvious that the sacrifice will help the
symmetry or vigor of the whole.
Be noble both in the affluence and the economy of your diction; spare
no wealth that you can put in, and tolerate no superfluity that can be
struck out. Remember the Lacedemonian who was fined for saying that in
three words which might as well have been expressed in two. Do not throw
a dozen vague epithets at a thing, in the hope that some one of them
will fit; but study each phrase so carefully that the most ingenious
critic cannot alter it without spoiling the whole passage for everybody
but himself. For the same reason do not take refuge, as was the
practice a few years since, in German combinations, heart-utterances,
soul-sentiments, and hyphenized phrases generally; but roll your thought
into one good English word. There is no fault which seems so hopeless as
commonplaceness, but it is really easier to elevate the commonplace
than to reduce the turgid. How few men in all the pride of culture can
emulate the easy grace of a bright woman's letter!
Have faith enough in your own individuality to keep it resolutely down
for a year or two. A man has not much intellectual capital who cannot
treat himself to a brief interval of modesty. Premature individualism
commonly ends either in a reaction against the original whims, or in a
mannerism which perpetuates them. For mannerism no one is great enough,
because, though in the hands of a strong man it imprisons us in novel
fascination, yet we soon grow weary, and then hate our prison forever.
How sparkling was Reade's crisp brilliancy in "Peg Woffington"!--but
into what disagreeable affectations it has since degenerated! Carlyle
was a boon to the human race, amid the lameness into which English style
was declining; but who is not tired of him and his catchwords now? He
was the Jenner of our modern style, inoculating and saving us all by his
quaint frank Germanism, then dying of his own disease. Now the age has
outgrown him, and is approaching a mode of writing which unites the
smoothness of the eighteenth century with the vital vigor of the
seventeenth, so that Sir Thomas Browne and Andrew Marvell seem quite as
near to us as Pope or Addison,--a style penetrated with the best spirit
of Carlyle, without a trace of Carlylism.
Be neither too lax nor too precise in your use of language: the one
fault ends in stiffness, the other in slang. Some one told the Emperor
Tiberius that he might give citizenship to men, but not to words. To be
sure, Louis XIV. in childhood, wishing for a carriage, called for _mon
carrosse_, and made the former feminine a masculine to all future
Frenchmen. But do not undertake to exercise these prerogatives of
royalty until you are quite sure of being crowned. The only thing I
remember of our college text-book of Rhetoric is one admirable verse of
caution which it quoted:--
"In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold,
Alike fantastic, if too new or old;
Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside."
Especially do not indulge any fantastic preference for either Latin or
Anglo-Saxon, the two great wings on which our magnificent English soars
and sings; we can spare neither. The combination gives an affluence of
synonymes and a delicacy of discrimination such as no unmixed idiom can
While you utterly shun slang, whether native-or foreign-born,--(at
present, by the way, our popular writers use far less slang than the
English,)--yet do not shrink from Americanisms, so they be good ones.
American literature is now thoroughly out of leading-strings; and the
nation which supplied the first appreciative audience for Carlyle,
Tennyson, and the Brownings, can certainly trust its own literary
instincts to create the new words it needs. To be sure, the inelegancies
with which we are chiefly reproached are not distinctively American:
Burke uses "pretty considerable"; Miss Burney says, "I trembled a
few"; the English Bible says "reckon," Locke has "guess," and Southey
"realize," in the exact senses in which one sometimes hears them used
colloquially here. Nevertheless such improprieties are of course to be
avoided; but whatever good Americanisms exist, let us hold to them by
all means. The diction of Emerson alone is a sufficient proof, by its
unequalled range and precision, that no people in the world ever had
access to a vocabulary so rich and copious as we are acquiring. To
the previous traditions and associations of the English tongue we add
resources of contemporary life such as England cannot rival. Political
freedom makes every man an individual; a vast industrial activity makes
every man an inventor, not merely of labor-saving machines, but of
labor-saving words; universal schooling popularizes all thought and
sharpens the edge of all language. We unconsciously demand of our
writers the same dash and the same accuracy which we demand in
railroading or dry-goods-jobbing. The mixture of nationalities is
constantly coining and exchanging new felicities of dialect: Ireland,
Scotland, Germany, Africa are present everywhere with their various
contributions of wit and shrewdness, thought and geniality; in New York
and elsewhere one finds whole thoroughfares of France, Italy, Spain,
Portugal; on our Western railways there are placards printed in Swedish;
even China is creeping in. The colonies of England are too far and too
provincial to have had much reflex influence on her literature, but
how our phraseology is already amplified by our relations with
Spanish-America! The life-blood of Mexico flowed into our newspapers
while the war was in progress; and the gold of California glitters in
our primer: Many foreign cities may show a greater variety of mere
national costumes, but the representative value of our immigrant tribes
is far greater from the very fact that they merge their mental costume
in ours. Thus the American writer finds himself among his phrases like
an American sea-captain amid his crew: a medley of all nations, waiting
for the strong organizing New-England mind to mould them into a unit of
There are certain minor matters, subsidiary to elegance, if not
elegancies, and therefore worth attention. Do not habitually prop your
sentences on crutches, such as Italics and exclamation-points, but make
them stand without aid; if they cannot emphasize themselves, these
devices are commonly but a confession of helplessness. Do not leave
loose ends as you go on, straggling things, to be caught up and dragged
along uneasily in foot-notes, but work them all in neatly, as Biddy at
her bread-pan gradually kneads in all the outlying bits of dough, till
she has one round and comely mass.
Reduce yourself to short allowance of parentheses and dashes; if you
employ them merely from clumsiness, they will lose all their proper
power in your hands. Economize quotation-marks also, clear that dust
from your pages, assume your readers to be acquainted with the current
jokes and the stock epithets: all persons like the compliment of having
it presumed that they know something, and prefer to discover the wit or
beauty of your allusion without a guide-board.
The same principle applies to learned citations and the results of
study. Knead these thoroughly in, supplying the maximum of desired
information with a minimum of visible schoolmaster. It requires no
pedantic mention of Euclid to indicate a mathematical mind, but only the
habitual use of clear terms and close connections. To employ in argument
the forms of Whately's Logic would render it probable that you are
juvenile and certain that you are tedious; wreathe the chain with roses.
The more you have studied foreign languages, the more you will be
disposed to keep Ollendorff in the background: the proper result of such
acquirements is visible in a finer ear for words; so that Goethe said,
the man who had studied but one language could not know that one. But
spare the raw material; deal as cautiously in Latin as did General
Jackson when Jack Downing was out of the way; and avoid French as some
fashionable novelists avoid English.
Thus far, these are elementary and rather technical suggestions, fitted
for the very opening of your literary career. Supposing you fairly in
print, there are needed some further counsels.
Do not waste a minute, not a second, in trying to demonstrate to others
the merit of your own performance. If your work does not vindicate
itself, you cannot vindicate it, but you can labor steadily on to
something which needs no advocate but itself. It was said of Haydon,
the English artist, that, if he had taken half the pains to paint great
pictures that he took to persuade the public he had painted them, his
fame would have been secure. Similar was the career of poor Horne, who
wrote the farthing epic of "Orion" with one grand line in it, and a
prose work without any, on "The False Medium excluding Men of Genius
from the Public." He spent years in ineffectually trying to repeal the
exclusion in his own case, and has since manfully gone to the grazing
regions in Australia, hoping there at least to find the sheep and the
goats better discriminated. Do not emulate these tragedies. Remember how
many great writers have created the taste by which they were enjoyed,
and do not be in a hurry. Toughen yourself a little, and perform
something better. Inscribe above your desk the words of Rivarol, "Genius
is only great patience." It takes less time to build an avenue of
shingle palaces than to hide away unseen, block by block, the vast
foundation-stones of an observatory. Most by-gone literary fames have
been very short-lived in America, because they have lasted no longer
than they deserved. Happening the other day to recur to a list of
Cambridge lyceum-lecturers in my boyish days, I find with dismay that
the only name now popularly remembered is that of Emerson: death,
oblivion, or a professorship has closed over all the rest, while the
whole standard of American literature has been vastly raised meanwhile,
and no doubt partly through their labors. To this day, some of our most
gifted writers are being dwarfed by the unkind friendliness of too early
praise. It was Keats, the most precocious of all great poets, the stock
victim of critical assassination,--though the charge does him utter
injustice,--who declared that "nothing is finer for purposes of
production than a very gradual ripening of the intellectual powers."
Yet do not be made conceited by obscurity, any more than by notoriety.
Many fine geniuses have been long neglected; but what would become
of us, if all the neglected were to turn out geniuses? It is unsafe
reasoning from either extreme. You are not necessarily writing like
Holmes because your reputation for talent began in college, nor like
Hawthorne because you have been before the public ten years without an
admirer. Above all, do not seek to encourage yourself by dwelling on
the defects of your rivals: strength comes only from what is above you.
Northcote, the painter, said, that, in observing an inferior picture,
he always felt his spirits droop, with the suspicion that perhaps he
deceived himself and his own paintings were no better; but the works of
the mighty masters always gave him renewed strength, in the hope that
perhaps his own had in their smaller way something of the same divine
Do not complacently imagine, because your first literary attempt proved
good and successful, that your second will doubtless improve upon it.
The very contrary sometimes happens. A man dreams for years over
one projected composition, all his reading converges to it, all his
experience stands related to it, it is the net result of his existence
up to a certain time, it is the cistern into which he pours his
accumulated life. Emboldened by success, he mistakes the cistern for a
fountain, and instantly taps his brain again. The second production,
as compared with the first, costs but half the pains and attains but
a quarter part of the merit; a little more of fluency and facility
perhaps,--but the vigor, the wealth, the originality, the head of water,
in short, are wanting. One would think that almost any intelligent man
might write one good thing in a lifetime, by reserving himself long
enough: it is the effort after quantity which proves destructive. The
greatest man has passed his zenith, when he once begins to cheapen
his style of work and sink into a book-maker: after that, though the
newspapers may never hint at it, nor his admirers own it, the decline of
his career is begun.
Yet the author is not alone to blame for this, but also the world which
first tempts and then reproves him. Goethe says, that, if a person once
does a good thing, society forms a league to prevent his doing another.
