The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Part 3 out of 5
head on a curb-stone, in Melbourne or San Francisco,--or, if you
are a woman, quarrel and break your heart, or turn into a pale,
jointed petrifaction that moves about as if it were alive, or play
some real life-tragedy or other.
Be very careful to whom you trust one of these keys of the side-
door. The fact of possessing one renders those even who are dear
to you very terrible at times. You can keep the world out from
your front-door, or receive visitors only when you are ready for
them; but those of your own flesh and blood, or of certain grades
of intimacy, can come in at the side-door, if they will, at any
hour and in any mood. Some of them have a scale of your whole
nervous system, and can play all the gamut of your sensibilities in
semitones,--touching the naked nerve-pulps as a pianist strikes the
keys of his instrument. I am satisfied that there are as great
masters of this nerve-playing as Vieuxtemps or Thalberg in their
lines of performance. Married life is the school in which the most
accomplished artists in this department are found. A delicate
woman is the best instrument; she has such a magnificent compass of
sensibilities! From the deep inward moan which follows pressure on
the great nerves of right, to the sharp cry as the filaments of
taste are struck with a crashing sweep, is a range which no other
instrument possesses. A few exercises on it daily at home fit a
man wonderfully for his habitual labors, and refresh him immensely
as he returns from them. No stranger can get a great many notes of
torture out of a human soul; it takes one that knows it well,--
parent, child, brother, sister, intimate. Be very careful to whom
you give a side-door key; too many have them already.
- You remember the old story of the tender-hearted man, who placed
a frozen viper in his bosom, and was stung by it when it became
thawed? If we take a cold-blooded creature into our bosom, better
that it should sting us and we should die than that its chill
should slowly steal into our hearts; warm it we never can! I have
seen faces of women that were fair to look upon, yet one could see
that the icicles were forming round these women's hearts. I knew
what freezing image lay on the white breasts beneath the laces!
A very simple INTELLECTUAL mechanism answers the necessities of
friendship, and even of the most intimate relations of life. If a
watch tells us the hour and the minute, we can be content to carry
it about with us for a life-time, though it has no second-hand and
is not a repeater, nor a musical watch,--though it is not enamelled
nor jewelled,--in short, though it has little beyond the wheels
required for a trustworthy instrument, added to a good face and a
pair of useful hands. The more wheels there are in a watch or a
brain, the more trouble they are to take care of. The movements of
exaltation which belong to genius are egotistic by their very
nature. A calm, clear mind, not subject to the spasms and crises
which are so often met with in creative or intensely perceptive
natures, is the best basis for love or friendship.--Observe, I am
talking about MINDS. I won't say, the more intellect, the less
capacity for loving; for that would do wrong to the understanding
and reason;--but, on the other hand, that the brain often runs away
with the heart's best blood, which gives the world a few pages of
wisdom or sentiment or poetry, instead of making one other heart
happy, I have no question.
If one's intimate in love or friendship cannot or does not share
all one's intellectual tastes or pursuits, that is a small matter.
Intellectual companions can be found easily in men and books.
After all, if we think of it, most of the world's loves and
friendships have been between people that could not read nor spell.
But to radiate the heat of the affections into a clod which absorbs
all that is poured into it, but never warms beneath the sunshine of
smiles or the pressure of hand or lip,--this is the great martyrdom
of sensitive beings,--most of all in that perpetual auto da fe
where young womanhood is the sacrifice.
- You noticed, perhaps, what I just said about the loves and
friendships of illiterate persons,--that is, of the human race,
with a few exceptions here and there. I like books,--I was born
and bred among them, and have the easy feeling, when I get into
their presence, that a stable-boy has among horses. I don't think
I undervalue them either as companions or as instructors. But I
can't help remembering that the world's great men have not commonly
been great scholars, nor its great scholars great men. The Hebrew
patriarchs had small libraries, I think, if any; yet they represent
to our imaginations a very complete idea of manhood, and, I think,
if we could ask in Abraham to dine with us men of letters next
Saturday, we should feel honored by his company.
What I wanted to say about books is this: that there are times in
which every active mind feels itself above any and all human books.
