Over the Teacups
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (The Physician and Poet)
Part 1 out of 5
This etext was produced by David Widger
OVER THE TEACUPS
by Oliver W. Holmes
The kind way in which this series of papers has been received has
been a pleasure greater than I dared to anticipate. I felt that I
was a late comer in the midst of a crowd of ardent and eager
candidates for public attention, that I had already had my day, and
that if, like the unfortunate Frenchman we used read about, I had
"come again," I ought not to surprised if I received the welcome of
It has not proved so. My old readers have come forward in the
pleasantest possible way and assured me that they were glad to see me
again. There is no need, therefore, of apologies or explanations. I
thought I had something left to say and I have found listeners. In
writing these papers I have had occupation and kept myself in
relation with my fellow-beings. New sympathies, new sources of
encouragement, if not of inspiration, have opened themselves before
me and cheated the least promising season of life of much that seemed
to render it dreary and depressing. What particularly pleased me has
been the freedom of criticisms which I have seen from disadvantageous
comparisons of my later with my earlier writings.
I should like a little rest from literary work before the requiescat
ensures my repose from earthly labors, but I will not be rash enough
to promise that I will not even once again greet my old and new
readers if the impulse becomes irresistible to renew a companionship
which has been to me such a source of happiness.
BEVERLY FARM, Mass., August, 1891.
O. W. H.
OVER THE TEACUPS.
This series of papers was begun in March, 1888. A single number was
printed, when it was interrupted the course of events, and not
resumed until nearly years later, in January, 1890. The plan of the
series was not formed in my mind when I wrote the number. In
returning to my task I found that my original plan had shaped itself
in the underground laboratory of my thought so that some changes had
to be made in what I had written. As I proceeded, the slight story
which formed a part of my programme eloped itself without any need of
much contrivance on my, part. Given certain characters in a writer's
conception, if they are real to him, as they ought to be they will
act in such or such a way, according to the law of their nature. It
was pretty safe to assume that intimate relations would spring up
between some members of our mixed company; and it was not rash
conjecture that some of these intimacies might end in such attachment
as would furnish us hints, at least, of a love-story.
As to the course of the conversations which would take place, very
little could be guessed beforehand. Various subjects of interest
would be likely to present themselves, without definite order,
oftentimes abruptly and, as it would seem, capriciously.
Conversation in such a mixed company as that of "The Teacups" is
likely to be suggestive rather than exhaustive. Continuous discourse
is better adapted to the lecture-room than to the tea-table. There
is quite enough of it, I fear too much,--in these pages. But the
reader must take the reports of our talks as they were jotted down.
A patchwork quilt is not like a piece of Gobelin tapestry; but it has
its place and its use.
Some will feel a temptation to compare these conversations with those
earlier ones, and remark unamiably upon their difference. This is
hardly fair, and is certainly not wise. They are produced under very
different conditions, and betray that fact in every line. It is
better to take them by themselves; and, if my reader finds anything
to please or profit from, I shall be contented, and he, I feel sure,
will not be ungrateful.
The readers who take up this volume may recollect a series of
conversations held many years ago over the breakfast-table, and
reported for their more or less profitable entertainment. Those were
not very early breakfasts at which the talks took place, but at any
rate the sun was rising, and the guests had not as yet tired
themselves with the labors of the day. The morning cup of coffee has
an exhilaration about it which the cheering influence of the
afternoon or evening cup of tea cannot be expected to reproduce. The
toils of the forenoon, the heats of midday, in the warm season, the
slanting light of the descending sun, or the sobered translucency of
twilight have subdued the vivacity of the early day. Yet under the
influence of the benign stimulant many trains of thought which will
bear recalling, may suggest themselves to some of our quiet circle
and prove not uninteresting to a certain number of readers.
How early many of my old breakfast companions went off to bed! I am
thinking not merely of those who sat round our table, but of that
larger company of friends who listened to our conversations as
reported. Dear girl with the silken ringlets, dear boy with the
down-shadowed cheek, your grandfather, your grandmother, turned over
the freshly printed leaves that told the story of those earlier
meetings around the plain board where so many things were said and
sung, not all of which have quite faded from memory of this
overburdened and forgetful time. Your father, your mother, found the
scattered leaves gathered in a volume, and smiled upon them as not
uncompanionable acquaintances. My tea-table makes no promises.
There is no programme of exercises to studied beforehand. What if I
should content myself with a single report of what was said and done
over our teacups? Perhaps my young reader would be glad to let me
off, for there are talkers enough who have not yet left their
breakfast-tables; and nobody can blame the young people for
preferring the thoughts and the language of their own generation,
with all its future before it, to those of their grandfathers
My reader, young or old, will please to observe that I have left
myself entire freedom as to the sources of what may be said over the
teacups. I have not told how many cups are commonly on the board,
but by using the plural I have implied that there is at least one
other talker or listener beside myself, and for all that appears
there may be a dozen. There will be no regulation length to my
reports,--no attempt to make out a certain number of pages. I have
no contract to fill so many columns, no pledge to contribute so many
numbers. I can stop on this first page if I do not care to say
anything more, and let this article stand by itself if so minded.
What a sense of freedom it gives not to write by the yard or the
When one writes for an English review or magazine at so many guineas
a sheet, the temptation is very great to make one's contribution
cover as many sheets as possible. We all know the metallic taste of
articles written under this powerful stimulus. If Bacon's Essays had
been furnished by a modern hand to the "Quarterly Review" at fifty
guineas a sheet, what a great book it would have taken to hold them!
The first thing which suggests itself to me, as I contemplate my
slight project, is the liability of repeating in the evening what I
may have said in the morning in one form or another, and printed in
these or other pages. When it suddenly flashes into the
consciousness of a writer who had been long before the public, "Why,
I have said all that once or oftener in my books or essays, and here
it is again; the same old thought, the same old image, the same old
story!" it irritates him, and is likely to stir up the monosyllables
of his unsanctified vocabulary. He sees in imagination a thousand
readers, smiling or yawning as they say to themselves, "We have had
all that before," and turn to another writer's performance for
something not quite so stale and superfluous. This is what the
writer says to himself about the reader.
The idiot! Does the simpleton really think that everybody has read
all he has written? Does he really believe that everybody remembers
all of his, writer's, words he may happen to have read? At one of
those famous dinners of the Phi Beta Kappa Society; where no reporter
was ever admitted, and which nothing ever leaks out about what is
said and done, Mr. Edward Everett, in his after-dinner speech, quoted
these lines from the AEneid, giving a liberal English version of
them, which he applied to the Oration just delivered by Mr. Emerson:
Tres imbris torti radios, tres nubis aquosae
Addiderant, rutili tres ignis, et alitis Austri.
His nephew, the ingenious, inventive, and inexhaustible. Edward
Everett Hale, tells the story of this quotation, and of the various
uses to which it might plied in after-dinner speeches. How often he
ventured to repeat it at the Phi Beta Kappa dinners I am not sure;
but as he reproduced it with his lively embellishments and fresh
versions and artful circumlocutions, not one person in ten remembered
that he had listened to those same words in those same accents only a
twelvemonth ago. The poor deluded creatures who take it for granted
that all the world remembers what they have said, and laugh at them
when they say it over again, may profit by this recollection. But
what if one does say the same things,--of course in a little
different form each time,--over her? If he has anything to say worth
saying, that is just what be ought to do. Whether he ought to or
not, it is very certain that this is what all who write much or speak
much necessarily must and will do. Think of the clergyman who
preaches fifty or a hundred or more sermons every year for fifty
years! Think of the stump speaker who shouts before a hundred
audiences during the same political campaign, always using the same
arguments, illustrations, and catchwords! Think of the editor, as
Carlyle has pictured him, threshing the same straw every morning,
until we know what is coming when we see the first line, as we do
when we read the large capitals at the head of a thrilling story,
which ends in an advertisement of an all-cleansing soap or an all-
The latch-key which opens into the inner chambers of my consciousness
fits, as I have sufficient reason to believe, the private apartments
of a good many other people's thoughts. The longer we live, the more
we find we are like other persons. When I meet with any facts in my
own mental experience, I feel almost sure that I shall find them
repeated or anticipated in the writings or the conversation of
others. This feeling gives one a freedom in telling his own personal
history he could not have enjoyed without it. My story belongs to
you as much as to me. De te fabula narratur. Change the personal
pronoun,--that is all. It gives many readers a singular pleasure to
find a writer telling them something they have long known or felt,
but which they have never before found any one to put in words for
them. An author does not always know when he is doing the service of
the angel who stirred the waters of the pool of Bethesda. Many a
reader is delighted to find his solitary thought has a companion, and
is grateful to the benefactor who has strengthened him. This is the
advantage of the humble reader over the ambitious and self-
worshipping writer. It is not with him pereant illi, but beati sunt
illi qui pro nobis nostra dixerunt,-Blessed are those who have said
our good things for us.
What I have been saying of repetitions leads me into a train of
reflections like which I think many readers will find something in
their own mental history. The area of consciousness is covered by
layers of habitual thoughts, as a sea-beach is covered with wave-
worn, rounded pebbles, shaped, smoothed, and polished by long
attrition against each other. These thoughts remain very much the
same from day to day, from week to week; and as we grow older, from
month to month, and from year to year. The tides of wakening
consciousness roll in upon them daily as we unclose our eyelids, and
keep up the gentle movement and murmur of ordinary mental respiration
until we close them again in slumber. When we think we are thinking,
we are for the most part only listening to sound of attrition between
these inert elements of intelligence. They shift their places a
little, they change their relations to each other, they roll over and
turn up new surfaces. Now and then a new fragment is cast in among
them, to be worn and rounded and takes its place with the others, but
the pebbled floor of consciousness is almost as stationary as the
pavement of a city thoroughfare.
It so happens that at this particular tine I have something to tell
which I am quite sure is not one of rolled pebbles which my reader
has seen before in any of my pages, or, as I feel confident, in those
of any other writer.
If my reader asks why I do not send the statement I am going to make
to some one of the special periodicals that deal with such subjects,
my answer is, that I like to tell my own stories at my own time, in
own chosen columns, where they will be read by a class of readers
with whom I like to talk.
All men of letters or of science, all writers well known to the
public, are constantly tampered with, in these days, by a class of
predaceous and hungry fellow-laborers who may be collectively spoken
of as the brain-tappers. They want an author's ideas on the subjects
which interest them, the inquirers, from the gravest religious and
moral questions to the most trivial matters of his habits and his
whims and fancies. Some of their questions he cannot answer; some he
does not choose to answer; some he is not yet ready to answer, and
when he is ready he prefers to select his own organ of publication.