His seclusion is gone, and therefore his unconsciousness and his
leisure; luxuries tempt him from his frugality, and soon he must toil
for luxuries; then, because he has done one thing well, he is urged
to squander himself and do a thousand things badly. In this country
especially, if one can learn languages, he must go to Congress; if he
can argue a case, he must become agent of a factory: out of this comes
a variety of training which is very valuable, but a wise man must
have strength to call in his resources before middle-life, prune off
divergent activities, and concentrate himself on the main work, be it
what it may. It is shameful to see the indeterminate lives of many of
our gifted men, unable to resist the temptations of a busy land, and so
losing themselves in an aimless and miscellaneous career.
Yet it is unjust and unworthy in Marsh to disfigure his fine work on the
English language by traducing all who now write that tongue. "None seek
the audience, fit, though few, which contented the ambition of Milton,
and all writers for the press now measure their glory by their gains,"
and so indefinitely onward,--which is simply cant. Does Sylvanus Cobb,
Jr., who honestly earns his annual five thousand dollars from the "New
York Ledger," take rank as head of American literature by virtue of his
salary? Because the profits of true literature are rising,--trivial as
they still are beside those of commerce or the professions,--its merits
do not necessarily decrease, but the contrary is more likely to happen;
for in this pursuit, as in all others, cheap work is usually poor work.
None but gentlemen of fortune can enjoy the bliss of writing for nothing
and paying their own printer. Nor does the practice of compensation by
the page work the injury that has often been ignorantly predicted. No
contributor need hope to cover two pages of a periodical with what might
be adequately said in one, unless he assumes his editor to be as foolish
as himself. The Spartans exiled Ctesiphon for bragging that he could
speak the whole day on any subject selected; and a modern magazine is of
little value, unless it has a Spartan at its head.
Strive always to remember--though it does not seem intended that we
should quite bring it home to ourselves--that "To-Day is a king in
disguise," and that this American literature of ours will be just as
classic a thing, if we do our part, as any which the past has treasured.
There is a mirage over all literary associations. Keats and Lamb seem to
our young people to be existences as remote and legendary as Homer, yet
it is not an old man's life since Keats was an awkward boy at the
door of Hazlitt's lecture-room, and Lamb was introducing Talfourd to
Wordsworth as his own only admirer. In reading Spence's "Anecdotes,"
Pope and Addison appear no farther off; and wherever I open Bacon's
"Essays," I am sure to end at last with that one magical sentence,
annihilating centuries, "When I was a child, and Queen Elizabeth was in
the flower of her years."
And this imperceptible transformation of the commonplace present into
the storied past applies equally to the pursuits of war and to the
serenest works of peace. Be not misled by the excitements of the moment
into overrating the charms of military life. In this chaos of uniforms,
we seem to be approaching times such as existed in England after
Waterloo, when the splenetic Byron declared that the only distinction
was to be a little undistinguished. No doubt, war brings out grand
and unexpected qualities, and there is a perennial fascination in the
Elizabethan Raleighs and Sidneys, alike heroes of pen and sword. But the
fact is patent, that there is scarcely any art whose rudiments are
so easy to acquire as the military; the manuals of tactics have
no difficulties comparable to those of the ordinary professional
text-books; and any one who can drill a boat's crew or a ball-club can
learn in a very few weeks to drill a company or even a regiment. Given
in addition the power to command, to organize, and to execute,--high
qualities, though not rare in this community,--and you have a man
needing but time and experience to make a general. More than this can be
acquired only by an exclusive absorption in this one art; as Napoleon
said, that, to have good soldiers, a nation must be always at war.
If, therefore, duty and opportunity call, count it a privilege to obtain
your share in the new career; throw yourself into it as resolutely and
joyously as if it were a summer-campaign in the Adirondack, but never
fancy for a moment that you have discovered any grander or manlier life
than you might be leading every day at home. It is not needful here to
decide which is intrinsically the better thing, a column of a newspaper
or a column of attack, Wordsworth's "Lines on Immortality" or
Wellington's Lines of Torres Vedras; each is noble, if nobly done,
though posterity seems to remember literature the longest. The writer
is not celebrated for having been the favorite of the conqueror, but
sometimes the conqueror only for having favored or even for having
spurned the writer. "When the great Sultan died, his power and glory
departed from him, and nothing remained but this one fact, that he knew
not the worth of Ferdousi." There is a slight delusion in this dazzling
glory. What a fantastic whim the young lieutenants thought it, when
General Wolfe, on the eve of battle, said of Gray's "Elegy," "Gentlemen,
I would rather have written that poem than have taken Quebec." Yet,
no doubt, it is by the memory of that remark that Wolfe will live the
longest,--aided by the stray line of another poet, still reminding us,
not needlessly, that "Wolfe's great name's cotemporal with our own."
Once the poets and the sages were held to be pleasing triflers, fit for
hours of relaxation in the lulls of war. Now the pursuits of peace are
recognized as the real, and war as the accidental. It interrupts
all higher avocations, as does the cry of fire: when the fire is
extinguished, the important affairs of life are resumed. Six years ago
the London "Times" was bewailing that all thought and culture in England
were suspended by the Crimean War. "We want no more books. Give us good
recruits, at least five feet seven, a good model for a floating-battery,
and a gun to take effect at five thousand yards,--and Whigs and Tories,
High and Low Church, the poets, astronomers, and critics, may settle it
among themselves." How remote seems that epoch now! and how remote will
the present soon appear! while art and science will resume their sway
serene, beneath skies eternal. Yesterday I turned from treatises on
gunnery and fortification to open Milton's Latin Poems, which I had
never read, and there, in the "Sylvarum Liber," I came upon a passage
as grand as anything in "Paradise Lost,"--his description of Plato's
archetypal man, the vast ideal of the human race, eternal, incorrupt,
coeval with the stars, dwelling either in the sidereal spaces, or among
the Lethean mansions of souls unborn, or pacing the unexplored confines
of the habitable globe. There stood the majestic image, veiled in a dead
language, yet still visible; and it was as if one of the poet's own
sylvan groves had been suddenly cut down, and opened a view of Olympus.
Then all these present fascinating trivialities of war and diplomacy
ebbed away, like Greece and Rome before them, and there seemed nothing
real in the universe but Plato's archetypal man.
Indeed, it is the same with all contemporary notorieties. In all free
governments, especially, it is the habit to overrate the _dramatis
personae_ of the hour. How empty to us are now the names of the great
politicians of the last generation, as Crawford and Lowndes!--yet it
is but a few years since these men filled in the public ear as large a
space as Clay or Calhoun afterwards, and when they died, the race of the
giants was thought ended. The path to oblivion of these later idols
is just as sure; even Webster will be to the next age but a mighty
tradition, and all that he has left will seem no more commensurate with
his fame than will his statue by Powers. If anything preserves the
statesmen of to-day, it will be only because we are coming to a contest
of more vital principles, which may better embalm the men. Of all gifts,
eloquence is the most short-lived. The most accomplished orator fades
forgotten, and his laurels pass to some hoarse, inaudible Burke,
accounted rather a bore during his lifetime, and possessed of a faculty
of scattering, not convincing, the members of the House. "After all,"
said the brilliant Choate, with melancholy foreboding, "a book is the
So few men in any age are born with a marked gift for literary
expression, so few of this number have access to high culture, so few
even of these have the personal nobleness to use their powers well,
and this small band is finally so decimated by disease and manifold
disaster, that it makes one shudder to observe how little of the
embodied intellect of any age is left behind. Literature is attar of
roses, one distilled drop from a million blossoms. Think how Spain and
Portugal once divided the globe between them in a treaty, when England
was a petty kingdom of illiterate tribes!--and now all Spain is
condensed for us into Cervantes, and all Portugal into the fading fame
of the unread Camoens. The long magnificence of Italian culture has
left us only _I Quattro Poeti_, the Four Poets. The difference between
Shakspeare and his contemporaries is not that he is read twice, ten
times, a hundred times as much as they: it is an absolute difference; he
is read, and they are only printed.
Yet, if our life be immortal, this temporary distinction is of little
moment, and we may learn humility, without learning despair, from
earth's evanescent glories. Who cannot bear a few disappointments, if
the vista be so wide that the mute inglorious Miltons of this sphere
may in some other sing their Paradise as Found? War or peace, fame or
forgetfulness, can bring no real injury to one who has formed the fixed
purpose to live nobly day by day. I fancy that in some other realm of
existence we may look back with some kind interest on this scene of our
earlier life, and say to one another,--"Do you remember yonder planet,
where once we went to school?" And whether our elective study here lay
chiefly in the fields of action or of thought will matter little to us
then, when other schools shall have led us through other disciplines.
* * * * *
The guard-house was, in fact, nothing but a shed in the middle of a
stubble-field. It had been built for a cider-press last summer; but
since Captain Dorr had gone into the army, his regiment had camped over
half his plantation, and the shed was boarded up, with heavy wickets at
either end, to hold whatever prisoners might fall into their hands
from Floyd's forces. It was a strong point for the Federal troops, his
farm,--a sort of wedge in the Rebel Cheat counties of Western Virginia.
Only one prisoner was in the guard-house now. The sentry, a raw
boat-hand from Illinois, gaped incessantly at him through the bars, not
sure if the "Secesh" were limbed and headed like other men; but the
November fog was so thick that he could discern nothing but a short,
squat man, in brown clothes and white hat, heavily striding to and fro.
A negro was crouching outside, his knees cuddled in his arms to keep
warm: a field-hand, you could be sure from the face, a grisly patch of
flabby black, with a dull eluding word of something, you could not tell
what, in the points of eyes,--treachery or gloom. The prisoner stopped,
cursing him about something: the only answer was a lazy rub of the
"Got any 'baccy, Mars' John?" he whined, in the middle of the hottest
The man stopped abruptly, turning his pockets inside out.
"That's all, Ben," he said, kindly enough. "Now begone, you black
"Dem's um, Mars'! Goin' 'mediate,"--catching the tobacco, and lolling
down full length as his master turned off again.
Dave Hall, the sentry, stared reflectively, and sat down.
"Ben? Who air you next?"--nursing his musket across his knees,
Ben measured him with one eye, polished the quid in his greasy hand, and
looked at it.
"Pris'ner o' war," he mumbled, finally,--contemptuously; for Dave's
trousers were in rags like his own, and his chilblained toes stuck
through the shoe-tops. Cheap white trash, clearly.