- I think a man must have a good opinion of himself, Sir,--said the
divinity-student,--who should feel himself above Shakspeare at any
My young friend,--I replied,--the man who is never conscious of a
state of feeling or of intellectual effort entirely beyond
expression by any form of words whatsoever is a mere creature of
language. I can hardly believe there are any such men. Why, think
for a moment of the power of music. The nerves that make us alive
to it spread out (so the Professor tells me) in the most sensitive
region of the marrow just where it is widening to run upwards into
the hemispheres. It has its seat in the region of sense rather
than of thought. Yet it produces a continuous and, as it were,
logical sequence of emotional and intellectual changes; but how
different from trains of thought proper! how entirely beyond the
reach of symbols!--Think of human passions as compared with all
phrases! Did you ever hear of a man's growing lean by the reading
of "Romeo and Juliet," or blowing his brains out because Desdemona
was maligned? There are a good many symbols, even, that are more
expressive than words. I remember a young wife who had to part
with her husband for a time. She did not write a mournful poem;
indeed, she was a silent person, and perhaps hardly said a word
about it; but she quietly turned of a deep orange color with
jaundice. A great many people in this world have but one form of
rhetoric for their profoundest experiences,--namely, to waste away
and die. When a man can READ, his paroxysm of feeling is passing.
When he can READ, his thought has slackened its hold.--You talk
about reading Shakspeare, using him as an expression for the
highest intellect, and you wonder that any common person should be
so presumptuous as to suppose his thought can rise above the text
which lies before him. But think a moment. A child's reading of
Shakspeare is one thing, and Coleridge's or Schlegel's reading of
him is another. The saturation-point of each mind differs from
that of every other. But I think it is as true for the small mind
which can only take up a little as for the great one which takes up
much, that the suggested trains of thought and feeling ought always
to rise above--not the author, but the reader's mental version of
the author, whoever he may be.
I think most readers of Shakspeare sometimes find themselves thrown
into exalted mental conditions like those produced by music. Then
they may drop the book, to pass at once into the region of thought
without words. We may happen to be very dull folks, you and I, and
probably are, unless there is some particular reason to suppose the
contrary. But we get glimpses now and then of a sphere of
spiritual possibilities, where we, dull as we are now, may sail in
vast circles round the largest compass of earthly intelligences.
- I confess there are times when I feel like the friend I mentioned
to you some time ago,--I hate the very sight of a book. Sometimes
it becomes almost a physical necessity to talk out what is in the
mind, before putting anything else into it. It is very bad to have
thoughts and feelings, which were meant to come out in talk, STRIKE
IN, as they say of some complaints that ought to show outwardly.
I always believed in life rather than in books. I suppose every
day of earth, with its hundred thousand deaths and something more
of births,--with its loves and hates, its triumphs and defeats, its
pangs and blisses, has more of humanity in it than all the books
that were ever written, put together. I believe the flowers
growing at this moment send up more fragrance to heaven than was
ever exhaled from all the essences ever distilled.
- Don't I read up various matters to talk about at this table or
elsewhere?--No, that is the last thing I would do. I will tell you
my rule. Talk about those subjects you have had long in your mind,
and listen to what others say about subjects you have studied but
recently. Knowledge and timber shouldn't be much used, till they
- Physiologists and metaphysicians have had their attention turned
a good deal of late to the automatic and involuntary actions of the
mind. Put an idea into your intelligence and leave it there an
hour, a day, a year, without ever having occasion to refer to it.
When, at last, you return to it, you do not find it as it was when
acquired. It has domiciliated itself, so to speak,--become at
home,--entered into relations with your other thoughts, and
integrated itself with the whole fabric of the mind.--Or take a
simple and familiar example; Dr. Carpenter has adduced it. You
forget a name, in conversation,--go on talking, without making any
effort to recall it,--and presently the mind evolves it by its own
involuntary and unconscious action, while you were pursuing another
train of thought, and the name rises of itself to your lips.
There are some curious observations I should like to make about the
mental machinery, but I think we are getting rather didactic.
- I should be gratified, if Benjamin Franklin would let me know
something of his progress in the French language. I rather liked
that exercise he read us the other day, though I must confess I
should hardly dare to translate it, for fear some people in a
remote city where I once lived might think I was drawing their
- Yes, Paris is a famous place for societies. I don't know whether
the piece I mentioned from the French author was intended simply as
Natural History, or whether there was not a little malice in his
description. At any rate, when I gave my translation to B. F. to
turn back again into French, one reason was that I thought it would
sound a little bald in English, and some people might think it was
meant to have some local bearing or other,--which the author, of
course, didn't mean, inasmuch as he could not be acquainted with
anything on this side of the water.
[The above remarks were addressed to the school-mistress, to whom
I handed the paper after looking it over. The divinity-student
came and read over her shoulder,--very curious, apparently, but his
eyes wandered, I thought. Fancying that her breathing was somewhat
hurried and high, or thoracic, as my friend, the Professor, calls
it, I watched her a little more closely.--It is none of my
business.--After all, it is the imponderables that move the world,-
-heat, electricity, love. Habet?]