I do not find fault with all the brain-tappers. Some of them are
doing excellent service by accumulating facts which could not
otherwise be attained. Rut one gets tired of the strings of
questions sent him, to which he is expected to return an answer,
plucked, ripe or unripe, from his private tree of knowledge. The
braintappers are like the owner of the goose that laid the golden
eggs. They would have the embryos and germs of one's thoughts out of
the mental oviducts, and cannot wait for their spontaneous evolution
The story I have promised is, on the whole, the most remarkable of a
series which I may have told in part at some previous date, but
which, if I have not told, may be worth recalling at a future time.
Some few of my readers may remember that in a former paper I
suggested the possibility of the existence of an idiotic area in the
human mind, corresponding to the blind spot in the human retina. I
trust that I shall not be thought to have let my wits go wandering in
that region of my own intellectual domain, when I relate a singular
coincidence which very lately occurred in my experience, and add a
few remarks made by one of our company on the delicate and difficult
but fascinating subject which it forces upon our attention. I will
first copy the memorandum made at the time:
"Remarkable coincidence. On Monday, April 18th, being at table from
6.30 P. M. to 7.30, with ________and ________ the two ladies of my
household, I told them of the case of 'trial by battel' offered by
Abraham Thornton in 1817. I mentioned his throwing down his glove,
which was not taken up by the brother of his victim, and so he had to
be let off, for the old law was still in force. I mentioned that
Abraham Thornton was said to have come to this country, 'and [I added]
he may be living near us, for aught that I know." I rose from the
table, and found an English letter waiting for me, left while I sat
at dinner. A copy the first portion of this letter:
'20 ALFRED PLACE, West (near Museum)
South Kensington, LONDON, S. W.
April 7, 1887.
DR. O. W. HOLMES:
DEAR SIR,--In travelling, the other day, I met with a reprint of the
very interesting case of Thornton for murder, 1817. The prisoner
pleaded successfully the old Wager of Battel. I thought you would
like to read the account, and send it with this....
Mr. Rathbone is a well-known dealer in old Wedgwood and eighteenth-
century art. As a friend of my hospitable entertainer, Mr. Willett,
he had shown me many attentions in England, but I was not expecting
any communication from him; and when, fresh from my conversation, I
found this letter just arrived by mail, and left while I was at
table, and on breaking the seal read what I had a few moments before
been; telling, I was greatly surprised, and immediately made a note
of the occurrence, as given above.
I had long been familiar with all the details of this celebrated
case, but had not referred to it, so far as I can remember, for
months or years. I know of no train of thought which led me to speak
of it on that particular day. I had never alluded to it before in
that company, nor had I ever spoken of it with Mr. Rathbone.
I told this story over our teacups. Among the company at the table
is a young English girl. She seemed to be amused by the story.
"Fancy!" she said,--"how very very odd!" "It was a striking and
curious coincidence," said the professor who was with us at the
table. "As remarkable as two teaspoons in one saucer," was the
comment of a college youth who happened to be one of the company.
But the member of our circle whom the reader will hereafter know as
Number Seven, began stirring his tea in a nervous sort of way, and I
knew that he was getting ready to say something about the case. An
ingenious man he is, with a brain like a tinder-box, its contents
catching at any spark that is flying about. I always like to hear
what he says when his tinder brain has a spark fall into it. It does
not follow that because he is often wrong he may not sometimes be
right, for he is no fool. He treated my narrative very seriously.
The reader need not be startled at the new terms he introduces.
Indeed, I am not quite sure that some thinking people will not adopt
his view of the matter, which seems to have a degree of plausibility
as he states and illustrates it.
"The impulse which led you to tell that story passed directly from
the letter, which came charged from the cells of the cerebral battery
of your correspondent. The distance at which the action took place
[the letter was left on a shelf twenty-four feet from the place where
I was sitting] shows this charge to have been of notable intensity.
"Brain action through space without material symbolism, such as
speech, expression, etc., is analogous to electrical induction.
Charge the prime conductor of an electrical machine, and a gold-leaf
electrometer, far off from it, will at once be disturbed.
Electricity, as we all know, can be stored and transported as if it
were a measurable fluid.
"Your incident is a typical example of cerebral induction from a
source containing stored cerebricity. I use this word, not to be
found in my dictionaries, as expressing the brain-cell power
corresponding to electricity. Think how long it was before we had
attained any real conception of the laws that govern the wonderful
agent, which now works in harness with the other trained and subdued
forces! It is natural that cerebricity should be the last of the
unweighable agencies to be understood. The human eye had seen heaven
and earth and all that in them is before it saw itself as our
instruments enable us to see it. This fact of yours, which seems so
strange to you, belongs to a great series of similar facts familiarly
known now to many persons, and before long to be recognized as
generally as those relating to the electric telegraph and the slaving
"What! you cannot conceive of a charge of cerebricity fastening
itself on a letter-sheet and clinging to it for weeks, while it was
shuffling about in mail-bags, rolling over the ocean, and shaken up
in railroad cars? And yet the odor of a grain of musk will hang
round a note or a dress for a lifetime. Do you not remember what
Professor Silliman says, in that pleasant journal of his, about the
little ebony cabinet which Mary, Queen of Scots, brought with her
from France,--how 'its drawers still exhale the sweetest perfumes'?
If they could hold their sweetness for more than two hundred years,
why should not a written page retain for a week or a month the
equally mysterious effluence poured over it from the thinking marrow,
and diffuse its vibrations to another excitable nervous centre?"
I have said that although our imaginative friend is given to wild
speculations, he is not always necessarily wrong. We know too little
about the laws of brain-force to be dogmatic with reference to it. I
am, myself, therefore, fully in sympathy with the psychological
investigators. When it comes to the various pretended sciences by
which men and women make large profits, attempts at investigation are
very apt to be used as lucrative advertisements for the charlatans.
But a series of investigations of the significance of certain popular
beliefs and superstitions, a careful study of the relations of
certain facts to each other,--whether that of cause and effect, or
merely of coincidence,--is a task not unworthy of sober-minded and
well-trained students of nature. Such a series of investigations has
been recently instituted, and was reported at a late meeting held in
the rooms of the Boston Natural History Society. The results were,
mostly negative, and in one sense a disappointment. A single case,
related by Professor Royce, attracted a good deal of attention. It
was reported in the next morning's newspapers, and will be given at
full length, doubtless, in the next number of the Psychological
Journal. The leading facts were, briefly, these: A lady in Hamburg,
Germany, wrote, on the 22d of June last, that she had what she
supposed to be nightmare on the night of the 17th, five days before.
"It seemed," she wrote, "to belong to you; to be a horrid pain in
your head, as if it were being forcibly jammed into an iron casque,
or some such pleasant instrument of torture." It proved that on that
same 17th of June her sister was undergoing a painful operation at
the hands of a dentist. "No single case," adds Professor Royce,
"proves, or even makes probable, the existence of telepathic
toothaches; but if there are any more cases of this sort, we want to
hear of them, and that all the more because no folk-lore and no
supernatural horrors have as yet mingled with the natural and well-
known impressions that people associate with the dentist's chair."
The case I have given is, I am confident, absolutely free from every
source of error. I do not remember that Mr. Rathbone had
communicated with me since he sent me a plentiful supply of mistletoe
a year ago last Christmas. The account I received from him was cut
out of "The Sporting Times" of March 5, 1887. My own knowledge of
the case came from "Kirby's Wonderful Museum," a work presented to me
at least thirty years ago. I had not looked at the account, spoken
of it, nor thought of it for a long time, when it came to me by a
kind of spontaneous generation, as it seemed, having no connection
with any previous train of thought that I was aware of. I consider
the evidence of entire independence, apart from possible "telepathic"
causation, completely water-proof, airtight, incombustible, and
I referred, when first reporting this curious case of coincidence,
with suggestive circumstances, to two others, one of which I said was
the most picturesque and the other the most unlikely, as it would
seem, to happen. This is the first of those two cases:--
Grenville Tudor Phillips was a younger brother of George Phillips, my
college classmate, and of Wendell Phillips, the great orator. He
lived in Europe a large part of his life, but at last returned, and,
in the year 1863, died at the house of his brother George. I read
his death in the paper; but, having seen and heard very little of him
during his life, should not have been much impressed by the fact, but
for the following occurrence: between the time of Grenville
Phillips's death and his burial, I was looking in upon my brother,
then living in the house in which we were both born. Some books
which had been my father's were stored in shelves in the room I used
to occupy when at Cambridge. Passing my eye over them, an old dark
quarto attracted my attention. It must be a Bible, I said to myself,
perhaps a rare one,--the "Breeches" Bible or some other interesting
specimen. I took it from the shelves, and, as I did so, an old slip
of paper fell out and fluttered to the floor. On lifting it I read
The name is Grenville Tudor.
What was the meaning of this slip of paper coming to light at this
time, after reposing undisturbed so long? There was only one way of
explaining its presence in my father's old Bible;--a copy of the
Scriptures which I did not remember ever having handled or looked
into before. In christening a child the minister is liable to forget
the name, just at the moment when he ought to remember it. My father
preached occasionally at the Brattle Street Church. I take this for
granted, for I remember going with him on one occasion when he did
so. Nothing was more likely than that he should be asked to
officiate at the baptism of the younger son of his wife's first
cousin, Judge Phillips. This slip was handed him to remind him of
the name: He brought it home, put it in that old Bible, and there it
lay quietly for nearly half a century, when, as if it had just heard
of Mr. Phillips's decease, it flew from its hiding-place and startled
the eyes of those who had just read his name in the daily column of
deaths. It would be hard to find anything more than a mere
coincidence here; but it seems curious enough to be worth telling.
The second of these two last stories must be told in prosaic detail
to show its whole value as a coincidence.
One evening while I was living in Charles Street, I received a call
from Dr. S., a well-known and highly respected Boston physician, a
particular friend of the late Alexander H. Stephens, vice-president
of the Southern Confederacy. It was with reference to a work which
Mr. Stephens was about to publish that Dr. S. called upon me. After
talking that matter over we got conversing on other subjects, among
the rest a family relationship existing between us,--not a very near
one, but one which I think I had seen mentioned in genealogical
accounts. Mary S. (the last name being the same as that of my
visitant), it appeared, was the great-great-grandmother of Mrs. H.
and myself. After cordially recognizing our forgotten relationship,
now for the first time called to mind, we parted, my guest leaving me
for his own home. We had been sitting in my library on the lower
floor. On going up-stairs where Mrs. H. was sitting alone, just as I
entered the room she pushed a paper across the table towards me,
saying that perhaps it might interest me. It was one of a number of
old family papers which she had brought from the house of her mother,
I opened the paper, which was an old-looking document, and found that
it was a copy, perhaps made in this century, of the will of that same
Mary S. about whom we had been talking down-stairs.
If there is such a thing as a purely accidental coincidence this must
be considered an instance of it.