"Yer master's some at swearin'. Heow many, neow, hes he like you, down
The boatman's bony face was gathering a woful pity. He had enlisted to
free the Uncle Toms, and carry God's vengeance to the Legrees. Here they
were, a pair of them.
Ben squinted another critical survey of the "miss'able Linkinite."
"How many wells hev _yer_ poisoned since yer set out?" he muttered.
The sentry stopped.
"How many 'longin' to de Lamars? 'Bout as many as der's dam' Yankees in
Something in Dave's shrewd, whitish eye warned him off.
"Ki yi! yer white nigger, yer!" he chuckled, shuffling down the stubble.
Dave clicked his musket,--then, choking down an oath into a grim
Methodist psalm, resumed his walk, looking askance at the coarse-moulded
face of the prisoner peering through the bars, and the diamond studs in
his shirt,--bought with human blood, doubtless. The man was the black
curse of slavery itself in the flesh, in his thought somehow, and he
hated him accordingly. Our men of the Northwest have enough brawny
Covenanter muscle in their religion to make them good haters for
Lamar, the prisoner, watched him with a lazy drollery in his sluggish
black eyes. It died out into sternness, as he looked beyond the sentry.
He had seen this Cheat country before; this very plantation was his
grandfather's a year ago, when he had come up from Georgia here, and
loitered out the summer months with his Virginia cousins, hunting. That
was a pleasant summer! Something in the remembrance of it flashed into
his eyes, dewy, genial; the man's leather-covered face reddened like a
child's. Only a year ago,--and now----The plantation was Charley Dorr's
now, who had married Ruth. This very shed he and Dorr had planned last
spring, and now Charley held him a prisoner in it. The very thought of
Charley Dorr warmed his heart. Why, he could thank God there were such
men. True grit, every inch of his little body! There, last summer, how
he had avoided Ruth until the day when he (Lamar) was going away!--then
he told him he meant to try and win her. "She cared most for you
always," Lamar had said, bitterly; "why have you waited so long?" "You
loved her first, John, you know." That was like a man! He remembered
that even that day, when his pain was breathless and sharp, the words
made him know that Dorr was fit to be her husband.
Dorr was his friend. The word meant much to John Lamar. He thought less
meanly of himself, when he remembered it. Charley's prisoner! An odd
chance! Better that than to have met in battle. He thrust back the
thought, the sweat oozing out on his face,--something within him
muttering, "For Liberty! I would have killed him, so help me God!"
He had brought despatches to General Lee, that he might see Charley, and
the old place, and--Ruth again; there was a gnawing hunger in his heart
to see them. Fool! what was he to them? The man's face grew slowly
pale, as that of a savage or an animal does, when the wound is deep and
The November day was dead, sunless: since morning the sky had had only
enough life in it to sweat out a few muddy drops, that froze as they
fell: the cold numbed his mouth as he breathed it. This stubbly slope
was where he and his grandfather had headed the deer: it was covered
with hundreds of dirty, yellow tents now. Around there were hills like
uncouth monsters, swathed in ice, holding up the soggy sky; shivering
pine-forests; unmeaning, dreary flats; and the Cheat, coiled about the
frozen sinews of the hills, limp and cold, like a cord tying a dead
man's jaws. Whatever outlook of joy or worship this region had borne on
its face in time gone, it turned to him to-day nothing but stagnation,
a great death. He wondered idly, looking at it, (for the old Huguenot
brain of the man was full of morbid fancies,) if it were winter alone
that had deadened color and pulse out of these full-blooded hills, or if
they could know the colder horror crossing their threshold, and forgot
to praise God as it came.
Over that farthest ridge the house had stood. The guard (he had been
taken by a band of Snake-hunters, back in the hills) had brought him
past it. It was a heap of charred rafters. "Burned in the night," they
said, "when the old Colonel was alone." They were very willing to
show him this, as it was done by his own party, the Secession
"Bush-whackers"; took him to the wood-pile to show him where his
grandfather had been murdered, (there was a red mark,) and buried, his
old hands above the ground. "Colonel said 't was a job fur us to pay up;
so we went to the village an' hed a scrimmage,"--pointing to gaps in
the hedges where the dead Bush-whackers yet lay unburied. He looked at
them, and at the besotted faces about him, coolly.
Snake-hunters and Bush-whackers, he knew, both armies used in Virginia
as tools for rapine and murder: the sooner the Devil called home his
own, the better. And yet, it was not God's fault, surely, that there
were such tools in the North, any more than that in the South Ben
was--Ben. Something was rotten in freer States than Denmark, he thought.
One of the men went into the hedge, and brought out a child's golden
ringlet as a trophy. Lamar glanced in, and saw the small face in its
woollen hood, dimpled yet, though dead for days. He remembered it. Jessy
Birt, the ferryman's little girl. She used to come up to the house every
day for milk. He wondered for which flag _she_ died. Ruth was teaching
her to write. _Ruth!_ Some old pain hurt him just then, nearer than even
the blood of the old man or the girl crying to God from the ground. The
sergeant mistook the look. "They'll be buried," he said, gruffly. "Ye
brought it on yerselves." And so led him to the Federal camp.
The afternoon grew colder, as he stood looking out of the guard-house.
Snow began to whiten through the gray. He thrust out his arm through the
wicket, his face kindling with childish pleasure, as he looked closer at
the fairy stars and crowns on his shaggy sleeve. If Floy were here! She
never had seen snow. When the flakes had melted off, he took a case out
of his pocket to look at Floy. His sister,--a little girl who had no
mother, nor father, nor lover, but Lamar. The man among his brother
officers in Richmond was coarse, arrogant, of dogged courage, keen
palate at the table, as keen eye on the turf. Sickly little Floy, down
at home, knew the way to something below all this: just as they of the
Rommany blood see below the muddy boulders of the streets the enchanted
land of Boabdil bare beneath. Lamar polished the ivory painting with his
breath, remembering that he had drunk nothing for days. A child's face,
of about twelve, delicate,--a breath of fever or cold would shatter such
weak beauty; big, dark eyes, (her mother was pure Castilian,) out of
which her little life looked irresolute into the world, uncertain what
to do there. The painter, with an unapt fancy, had clustered about the
Southern face the Southern emblem, buds of the magnolia, unstained, as
yet, as pearl. It angered Lamar, remembering how the creamy whiteness of
the full-blown flower exhaled passion of which the crimsonest rose knew
nothing,--a content, ecstasy, in animal life. Would Floy----Well, God
help them both! they needed help. Three hundred souls was a heavy weight
for those thin little hands to hold sway over,--to lead to hell or
heaven. Up North they could have worked for her, and gained only her
money. So Lamar reasoned, like a Georgian: scribbling a letter to
"My Baby" on the wrapper of a newspaper,--drawing the shapes of the
snowflakes,--telling her he had reached their grandfather's plantation,
but "have not seen our Cousin Ruth yet, of whom you may remember I have
told you, Floy. When you grow up, I should like you to be just such a
woman; so remember, my darling, if I"----He scratched the last words
out: why should he hint to her that he could die? Holding his life loose
in his hand, though, had brought things closer to him lately,--God and
death, this war, the meaning of it all. But he would keep his brawny
body between these terrible realities and Floy, yet awhile. "I want
you," he wrote, "to leave the plantation, and go with your old maumer to
the village. It will be safer there." He was sure the letter would reach
her. He had a plan to escape to-night, and he could put it into a post
inside the lines. Ben was to get a small hand-saw that would open the
wicket; the guards were not hard to elude. Glancing up, he saw the negro
stretched by a camp-fire, listening to the gaunt boatman, who was off
duty. Preaching Abolitionism, doubtless: he could hear Ben's derisive
shouts of laughter. "And so, good bye, Baby Florence!" he scrawled. "I
wish I could send you some of this snow, to show you what the floor of
heaven is like."
While the snow fell faster--without, he stopped writing, and began idly
drawing a map of Georgia on the tan-bark with a stick. Here the Federal
troops could effect a landing: he knew the defences at that point. If
they did? He thought of these Snake-hunters who had found in the war a
peculiar road for themselves downward with no gallows to stumble over,
fancied he saw them skulking through the fields at Cedar Creek, closing
around the house, and behind them a mass of black faces and bloody
bayonets. Floy alone, and he here,--like a rat in a trap! "God keep my
little girl!" he wrote, unsteadily. "God bless you, Floy!" He gasped for
breath, as if he had been writing with his heart's blood. Folding up the
paper, he hid it inside his shirt and began his dogged walk, calculating
the chances of escape. Once out of this shed, he could baffle a
blood-hound, he knew the hills so well.
His head bent down, he did not see a man who stood looking at him over
the wicket. Captain Dorr. A puny little man, with thin yellow hair, and
womanish face: but not the less the hero of his men,--they having found
out, somehow, that muscle was not the solidest thing to travel on in
war-times. Our regiments of "roughs" were not altogether crowned with
laurel at Manassas! So the men built more on the old Greatheart soul
in the man's blue eyes: one of those souls born and bred pure, sent to
teach, that can find breath only in the free North. His hearty "Hillo!"
"How are you, old fellow?" he said, unlocking the gate and coming in.
Lamar threw off his wretched thoughts, glad to do it. What need to
borrow trouble? He liked a laugh,--had a lazy, jolly humor of his own.
Dorr had finished drill, and come up, as he did every day, to freshen
himself with an hour's talk to this warm, blundering fellow. In this
dismal war-work, (though his whole soul was in that, too,) it was
like putting your hands to a big blaze. Dorr had no near relations;
Lamar--they had played marbles together--stood to him where a younger
brother might have stood. Yet, as they talked, he could not help his
keen eye seeing him just as he was.
Poor John! he thought: the same uncouth-looking effort of humanity that
he had been at Yale. No wonder the Northern boys jeered him, with his
sloth-ways, his mouthed English, torpid eyes, and brain shut up in that
worst of mud-moulds,--belief in caste. Even now, going up and down the
tan-bark, his step was dead, sodden, like that of a man in whose life
God had not yet wakened the full live soul. It was wakening, though,
Dorr thought. Some pain or passion was bringing the man in him out of
the flesh, vigilant, alert, aspirant. A different man from Dorr.
In fact, Lamar was just beginning to think for himself, and of course
his thoughts were defiant, intolerant. He did not comprehend how his
companion could give his heresies such quiet welcome, and pronounce
sentence of death on them so coolly. Because Dorr had gone farther up
the mountain, had he the right to make him follow in the same steps?