This is the piece that Benjamin Franklin made into boarding-school
French, such as you see here; don't expect too much;--the mistakes
give a relish to it, I think.
LES SOCIETES POLYPHYSIOPHILOSOPHIQUES.
Ces Societes la sont une Institution pour suppleer aux besoins
d'esprit et de coeur de ces individus qui ont survecu a leurs
emotions a l'egard du beau sexe, et qui n'ont pas la distraction de
l'habitude de boire.
Pour devenir membre d'une de ces Societes, on doit avoir le moins
de cheveux possible. S'il y en reste plusieurs qui resistent aux
depilatoires naturelles et autres, on doit avoir quelques
connaissances, n'importe dans quel genre. Des le moment qu'on
ouvre la porte de la Societe, on a un grand interet dans toutes les
choses dont on ne sait rien. Ainsi, un microscopiste demontre un
nouveau FLEXOR du TARSE d'un MELOLONTHA VULGARIS. Douze savans
improvises, portans des besicles, et qui ne connaissent rien des
insectes, si ce n'est les morsures du CULEX, se precipitent sur
l'instrument, et voient--une grande bulle d'air, dont ils
s'emerveillent avec effusion. Ce qui est un spectacle plein
d'instruction--pour ceux qui ne sont pas de ladite Societe. Tous
les membres regardent les chimistes en particulier avec un air
d'intelligence parfaite pendant qu'ils prouvent dans un discours
d'une demiheure que O6 N3 H5 C6 etc. font quelque chose qui n'est
bonne a rien, mais qui probablement a une odeur tres desagreable,
selon l'habitude des produits chimiques. Apres cela vient un
mathematicien qui vous bourre avec des a+b et vous rapporte enfin
un x+y, dont vous n'avex pas besoin et qui ne change nullement vos
relations avec la vie. Un naturaliste vous parle des formations
speciales des animaux excessivement inconnus, dont vous n'avez
jamais soupconne l'existence. Ainsi il vous decrit les FOLLICULES
de L'APPENDIX VERMIFORMIS d'un DZIGGUETAI. Vous ne savez pas ce
que c'est qu'un FOLLICULE. Vous ne savez pas ce que c'est qu'un
APPENDIX UERMIFORMIS. Vous n'avez jamais entendu parler du
DZIGGUETAI. Ainsi vous gagnez toutes ces connaisances a la fois,
qui s'attachent a votre esprit comme l'eau adhere aux plumes d'un
canard. On connait toutes les langues EX OFFICIO en devenant
membre d'une de ces Societes. Ainsi quand on entend lire un Essai
sur les dialectes Tchutchiens, on comprend tout cela de suite, et
Il y a deux especes d'individus qu'on trouve toujours a ces
Societes: 1 (degree) Le membre a questions; 2 (degree) Le membre a
La QUESTION est une specialite. Celui qui en fait metier ne fait
jamais des reponses. La question est une maniere tres commode de
dire les choses suivantes: "Me voila! Je ne suis pas fossil,
moi,--je respire encore! J'ai des idees,--voyez mon intelligence!
Vous ne croyiez pas, vous autres, que je savais quelque chose de
cela! Ah, nous avons un peu de sagacite, voyez vous! Nous ne
sommes nullement la bete qu'on pense!"--LE FAISEUR DE QUESTIONS
DONNE PEU D'ATTENTION AUX REPONSES QU'ON FAIT; CE N'EST PAS LA DANS
Le membre a "Bylaws" est le bouchon de toutes les emotions
mousseuses et genereuses qui se montrent dans la Societe. C'est un
empereur manque,--un tyran a la troiseme trituration. C'est un
esprit dur, borne, exact, grand dans les petitesses, petit dans les
grandeurs, selon le mot du grand Jefferson. On ne l'aime pas dans
la Societe, mais on le respecte et on le craint. Il n'y a qu'un
mot pour ce membre audessus de "Bylaws." Ce mot est pour lui ce
que l'Om est aux Hundous. C'est sa religion; il n'y a rien audela.
Ce mot la c'est la CONSTITUTION!
Lesdites Societes publient des feuilletons de tems en tems. On les
trouve abandonnes a sa porte, nus comme des enfans nouveaunes,
faute de membrane cutanee, ou meme papyracee. Si on aime la
botanique, on y trouve une memoire sur les coquilles; si on fait
des etudes zoologiques, on square trouve un grand tas de q' [square
root of minus one], ce qui doit etre infiniment plus commode que
les encyclopedies. Ainsi il est clair comme la metaphysique qu'on
doit devenir membre d'une Societe telle que nous decrivons.