All one can say about it is that it seems very unlikely that such a
coincidence should occur, but it did.
I have not tried to keep my own personality out of these stories.
But after all, how little difference it makes whether or not a writer
appears with a mask on which everybody can take off,--whether he
bolts his door or not, when everybody can look in at his windows, and
all his entrances are at the mercy of the critic's skeleton key and
the jimmy of any ill-disposed assailant!
The company have been silent listeners for the most part; but the
reader will have a chance to become better acquainted with some cf
them by and by.
TO THE READER.
I know that it is a hazardous experiment to address myself again to a
public which in days long past has given me a generous welcome. But
my readers have been, and are, a very faithful constituency. I think
there are many among them who would rather listen to an old voice
they are used to than to a new one of better quality, even if the
"childish treble" should betray itself now and then in the tones of
the overtired organ. But there must be others,--I am afraid many
others,--who will exclaim: "He has had his day, and why can't he be
content? We don't want literary revenants, superfluous veterans,
writers who have worn out their welcome and still insist on being
attended to. Give us something fresh, something that belongs to our
day and generation. Your morning draught was well enough, but we
don't care for your evening slip-slop. You are not in relation with
us, with our time, our ideas, our aims, our aspirations."
Alas, alas! my friend,--my young friend, for your hair is not yet
whitened,--I am afraid you are too nearly right. No doubt,--no
doubt. Teacups are not coffee-cups. They do not hold so much.
Their pallid infusion is but a feeble stimulant compared with the
black decoction served at the morning board. And so, perhaps, if
wisdom like yours were compatible with years like mine, I should drop
my pen and make no further attempts upon your patience.
But suppose that a writer who has reached and passed the natural
limit of serviceable years feels that he has some things which be
would like to say, and which may have an interest for a limited class
of readers,--is he not right in trying his powers and calmly taking
the risk of failure? Does it not seem rather lazy and cowardly,
because he cannot "beat his record," or even come up to the level of
what he has done in his prime, to shrink from exerting his talent,
such as it is, now that he has outlived the period of his greatest
vigor? A singer who is no longer equal to the trials of opera on the
stage may yet please at a chamber concert or in the drawing-room.
There is one gratification an old author can afford a certain class
of critics: that, namely, of comparing him as he is with what he was.
It is a pleasure to mediocrity to have its superiors brought within
range, so to speak; and if the ablest of them will only live long
enough, and keep on writing, there is no pop-gun that cannot reach
him. But I fear that this is an unamiable reflection, and I am at
this time in a very amiable mood.
I confess that there is something agreeable to me in renewing my
relations with the reading public. Were it but a single appearance,
it would give me a pleasant glimpse of the time when I was known as a
frequent literary visitor. Many of my readers--if I can lure any
from the pages of younger writers will prove to be the children, or
the grandchildren, of those whose acquaintance I made something more
than a whole generation ago. I could depend on a kind welcome from
my contemporaries,--my coevals. But where are those contemporaries?
Ay de mi! as Carlyle used to exclaim,--Ah, dear me! as our old women
say,--I look round for them, and see only their vacant places. The
old vine cannot unwind its tendrils. The branch falls with the decay
of its support, and must cling to the new growths around it, if it
would not lie helpless in the dust. This paper is a new tendril,
feeling its way, as it best may, to whatever it can wind around. The
thought of finding here and there an old friend, and making, it may
be, once in a while a new one, is very grateful to me. The chief
drawback to the pleasure is the feeling that I am submitting to that
inevitable exposure which is the penalty of authorship in every form.
A writer must make up his mind to the possible rough treatment of the
critics, who swarm like bacteria whenever there is any literary
material on which they can feed. I have had as little to complain of
as most writers, yet I think it is always with reluctance that one
encounters the promiscuous handling which the products of the mind
have to put up with, as much as the fruit and provisions in the
market-stalls. I had rather be criticised, however, than criticise;
that is, express my opinions in the public prints of other writers'
work, if they are living, and can suffer, as I should often have to
make them. There are enough, thank Heaven, without me. We are
literary cannibals, and our writers live on each other and each
other's productions to a fearful extent. What the mulberry leaf is
to the silk-worm, the author's book, treatise, essay, poem, is to the
critical larva; that feed upon it. It furnishes them with food and
clothing. The process may not be agreeable to the mulberry leaf or
to the printed page; but without it the leaf would not have become
the silk that covers the empress's shoulders, and but for the critic
the author's book might never have reached the scholar's table.
Scribblers will feed on each other, and if we insist on being
scribblers we must consent to be fed on. We must try to endure
philosophically what we cannot help, and ought not, I suppose, to
wish to help.
It is the custom at our table to vary the usual talk, by the reading
of short papers, in prose or verse, by one or more of The Teacups, as
we are in the habit of calling those who make up our company. Thirty
years ago, one of our present circle--"Teacup Number Two," The
Professor,--read a paper on Old Age, at a certain Breakfast-table,
where he was in the habit of appearing. That paper was published at
the time, and has since seen the light in other forms. He did not
know so much about old age then as he does now, and would doubtless
write somewhat differently if he took the subject up again. But I
found that it was the general wish that another of our company should
let us hear what he had to say about it. I received a polite note,
requesting me to discourse about old age, inasmuch as I was
particularly well qualified by my experience to write in an
authoritative way concerning it. The fact is that I,--for it is
myself who am speaking,--have recently arrived at the age of
threescore years and twenty,--fourscore years we may otherwise call
it. In the arrangement of our table, I am Teacup Number One, and I
may as well say that I am often spoken of as The Dictator. There is
nothing invidious in this, as I am the oldest of the company, and no
claim is less likely to excite jealousy than that of priority of
I received congratulations on reaching my eightieth birthday, not
only from our circle of Teacups, but from friends, near and distant,
in large numbers. I tried to acknowledge these kindly missives with
the aid of a most intelligent secretary; but I fear that there were
gifts not thanked for, and tokens of good-will not recognized. Let
any neglected correspondent be assured that it was not intentionally
that he or she was slighted. I was grateful for every such mark of
esteem; even for the telegram from an unknown friend in a distant
land, for which I cheerfully paid the considerable charge which the
sender doubtless knew it would give me pleasure to disburse for such
an expression of friendly feeling.
I will not detain the reader any longer from the essay I have
This is the paper read to The Teacups.
It is in A Song of Moses that we find the words, made very familiar
to us by the Episcopal Burial Service, which place the natural limit
on life at threescore years and ten, with an extra ten years for some
of a stronger constitution than the average. Yet we are told that
Moses himself lived to be a hundred and twenty years old, and that
his eye was not dim nor his natural strength abated. This is hard to
accept literally, but we need not doubt that he was very old, and in
remarkably good condition for a man of his age. Among his followers
was a stout old captain, Caleb, the son of Jephunneh. This ancient
warrior speaks of himself in these brave terms: "Lo, I am this day
fourscore and five years old. As yet, I am as strong this day as I
was in the day that Moses sent me; as my strength was then, even so
is my strength now, for war, both to go out and to come in." It is
not likely that anybody believed his brag about his being as good a
man for active service at eighty-five as he was at forty, when Moses
sent him out to spy the land of Canaan. But he was, no doubt, lusty
and vigorous for his years, and ready to smite the Canaanites hip and
thigh, and drive them out, and take possession of their land, as he
did forthwith, when Moses gave him leave.
Grand old men there were, three thousand years ago! But not all
octogenarians were like Caleb, the son of Jephunneh. Listen to poor
old Barzillai, and hear him piping: "I am this day fourscore years
old; and can I discern between good and evil? Can thy servant taste
what I eat or what I drink? Can I hear any more the voice of
singing men and singing women? Wherefore, then, should thy servant
be yet a burden unto my lord the king?" And poor King David was
worse off than this, as you all remember, at the early age of
Thirty centuries do not seem to have made any very great difference
in the extreme limits of life. Without pretending to rival the
alleged cases of life prolonged beyond the middle of its second
century, such as those of Henry Jenkins and Thomas Parr, we can make
a good showing of centenarians and nonagenarians. I myself remember
Dr. Holyoke, of Salem, son of a president of Harvard College, who
answered a toast proposed in his honor at a dinner given to him on
his hundredth birthday.
"Father Cleveland," our venerated city missionary, was born June 21,
1772, and died June 5, 1872, within a little more than a fortnight of
his hundredth birthday. Colonel Perkins, of Connecticut, died
recently after celebrating his centennial anniversary.
Among nonagenarians, three whose names are well known to Bostonians,
Lord Lyndhurst, Josiah Quincy, and Sidney Bartlett, were remarkable
for retaining their faculties in their extreme age. That patriarch
of our American literature, the illustrious historian of his country,
is still with us, his birth dating in 1800.
Ranke, the great German historian, died at the age of ninety-one, and
Chevreul, the eminent chemist, at that of a hundred and two.
Some English sporting characters have furnished striking examples of
robust longevity. In Gilpin's "Forest Scenery" there is the story of
one of these horseback heroes. Henry Hastings was the name of this
old gentleman, who lived in the time of Charles the First. It would
be hard to find a better portrait of a hunting squire than that which
the Earl of Shaftesbury has the credit of having drawn of this very
peculiar personage. His description ends by saying, "He lived to be
an hundred, and never lost his eyesight nor used spectacles. He got
on horseback without help, and rode to the death of the stag till he
was past fourscore."
Everything depends on habit. Old people can do, of course, more or
less well, what they have been doing all their lives; but try to
teach them any new tricks, and the truth of the old adage will very
soon show itself. Mr. Henry Hastings had done nothing but hunt all
his days, and his record would seem to have been a good deal like
that of Philippus Zaehdarm in that untranslatable epitaph which may
be found in "Sartor Resartus." Judged by its products, it was a very
short life of a hundred useless twelve months.
It is something to have climbed the white summit, the Mont Blanc of
fourscore. A small number only of mankind ever see their eightieth
anniversary. I might go to the statistical tables of the annuity and
life insurance offices for extended and exact information, but I
prefer to take the facts which have impressed themselves upon me in
my own career.
The class of 1829 at Harvard College, of which I am a member,
graduated, according to the triennial, fifty-nine in number. It is
sixty years, then, since that time; and as they were, on an average,
about twenty years old, those who survive must have reached fourscore
years. Of the fifty-nine graduates ten only are living, or were at
the last accounts; one in six, very nearly. In the first ten years
after graduation, our third decade, when we were between twenty and
thirty years old, we lost three members,--about one in twenty;
between the ages of thirty and forty, eight died,--one in seven of
those the decade began with; from forty to fifty, only two,--or one
in twenty-four; from fifty to sixty, eight,--or one in six; from
sixty to seventy, fifteen,--or two out of every five; from seventy to
eighty, twelve,--or one in two. The greatly increased mortality
which began with our seventh decade went on steadily increasing. At
sixty we come "within range of the rifle-pits," to borrow an
expression from my friend Weir Mitchell.