The right,--that was it. By brute force, too? Human freedom, eh?
Consequently, their talks were stormy enough. To-day, however, they were
on trivial matters.
"I've brought the General's order for your release at last, John. It
confines you to this district, however."
Lamar shook his head.
"No parole for me! My stake outside is too heavy for me to remain a
prisoner on anything but compulsion. I mean to escape, if I can. Floy
has nobody but me, you know, Charley."
There was a moment's silence.
"I wish," said Dorr, half to himself, "the child was with her cousin
Ruth. If she could make her a woman like herself!"
"You are kind," Lamar forced out, thinking of what might have been a
Dorr had forgotten. He had just kissed little Ruth at the door-step,
coming away: thinking, as he walked up to camp, how her clear thought,
narrow as it was, was making his own higher, more just; wondering if
the tears on her face last night, when she got up from her knees after
prayer, might not help as much in the great cause of truth as the life
he was ready to give. He was so used to his little wife now, that he
could look to no hour of his past life, nor of the future coming ages
of event and work, where she was not present,--very flesh of his flesh,
heart of his heart. A gulf lay between them and the rest of the world.
It was hardly probable he could see her as a woman towards whom another
man looked across the gulf, dumb, hopeless, defrauded of his right.
"She sent you some flowers, by the way, John,--the last in the
yard,--and bade me be sure and bring you down with me. Your own colors,
you see?--to put you in mind of home,"--pointing to the crimson asters
flaked with snow.
The man smiled faintly: the smell of the flowers choked him: he laid
them aside. God knows he was trying to wring out this bitter old
thought: he could not look in Dorr's frank eyes while it was there.
He must escape to-night: he never would come near them again, in this
world, or beyond death,--never! He thought of that like a man going to
drag through eternity with half his soul gone. Very well: there was man
enough left in him to work honestly and bravely, and to thank God for
that good pure love he yet had. He turned to Dorr with a flushed face,
and began talking of Floy in hearty earnest,--glancing at Ben coming up
the hill, thinking that escape depended on him.
"I ordered your man up," said Captain Dorr. "Some canting Abolitionist
had him open-mouthed down there."
The negro came in, and stood in the corner, listening while they talked.
A gigantic fellow, with a gladiator's muscles. Stronger than that Yankee
captain, he thought,--than either of them: better breathed,--drawing the
air into his brawny chest. "A man and a brother." Did the fool think he
didn't know that before? He had a contempt for Dave and his like. Lamar
would have told you Dave's words were true, but despised the man as a
crude, unlicked bigot. Ben did the same, with no words for the idea. The
negro instinct in him recognized gentle blood by any of its signs,--the
transparent animal life, the reticent eye, the mastered voice: he
had better men than Lamar at home to learn it from. It is a trait of
serfdom, the keen eye to measure the inherent rights of a man to be
master. A negro or a Catholic Irishman does not need "Sartor Resartus"
to help him to see through any clothes. Ben leaned, half-asleep, against
the wall, some old thoughts creeping out of their hiding-places through
the torpor, like rats to the sunshine: the boatman's slang had been hot
and true enough to rouse them in his brain.
"So, Ben," said his master, as he passed once, "your friend has been
persuading you to exchange the cotton-fields at Cedar Creek for New-York
"Ki!" laughed Ben, "white darkey. Mind ole dad, Mars' John, as took off
in der swamp? Um asked dat Linkinite ef him saw dad up Norf. Guess him's
free now. Ki! ole dad!"
"The swamp was the place for him," said Lamar. "I remember."
"Dunno," said the negro, surlily: "him's dad, af'er all: tink him's free
now,"--and mumbled down into a monotonous drone about
"Oh yo, bredern, is yer gwine ober Jordern?"
Half-asleep, they thought,--but with dull questionings at work in his
brain, some queer notions about freedom, of that unknown North, mostly
mixed with his remembrance of his father, a vicious old negro, that in
Pennsylvania would have worked out his salvation in the under cell of
the penitentiary, but in Georgia, whipped into heroism, had betaken
himself into the swamp, and never returned. Tradition among the Lamar
slaves said he had got off to Ohio, of which they had as clear an idea
as most of us have of heaven. At any rate, old Kite became a mystery, to
be mentioned with awe at fish-bakes and barbecues. He was this uncouth
wretch's father,--do you understand? The flabby-faced boy, flogged in
the cotton-field for whining after his dad, or hiding away part of his
flitch and molasses for months in hopes the old man would come back, was
rather a comical object, you would have thought. Very different his,
from the feeling with which you left your mother's grave,--though as yet
we have not invented names for the emotions of those people. We'll grant
that it hurt Ben a little, however. Even the young polypus, when it is
torn from the old one, bleeds a drop or two, they say. As he grew up,
the great North glimmered through his thought, a sort of big field,--a
paradise of no work, no flogging, and white bread every day, where the
old man sat and ate his fill.
The second point in Ben's history was that he fell in love. Just as
you did,--with the difference, of course: though the hot sun, or the
perpetual foot upon his breast, does not make our black Prometheus less
fierce in his agony of hope or jealousy than you, I am afraid. It was
Nan, a pale mulatto house-servant, that the field-hand took into his
dull, lonesome heart to make life of, with true-love defiance of caste.
I think Nan liked him very truly. She was lame and sickly, and if Ben
was black and a picker, and stayed in the quarters, he was strong, like
a master to her in some ways: the only thing she could call hers in the
world was the love the clumsy boy gave her. White women feel in that
way sometimes, and it makes them very tender to men not their equals.
However, old Mrs. Lamar, before she died, gave her house-servants their
free papers, and Nan was among them. So she set off, with all the finery
little Floy could give her: went up into that great, dim North. She
never came again.
The North swallowed up all Ben knew or felt outside of his hot, hated
work, his dread of a lashing on Saturday night. All the pleasure left
him was 'possum and hominy for Sunday's dinner. It did not content him.
The spasmodic religion of the field-negro does not teach endurance. So
it came, that the slow tide of discontent ebbing in everybody's heart
towards some unreached sea set in his ignorant brooding towards that
vague country which the only two who cared for him had found. If he
forgot it through the dogged, sultry days, he remembered it when the
overseer scourged the dull tiger-look into his eyes, or when, husking
corn with the others at night, the smothered negro-soul, into which
their masters dared not look, broke out in their wild, melancholy songs.
Aimless, unappealing, yet no prayer goes up to God more keen in its
pathos. You find, perhaps, in Beethoven's seventh symphony the secrets
of your heart made manifest, and suddenly think of a Somewhere to come,
where your hope waits for you with late fulfilment. Do not laugh at Ben,
then, if he dully told in his song the story of all he had lost, or gave
to his heaven a local habitation and a name.
From the place where he stood now, as his master and Dorr walked up and
down, he could see the purplish haze beyond which the sentry had told
him lay the North. The North! Just beyond the ridge. There was a pain
in his head, looking at it; his nerves grew cold and rigid, as yours do
when something wrings your heart sharply: for there are nerves in these
black carcasses, thicker, more quickly stung to madness than yours. Yet
if any savage longing, smouldering for years, was heating to madness now
in his brain, there was no sign of it in his face. Vapid, with sordid
content, the huge jaws munching tobacco slowly, only now and then the
beady eye shot a sharp glance after Dorr. The sentry had told him the
Northern army had come to set the slaves free; he watched the Federal
"What ails you, Ben?" said his master. "Thinking over your friend's
Ben's stolid laugh was ready.
"Done forgot dat, Mars'. Wouldn't go, nohow. Since Mars' sold dat cussed
Joe, gorry good times 't home. Dam' Abolitioner say we ums all goin'
Norf,"--with a stealthy glance at Dorr.
"That's more than your philanthropy bargains for, Charley," laughed
The men stopped; the negro skulked nearer, his whole senses sharpened
into hearing. Dorr's clear face was clouded.
"This slave question must be kept out of the war. It puts a false face
"I thought one face was what it needed," said Lamar. "You have too many
slogans. Strong government, tariff, Sumter, a bit of bunting, eleven
dollars a month. It ought to be a vital truth that would give soul and
_vim_ to a body with the differing members of your army. You, with your
ideal theory, and Billy Wilson with his 'Blood and Baltimore!' Try human
freedom. That's high and sharp and broad."
Ben drew a step closer.
"You are shrewd, Lamar. I am to go below all constitutions or expediency
or existing rights, and tell Ben here that he is free? When once the
Government accepts that doctrine, you, as a Rebel, must be let alone."
The slave was hid back in the shade.
"Dorr," said Lamar, "you know I'm a groping, ignorant fellow, but it
seems to me that prating of constitutions and existing rights is surface
talk; there is a broad common-sense underneath, by whose laws the world
is governed, which your statesmen don't touch often. You in the North,
in your dream of what shall be, shut your eyes to what is. You want a
republic where every man's voice shall be heard in the council, and the
majority shall rule. Granting that the free population are educated to a
fitness for this,--(God forbid I should grant it with the Snake-hunters
before my eyes!)--look here!"
He turned round, and drew the slave out into the light: he crouched
down, gaping vacantly at them.
"There is Ben. What, in God's name, will you do with him? Keep him a
slave, and chatter about self-government? Pah! The country is paying in
blood for the lie, to-day. Educate him for freedom, by putting a musket
in his hands? We have this mass of heathendom drifted on our shores by
your will as well as mine. Try to bring them to a level with the whites
by a wrench, and you'll waken out of your dream to a sharp reality. Your
Northern philosophy ought to be old enough to teach you that spasms in
the body-politic shake off no atom of disease,--that reform, to be
enduring, must be patient, gradual, inflexible as the Great Reformer.
'The mills of God,' the old proverb says, 'grind surely.' But, Dorr,
they grind exceeding slow!"
Dorr watched Lamar with an amused smile. It pleased him to see his brain
waking up, eager, vehement. As for Ben, crouching there, if they talked
of him like a clod, heedless that his face deepened in stupor, that his
eyes had caught a strange, gloomy treachery,--we all do the same, you
"What is your remedy, Lamar? You have no belief in the right of
Secession, I know," said Dorr.