Recette pour le Depilatoire Physiophilosophique
Chaux vive lb. ss. Eau bouillante Oj.
Depilez avec. Polissez ensuite.
I told the boy that his translation into French was creditable to
him; and some of the company wishing to hear what there was in the
piece that made me smile, I turned it into English for them, as
well as I could, on the spot.
The landlady's daughter seemed to be much amused by the idea that a
depilatory could take the place of literary and scientific
accomplishments; she wanted me to print the piece, so that she
might send a copy of it to her cousin in Mizzourah; she didn't
think he'd have to do anything to the outside of his head to get
into any of the societies; he had to wear a wig once, when he
played a part in a tabullo.
No,--said I,--I shouldn't think of printing that in English. I'll
tell you why. As soon as you get a few thousand people together in
a town, there is somebody that every sharp thing you say is sure to
hit. What if a thing was written in Paris or in Pekin?--that makes
no difference. Everybody in those cities, or almost everybody, has
his counterpart here, and in all large places.--You never studied
AVERAGES as I have had occasion to.
I'll tell you how I came to know so much about averages. There was
one season when I was lecturing, commonly, five evenings in the
week, through most of the lecturing period. I soon found, as most
speakers do, that it was pleasanter to work one lecture than to
keep several in hand.
- Don't you get sick to death of one lecture?--said the landlady's
daughter,--who had a new dress on that day, and was in spirits for
I was going to talk about averages,--I said,--but I have no
objection to telling you about lectures, to begin with.
A new lecture always has a certain excitement connected with its
delivery. One thinks well of it, as of most things fresh from his
mind. After a few deliveries of it, one gets tired and then
disgusted with its repetition. Go on delivering it, and the
disgust passes off, until, after one has repeated it a hundred or a
hundred and fifty times, he rather enjoys the hundred and first or
hundred and fifty-first time, before a new audience. But this is
on one condition,--that he never lays the lecture down and lets it
cool. If he does, there comes on a loathing for it which is
intense, so that the sight of the old battered manuscript is as bad
A new lecture is just like any other new tool. We use it for a
while with pleasure. Then it blisters our hands, and we hate to
touch it. By-and-by our hands get callous, and then we have no
longer any sensitiveness about it. But if we give it up, the
calluses disappear; and if we meddle with it again, we miss the
novelty and get the blisters.--The story is often quoted of
Whitefield, that he said a sermon was good for nothing until it had
been preached forty times. A lecture doesn't begin to be old until
it has passed its hundredth delivery; and some, I think, have
doubled, if not quadrupled, that number. These old lectures are a
man's best, commonly; they improve by age, also,--like the pipes,
fiddles, and poems I told you of the other day. One learns to make
the most of their strong points and to carry off their weak ones,--
to take out the really good things which don't tell on the
audience, and put in cheaper things that do. All this degrades
him, of course, but it improves the lecture for general delivery.
A thoroughly popular lecture ought to have nothing in it which five
hundred people cannot all take in a flash, just as it is uttered.
- No, indeed,--I should be very sorry to say anything disrespectful
of audiences. I have been kindly treated by a great many, and may
occasionally face one hereafter. But I tell you the AVERAGE
intellect of five hundred persons, taken as they come, is not very
high. It may be sound and safe, so far as it goes, but it is not
very rapid or profound. A lecture ought to be something which all
can understand, about something which interests everybody. I
think, that, if any experienced lecturer gives you a different
account from this, it will probably be one of those eloquent or
forcible speakers who hold an audience by the charm of their
manner, whatever they talk about,--even when they don't talk very
But an AVERAGE, which was what I meant to speak about, is one of
the most extraordinary subjects of observation and study. It is
awful in its uniformity, in its automatic necessity of action. Two
communities of ants or bees are exactly alike in all their actions,
so far as we can see. Two lyceum assemblies, of five hundred each,
are so nearly alike, that they are absolutely undistinguishable in
many cases by any definite mark, and there is nothing but the place
and time by which one can tell the "remarkably intelligent
audience" of a town in New York or Ohio from one in any New England
town of similar size. Of course, if any principle of selection has
come in, as in those special associations of young men which are
common in cities, it deranges the uniformity of the assemblage.
But let there be no such interfering circumstances, and one knows
pretty well even the look the audience will have, before he goes
in. Front seats: a few old folk,--shiny-headed,--slant up best
ear towards the speaker,--drop off asleep after a while, when the
air begins to get a little narcotic with carbonic acid. Bright
women's faces, young and middle-aged, a little behind these, but
toward the front--(pick out the best, and lecture mainly to that.)