Our eminent classmate, the late Professor Benjamin Peirce, showed by
numerical comparison that the men of superior ability outlasted the
average of their fellow-graduates. He himself lived a little beyond
his threescore and ten years. James Freeman Clarke almost reached
the age of eighty. The eighth decade brought the fatal year for
Benjamin Robbins Curtis, the great lawyer, who was one of the judges
of the Supreme Court of the United States; for the very able chief
justice of Massachusetts, George Tyler Bigelow; and for that famous
wit and electric centre of social life, George T. Davis. At the last
annual dinner every effort was made to bring all the survivors of the
class together. Six of the ten living members were there, six old
men in the place of the thirty or forty classmates who surrounded the
long, oval table in 1859, when I asked, "Has there any old fellow got
mixed with the boys?"--11 boys whose tongues were as the vibrating
leaves of the forest; whose talk was like the voice of many waters;
whose laugh was as the breaking of mighty waves upon the seashore.
Among the six at our late dinner was our first scholar, the thorough-
bred and accomplished engineer who held the city of Lawrence in his
brain before it spread itself out along the banks of the Merrimac.
There, too, was the poet whose National Hymn, "My Country, 't is of
thee," is known to more millions, and dearer to many of them, than
all the other songs written since the Psalms of David. Four of our
six were clergymen; the engineer and the present writer completed the
list. Were we melancholy? Did we talk of graveyards and epitaphs?
No,--we remembered our dead tenderly, serenely, feeling deeply what
we had lost in those who but a little while ago were with us. How
could we forget James Freeman Clarke, that man of noble thought and
vigorous action, who pervaded this community with his spirit, and was
felt through all its channels as are the light and the strength that
radiate through the wires which stretch above us? It was a pride and
a happiness to have such classmates as he was to remember. We were
not the moping, complaining graybeards that many might suppose we
must have been. We had been favored with the blessing of long life.
We had seen the drama well into its fifth act. The sun still warmed
us, the air was still grateful and life-giving. But there was
another underlying source of our cheerful equanimity, which we could
not conceal from ourselves if we had wished to do it. Nature's
kindly anodyne is telling upon us more and more with every year. Our
old doctors used to give an opiate which they called "the black
drop." It was stronger than laudanum, and, in fact, a dangerously
powerful narcotic. Something like this is that potent drug in
Nature's pharmacopoeia which she reserves for the time of need,--the
later stages of life. She commonly begins administering it at about
the time of the "grand climacteric," the ninth septennial period, the
sixty-third year. More and more freely she gives it, as the years go
on, to her grey-haired children, until, if they last long enough,
every faculty is benumbed, and they drop off quietly into sleep under
its benign influence.
Do you say that old age is unfeeling? It has not vital energy enough
to supply the waste of the more exhausting emotions. Old Men's
Tears, which furnished the mournful title to Joshua Scottow's
Lamentations, do not suggest the deepest grief conceivable. A little
breath of wind brings down the raindrops which have gathered on the
leaves of the tremulous poplars. A very slight suggestion brings the
tears from Marlborough's eyes, but they are soon over, and he is
smiling again as an allusion carries him back to the days of Blenheim
and Malplaquet. Envy not the old man the tranquillity of his
existence, nor yet blame him if it sometimes looks like apathy.
Time, the inexorable, does not threaten him with the scythe so often
as with the sand-bag. He does not cut, but he stuns and stupefies.
One's fellow-mortals can afford to be as considerate and tender with
him as Time and Nature.
There was not much boasting among us of our present or our past, as
we sat together in the little room at the great hotel. A certain
amount of self-deception is quite possible at threescore years and
ten, but at three score years and twenty Nature has shown most of
those who live to that age that she is earnest, and means to
dismantle and have done with them in a very little while. As for
boasting of our past, the laudator temporis acti makes but a poor
figure in our time. Old people used to talk of their youth as if
there were giants in those days. We knew some tall men when we were
young, but we can see a man taller than any one among them at the
nearest dime museum. We had handsome women among us, of high local
reputation, but nowadays we have professional beauties who challenge
the world to criticise them as boldly as Phryne ever challenged her
Athenian admirers. We had fast horses,--did not "Old Blue" trot a
mile in three minutes? True, but there is a three-year-old colt just
put on the track who has done it in a little more than two thirds of
that time. It seems as if the material world had been made over
again since we were boys. It is but a short time since we were
counting up the miracles we had lived to witness. The list is
familiar enough: the railroad, the ocean steamer, photography, the
spectroscope, the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, anesthetics,
electric illumination,--with such lesser wonders as the friction
match, the sewing machine, and the bicycle. And now, we said, we
must have come to the end of these unparalleled developments of the
forces of nature. We must rest on our achievements. The nineteenth
century is not likely to add to them; we must wait for the twentieth
century. Many of us, perhaps most of us, felt in that way. We had
seen our planet furnished by the art of man with a complete nervous
system: a spinal cord beneath the ocean, secondary centres,--
ganglions,--in all the chief places where men are gathered together,
and ramifications extending throughout civilization. All at once, by
the side of this talking and light-giving apparatus, we see another
wire stretched over our heads, carrying force to a vast metallic
muscular system,--a slender cord conveying the strength of a hundred
men, of a score of horses, of a team of elephants. The lightning is
tamed and harnessed, the thunderbolt has become a common carrier. No
more surprises in this century! A voice whispers, What next?
It will not do for us to boast about our young days and what they had
to show. It is a great deal better to boast of what they could not
show, and, strange as it may seem, there is a certain satisfaction in
it. In these days of electric lighting, when you have only to touch
a button and your parlor or bedroom is instantly flooded with light,
it is a pleasure to revert to the era of the tinder-box, the flint
and steel, and the brimstone match. It gives me an almost proud
satisfaction to tell how we used, when those implements were not at
hand or not employed, to light our whale-oil lamp by blowing a live
coal held against the wick, often swelling our cheeks and reddening
our faces until we were on the verge of apoplexy. I love to tell of
our stage-coach experiences, of our sailing-packet voyages, of the
semi-barbarous destitution of all modern comforts and conveniences
through which we bravely lived and came out the estimable personages
you find us.
Think of it! All my boyish shooting was done with a flint-lock gun;
the percussion lock came to me as one of those new-fangled notions
people had just got hold of. We ancients can make a grand display of
minus quantities in our reminiscences, and the figures look almost as
well as if they had the plus sign before them.
I am afraid that old people found life rather a dull business in the
time of King David and his rich old subject and friend, Barzillai,
who, poor man, could not have read a wicked novel, nor enjoyed a
symphony concert, if they had had those luxuries in his day. There
were no pleasant firesides, for there were no chimneys. There were
no daily newspapers for the old man to read, and he could not read
them if there were, with his dimmed eyes, nor hear them read, very
probably, with his dulled ears. There was no tobacco, a soothing
drug, which in its various forms is a great solace to many old men
and to some old women, Carlyle and his mother used to smoke their
pipes together, you remember.
Old age is infinitely more cheerful, for intelligent people at least,
than it was two or three thousand years ago. It is our duty, so far
as we can, to keep it so. There will always be enough about it that
is solemn, and more than enough, alas! that is saddening. But how
much there is in our times to lighten its burdens! If they that look
out at the windows be darkened, the optician is happy to supply them
with eye-glasses for use before the public, and spectacles for their
hours of privacy. If the grinders cease because they are few, they
can be made many again by a third dentition, which brings no
toothache in its train. By temperance and good Habits of life,
proper clothing, well-warmed, well-drained, and well-ventilated
dwellings, and sufficient, not too much exercise, the old man of our
time may keep his muscular strength in very good condition. I doubt
if Mr. Gladstone, who is fast nearing his eightieth birthday, would
boast, in the style of Caleb, that he was as good a man with his axe
as he was when he was forty, but I would back him,--if the match were
possible, for a hundred shekels, against that over-confident old
Israelite, to cut down and chop up a cedar of Lebanon. I know a most
excellent clergyman, not far from my own time of life, whom I would
pit against any old Hebrew rabbi or Greek philosopher of his years
and weight, if they could return to the flesh, to run a quarter of a
mile on a good, level track.
We must not make too much of such exceptional cases of prolonged
activity. I often reproached my dear friend and classmate, Tames
Freeman Clarke, that his ceaseless labors made it impossible for his
coevals to enjoy the luxury of that repose which their years
demanded. A wise old man, the late Dr. James Walker, president of
Harvard University, said that the great privilege of old age was the
getting rid of responsibilities. These hard-working veterans will
not let one get rid of them until he drops in his harness, and so
gets rid of them and his life together. How often has many a tired
old man envied the superannuated family cat, stretched upon the rug
before the fire, letting the genial warmth tranquilly diffuse itself
through all her internal arrangements! No more watching for mice in
dark, damp cellars, no more awaiting the savage gray rat at the mouth
of his den, no more scurrying up trees and lamp-posts to avoid the
neighbor's cur who wishes to make her acquaintance! It is very grand
to "die in harness," but it is very pleasant to have the tight straps
unbuckled and the heavy collar lifted from the neck and shoulders.
It is natural enough to cling to life. We are used to atmospheric
existence, and can hardly conceive of ourselves except as breathing
creatures. We have never tried any other mode of being, or, if we
have, we have forgotten all about it, whatever Wordsworth's grand ode
may tell us we remember. Heaven itself must be an experiment to
every human soul which shall find itself there. It may take time for
an earthborn saint to become acclimated to the celestial ether,--that
is, if time can be said to exist for a disembodied spirit. We are
all sentenced to capital punishment for the crime of living, and
though the condemned cell of our earthly existence is but a narrow
and bare dwelling-place, we have adjusted ourselves to it, and made
it tolerably comfortable for the little while we are to be confined
in it. The prisoner of Chillon
"regained [his] freedom with a sigh,"
and a tender-hearted mortal might be pardoned for looking back, like
the poor lady who was driven from her dwelling-place by fire and
brimstone, at the home he was leaving for the "undiscovered country."
On the other hand, a good many persons, not suicidal in their
tendencies, get more of life than they want. One of our wealthy
citizens said, on hearing that a friend had dropped off from
apoplexy, that it made his mouth water to hear of such a case. It
was an odd expression, but I have no doubt that the fine old
gentleman to whom it was attributed made use of it. He had had
enough of his gout and other infirmties. Swift's account of the
Struldbrugs is not very amusing reading for old people, but some may
find it a consolation to reflect on the probable miseries they escape
in not being doomed to an undying earthly existence.
There are strange diversities in the way in which different old
persons look upon their prospects. A millionaire whom I well
remember confessed that be should like to live long enough to learn
how much a certain fellow-citizen, a multimillionaire, was worth.