"It's a bad instrument for a good end. Let the white Georgian come out
of his sloth, and the black will rise with him. Jefferson Davis may not
intend it, but God does. When we have our Lowell, our New York, when we
are a self-sustaining people instead of lazy land-princes, Ben here will
have climbed the second of the great steps of Humanity. Do you laugh at
us?" said Lamar, with a quiet self-reliance. "Charley, it needs only
work and ambition to cut the brute away from my face, and it will leave
traits very like your own. Ben's father was a Guinea fetich-worshipper;
when we stand where New England does, Ben's son will be ready for his
"And while you theorize," laughed Dorr, "I hold you a prisoner, John,
and Ben knows it is his right to be free. He will not wait for the
grinding of the mill, I fancy."
Lamar did not smile. It was womanish in the man, when the life of great
nations hung in doubt before them, to go back so constantly to little
Floy sitting in the lap of her old black maumer. But he did it,--with
the quick thought that to-night he must escape, that death lay in delay.
While Dorr talked, Lamar glanced significantly at Ben. The negro was not
slow to understand,--with a broad grin, touching his pocket, from which
projected the dull end of a hand-saw. I wonder what sudden pain made the
negro rise just then, and come close to his master, touching him with a
strange affection and remorse in his tired face, as though he had done
him some deadly wrong.
"What is it, old fellow?" said Lamar, in his boyish way. "Homesick, eh?
There's a little girl in Georgia that will be glad to see you and your
master, and take precious good care of us when she gets us safe again.
That's true, Ben!" laying his hand kindly on the man's shoulder, while
his eyes went wandering off to the hills lying South.
"Yes, Mars'," said Ben, in a low voice, suddenly bringing a
blacking-brush, and beginning to polish his master's shoes,--thinking,
while he did it, of how often Mars' John had interfered with the
overseers to save him from a flogging,--(Lamar, in his lazy way,
was kind to his slaves,)--thinking of little Mist' Floy with an odd
tenderness and awe, as a gorilla might of a white dove: trying to think
thus,--the simple, kindly nature of the negro struggling madly with
something beneath, new and horrible. He understood enough of the talk of
the white men to know that there was no help for him,--none. Always a
slave. Neither you nor I can ever know what those words meant to him.
The pale purple mist where the North lay was never to be passed. His
dull eyes turned to it constantly,--with a strange look, such as the
lost women might have turned to the door, when Jesus shut it: they
forever outside. There was a way to help himself? The stubby black
fingers holding the brush grew cold and clammy,--noting withal, the poor
wretch in his slavish way, that his master's clothes were finer than the
Northern captain's, his hands whiter, and proud that it was so,--holding
Lamar's foot daintily, trying to see himself in the shoe, smoothing down
the trousers with a boorish, affectionate touch,--with the same fierce
whisper in his ear, Would the shoes ever be cleaned again? would the
foot move to-morrow?
It grew late. Lamar's supper was brought up from Captain Dorr's, and
placed on the bench. He poured out a goblet of water.
"Come, Charley, let's drink. To Liberty! It is a war-cry for Satan or
They drank, laughing, while Ben stood watching. Dorr turned to go, but
Lamar called him back,--stood resting his hand on his shoulder: he never
thought to see him again, you know.
"Look at Ruth, yonder," said Dorr, his face lighting. "She is coming to
meet us. She thought you would be with me."
Lamar looked gravely down at the low field-house and the figure at the
gate. He thought he could see the small face and earnest eyes, though it
was far off, and night was closing.
"She is waiting for you, Charley. Go down. Good night, old chum!"
If it cost any effort to say it, Dorr saw nothing of it.
"Good night, Lamar! I'll see you in the morning."
He lingered. His old comrade looked strangely alone and desolate.
"What is it, Dorr?"
"If I could tell the Colonel you would take the oath? For Floy's sake."
The man's rough face reddened.
"You should know me better. Good bye."
"Well, well, you are mad. Have you no message for Ruth?"
There was a moment's silence.
"Tell her I say, God bless her!"
Dorr stopped and looked keenly in his face,--then, coming back, shook
hands again, in a different way from before, speaking in a lower
"God help us all, John! Good night!"--and went slowly down the hill.
It was nearly night, and bitter cold. Lamar stood where the snow drifted
in on him, looking out through the horizon-less gray.
"Come out o' dem cold, Mars' John," whined Ben, pulling at his coat.
As the night gathered, the negro was haunted with a terrified wish to be
kind to his master. Something told him that the time was short. Here and
there through the far night some tent-fire glowed in a cone of ruddy
haze, through which the thick-falling snow shivered like flakes of
light. Lamar watched only the square block of shadow where Dorr's house
stood. The door opened at last, and a broad, cheerful gleam shot out
red darts across the white waste without; then he saw two figures go
in together. They paused a moment; he put his head against the bars,
straining his eyes, and saw that the woman turned, shading her eyes
with her hand, and looked up to the side of the mountain where the
guard-house lay,--with a kindly look, perhaps, for the prisoner out in
the cold. A kind look: that was all. The door shut on them. Forever: so,
good night, Ruth!
He stool there for an hour or two, leaning his head against the muddy
planks, smoking. Perhaps, in his coarse fashion, he took the trouble of
his manhood back to the same God he used to pray to long ago. When he
turned at last, and spoke, it was with a quiet, strong voice, like one
who would fight through life in a manly way. There was a grating sound
at the back of the shed: it was Ben, sawing through the wicket, the
guard having lounged off to supper. Lamar watched him, noticing that the
negro was unusually silent. The plank splintered, and hung loose.
"Done gone, Mars' John, now,"--leaving it, and beginning to replenish
"That's right, Ben. We'll start in the morning. That sentry at two
o'clock sleeps regularly."
Ben chuckled, heaping up the sticks.
"Go on down to the camp, as usual. At two, Ben, remember! We will be
free to-night, old boy!"
The black face looked up from the clogging smoke with a curious stare.
"Ki! we'll be free to-night, Mars'!"--gulping his breath.
Soon after, the sentry unlocked the gate, and he shambled off out into
the night. Lamar, left alone, went closer to the fire, and worked busily
at some papers he drew from his pocket: maps and schedules. He intended
to write until two o'clock; but the blaze dying down, he wrapped his
blanket about him, and lay down on the heaped straw, going on sleepily,
in his brain, with his calculations.
The negro, in the shadow of the shed, watched him. A vague fear beset
him,--of the vast, white cold,--the glowering mountains,--of himself;
he clung to the familiar face, like a man drifting out into an unknown
sea, clutching some relic of the shore. When Lamar fell asleep, he
wandered uncertainly towards the tents. The world had grown new,
strange; was he Ben, picking cotton in the swamp-edge?--plunging his
fingers with a shudder in the icy drifts. Down in the glowing torpor of
the Santilla flats, where the Lamar plantations lay, Ben had slept off
as maddening hunger for life and freedom as this of to-day; but here,
with the winter air stinging every nerve to life, with the perpetual
mystery of the mountains terrifying his bestial nature down, the
strength of the man stood up: groping, blind, malignant, it may be; but
whose fault was that? He was half-frozen: the physical pain sharpened
the keen doubt conquering his thought. He sat down in the crusted snow,
looking vacantly about him, a man, at last,--but wakening, like a
new-born soul, into a world of unutterable solitude. Wakened dully,
slowly; sitting there far into the night, pondering stupidly on his old
life; crushing down and out the old parasite affection for his master,
the old fears, the old weight threatening to press out his thin life;
the muddy blood heating, firing with the same heroic dream that bade
Tell and Garibaldi lift up their hands to God, and cry aloud that they
were men and free: the same,--God-given, burning in the imbruted veins
of a Guinea slave. To what end? May God be merciful to America while
she answers the question! He sat, rubbing his cracked, bleeding feet,
glancing stealthily at the southern hills. Beyond them lay all that was
past; in an hour he would follow Lamar back to--what? He lifted his
hands up to the sky, in his silly way sobbing hot tears. "Gor-a'mighty,
Mars' Lord, I'se tired," was all the prayer he made. The pale purple
mist was gone from the North; the ridge behind which love, freedom
waited, struck black across the sky, a wall of iron. He looked at it
drearily. Utterly alone: he had always been alone. He got up at last,
with a sigh.
"It's a big world,"--with a bitter chuckle,--"but der's no room in it
fur poor Ben."
He dragged himself through the snow to a light in a tent where a
voice in a wild drone, like that he had heard at negro camp-meetings,
attracted him. He did not go in: stood at the tent-door, listening. Two
or three of the guard stood around, leaning on their muskets; in the
vivid fire-light rose the gaunt figure of the Illinois boatman, swaying
to and fro as he preached. For the men were honest, God-fearing souls,
members of the same church, and Dave, in all integrity of purpose, read
aloud to them,--the cry of Jeremiah against the foul splendors of the
doomed city,--waving, as he spoke, his bony arm to the South. The shrill
voice was that of a man wrestling with his Maker. The negro's fired
brain caught the terrible meaning of the words,--found speech in it:
the wide, dark night, the solemn silence of the men, were only fitting
The man caught sight of the slave, and, laying down his book, began one
of those strange exhortations in the manner of his sect. Slow at first,
full of unutterable pity. There was room for pity. Pointing to the human
brute crouching there, made once in the image of God,--the saddest
wreck on His green foot-stool: to the great stealthy body, the
revengeful jaws, the foreboding eyes. Soul, brains,--a man, wifeless,
homeless, nationless, hawked, flung from trader to trader for a handful
of dirty shinplasters. "Lord God of hosts," cried the man, lifting up
his trembling hands, "lay not this sin to our charge!" There was a scar
on Ben's back where the lash had buried itself: it stung now in the
cold. He pulled his clothes tighter, that they should not see it; the
scar and the words burned into his heart: the childish nature of the man
was gone; the vague darkness in it took a shape and name. The boatman
had been praying for him; the low words seemed to shake the night:--
"Hear the prayer of Thy servant, and his supplications! Is not this what
Thou hast chosen: to loose the bands, to undo the heavy burdens, and let
the oppressed go free? O Lord, hear! O Lord, hearken and do! Defer not
for Thine own sake, O my God!"
"What shall I do?" said the slave, standing up.
The boatman paced slowly to and fro, his voice chording in its dull
monotone with the smothered savage muttering in the negro's brain.
"The day of the Lord cometh; it is nigh at hand. Who can abide it? What
saith the prophet Jeremiah? 'Take up a burden against the South. Cry
aloud, spare not. Woe unto Babylon, for the day of her vengeance is
come, the day of her visitation! Call together the archers against
Babylon; camp against it round about; let none thereof escape.
Recompense her: as she hath done unto my people, be it done unto her.