Here and there a countenance, sharp and scholarlike, and a dozen
pretty female ones sprinkled about. An indefinite number of pairs
of young people,--happy, but not always very attentive. Boys, in
the background, more or less quiet. Dull faces here, there,--in
how many places! I don't say dull PEOPLE, but faces without a ray
of sympathy or a movement of expression. They are what kill the
lecturer. These negative faces with their vacuous eyes and stony
lineaments pump and suck the warm soul out of him;--that is the
chief reason why lecturers grow so pale before the season is over.
They render LATENT any amount of vital caloric; they act on our
minds as those cold-blooded creatures I was talking about act on
Out of all these inevitable elements the audience is generated,--a
great compound vertebrate, as much like fifty others you have seen
as any two mammals of the same species are like each other. Each
audience laughs, and each cries, in just the same places of your
lecture; that is, if you make one laugh or cry, you make all. Even
those little indescribable movements which a lecturer takes
cognizance of, just as a driver notices his horse's cocking his
ears, are sure to come in exactly the same place of your lecture
always. I declare to you, that as the monk said about the picture
in the convent,--that he sometimes thought the living tenants were
the shadows, and the painted figures the realities,--I have
sometimes felt as if I were a wandering spirit, and this great
unchanging multivertebrate which I faced night after night was one
ever-listening animal, which writhed along after me wherever I
fled, and coiled at my feet every evening, turning up to me the
same sleepless eyes which I thought I had closed with my last
- Oh, yes! A thousand kindly and courteous acts,--a thousand faces
that melted individually out of my recollection as the April snow
melts, but only to steal away and find the beds of flowers whose
roots are memory, but which blossom in poetry and dreams. I am not
ungrateful, nor unconscious of all the good feeling and
intelligence everywhere to be met with through the vast parish to
which the lecturer ministers. But when I set forth, leading a
string of my mind's daughters to market, as the country-folk fetch
in their strings of horses--Pardon me, that was a coarse fellow who
sneered at the sympathy wasted on an unhappy lecturer, as if,
because he was decently paid for his services, he had therefore
sold his sensibilities.--Family men get dreadfully homesick. In
the remote and bleak village the heart returns to the red blaze of
the logs in one's fireplace at home.
"There are his young barbarians all at play," -
if he owns any youthful savages.--No, the world has a million
roosts for a man, but only one nest.
- It is a fine thing to be an oracle to which an appeal is always
made in all discussions. The men of facts wait their turn in grim
silence, with that slight tension about the nostrils which the
consciousness of carrying a "settler" in the form of a fact or a
revolver gives the individual thus armed. When a person is really
full of information, and does not abuse it to crush conversation,
his part is to that of the real talkers what the instrumental
accompaniment is in a trio or quartette of vocalists.
- What do I mean by the real talkers?--Why, the people with fresh
ideas, of course, and plenty of good warm words to dress them in.
Facts always yield the place of honor, in conversation, to thoughts
about facts; but if a false note is uttered, down comes the finger
on the key and the man of facts asserts his true dignity. I have
known three of these men of facts, at least, who were always
formidable,--and one of them was tyrannical.
- Yes, a man sometimes makes a grand appearance on a particular
occasion; but these men knew something about almost everything, and
never made mistakes.--He? Veneers in first-rate style. The
mahogany scales off now and then in spots, and then you see the
cheap light stuff--I found--very fine in conversational
information, the other day when we were in company. The talk ran
upon mountains. He was wonderfully well acquainted with the
leading facts about the Andes, the Apennines, and the Appalachians;
he had nothing in particular to say about Ararat, Ben Nevis, and
various other mountains that were mentioned. By and by some
Revolutionary anecdote came up, and he showed singular familiarity
with the lives of the Adamses, and gave many details relating to
Major Andre. A point of Natural History being suggested, he gave
an excellent account of the air-bladder of fishes. He was very
full upon the subject of agriculture, but retired from the
conversation when horticulture was introduced in the discussion.
So he seemed well acquainted with the geology of anthracite, but
did not pretend to know anything of other kinds of coal. There was
something so odd about the extent and limitations of his knowledge,
that I suspected all at once what might be the meaning of it, and
waited till I got an opportunity.--Have you seen the "New American
Cyclopaedia?" said I.--I have, he replied; I received an early
copy.--How far does it go?--He turned red, and answered,--To
Araguay.--Oh, said I to myself,--not quite so far as Ararat;--that
is the reason he knew nothing about it; but he must have read all
the rest straight through, and, if he can remember what is in this
volume until he has read all those that are to come, he will know
more than I ever thought he would.