One of the, three nonagenarians before referred to expressed himself
as having a great curiosity about the new sphere of existence to
which he was looking forward.
The feeling must of necessity come to many aged persons that they
have outlived their usefulness; that they are no longer wanted, but
rather in the way, drags on the wheels rather than helping them
forward. But let them remember the often-quoted line of Milton,
"They also serve who only stand and wait."
This is peculiarly true of them. They are helping others without
always being aware of it. They are the shields, the breakwaters, of
those who come after them. Every decade is a defence of the one next
behind it. At thirty the youth has sobered into manhood, but the
strong men of forty rise in almost unbroken rank between him and the
approaches of old age as they show in the men of fifty. At forty he
looks with a sense of security at the strong men of fifty, and sees
behind them the row of sturdy sexagenarians. When fifty is reached,
somehow sixty does not look so old as it once used to, and seventy is
still afar off. After sixty the stern sentence of the burial service
seems to have a meaning that one did not notice in former years.
There begins to be something personal about it. But if one lives to
seventy he soon gets used to the text with the threescore years and
ten in it, and begins to count himself among those who by reason of
strength are destined to reach fourscore, of whom he can see a number
still in reasonably good condition. The octogenarian loves to read
about people of ninety and over. He peers among the asterisks of the
triennial catalogue of the University for the names of graduates who
have been seventy years out of college and remain still unstarred.
He is curious about the biographies of centenarians. Such escapades
as those of that terrible old sinner and ancestor of great men, the
Reverend Stephen Bachelder, interest him as they never did before.
But he cannot deceive himself much longer. See him walking on a
level surface, and he steps off almost as well as ever; but watch him
coming down a flight of stairs, and the family record could not tell
his years more faithfully. He cut you dead, you say? Did it occur
to you that he could not see you clearly enough to know you from any
other son or daughter of Adam? He said he was very glad to hear it,
did he, when you told him that your beloved grandmother had just
deceased? Did you happen to remember that though he does not allow
that he is deaf, he will not deny that he does not hear quite so well
as he used to? No matter about his failings; the longer he holds on
to life, the longer he makes life seem to all the living who follow
him, and thus he is their constant benefactor.
Every stage of existence has its special trials and its special
consolations. Habits are the crutches of old age; by the aid of
these we manage to hobble along after the mental joints are stiff and
the muscles rheumatic, to speak metaphorically,--that is to say, when
every act of self-determination costs an effort and a pang. We
become more and more automatic as we grow older, and if we lived long
enough we should come to be pieces of creaking machinery like
Maelzel's chess player,--or what that seemed to be.
Emerson was sixty-three years old, the year I have referred to as
that of the grand climacteric, when he read to his son the poem he
called "Terminus," beginning:
"It is time to be old,
To take in sail.
The God of bounds,
Who sets to seas a shore,
Came to me in his fatal rounds
And said, 'No more!'"
It was early in life to feel that the productive stage was over, but
he had received warning from within, and did not wish to wait for
outside advices. There is all the difference in the world in the
mental as in the bodily constitution of different individuals. Some
must "take in sail" sooner, some later. We can get a useful lesson
from the American and the English elms on our Common. The American
elms are quite bare, and have been so for weeks. They know very well
that they are going to have storms to wrestle with; they have not
forgotten the gales of September and the tempests of the late autumn
and early winter. It is a hard fight they are going to have, and
they strip their coats off and roll up their shirt-sleeves, and show
themselves bare-armed and ready for the contest. The English elms
are of a more robust build, and stand defiant, with all their summer
clothing about their sturdy frames. They may yet have to learn a
lesson of their American cousins, for notwithstanding their compact
and solid structure they go to pieces in the great winds just as ours
do. We must drop much of our foliage before winter is upon us. We
must take in sail and throw over cargo, if that is necessary, to keep
us afloat. We have to decide between our duties and our instinctive
demand of rest. I can believe that some have welcomed the decay of
their active powers because it furnished them with peremptory reasons
for sparing themselves during the few years that were left them.
Age brings other obvious changes besides the loss of active power.
The sensibilities are less keen, the intelligence is less lively, as
we might expect under the influence of that narcotic which Nature
administers. But there is another effect of her "black drop" which
is not so commonly recognized. Old age is like an opium-dream.
Nothing seems real except what is unreal. I am sure that the
pictures painted by the imagination,--the faded frescos on the walls
of memory,--come out in clearer and brighter colors than belonged to
them many years earlier. Nature has her special favors for her
children of every age, and this is one which she reserves for our
No man can reach an advanced age without thinking of that great
change to which, in the course of nature, he must be so near. It has
been remarked that the sterner beliefs of rigid theologians are apt
to soften in their later years. All reflecting persons, even those
whose minds have been half palsied by the deadly dogmas which have
done all they could to disorganize their thinking powers,--all
reflecting persons, I say, must recognize, in looking back over a
long life, how largely their creeds, their course of life, their
wisdom and unwisdom, their whole characters, were shaped by the
conditions which surrounded them. Little children they came from the
hands of the Father of all; little children in their helplessness,
their ignorance, they are going back to Him. They cannot help
feeling that they are to be transferred from the rude embrace of the
boisterous elements to arms that will receive them tenderly. Poor
planetary foundlings, they have known hard treatment at the hands of
the brute forces of nature, from the control of which they are soon
to be set free. There are some old pessimists, it is true, who
believe that they and a few others are on a raft, and that the ship
which they have quitted, holding the rest of mankind, is going down
with all on board. It is no wonder that there should be such when we
remember what have been the teachings of the priesthood through long
series of ignorant centuries. Every age has to shape the Divine
image it worships over again,--the present age and our own country
are busily engaged in the task at this time. We unmake Presidents
and make new ones. This is an apprenticeship for a higher task. Our
doctrinal teachers are unmaking the Deity of the Westminster
Catechism and trying to model a new one, with more of modern humanity
and less of ancient barbarism in his composition. If Jonathan
Edwards had lived long enough, I have no doubt his creed would have
softened into a kindly, humanized belief.
Some twenty or thirty years ago, I said to Longfellow that certain
statistical tables I had seen went to show that poets were not a
long-lived race. He doubted whether there was anything to prove they
were particularly short-lived. Soon after this, he handed me a list
he had drawn up. I cannot lay my hand upon it at this moment, but I
remember that Metastasio was the oldest of them all. He died at the
age of eighty-four. I have had some tables made out, which I have
every reason to believe are correct so far as they go. From these,
it appears that twenty English poets lived to the average age of
fifty-six years and a little over. The eight American poets on the
list averaged seventy-three and a half, nearly, and they are not all
dead yet. The list including Greek, Latin, Italian, and German
poets, with American and English, gave an average of a little over
sixty-two years. Our young poets need not be alarmed. They can
remember that Bryant lived to be eighty-three years old, that
Longfellow reached seventy-five and Halleck seventy-seven, while
Whittier is living at the age of nearly eighty-two. Tennyson is
still writing at eighty, and Browning reached the age of seventy-
Shall a man who in his younger days has written poetry, or what
passed for it, continue to attempt it in his later years? Certainly,
if it amuses or interests him, no one would object to his writing in
verse as much as he likes. Whether he should continue to write for
the public is another question. Poetry is a good deal a matter of
heart-beats, and the circulation is more languid in the later period
of life. The joints are less supple; the arteries are more or less
"ossified." Something like these changes has taken place in the
mind. It has lost the flexibility, the plastic docility, which it
had in youth and early manhood, when the gristle had but just become
hardened into bone. It is the nature of poetry to writhe itself
along through the tangled growths of the vocabulary, as a snake winds
through the grass, in sinuous, complex, and unexpected curves, which
crack every joint that is not supple as india-rubber.
I had a poem that I wanted to print just here. But after what I have
this moment said, I hesitated, thinking that I might provoke the
obvious remark that I exemplified the unfitness of which I had been
speaking. I remembered the advice I had given to a poetical aspirant
not long since, which I think deserves a paragraph to itself.
My friend, I said, I hope you will not write in verse. When you
write in prose you say what you mean. When you write in rhyme you
say what you must.
Should I send this poem to the publishers, or not?
"Some said, 'John, print it;' others said, 'Not so.'"
I did not ask "some" or "others." Perhaps I should have thought it
best to keep my poem to myself and the few friends for whom it was
written. All at once, my daimon--that other Me over whom I button my
waistcoat when I button it over my own person--put it into my head to
look up the story of Madame Saqui. She was a famous danseuse, who
danced Napoleon in and out, and several other dynasties besides. Her
last appearance was at the age of seventy-six, which is rather late
in life for the tight rope, one of her specialties. Jules Janin
mummified her when she died in 1866, at the age of eighty. He spiced
her up in his eulogy as if she had been the queen of a modern
Pharaoh. His foamy and flowery rhetoric put me into such a state of
good-nature that I said, I will print my poem, and let the critical
Gil Blas handle it as he did the archbishop's sermon, or would have
done, if he had been a writer for the "Salamanca Weekly."
It must be premised that a very beautiful loving cup was presented to
me on my recent birthday, by eleven ladies of my acquaintance. This
was the most costly and notable of all the many tributes I received,
and for which in different forms I expressed my gratitude.
TO THE ELEVEN LADIES
WHO PRESENTED ME WITH A SILVER LOVING CUP ON THE
TWENTY-NINTH OF AUGUST, M DCCC LXXXIX.
"Who gave this cup?" The secret thou wouldst steal
Its brimming flood forbids it to reveal:
No mortal's eye shall read it till he first
Cool the red throat of thirst.
If on the golden floor one draught remain,
Trust me, thy careful search will be in vain;
Not till the bowl is emptied shalt thou know
The names enrolled below.
Deeper than Truth lies buried in her well
Those modest names the graven letters spell
Hide from the sight; but, wait, and thou shalt see
Who the good angels be
Whose bounty glistens in the beauteous gift
That friendly hands to loving lips shall lift:
Turn the fair goblet when its floor is dry,
Their names shall meet thine eye.
Count thou their number on the beads of Heaven,
Alas! the clustered Pleiads are but seven;
Nay, the nine sister Muses are too few,--
The Graces must add two.
"For whom this gift?" For one who all too long
Clings to his bough among the groves of song;
Autumn's last leaf, that spreads its faded wing
To greet a second spring.
Dear friends, kind friends, whate'er the cup may hold,
Bathing its burnished depths, will change to gold
Its last bright drop let thirsty Maenads drain,
Its fragrance will remain.
Better love's perfume in the empty bowl
Than wine's nepenthe for the aching soul
Sweeter than song that ever poet sung,
It makes an old heart young!
After the reading of the paper which was reported in the preceding
number of this record, the company fell into talk upon the subject
with which it dealt.