A sword is upon Babylon: it shall break in pieces the shepherd and his
flock, the man and the woman, the young man and the maid. I will render
unto her the evil she hath done in my sight, saith the Lord.'"
It was the voice of God: the scar burned fiercer; the slave came forward
"Mars'er, what shall I do?"
"Give the poor devil a musket," said one of the men. "Let him come with
us, and strike a blow for freedom."
He took a knife from his belt, and threw it to him, then sauntered off
to his tent.
"A blow for freedom?" mumbled Ben, taking it up.
"Let us sing to the praise of God," said the boatman, "the sixty-eighth
psalm," lining it out while they sang,--the scattered men joining,
partly to keep themselves awake. In old times David's harp charmed away
the demon from a human heart. It roused one now, never to be laid again.
A dull, droning chant, telling how the God of Vengeance rode upon the
wind, swift to loose the fetters of the chained, to make desert the
rebellious land; with a chorus, or refrain, in which Ben's wild,
melancholy cry sounded like the wail of an avenging spirit:--
"That in the blood of enemies
Thy foot imbrued may be:
And of thy dogs dipped in the same
The tongues thou mayest see."
The meaning of that was plain; he sang it lower and more steadily each
time, his body swaying in cadence, the glitter in his eye more steely.
Lamar, asleep in his prison, was wakened by the far-off plaintive song:
he roused himself, leaning on one elbow, listening with a half-smile. It
was Naomi they sang, he thought,--an old-fashioned Methodist air that
Floy had caught from the negroes, and used to sing to him sometimes.
Every night, down at home, she would come to his parlor-door to say
good-night: he thought he could see the little figure now in its white
nightgown, and hear the bare feet pattering on the matting. When he was
alone, she would come in, and sit on his lap awhile, and kneel down
before she went away, her head on his knee, to say her prayers, as she
called it. Only God knew how many times he had remained alone after
hearing those prayers, saved from nights of drunken debauch. He thought
he felt Floy's pure little hand on his forehead now, as if she were
saying her usual "Good night, Bud." He lay down to sleep again, with a
genial smile on his face, listening to the hymn.
"It's the same God," he said,--"Floy's and theirs."
Outside, as he slept, a dark figure watched him. The song of the men
ceased. Midnight, white and silent, covered the earth. He could hear
only the slow breathing of the sleeper. Ben's black face grew ashy pale,
but he did not tremble, as he crept, cat-like, up to the wicket, his
blubber lips apart, the white teeth clenched.
"It's for Freedom, Mars' Lord!" he gasped, looking up to the sky, as if
he expected an answer. "Gor-a'mighty, it's for Freedom!" And went in.
A belated bird swooped through the cold moonlight into the valley, and
vanished in the far mountain-cliffs with a low, fearing cry, as though
it had passed through Hades.
They had broken down the wicket: he saw them lay the heavy body on the
lumber outside, the black figures hurrying over the snow. He laughed
low, savagely, watching them. Free now! The best of them despised him;
the years past of cruelty and oppression turned back, fused in a slow,
deadly current of revenge and hate, against the race that had trodden
him down. He felt the iron muscles of his fingers, looked close at the
glittering knife he held, chuckling at the strange smell it bore. Would
the Illinois boatman blame him, if it maddened him? And if Ben took the
fancy to put it to his throat, what right has he to complain? Has not he
also been a dweller in Babylon? He hesitated a moment in the cleft of
the hill, choosing his way, exultantly. He did not watch the North now;
the quiet old dream of content was gone; his thick blood throbbed and
surged with passions of which you and I know nothing: he had a lost life
to avenge. His native air, torrid, heavy with latent impurity, drew him
back: a fitter breath than this cold snow for the animal in his body,
the demon in his soul, to triumph and wallow in. He panted, thinking of
the saffron hues of the Santilla flats, of the white, stately dwellings,
the men that went in and out from them, quiet, dominant,--feeling the
edge of his knife. It was his turn to be master now! He ploughed his way
doggedly through the snow,--panting, as he went,--a hotter glow in his
gloomy eyes. It was his turn for pleasure now: he would have his fill!
Their wine and their gardens and----He did not need to choose a wife
from his own color now. He stopped, thinking of little Floy, with her
curls and great listening eyes, watching at the door for her brother.
He had watched her climb up into his arms and kiss his cheek. She never
would do that again! He laughed aloud, shrilly. By God! she should keep
the kiss for other lips! Why should he not say it?
Up on the hill the night-air throbbed colder and holier. The guards
stood about in the snow, silent, troubled. This was not like a death in
battle: it put them in mind of home, somehow. All that the dying man
said was, "Water," now and then. He had been sleeping, when struck,
and never had thoroughly wakened from his dream. Captain Poole, of the
Snake-hunters, had wrapped him in his own blanket, finding nothing more
could be done. He went off to have the Colonel summoned now, muttering
that it was "a damned shame." They put snow to Lamar's lips constantly,
being hot and parched; a woman, Dorr's wife, was crouching on the ground
beside him, chafing his hands, keeping down her sobs for fear they would
disturb him. He opened his eyes at last, and knew Dorr, who held his
"Unfasten my coat, Charley. What makes it so close here?"
Dorr could not speak.
"Shall I lift you up, Captain Lamar?" asked Dave Hall, who stood leaning
on his rifle.
He spoke in a subdued tone, Babylon being far off for the moment. Lamar
dozed again before he could answer.
"Don't try to move him,--it is too late," said Dorr, sharply.
The moonlight steeped mountain and sky in a fresh whiteness. Lamar's
face, paling every moment, hardening, looked in it like some solemn work
of an untaught sculptor. There was a breathless silence. Ruth, kneeling
beside him, felt his hand grow slowly colder than the snow. He moaned,
his voice going fast,--
"At two, Ben, old fellow! We'll be free to-night!"
Dave, stooping to wrap the blanket, felt his hand wet: he wiped it with
"As he hath done unto My people, be it done unto him!" he muttered, but
the words did not comfort him.
Lamar moved, half-smiling.
"That's right, Floy. What is it she says? 'Now I lay me down'----I
forget. Good night. Kiss me, Floy."
He waited,--looked up uneasily. Dorr looked at his wife: she stooped,
and kissed his lips. Charley smoothed back the hair from the damp face
with as tender a touch as a woman's. Was he dead? The white moonlight
was not more still than the calm face.
Suddenly the night-air was shattered by a wild, revengeful laugh from
the hill. The departing soul rushed back, at the sound, to life, full
consciousness. Lamar started from their hold,--sat up.
"It was Ben," he said, slowly.
In that dying flash of comprehension, it may be, the wrongs of the white
man and the black stood clearer to his eyes than ours: the two lives
trampled down. The stern face of the boatman bent over him: he was
trying to stanch the flowing blood. Lamar looked at him: Hall saw no
bitterness in the look,--a quiet, sad question rather, before which his
soul lay bare. He felt the cold hand touch his shoulder, saw the pale
"Was this well done?" they said.
Before Lamar's eyes the rounded arch of gray receded, faded into dark;
the negro's fierce laugh filled his ear: some woful thought at the sound
wrung his soul, as it halted at the gate. It caught at the simple faith
his mother taught him.
"Yea," he said aloud, "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of
death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me."
Dorr gently drew down the uplifted hand. He was dead.
"It was a manly soul," said the Northern captain, his voice choking, as
he straightened the limp hair.
"He trusted in God? A strange delusion!" muttered the boatman.
Yet he did not like that they should leave him alone with Lamar, as
they did, going down for help. He paced to and fro, his rifle on his
shoulder, arming his heart with strength to accomplish the vengeance
of the Lord against Babylon. Yet he could not forget the murdered man
sitting there in the calm moonlight, the dead face turned towards the
North,--the dead face, whereon little Floy's tears should never fall.
The grave, unmoving eyes seemed to the boatman to turn to him with the
same awful question. "Was this well done?" they said. He thought in
eternity they would rise before him, sad, unanswered. The earth, he
fancied, lay whiter, colder,--the heaven farther off; the war, which had
become a daily business, stood suddenly before him in all its terrible
meaning. God, he thought, had met in judgment with His people. Yet he
uttered no cry of vengeance against the doomed city. With the dead face
before him, he bent his eyes to the ground, humble, uncertain,--speaking
out of the ignorance of his own weak, human soul.
"The day of the Lord is nigh," he said; "it is at hand; and who can
MONADNOCK FROM WACHUSET.
I would I were a painter, for the sake
Of a sweet picture, and of her who led,
A fitting guide, with light, but reverent tread,
Into that mountain mystery! First a lake
Tinted with sunset; next the wavy lines
Of far receding hills; and yet more far,
Monadnock lifting from his night of pines
His rosy forehead to the evening star.
Beside us, purple-zoned, Wachuset laid
His head against the West, whose warm light made
His aureole; and o'er him, sharp and clear,
Like a shaft of lightning in mid launching stayed,
A single level cloud-line, shone upon
By the fierce glances of the sunken sun,
Menaced the darkness with its golden spear!
So twilight deepened round us. Still and black
The great woods climbed the mountain at our back;
And on their skirts, where yet the lingering day
On the shorn greenness of the clearing lay,
The brown old farm-house like a bird's nest hung.
With home-life sounds the desert air was stirred:
The bleat of sheep along the hill we heard,
The bucket plashing in the cool, sweet well,
The pasture-bars that clattered as they fell;
Dogs barked, fowls fluttered, cattle lowed; the gate
Of the barn-yard creaked beneath the merry weight
Of sun-brown children, listening, while they swung,
The welcome sound of supper-call to hear;
And down the shadowy lane, in tinklings clear,
The pastoral curfew of the cow-bell rung.
Thus soothed and pleased, our backward path we took,
Praising the farmer's home. He only spake,
Looking into the sunset o'er the lake,
Like one to whom the far-off is most near:
"Yes, most folks think it has a pleasant look;
I love it for my good old mother's sake,
Who lived and died here in the peace of God!"
The lesson of his words we pondered o'er,
As silently we turned the eastern flank
Of the mountain, where its shadow deepest sank,
Doubling the night along our rugged road:
We felt that man was more than his abode,--
The inward life than Nature's raiment more;
And the warm sky, the sundown-tinted hill,
The forest and the lake, seemed dwarfed and dim
Before the saintly soul, whose human will
Meekly in the Eternal footsteps trod,
Making her homely toil and household ways
An earthly echo of the song of praise
Swelling from angel lips and harps of seraphim!