Since I had this experience, I hear that somebody else has related
a similar story. I didn't borrow it, for all that.--I made a
comparison at table some time since, which has often been quoted
and received many compliments. It was that of the mind of a bigot
to the pupil of the eye; the more light you pour on it, the more it
contracts. The simile is a very obvious, and, I suppose I may now
say, a happy one; for it has just been shown me that it occurs in a
Preface to certain Political Poems of Thomas Moore's published long
before my remark was repeated. When a person of fair character for
literary honesty uses an image, such as another has employed before
him, the presumption is, that he has struck upon it independently,
or unconsciously recalled it, supposing it his own.
It is impossible to tell, in a great many cases, whether a
comparison which suddenly suggests itself is a new conception or a
recollection. I told you the other day that I never wrote a line
of verse that seemed to me comparatively good, but it appeared old
at once, and often as if it had been borrowed. But I confess I
never suspected the above comparison of being old, except from the
fact of its obviousness. It is proper, however, that I proceed by
a formal instrument to relinquish all claim to any property in an
idea given to the world at about the time when I had just joined
the class in which Master Thomas Moore was then a somewhat advanced
I, therefore, in full possession of my native honesty, but knowing
the liability of all men to be elected to public office, and for
that reason feeling uncertain how soon I may be in danger of losing
it, do hereby renounce all claim to being considered the FIRST
person who gave utterance to a certain simile or comparison
referred to in the accompanying documents, and relating to the
pupil of the eye on the one part and the mind of the bigot on the
other. I hereby relinquish all glory and profit, and especially
all claims to letters from autograph collectors, founded upon my
supposed property in the above comparison,--knowing well, that,
according to the laws of literature, they who speak first hold the
fee of the thing said. I do also agree that all Editors of
Cyclopedias and Biographical Dictionaries, all Publishers of
Reviews and Papers, and all Critics writing therein, shall be at
liberty to retract or qualify any opinion predicated on the
supposition that I was the sole and undisputed author of the above
comparison. But, inasmuch as I do affirm that the comparison
aforesaid was uttered by me in the firm belief that it was new and
wholly my own, and as I have good reason to think that I had never
seen or heard it when first expressed by me, and as it is well
known that different persons may independently utter the same
idea,--as is evinced by that familiar line from Donatus, -
"Pereant illi qui ante nos nostra dixerunt," -
now, therefore, I do request by this instrument that all well-
disposed persons will abstain from asserting or implying that I am
open to any accusation whatsoever touching the said comparison,
and, if they have so asserted or implied, that they will have the
manliness forthwith to retract the same assertion or insinuation.
I think few persons have a greater disgust for plagiarism than
myself. If I had even suspected that the idea in question was
borrowed, I should have disclaimed originality, or mentioned the
coincidence, as I once did in a case where I had happened to hit on
an idea of Swift's.--But what shall I do about these verses I was
going to read you? I am afraid that half mankind would accuse me
of stealing their thoughts, if I printed them. I am convinced that
several of you, especially if you are getting a little on in life,
will recognize some of these sentiments as having passed through
your consciousness at some time. I can't help it,--it is too late
now. The verses are written, and you must have them. Listen,
then, and you shall hear
WHAT WE ALL THINK.
That age was older once than now,
In spite of locks untimely shed,
Or silvered on the youthful brow;
That babes make love and children wed.
That sunshine had a heavenly glow,
Which faded with those "good old days,"
When winters came with deeper snow,
And autumns with a softer haze.
That--mother, sister, wife, or child -
The "best of women" each has known.
Were schoolboys ever half so wild?
How young the grandpapas have grown,
That BUT FOR THIS our souls were free,
And BUT FOR THAT our lives were blest;
That in some season yet to be
Our cares will leave us time to rest.
Whene'er we groan with ache or pain,
Some common ailment of the race, -
Though doctors think the matter plain, -
That ours is "a peculiar case."
That when like babes with fingers burned
We count one bitter maxim more,
Our lesson all the world has learned,
And men are wiser than before.
That when we sob o'er fancied woes,
The angels hovering overhead
Count every pitying drop that flows
And love us for the tears we shed.
That when we stand with tearless eye
And turn the beggar from our door,
They still approve us when we sigh,
"Ah, had I but ONE THOUSAND MORE!"
That weakness smoothed the path of sin,
In half the slips our youth has known;
And whatsoe'er its blame has been,
That Mercy flowers on faults outgrown.