The Mistress. "I could have wished you had said more about the
religious attitude of old age as such. Surely the thoughts of aged
persons must be very much taken up with the question of what is to
become of them. I should like to have The Dictator explain himself a
little more fully on this point."
My dear madam, I said, it is a delicate matter to talk about. You
remember Mr. Calhoun's response to the advances of an over-zealous
young clergyman who wished to examine him as to his outfit for the
long journey. I think the relations between man and his Maker grow
more intimate, more confidential, if I may say so, with advancing
years. The old man is less disposed to argue about special matters
of belief, and more ready to sympathize with spiritually minded
persons without anxious questioning as to the fold to which they
belong. That kindly judgment which he exercises with regard to
others he will, naturally enough, apply to himself. The caressing
tone in which the Emperor Hadrian addresses his soul is very much
like that of an old person talking with a grandchild or some other
"Animula, vagula, blandula,
Hospes comesque corporis."
"Dear little, flitting, pleasing sprite,
The body's comrade and its guest."
How like the language of Catullus to Lesbia's sparrow!
More and more the old man finds his pleasures in memory, as the
present becomes unreal and dreamlike, and the vista of his earthly
future narrows and closes in upon him. At last, if he live long
enough, life comes to be little more than a gentle and peaceful
delirium of pleasing recollections. To say, as Dante says, that
there is no greater grief than to remember past happiness in the hour
of misery is not giving the whole truth. In the midst of the misery,
as many would call it, of extreme old age, there is often a divine
consolation in recalling the happy moments and days and years of
times long past. So beautiful are the visions of bygone delight that
one could hardly wish them to become real, lest they should lose
their ineffable charm. I can almost conceive of a dozing and dreamy
centenarian saying to one he loves, "Go, darling, go! Spread your
wings and leave me. So shall you enter that world of memory where
all is lovely. I shall not hear the sound of your footsteps any
more, but you will float before me, an aerial presence. I shall not
hear any word from your lips, but I shall have a deeper sense of your
nearness to me than speech can give. I shall feel, in my still
solitude, as the Ancient Mariner felt when the seraph band gathered
"'No voice did they impart
No voice; but oh! the silence sank
Like music on my heart.'"
I said that the lenient way in which the old look at the failings of
others naturally leads them to judge themselves more charitably.
They find an apology for their short-comings and wrong-doings in
another consideration. They know very well that they are not the
same persons as the middle-aged individuals, the young men, the boys,
the children, that bore their names, and whose lives were continuous
with theirs. Here is an old man who can remember the first time he
was allowed to go shooting. What a remorseless young destroyer he
was, to be sure! Wherever he saw a feather, wherever a poor little
squirrel showed his bushy tail, bang! went the old "king's arm," and
the feathers or the fur were set flying like so much chaff. Now that
same old man,--the mortal that was called by his name and has passed
for the same person for some scores of years,--is considered absurdly
sentimental by kind-hearted women, because he opens the fly-trap and
sets all its captives free,--out-of-doors, of course, but the dear
souls all insisting, meanwhile, that the flies will, every one of
them, be back again in the house before the day is over. Do you
suppose that venerable sinner expects to be rigorously called to
account for the want of feeling he showed in those early years, when
the instinct of destruction, derived from his forest-roaming
ancestors, led him to acts which he now looks upon with pain and
"Senex" has seen three generations grow up, the son repeating the
virtues and the failings of the father, the grandson showing the same
characteristics as the father and grandfather. He knows that if such
or such a young fellow had lived to the next stage of life he would
very probably have caught up with his mother's virtues, which, like a
graft of a late fruit on an early apple or pear tree, do not ripen in
her children until late in the season. He has seen the successive
ripening of one quality after another on the boughs of his own life,
and he finds it hard to condemn himself for faults which only needed
time to fall off and be succeeded by better fruitage. I cannot help
thinking that the recording angel not only drops a tear upon many a
human failing, which blots it out forever, but that he hands many an
old record-book to the imp that does his bidding, and orders him to
throw that into the fire instead of the sinner for whom the little
wretch had kindled it.
"And pitched him in after it, I hope," said Number Seven, who is in
some points as much of an optimist as any one among us, in spite of
the squint in his brain,--or in virtue of it, if you choose to have
"I like Wordsworth's 'Matthew,'" said Number Five, "as well as any
picture of old age I remember."
"Can you repeat it to us?" asked one of The Teacups.
"I can recall two verses of it," said Number Five, and she recited
the two following ones. Number Five has a very sweet voice. The
moment she speaks all the faces turn toward her. I don't know what
its secret is, but it is a voice that makes friends of everybody.
"'The sighs which Matthew heaved were sighs
Of one tired out with fun and madness;
The tears which came to Matthew's eyes
Were tears of light, the dew of gladness.
"'Yet, sometimes, when the secret cup
Of still and serious thought went round,
It seemed as if he drank it up,
He felt with spirit so profound:'
"This was the way in which Wordsworth paid his tribute to a
"'Soul of God's best earthly mould.'"
The sweet voice left a trance-like silence after it, which may have
lasted twenty heart-beats. Then I said, We all thank you for your
charming quotation. How much more wholesome a picture of humanity
than such stuff as the author of the "Night Thoughts" has left us:
"Heaven's Sovereign saves all beings but Himself
That hideous sight, a naked human heart."
Or the author of "Don Juan," telling us to look into
"Man's heart, and view the hell that's there!"
I hope I am quoting correctly, but I am more of a scholar in
Wordsworth than in Byron. Was Parson Young's own heart such a
hideous spectacle to himself?
If it was, he had better have stripped off his surplice. No,--it was
nothing but the cant of his calling. In Byron it was a mood, and he
might have said just the opposite thing the next day, as he did in
his two descriptions of the Venus de' Medici. That picture of old
Matthew abides in the memory, and makes one think better of his kind.
What nobler tasks has the poet than to exalt the idea of manhood, and
to make the world we live in more beautiful?
We have two or three young people with us who stand a fair chance of
furnishing us the element without which life and tea-tables alike are
wanting in interest. We are all, of course, watching them, and
curious to know whether we are to have a romance or not. Here is one
of them; others will show themselves presently.
I cannot say just how old the Tutor is, but I do not detect a gray
hair in his head. My sight is not so good as it was, however, and he
may have turned the sharp corner of thirty, and even have left it a
year or two behind him. More probably he is still in the twenties,
--say twenty-eight or twenty-nine. He seems young, at any rate,
excitable, enthusiastic, imaginative, but at the same time reserved.
I am afraid that he is a poet. When I say "I am afraid," you wonder
what I mean by the expression. I may take another opportunity to
explain and justify it; I will only say now that I consider the Muse
the most dangerous of sirens to a young man who has his way to make
in the world. Now this young man, the Tutor, has, I believe, a
future before him. He was born for a philosopher,--so I read his
horoscope,--but he has a great liking for poetry and can write well
in verse. We have had a number of poems offered for our
entertainment, which I have commonly been requested to read. There
has been some little mystery about their authorship, but it is
evident that they are not all from the same hand. Poetry is as
contagious as measles, and if a single case of it break out in any
social circle, or in a school, there are certain to be a number of
similar cases, some slight, some serious, and now and then one so
malignant that the subject of it should be put on a spare diet of
stationery, say from two to three penfuls of ink and a half sheet of
notepaper per diem. If any of our poetical contributions are
presentable, the reader shall have a chance to see them.
It must be understood that our company is not invariably made up of
the same persons. The Mistress, as we call her, is expected to be
always in her place. I make it a rule to be present. The Professor
is almost as sure to be at the table as I am. We should hardly know
what to do without Number Five. It takes a good deal of tact to
handle such a little assembly as ours, which is a republic on a small
scale, for all that they give me the title of Dictator, and Number
Five is a great help in every social emergency. She sees when a
discussion tends to become personal, and heads off the threatening
antagonists. She knows when a subject has been knocking about long
enough and dexterously shifts the talk to another track. It is true
that I am the one most frequently appealed to as the highest tribunal
in doubtful cases, but I often care more for Number Five's opinion
than I do for my own. Who is this Number Five, so fascinating, so
wise, so full of knowledge, and so ready to learn? She is suspected
of being the anonymous author of a book which produced a sensation
when published, not very long ago, and which those who read are very
apt to read a second time, and to leave on their tables for frequent
reference. But we have never asked her. I do not think she wants to
be famous. How she comes to be unmarried is a mystery to me; it must
be that she has found nobody worth caring enough for. I wish she
would furnish us with the romance which, as I said, our tea-table
needs to make it interesting. Perhaps the new-comer will make love
to her,--I should think it possible she might fancy him.
And who is the new-comer? He is a Counsellor and a Politician. Has
a good war record. Is about forty-five years old, I conjecture. Is
engaged in a great law case just now. Said to be very eloquent. Has
an intellectual head, and the bearing of one who has commanded a
regiment or perhaps a brigade. Altogether an attractive person,
scholarly, refined has some accomplishments not so common as they
might be in the class we call gentlemen, with an accent on the word.
There is also a young Doctor, waiting for his bald spot to come, so
that he may get into practice.
We have two young ladies at the table,--the English girl referred to
in a former number, and an American girl of about her own age. Both
of them are students in one of those institutions--I am not sure
whether they call it an "annex" or not; but at any rate one of those
schools where they teach the incomprehensible sort of mathematics and
other bewildering branches of knowledge above the common level of
high-school education. They seem to be good friends, and form a very
pleasing pair when they walk in arm in arm; nearly enough alike to
seem to belong together, different enough to form an agreeable
Of course we were bound to have a Musician at our table, and we have
one who sings admirably, and accompanies himself, or one or more of
our ladies, very frequently.
Such is our company when the table is full. But sometimes only half
a dozen, or it may be only three or four, are present. At other
times we have a visitor or two, either in the place of one of our
habitual number, or in addition to it. We have the elements, we
think, of a pleasant social gathering,--different sexes, ages,
pursuits, and tastes,--all that is required for a "symphony concert"
of conversation. One of the curious questions which might well be
asked by those who had been with us on different occasions would be,
"How many poets are there among you?" Nobody can answer this
question. It is a point of etiquette with us not to press our
inquiries about these anonymous poems too sharply, especially if any
of them betray sentiments which would not bear rough handling.
I don't doubt that the different personalities at our table will get
mixed up in the reader's mind if be is not particularly clear-headed.
That happens very often, much oftener than all would be willing to
confess, in reading novels and plays. I am afraid we should get a
good deal confused even in reading our Shakespeare if we did not look
back now and then at the dramatis personae. I am sure that I am very
apt to confound the characters in a moderately interesting novel;
indeed, I suspect that the writer is often no better off than the
reader in the dreary middle of the story, when his characters have
all made their appearance, and before they have reached near enough
to the denoument to have fixed their individuality by the position
they have arrived at in the chain of the narrative.