At a certain depth, as has already been intimated in our literature,
all bosoms communicate, all hearts are one. Hector and Ajax, in Homer's
great picture, stand face to face, each with advanced foot, with
levelled spear, and turgid sinew, eager to kill, while on either side
ten thousand slaughterous wishes poise themselves in hot breasts,
waiting to fly with the flying weapons; yet, though the combatants
seem to surrender themselves wholly to this action, there is in each a
profound element that is no party to these hostilities. It is the pure
nature of man. Ajax is not all Greek, nor is Hector wholly Trojan: both
are also men; and to the extent of their mutual participation in this
pure and perpetual element of Manhood, they are more than friends,
more than relatives,--they are of identical spirit. For there is an
imperishable nature of Man, ever and everywhere the same, of which each
particular man is a testimony and representation. As the solid earth
underruns the "dissociating sea"--_Oceano dissociabili_--and joins in
one all sundered lands, so does this nature dip beneath the dividing
parts of our being, and make of all men one simple and inseparable
humanity. In love, in friendship, in true conversation, in all happiness
of communion between men, it is this unchangeable substratum or
substance of man's being that is efficient and supreme: out of
divers bosoms, Same calls, and replies to Same with a great joy
of self-recognition. It is only in virtue of this nature that men
understand, appreciate, admire, trust each other,--that books of the
earliest times remain true in the latest,--that society is possible; and
he in whom the virtue of it dwells divinely is admitted to the secret
confidence of all bosoms, lives in all times, and converses with each
soul and age in its own vernacular. Socrates looked beyond the gates of
death for happy communion with Homer and all the great; but already we
interchange words with these, whenever we are so sweetly prospered as to
become, in some good degree, identical with the absolute nature of man.
Not only, moreover, is this immortal substance of man's being common and
social, but it is so great and venerable that no one can match it
with an equal report. All the epithets by which we would extol it
are disgraced by it, as the most brilliant artificial lights become
blackness when placed between the eye and the noonday sun. It is older,
it is earlier in existence than the earliest star that shone in heaven;
and it will outlive the fixed stars that now in heaven seem fixed
forever. There is nothing in the created universe of which it was not
the prophecy in its primal conception; there is nothing of which it is
not the interpretation and ultimatum in its final form. The laws which
rule the world as forces are, in it, thoughts and liberties. All the
grand imaginations of men, all the glorified shapes, the Olympian gods,
cherubic and seraphic forms, are but symbols and adumbrations of what it
contains. As the sun, having set, still leaves its golden impress on the
clouds, so does the absolute nature of man throw up and paint, as it
were, on the sky testimonies of its power, remaining itself unseen.
Only, therefore, is one a poet, as he can cause particular traits and
events, without violation of their special character, or concealment
of their peculiar interest, to bear the deep, sweet, and infinite
suggestion of this. All princeliness and imperial worth, all that is
regal, beautiful, pure in men, comes from this nature; and the words
by which we express reverence, admiration, love, borrow from it their
entire force: since reverence, admiration, love, and all other grand
sentiments, are but modes or forms of _noble unification_ between men,
and are therefore shown to spring from that spiritual unity of which
persons are exponents; while, on the other hand, all evil epithets
suggest division and separation. Of this nature all titles of honor, all
symbols that command homage and obedience on earth, are pensioners. How
could the claims of kings survive successions of Stuarts and Georges,
but for a royalty in each peasant's bosom that pleads for its poor image
on the throne?
In the high sense, no man is great save he that is a large continent of
this absolute humanity. The common nature of man it is; yet those are
ever, and in the happiest sense, uncommon men, in whom it is liberally
But every man, besides the nature which constitutes him man, has, so to
speak, another nature, which constitutes him a particular individual. He
is not only like all others of his kind, but, at the same time, unlike
all others. By physical and mental feature he is distinguished,
insulated; he is endowed with a quality so purely in contrast with the
common nature of man, that in virtue of it he can be singled out from
hundreds of millions, from all the myriads of his race. So far, now, as
one is representative of absolute humanity, he is a Person; so far
as, by an element peculiar to himself, he is contrasted with absolute
humanity, he is an Individual. And having duly chanted our _Credo_
concerning man's pure and public nature, let us now inquire respecting
this dividing element of Individuality,--which, with all the force it
has, strives to cut off communication, to destroy unity, and to make of
humanity a chaos or dust of biped atoms.
Not for a moment must we make this surface nature of equal estimation
with the other. It is secondary, _very_ secondary, to the pure substance
of man. The Person first in order of importance; the Individual next,--
"Proximus huic, longo sed proximus intervallo,"--
"next with an exceeding wide remove."
Take from Epaminondas or Luther all that makes him man, and the
rest will not be worth selling to the Jews. Individuality is an
accompaniment, an accessory, a red line on the map, a fence about the
field, a copyright on the book. It is like the particular flavors of
fruits,--of no account but in relation to their saccharine, acid, and
other staple elements. It must therefore keep its place, or become
an impertinence. If it grow forward, officious, and begin to push in
between the pure nature and its divine ends, at once it is a meddling
Peter, for whom there is no due greeting but "Get thee behind me,
Satan." If the fruit have a special flavor of such ambitious pungency
that the sweets and acids cannot appear through it, be sure that to come
at this fruit no young Wilhelm Meister will purloin keys. If one be so
much an Individual that he wellnigh ceases to be a Man, we shall not
admire him. It is the same in mental as in physical feature. Let there,
by all means, be slight divergence from the common type; but by all
means let it be no more than a slight divergence. Too much is monstrous:
even a very slight excess is what we call _ugliness_. Gladly I perceive
in my neighbor's face, voice, gait, manner, a certain charm of
peculiarity; but if in any the peculiarity be so great as to suggest
a doubt whether he be not some other creature than man, may he not be
neighbor of mine!
A little of this surface nature suffices; yet that little cannot be
spared. Its first office is to guard frontiers. We must not lie quite
open to the inspection or invasion of others: yet, were there no medium
of unlikeness interposed between one and another, privacy would be
impossible, and one's own bosom would not be sacred to himself. But
Nature has secured us against these profanations; and as we have locks
to our doors, curtains to our windows, and, upon occasion, a passport
system on our borders, so has she cast around each spirit this veil to
guard it from intruding eyes, this barrier to keep away the feet of
strangers. Homer represents the divinities as coming invisibly to
admonish their favored heroes; but Nature was beforehand with the poet,
and every one of us is, in like manner, a celestial nature walking
concealed. Who sees _you_, when you walk the street? Who would walk the
street, did be not feel himself fortressed in a privacy that no foreign
eyes can enter? But for this, no cities would be built. Society,
therefore, would be impossible, save for this element, which seems to
hinder society. Each of us, wrapt in his opaque individuality, like
Apollo or Athene in a blue mist, remains hidden, if he will; and
therefore do men dare to come together.
But this superficial element, while securing privacy to the pure nature,
also aids it to expression. It emphasizes the outlines of Personality by
gentle contrast. It is like the shadow in the landscape, without which
all the sunbeams of heaven could not reveal with precision a single
object. Assured lovers resort to happy banter and light oppositions, to
give themselves a sweeter sense of unity of heart. The child, with a
cunning which only Nature has taught, will sometimes put a little honey
of refusal into its kisses before giving them; the maiden adds to her
virgin blooms the further attraction of virgin coyness and reserve; the
civilizing dinner-table would lose all its dignity in losing its delays;
and so everywhere, delicate denial, withholding reserve have an inverse
force, and add a charm of emphasis to gift, assent, attraction, and
sympathy. How is the word Immortality emphasized to our hearts by the
perpetual spectacle of death! The joy and suggestion of it could,
indeed, never visit us, had not this momentary loud denial been uttered
in our ears. Such, therefore, as have learned to interpret these
oppositions in Nature, hear in the jarring note of Death only a jubilant
proclamation of life eternal; while all are thus taught the longing for
immortality, though only by their fear of the contrary. And so is the
pure universal nature of man affirmed by these provocations of contrast
and insulation on the surface. We feel the personality far more, and far
more sweetly, for its being thus divided from our own. From behind this
veil the pure nature comes to us with a kind of surprise, as out of
another heaven. The joy of truth and delight of beauty are born anew for
us from each pair of chanting lips and beholding eyes; and each new soul
that comes promises another gift of the universe. Whoever, in any time
or under any sky, sees the worth and wonder of existence, sees it for
me; whatever language he speak, whatever star he inhabit, we shall
one day meet, and through the confession of his heart all my ancient
possessions will become a new gain; he shall make for me a natal day of
creation, showing the producing breath, as it goes forth from the lips
of God, and spreads into the blue purity of sky, or rounds into the
luminance of suns; the hills and their pines, the vales and their
blooms, and heroic men and beauteous women, all that I have loved or
reverenced, shall come again, appearing and trooping out of skies never
visible before. Because of these dividing lines between souls, each new
soul is to all the others a possible factor of heaven.
Such uses does individuality subserve. Yet it is capable of these
ministries only as it does indeed _minister_. All its uses are lost with
the loss of its humility and subordinance. It is the porter at the
gate, furthering the access of lawful, and forbidding the intrusion of
unlawful visitors to the mansion; who becomes worse than useless, if in
surly excess of zeal he bar the gate against all, or if in the excess of
self-importance he receive for himself what is meant for his master,
and turn visitors aside into the porter's lodge. Beautiful is virgin
reserve, and true it is that delicate half-denial reinforces attraction;
yet the maiden who carries only _No_ upon her tongue, and only refusal
in her ways, shall never wake before dawn on the day of espousal, nor
blush beneath her bridal veil, like Morning behind her clouds. This
surface element, we must remember, is not income and resource, but
an item of needful, and, so far as needful, graceful and economical
expenditure. Excess of it is wasteful, by causing Life to pay for
that which he does not need, by increase of social fiction, and by
obstruction of social flow with the fructifications which this brings,
not to be spared by any mortal. Nay, by extreme excess, it may so cut
off and sequester a man, that no word or aspect of another soul can
reach him; he shall see in mankind only himself, he shall hear in the
voices of others only his own echoes. Many and many a man is there, so
housed in his individuality, that it goes, like an impenetrable wall,
over eye and ear; and even in the tramp of the centuries he can find
hint of nothing save the sound of his own feet. It is a frequent
tragedy,--but profound as frequent.