Though temples crowd the crumbled brink
O'erhanging truth's eternal flow,
Their tablets bold with WHAT WE THINK,
Their echoes dumb to WHAT WE KNOW;
That one unquestioned text we read,
All doubt beyond, all fear above,
Nor crackling pile nor cursing creed
Can burn or blot it: GOD IS LOVE!
[This particular record is noteworthy principally for containing a
paper by my friend, the Professor, with a poem or two annexed or
intercalated. I would suggest to young persons that they should
pass over it for the present, and read, instead of it, that story
about the young man who was in love with the young lady, and in
great trouble for something like nine pages, but happily married on
the tenth page or thereabouts, which, I take it for granted, will
be contained in the periodical where this is found, unless it
differ from all other publications of the kind. Perhaps, if such
young people will lay the number aside, and take it up ten years,
or a little more, from the present time, they may find something in
it for their advantage. They can't possibly understand it all
My friend, the Professor, began talking with me one day in a dreary
sort of way. I couldn't get at the difficulty for a good while,
but at last it turned out that somebody had been calling him an old
man.--He didn't mind his students calling him THE old man, he said.
That was a technical expression, and he thought that he remembered
hearing it applied to himself when he was about twenty-five. It
may be considered as a familiar and sometimes endearing
appellation. An Irishwoman calls her husband "the old man," and he
returns the caressing expression by speaking of her as "the old
woman." But now, said he, just suppose a case like one of these.
A young stranger is overheard talking of you as a very nice old
gentleman. A friendly and genial critic speaks of your green old
age as illustrating the truth of some axiom you had uttered with
reference to that period of life. What _I_ call an old man is a
person with a smooth, shining crown and a fringe of scattered white
hairs, seen in the streets on sunshiny days, stooping as he walks,
bearing a cane, moving cautiously and slowly; telling old stories,
smiling at present follies, living in a narrow world of dry habits;
one that remains waking when others have dropped asleep, and keeps
a little night-lamp-flame of life burning year after year, if the
lamp is not upset, and there is only a careful hand held round it
to prevent the puffs of wind from blowing the flame out. That's
what I call an old man.
Now, said the Professor, you don't mean to tell me that I have got
to that yet? Why, bless you, I am several years short of the time
when--[I knew what was coming, and could hardly keep from laughing;
twenty years ago he used to quote it as one of those absurd
speeches men of genius will make, and now he is going to argue from
it]--several years short of the time when Balzac says that men are-
-most--you know--dangerous to--the hearts of--in short, most to be
dreaded by duennas that have charge of susceptible females.--What
age is that? said I, statistically.--Fifty-two years, answered the
Professor.--Balzac ought to know, said I, if it is true that Goethe
said of him that each of his stories must have been dug out of a
woman's heart. But fifty-two is a high figure.
Stand in the light of the window, Professor, said I. --The
Professor took up the desired position.--You have white hairs, I
said.--Had 'em any time these twenty years, said the Professor.--
And the crow's-foot,--pes anserinus, rather.--The Professor smiled,
as I wanted him to, and the folds radiated like the ridges of a
half-opened fan, from the outer corner of the eyes to the temples.-
-And the calipers said I.--What are the calipers? he asked,
curiously.--Why, the parenthesis, said I.--Parenthesis? said the
Professor; what's that?--Why, look in the glass when you are
disposed to laugh, and see if your mouth isn't framed in a couple
of crescent lines,--so, my boy ( ).--It's all nonsense, said the
Professor; just look at my BICEPS;--and he began pulling off his
coat to show me his arm. Be careful, said I; you can't bear
exposure to the air, at your time of life, as you could once.--I
will box with you, said the Professor, row with you, walk with you,
ride with you, swim with you, or sit at table with you, for fifty
dollars a side.--Pluck survives stamina, I answered.
The Professor went off a little out of humor. A few weeks
afterwards he came in, looking very good-natured, and brought me a
paper, which I have here, and from which I shall read you some
portions, if you don't object. He had been thinking the matter
over, he said,--had read Cicero "De Senectute," and made up his
mind to meet old age half way. These were some of his reflections
that he had written down; so here you have.
THE PROFESSOR'S PAPER.
There is no doubt when old age begins. The human body is a furnace
which keeps in blast three-score years and ten, more or less. It
burns about three hundred pounds of carbon a year, (besides other
fuel,) when in fair working order, according to a great chemist's
estimate. When the fire slackens, life declines; when it goes out,
we are dead.
It has been shown by some noted French experimenters, that the
amount of combustion increases up to about the thirtieth year,
remains stationary to about forty-five, and then diminishes. This
last is the point where old age starts from. The great fact of
physical life is the perpetual commerce with the elements, and the
fire is the measure of it.