My reader might be a little puzzled when he read that Number Five did
or said such or such a thing, and ask, "Whom do you mean by that
title? I am not quite sure that I remember." Just associate her with
that line of Emerson,
"Why nature loves the number five,"
and that will remind you that she is the favorite of our table.
You cannot forget who Number Seven is if I inform you that he
specially prides himself on being a seventh son of a seventh son.
The fact of such a descent is supposed to carry wonderful endowments
with it. Number Seven passes for a natural healer. He is looked
upon as a kind of wizard, and is lucky in living in the nineteenth
century instead of the sixteenth or earlier. How much confidence he
feels in himself as the possessor of half-supernatural gifts I cannot
say. I think his peculiar birthright gives him a certain confidence
in his whims and fancies which but for that he would hardly feel.
After this explanation, when I speak of Number Five or Number Seven,
you will know to whom I refer.
The company are very frank in their criticisms of each other. "I did
not like that expression of yours, planetary foundlings," said the
Mistress. "It seems to me that it is too like atheism for a good
Christian like you to use."
Ah, my dear madam, I answered, I was thinking of the elements and the
natural forces to which man was born an almost helpless subject in
the rudimentary stages of his existence, and from which he has only
partially got free after ages upon ages of warfare with their
tyranny. Think what hunger forced the caveman to do! Think of the
surly indifference of the storms that swept the forest and the
waters, the earthquake chasms that engulfed him, the inundations that
drowned him out of his miserable hiding-places, the pestilences that
lay in wait for him, the unequal strife with ferocious animals!
I need not sum up all the wretchedness that goes to constitute the
"martyrdom of man." When our forefathers came to this wilderness as
it then was, and found everywhere the bones of the poor natives who
had perished in the great plague (which our Doctor there thinks was
probably the small-pox), they considered this destructive malady as a
special mark of providential favor for them. How about the miserable
Indians? Were they anything but planetary foundlings? No!
Civilization is a great foundling hospital, and fortunate are all
those who get safely into the creche before the frost or the malaria
has killed them, the wild beasts or the venomous reptiles worked out
their deadly appetites and instincts upon them. The very idea of
humanity seems to be that it shall take care of itself and develop
its powers in the "struggle for life." Whether we approve it or not,
if we can judge by the material record, man was born a foundling, and
fought his way as he best might to that kind of existence which we
call civilized,--one which a considerable part of the inhabitants of
our planet have reached.
If you do not like the expression planetary foundlings, I have no
objection to your considering the race as put out to nurse. And what
a nurse Nature is! She gives her charge a hole in the rocks to live
in, ice for his pillow and snow for his blanket, in one part of the
world; the jungle for his bedroom in another, with the tiger for his
watch-dog, and the cobra as his playfellow.
Well, I said, there may be other parts of the universe where there
are no tigers and no cobras. It is not quite certain that such
realms of creation are better off, on the whole, than this earthly
residence of ours, which has fought its way up to the development of
such centres of civilization as Athens and Rome, to such
personalities as Socrates, as Washington.
"One of our company has been on an excursion among the celestial
bodies of our system, I understand," said the Professor.
Number Five colored. "Nothing but a dream," she said. "The truth
is, I had taken ether in the evening for a touch of neuralgia, and it
set my imagination at work in a way quite unusual with me. I had
been reading a number of books about an ideal condition of society,--
Sir Thomas Mores 'Utopia,' Lord Bacon's 'New Atlantis,' and another
of more recent date. I went to bed with my brain a good deal
excited, and fell into a deep slumber, in which I passed through some
experiences so singular that, on awaking, I put them down on paper.
I don't know that there is anything very original about the
experiences I have recorded, but I thought them worth preserving.
Perhaps you would not agree with me in that belief."
"If Number Five will give us a chance to form our own judgment about
her dream or vision, I think we shall enjoy it," said the Mistress.
"She knows what will please The Teacups in the way of reading as well
as I do how many lumps of sugar the Professor wants in his tea and
how many I want in mine."
The company was so urgent that Number Five sent up-stairs for her
Number Five reads the story of her dream.
It cost me a great effort to set down the words of the manuscript
from which I am reading. My dreams for the most part fade away so
soon after their occurrence that I cannot recall them at all. But in
this case my ideas held together with remarkable tenacity. By
keeping my mind steadily upon the work, I gradually unfolded the
narrative which follows, as the famous Italian antiquary opened one
of those fragile carbonized manuscripts found in the ruins of
Herculaneum or Pompeii.
The first thing I remember about it is that I was floating upward,
without any sense of effort on my part. The feeling was that of
flying, which I have often had in dreams, as have many other persons.
It was the most natural thing in the world,--a semi-materialized
volition, if I may use such an expression.
At the first moment of my new consciousness,--for I seemed to have
just emerged from a deep slumber, I was aware that there was a
companion at my side. Nothing could be more gracious than the way in
which this being accosted me. I will speak of it as she, because
there was a delicacy, a sweetness, a divine purity, about its aspect
that recalled my ideal of the loveliest womanhood.
"I am your companion and your guide," this being made me understand,
as she looked at me. Some faculty of which I had never before been
conscious had awakened in me, and I needed no interpreter to explain
the unspoken language of my celestial attendant.
"You are not yet outside of space and time," she said, "and I am
going with you through some parts of the phenomenal or apparent
universe,--what you call the material world. We have plenty of what
you call time before us, and we will take our voyage leisurely,
looking at such objects of interest as may attract our attention as
we pass. The first thing you will naturally wish to look at will be
the earth you have just left. This is about the right distance," she
said, and we paused in our flight.
The great globe we had left was rolling beneath us. No eye of one in
the flesh could see it as I saw or seemed to see it. No ear of any
mortal being could bear the sounds that came from it as I heard or
seemed to hear them. The broad oceans unrolled themselves before me.
I could recognize the calm Pacific and the stormy Atlantic,--the
ships that dotted them, the white lines where the waves broke on the
shore,--frills on the robes of the continents,--so they looked to
my woman's perception; the--vast South American forests; the
glittering icebergs about the poles; the snowy mountain ranges, here
and there a summit sending up fire and smoke; mighty rivers, dividing
provinces within sight of each other, and making neighbors of realms
thousands of miles apart; cities; light-houses to insure the safety
of sea-going vessels, and war-ships to knock them to pieces and sink
them. All this, and infinitely more, showed itself to me during a
single revolution of the sphere: twenty-four hours it would have
been, if reckoned by earthly measurements of time. I have not spoken
of the sounds I heard while the earth was revolving under us. The
howl of storms, the roar and clash of waves, the crack and crash of
the falling thunderbolt,--these of course made themselves heard as
they do to mortal ears. But there were other sounds which enchained
my attention more than these voices of nature. As the skilled leader
of an orchestra hears every single sound from each member of the mob
of stringed and wind instruments, and above all the screech of the
straining soprano, so my sharpened perceptions made what would have
been for common mortals a confused murmur audible to me as compounded
of innumerable easily distinguished sounds. Above them all arose one
continued, unbroken, agonizing cry. It was the voice of suffering
womanhood, a sound that goes up day and night, one long chorus of
"Let us get out of reach of this," I said; and we left our planet,
with its blank, desolate moon staring at it, as if it had turned pale
at the sights and sounds it had to witness.
Presently the gilded dome of the State House, which marked our
starting-point, came into view for the second time, and I knew that
this side-show was over. I bade farewell to the Common with its
Cogswell fountain, and the Garden with its last awe-inspiring
"Oh, if I could sometimes revisit these beloved scenes! "I exclaimed.
"There is nothing to hinder that I know of," said my companion.
"Memory and imagination as you know them in the flesh are two winged
creatures with strings tied to their legs, and anchored to a bodily
weight of a hundred and fifty pounds, more or less. When the string
is cut you can be where you wish to be,--not merely a part of you,
leaving the rest behind, but the whole of you. Why shouldn't you
want to revisit your old home sometimes?"
I was astonished at the human way in which my guide conversed with
me. It was always on the basis of my earthly habits, experiences,
and limitations. "Your solar system," she said, "is a very small
part of the universe, but you naturally feel a curiosity about the
bodies which constitute it and about their inhabitants. There is
your moon: a bare and desolate-looking place it is, and well it may
be, for it has no respirable atmosphere, and no occasion for one.
The Lunites do not breathe; they live without waste and without
supply. You look as if you do not understand this. Yet your people
have, as you well know, what they call incandescent lights
everywhere. You would have said there can be no lamp without oil or
gas, or other combustible substance, to feed it; and yet you see a
filament which sheds a light like that of noon all around it, and
does not waste at all. So the Lunites live by influx of divine
energy, just as the incandescent lamp glows,--glows, and is not
consumed; receiving its life, if we may call it so, from the central
power, which wears the unpleasant name of 'dynamo.'"
The Lunites appeared to me as pale phosphorescent figures of ill-
defined outline, lost in their own halos, as it were. I could not
help thinking of Shelley's
With white fire laden."
But as the Lunites were after all but provincials, as are the tenants
of all the satellites, I did not care to contemplate them for any
great length of time.
I do not remember much about the two planets that came next to our
own, except the beautiful rosy atmosphere of one and the huge bulk of
the other. Presently, we found ourselves within hailing distance of
another celestial body, which I recognized at once, by the rings
which girdled it, as the planet Saturn. A dingy, dull-looking sphere
it was in its appearance. "We will tie up here for a while," said my
attendant. The easy, familiar way in which she spoke surprised and
Why, said I,--The Dictator,--what is there to prevent beings of
another order from being as cheerful, as social, as good companions,
as the very liveliest of God's creatures whom we have known in the
flesh? Is it impossible for an archangel to smile? Is such a
phenomenon as a laugh never heard except in our little sinful corner
of the universe? Do you suppose, that when the disciples heard from
the lips of their Master the play of words on the name of Peter,
there was no smile of appreciation on the bearded faces of those holy
men? From any other lips we should have called this pleasantry a
Number Five shook her head very slightly, and gave me a look that
seemed to say, "Don't frighten the other Teacups. We don't call
things by the names that belong to them when we deal with celestial
We tied up, as my attendant playfully called our resting, so near the
planet that I could know--I will not say see and hear, but apprehend
--all that was going on in that remote sphere; remote, as we who live
in what we have been used to consider the centre of the rational
universe regard it. What struck me at once was the deadness of
everything I looked upon. Dead, uniform color of surface and
surrounding atmosphere. Dead complexion of all the inhabitants.
Dead-looking trees, dead-looking grass, no flowers to be seen
"What is the meaning of all this?" I said to my guide.
She smiled good-naturedly, and replied, "It is a forlorn home for
anything above a lichen or a toadstool; but that is no wonder, when
you know what the air is which they breathe. It is pure nitrogen."