One great task, indeed _the_ great task of good-breeding is,
accordingly, to induce in this element a delicacy, a translucency,
which, without robbing any action or sentiment of the hue it imparts,
shall still allow the pure human quality perfectly and perpetually to
shine through. The world has always been charmed with fine manners; and
why should it not? For what are fine manners but this: to carry your
soul on your lip, in your eye, in the palm of your hand, and yet to
stand not naked, but clothed upon by your individual quality,--visible,
yet inscrutable,--given to the hearts of others, yet contained in your
own bosom,--nobly and humanly open, yet duly reticent and secured from
invasion? _Polished_ manners often disappoint us; _good_ manners never.
The former may be taken on by indigent souls: the latter imply a noble
and opulent nature. And wait you not for death, according to the counsel
of Solon, to be named happy, if you are permitted fellowship with a man
of rich mind, whose individual savor you always finely perceive,
and never more than finely,--who yields you the perpetual sense of
community, and never of confusion, with your own spirit. The happiness
is all the greater, if the fellowship be accorded by a mind eminently
superior to one's own; for he, while yet more removed, comes yet nearer,
seeming to be that which our own soul may become in some future life,
and so yielding us the sense of our own being more deeply and powerfully
than it is given by the consciousness in our own bosom. And going
forward to the supreme point of this felicity, we may note that the
worshipper, in the ecstasy of his adoration, feels the Highest to be
also Nearest,--more remote than the borders of space and fringes of
heaven,--more intimate with his own being than the air he breathes or
the thought be thinks; and of this double sense is the rapture of his
adoration, and the joy indeed of every angel, born.
Divineness appertains to the absolute nature of man; piquancy and charm
to that which serves and modifies this. Infinitude and immortality are
of the one; the strictest finiteness belongs to the other. In the first
you can never be too deep and rich; in the second never too delicate and
measured. Yet you will easily find a man in whom the latter so abounds
as not only to shut him out from others, but to absorb all the vital
resource generated in his own bosom, leaving to the pure personality
nothing. The finite nature fares sumptuously every day; the other is a
heavenly Lazarus sitting at the gate.
Of such individuals there are many classes; and the majority of
eccentric men constitute one class. If a man have very peculiar ways, we
readily attribute to him a certain depth and force, and think that the
polished citizen wants character in comparison. Probably it is not so.
Singularity may be as shallow as the shallowest conformity. There are
numbers of such from whom if you deduct the eccentricity, it is like
subtracting red from vermilion or six from half a dozen. They are
grimaces of humanity,--no more. In particular, I make occasion to say,
that those oddities, whose chief characteristic it is to slink away from
the habitations of men, and claim companionship with musk-rats, are,
despite Mr. Thoreau's pleasant patronage of them, no whit more manly or
profound than the average citizen, who loves streets and parlors, and
does not endure estrangement from the Post-Office. Mice lurk in holes
and corners; could the cat speak, she would say that they have a genius
_only_ for lurking in holes. Bees and ants are, to say the least, quite
as witty as beetles, proverbially blind; yet they build insect cities,
and are as invincibly social and city-loving as Socrates himself.
Aside, however, from special eccentricity, there are men, like the Earl
of Essex, Bacon's _soi-disant_ friend, who possess a certain emphatic
and imposing individuality, which, while commonly assumed to indicate
character and force, is really but the _succedaneum_ for these. They
are like oysters, with extreme stress of shell, and only a blind, soft,
acephalous body within. These are commonly great men so long as little
men will serve; and are something less than little ever after. As an
instance of this, I should select the late chief magistrate of this
nation. His whole ability lay in putting a most imposing countenance
upon commonplaces. He made a mere _air_ seem solid as rock. Owing to
this possibility of presenting all force on the outside, and so creating
a false impression of resource, all great social emergencies are
followed by a speedy breaking down of men to whom was generally
attributed an able spirit; while others of less outward mark, and for
this reason hitherto unnoticed, come forward, and prove to be indeed the
large vessels of manhood accorded to that generation.
Our tendency to assume individual mark as the measure of personality
is flattered by many of the books we read. It is, of course, easier to
depict character, when it is accompanied by some striking individual
hue; and therefore in romances and novels this is conferred upon all the
forcible characters, merely to favor the author's hand: as microscopists
feed minute creatures with colored food to make their circulations
visible. It is only the great master who can represent a powerful
personality in the purest state, that is, with the maximum of character
and the minimum of individual distinction; while small artists, with a
feeble hold upon character, habitually resort to extreme quaintnesses
and singularities of circumstance, in order to confer upon their weak
portraitures some vigor of outline. It takes a Giotto to draw readily
a nearly perfect O; but a nearly perfect triangle any one can draw.
Shakspeare is able to delineate a Gentleman,--one, that is, who, while
nobly and profoundly a man, is so delicately individualized, that the
impression of him, however vigorous and commanding, cannot be harsh:
Shakspeare is equal to this task, but even so very able a painter as
Fielding is not. His Squire Western and Parson Adams are exquisite, his
Allworthy is vapid: deny him strong pigments of individualism, and he is
unable to portray strong character. Scott, among British novelists, is,
perhaps, in this respect most Shakspearian, though the Colonel Esmond of
Thackeray is not to be forgotten; but even Scott's Dandie Dinmonts, or
gentlemen in the rough, sparkle better than his polished diamonds.
Yet in this respect the Waverley Novels are singularly and admirably
healthful, comparing to infinite advantage with the rank and file of
novels, wherein the "characters" are but bundles of quaintnesses, and
the action is impossible.
Written history has somewhat of the same infirmity with fictitious
literature, though not always by the fault of the historian. Far too
little can it tell us respecting those of whom we desire to know much;
while, on the other hand, it is often extremely liberal of information
concerning those of whom we desire to know nothing. The greatest of men
approach a pure personality, a pure representation of man's imperishable
nature; individual peculiarity they far less abound in; and what they do
possess is held in transparent solution by their manhood, as a certain
amount of vapor is always held by the air. The higher its temperature,
the more moisture can the atmosphere thus absorb, exhibiting it not as
cloud, but only as immortal azure of sky: and so the greater intensity
there is of the pure quality of man, the more of individual peculiarity
can it master and transform into a simple heavenliness of beauty, of
which the world finds few words to say. Men, in general, have, perhaps,
no more genius than novelists in general,--though it seems a hard speech
to make,--and while profoundly _impressed_ by any manifestation of the
pure genius of man, can _observe_ and _relate_ only peculiarities and
exceptional traits. Incongruities are noted; congruities are only felt.
If a two-headed calf be born, the newspapers hasten to tell of it; but
brave boys and beautiful girls by thousands grow to fulness of stature
without mention. We know so little of Homer and Shakspeare partly
because they were Homer and Shakspeare. Smaller men might afford more
plentiful materials for biography, because their action and character
would be more clouded with individualism. The biography of a supreme
poet is the history of his kind. He transmits himself by pure vital
impression. His remembrance is committed, not to any separable faculty,
but to a memory identical with the total being of men. If you would
learn his story, listen to the sprites that ride on crimson steeds along
the arterial highways, singing of man's destiny as they go.
THE GERMAN BURNS.
The extreme southwestern corner of Germany is an irregular right-angle,
formed by the course of the Rhine. Within this angle and an
hypothenuse drawn from the Lake of Constance to Carlsruhe lies a wild
mountain-region--a lateral offshoot from the central chain which
extends through Europe from west to east--known to all readers of
robber-romances as the Black Forest. It is a cold, undulating upland,
intersected with deep valleys which descend to the plains of the Rhine
and the Danube, and covered with great tracts of fir-forest. Here and
there a peak rises high above the general level, the Feldberg attaining
a height of five thousand feet. The aspect of this region is stern and
gloomy: the fir-woods appear darker than elsewhere; the frequent little
lakes are as inky in hue as the pools of the High Alps; and the meadows
of living emerald give but a partial brightness to the scenery. Here,
however, the solitary traveller may adventure without fear. Robbers and
robber-castles have long since passed away, and the people, rough and
uncouth as they may at first seem, are as kindly-hearted as they are
honest. Among them was born--and in their incomprehensible dialect
wrote--Hebel, the German Burns.
We dislike the practice of using the name of one author as the
characteristic designation of another. It is, at best, the sign of an
imperfect fame, implying rather the imitation of a scholar than the
independent position of a master. We can, nevertheless, in no other way
indicate in advance the place which the subject of our sketch occupies
in the literature of Germany. A contemporary of Burns, and ignorant of
the English language, there is no evidence that he had ever even heard
of the former; but Burns, being the first truly great poet who succeeded
in making classic a local dialect, thereby constituted himself an
illustrious standard, by which his successors in the same path must be
measured. Thus, Bellman and Beranger have been inappropriately invested
with his mantle, from the one fact of their being song-writers of a
democratic stamp. The Gascon, Jasmin, better deserves the title; and
Longfellow, in translating his "Blind Girl of Castel-Cuille," says,--
"Only the lowland tongue of Scotland might
Rehearse this little tragedy aright":--
a conviction which we have frequently shared, in translating our German
It is a matter of surprise to us, that, while Jasmin's poems have gone
far beyond the bounds of France, the name of John Peter Hebel--who
possesses more legitimate claims to the peculiar distinction which
Burns achieved--is not only unknown outside of Germany, but not
even familiarly known to the Germans themselves. The most probable
explanation is, that the Alemannic dialect, in which he wrote, is spoken
only by the inhabitants of the Black Forest and a portion of Suabia,
and cannot be understood, without a glossary, by the great body of the
North-Germans. The same cause would operate, with greater force, in
preventing a translation into foreign languages. It is, in fact, only
within the last twenty years that the Germans have become acquainted
with Burns,--chiefly through the admirable translations of the poet
To Hebel belongs the merit of having bent one of the harshest of German
dialects to the uses of poetry. We doubt whether the lyre of Apollo was
ever fashioned from a wood of rougher grain. Broad, crabbed, guttural,
and unpleasant to the ear which is not thoroughly accustomed to its
sound, the Alemannic _patois_ was, in truth, a most unpromising
material. The stranger, even though he were a good German scholar, would
never suspect the racy humor, the _naive_, childlike fancy, and the pure
human tenderness of expression which a little culture has brought to
bloom on such a soil. The contractions, elisions, and corruptions which
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