The Professor spoke up. "That can't be, madam," he said. "The
spectroscope shows the atmosphere of Saturn to be--no matter, I have
forgotten what; but it was not pure nitrogen, at any rate."
Number Five is never disconcerted. "Will you tell me," she said,
"where you have found any account of the bands and lines in the
spectrum of dream-nitrogen? I should be so pleased to become
acquainted with them."
The Professor winced a little, and asked Delilah, the handmaiden, to
pass a plate of muffins to him. The dream had carried him away, and
he thought for the moment that he was listening to a scientific
Of course, my companion went on to say, the bodily constitution of
the Saturnians is wholly different from that of air-breathing, that
is oxygen-breathing, human beings. They are the dullest, slowest,
most torpid of mortal creatures.
All this is not to be wondered at when you remember the inert
characteristics of nitrogen. There are in some localities natural
springs which give out slender streams of oxygen. You will learn by
and by what use the Saturnians make of this dangerous gas, which, as
you recollect, constitutes about one fifth of your own atmosphere.
Saturn has large lead mines, but no other metal is found on this
planet. The inhabitants have nothing else to make tools of, except
stones and shells. The mechanical arts have therefore made no great
progress among them. Chopping down a tree with a leaden axe is
necessarily a slow process.
So far as the Saturnians can be said to have any pride in anything,
it is in the absolute level which characterizes their political and
social order. They profess to be the only true republicans in the
solar system. The fundamental articles of their Constitution are
All Saturnians are born equal, live equal, and die equal.
All Saturnians are born free,--free, that is, to obey the rules laid
down for the regulation of their conduct, pursuits, and opinions,
free to be married to the person selected for them by the
physiological section of the government, and free to die at such
proper period of life as may best suit the convenience and general
welfare of the community.
The one great industrial product of Saturn is the bread-root. The
Saturnians find this wholesome and palatable enough; and it is well
they do, as they have no other vegetable. It is what I should call a
most uninteresting kind of eatable, but it serves as food and drink,
having juice enough, so that they get along without water. They have
a tough, dry grass, which, matted together, furnishes them with
clothes sufficiently warm for their cold-blooded constitutions, and
more than sufficiently ugly.
A piece of ground large enough to furnish bread-root for ten persons
is allotted to each head of a household, allowance being made for the
possible increase of families. This, however, is not a very
important consideration, as the Saturnians are not a prolific race.
The great object of life being the product of the largest possible
quantity of bread-roots, and women not being so capable in the fields
as the stronger sex, females are considered an undesirable addition
to society. The one thing the Saturnians dread and abhor is
inequality. The whole object of their laws and customs is to
maintain the strictest equality in everything,--social relations,
property, so far as they can be said to have anything which can be so
called, mode of living, dress, and all other matters. It is their
boast that nobody ever starved under their government. Nobody goes
in rags, for the coarse-fibred grass from which they fabricate their
clothes is very durable. (I confess I wondered how a woman could
live in Saturn. They have no looking-glasses. There is no such
article as a ribbon known among them. All their clothes are of one
pattern. I noticed that there were no pockets in any of their
garments, and learned that a pocket would be considered prima facie
evidence of theft, as no honest person would have use for such a
secret receptacle.) Before the revolution which established the
great law of absolute and lifelong equality, the inhabitants used to
feed at their own private tables. Since the regeneration of society
all meals are taken in common. The last relic of barbarism was the
use of plates,--one or even more to each individual. This "odious
relic of an effete civilization," as they called it, has long been
superseded by oblong hollow receptacles, one of which is allotted to
each twelve persons. A great riot took place when an attempt was
made by some fastidious and exclusive egotists to introduce
partitions which should partially divide one portion of these
receptacles into individual compartments. The Saturnians boast that
they have no paupers, no thieves, none of those fictitious values
called money,--all which things, they hear, are known in that small
Saturn nearer the sun than the great planet which is their dwelling-
"I suppose that now they have levelled everything they are quiet and
contented. Have they any of those uneasy people called reformers?"
"Indeed they have," said my attendant. "There are the
Orthobrachians, who declaim against the shameful abuse of the left
arm and hand, and insist on restoring their perfect equality with the
right. Then there are Isopodic societies, which insist on bringing
back the original equality of the upper and lower limbs. If you can
believe it, they actually practise going on all fours,--generally in
a private way, a few of them together, but hoping to bring the world
round to them in the near future."
Here I had to stop and laugh.
"I should think life might be a little dull in Saturn," I said.
"It is liable to that accusation," she answered. "Do you notice how
many people you meet with their mouths stretched wide open?"
"Yes," I said, "and I do not know what to make of it. I should think
every fourth or fifth person had his mouth open in that way."
"They are suffering from the endemic disease of their planet,
prolonged and inveterate gaping or yawning, which has ended in
dislocation of the lower jaw. After a time this becomes fixed, and
requires a difficult surgical operation to restore it to its place."
It struck me that, in spite of their boast that they have no paupers,
no thieves, no money, they were a melancholy-looking set of beings.
"What are their amusements?" I asked.
"Intoxication and suicide are their chief recreations. They have a
way of mixing the oxygen which issues in small jets from certain
natural springs with their atmospheric nitrogen in the proportion of
about twenty per cent, which makes very nearly the same thing as the
air of your planet. But to the Saturnians the mixture is highly
intoxicating, and is therefore a relief to the monotony of their
every-day life. This mixture is greatly sought after, but hard to
obtain, as the sources of oxygen are few and scanty. It shortens the
lives of those who have recourse to it; but if it takes too long,
they have other ways of escaping from a life which cuts and dries
everything for its miserable subjects, defeats all the natural
instincts, confounds all individual characteristics, and makes
existence such a colossal bore, as your worldly people say, that
self-destruction becomes a luxury."
Number Five stopped here.
Your imaginary wholesale Shakerdom is all very fine, said I. Your
Utopia, your New Atlantis, and the rest are pretty to look at. But
your philosophers are treating the world of living souls as if they
were, each of them, playing a game of solitaire,--all the pegs and
all the holes alike. Life is a very different sort of game. It is a
game of chess, and not of solitaire, nor even of checkers. The men
are not all pawns, but you have your knights, bishops, rooks,--yes,
your king and queen,--to be provided for. Not with these names, of
course, but all looking for their proper places, and having their own
laws and modes of action. You can play solitaire with the members of
your own family for pegs, if you like, and if none of them rebel.
You can play checkers with a little community of meek, like-minded
people. But when it comes to the handling of a great state, you will
find that nature has emptied a box of chessmen before you, and you
must play with them so as to give each its proper move, or sweep them
off the board, and come back to the homely game such as I used to see
played with beans and kernels of corn on squares marked upon the back
of the kitchen bellows.
It was curious to see how differently Number Five's narrative was
received by the different listeners in our circle. Number Five
herself said she supposed she ought to be ashamed of its absurdities,
but she did not know that it was much sillier than dreams often are,
and she thought it might amuse the company. She was herself always
interested by these ideal pictures of society. But it seemed to her
that life must be dull in any of them, and with that idea in her head
her dreaming fancy had drawn these pictures.
The Professor was interested in her conception of the existence of
the Lunites without waste, and the death in life of the nitrogen-
breathing Saturnians. Dream-chemistry was a new subject to him.
Perhaps Number Five would give him some lessons in it.
At this she smiled, and said she was afraid she could not teach him
anything, but if he would answer a few questions in matter-of-fact
chemistry which had puzzled her she would be vastly obliged to him.
"You must come to my laboratory," said the Professor.
"I will come to-morrow," said Number Five.
Oh, yes! Much laboratory work they will do! Play of mutual
affinities. Amalgamates. No freezing mixtures, I'll warrant
Why shouldn't we get a romance out of all this, hey?
But Number Five looks as innocent as a lamb, and as brave as a lion.
She does not care a copper for the looks that are going round The
Our Doctor was curious about those cases of anchylosis, as he called
it, of the lower jaw. He thought it a quite possible occurrence.
Both the young girls thought the dream gave a very hard view of the
optimists, who look forward to a reorganization of society which
shall rid mankind of the terrible evils of over-crowding and
Number Seven was quite excited about the matter. He had himself
drawn up a plan for a new social arrangement. He had shown it to the
legal gentleman who has lately joined us. This gentleman thought it
well-intended, but that it would take one constable to every three
inhabitants to enforce its provisions.
I said the dream could do no harm; it was too outrageously improbable
to come home to anybody's feelings. Dreams were like broken
mosaics,--the separated stones might here and there make parts of
pictures. If one found a caricature of himself made out of the
pieces which had accidentally come together, he would smile at it,
knowing that it was an accidental effect with no malice in it. If
any of you really believe in a working Utopia, why not join the
Shakers, and convert the world to this mode of life? Celibacy alone
would cure a great many of the evils you complain of.
I thought this suggestion seemed to act rather unfavorably upon the
ladies of our circle. The two Annexes looked inquiringly at each
other. Number Five looked smilingly at them. She evidently thought
it was time to change the subject of conversation, for she turned to
me and said, "You promised to read us the poem you read before your
old classmates the other evening."
I will fulfill my promise, I said. We felt that this might probably
be our last meeting as a Class. The personal reference is to our
greatly beloved and honored classmate, James Freeman Clarke.
AFTER THE CURFEW.
The Play is over. While the light
Yet lingers in the darkening hall,
I come to say a last Good-night
Before the final Exeunt all.
We gathered once, a joyous throng:
The jovial toasts went gayly round;
With jest, and laugh, and shout, and song
we made the floors and walls resound.
We come with feeble steps and slow,
A little band of four or five,
Left from the wrecks of long ago,
Still pleased to find ourselves alive.
Alive! How living, too, are they
whose memories it is ours to share!
Spread the long table's full array,
There sits a ghost in every chair!
One breathing form no more, alas!
Amid our slender group we see;
With him we still remained "The Class,"
without his presence what are we?
The hand we ever loved to clasp,
That tireless hand which knew no rest,
Loosed from affection's clinging grasp,
Lies nerveless on the peaceful breast.
The beaming eye, the cheering voice,
That lent to life a generous glow,
whose every meaning said "Rejoice,"
we see, we hear, no more below.
The air seems darkened by his loss,
Earth's shadowed features look less fair,
And heavier weighs the daily cross
His willing shoulders helped as bear.
Why mourn that we, the favored few
Whom grasping Time so long has spared
Life's sweet illusions to pursue,
The common lot of age have shared?
In every pulse of Friendship's heart
There breeds unfelt a throb of pain,
One hour must rend its links apart,
Though years on years have forged the chain.
So ends "The Boys,"--a lifelong play.
We too must hear the Prompter's call
To fairer scenes and brighter day
Farewell! I let the curtain fall.
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