About this time of life, if food is plenty where you live,--for
that, you know, regulates matrimony,--you may be expecting to find
yourself a grandfather some fine morning; a kind of domestic
felicity that gives one a cool shiver of delight to think of, as
among the not remotely possible events.
I don't mind much those slipshod lines Dr. Johnson wrote to Thrale,
telling her about life's declining from THIRTY-FIVE; the furnace is
in full blast for ten years longer, as I have said. The Romans
came very near the mark; their age of enlistment reached from
seventeen to forty-six years.
What is the use of fighting against the seasons, or the tides, or
the movements of the planetary bodies, or this ebb in the wave of
life that flows through us? We are old fellows from the moment the
fire begins to go out. Let us always behave like gentlemen when we
are introduced to new acquaintance.
Incipit Allegoria Senectutis.
Old Age, this is Mr. Professor; Mr. Professor, this is Old Age.
Old Age.--Mr. Professor, I hope to see you well. I have known you
for some time, though I think you did not know me. Shall we walk
down the street together?
Professor (drawing back a little).--We can talk more quietly,
perhaps, in my study. Will you tell me how it is you seem to be
acquainted with everybody you are introduced to, though he
evidently considers you an entire stranger?
Old Age.--I make it a rule never to force myself upon a person's
recognition until I have known him at least FIVE YEARS.
Professor.--Do you mean to say that you have known me so long as
Old Age. I do. I left my card on you longer ago than that, but I
am afraid you never read it; yet I see you have it with you.
Old Age.--There, between your eyebrows,--three straight lines
running up and down; all the probate courts know that token,--"Old
Age, his mark." Put your forefinger on the inner end of one
eyebrow, and your middle finger on the inner end of the other
eyebrow; now separate the fingers, and you will smooth out my sign-
manual; that's the way you used to look before I left my card on
Professor.--What message do people generally send back when you
first call on them?
Old Age.--Not at home. Then I leave a card and go. Next year I
call; get the same answer; leave another card. So for five or
six,--sometimes ten years or more. At last, if they don't let me
in, I break in through the front door or the windows.
We talked together in this way some time. Then Old Age said
again,--Come, let us walk down the street together,--and offered me
a cane, an eyeglass, a tippet, and a pair of over-shoes.--No, much
obliged to you, said I. I don't want those things, and I had a
little rather talk with you here, privately, in my study. So I
dressed myself up in a jaunty way and walked out alone;--got a
fall, caught a cold, was laid up with a lumbago, and had time to
think over this whole matter.
Explicit Allegoria Senectutis.
We have settled when old age begins. Like all Nature's processes,
it is gentle and gradual in its approaches, strewed with illusions,
and all its little griefs soothed by natural sedatives. But the
iron hand is not less irresistible because it wears the velvet
glove. The button-wood throws off its bark in large flakes, which
one may find lying at its foot, pushed out, and at last pushed off,
by that tranquil movement from beneath, which is too slow to be
seen, but too powerful to be arrested. One finds them always, but
one rarely sees them fall. So it is our youth drops from us,--
scales off, sapless and lifeless, and lays bare the tender and
immature fresh growth of old age. Looked at collectively, the
changes of old age appear as a series of personal insults and
indignities, terminating at last in death, which Sir Thomas Browne
has called "the very disgrace and ignominy of our nature."
My lady's cheek can boast no more
The cranberry white and pink it wore;
And where her shining locks divide,
The parting line is all too wide -
No, no,--this will never do. Talk about men, if you will, but
spare the poor women.
We have a brief description of seven stages of life by a remarkably
good observer. It is very presumptuous to attempt to add to it,
yet I have been struck with the fact that life admits of a natural
analysis into no less than fifteen distinct periods. Taking the
five primary divisions, infancy, childhood, youth, manhood, old
age, each of these has its own three periods of immaturity,
complete development, and decline. I recognize on OLD baby at
once,--with its "pipe and mug," (a stick of candy and a
porringer,)--so does everybody; and an old child shedding its milk-
teeth is only a little prototype of the old man shedding his
permanent ones. Fifty or thereabouts is only the childhood, as it
were, of old age; the graybeard youngster must be weaned from his
late suppers now. So you will see that you have to make fifteen
stages at any rate, and that it would not be hard to make twenty-
five; five primary, each with five secondary divisions.
The infancy and childhood of commencing old age have the same
ingenuous simplicity and delightful unconsciousness about them as
the first stage of the earlier periods of life shows. The great
delusion of mankind is in supposing that to be individual and
exceptional which is universal and according to law. A person is
always startled when he hears himself seriously called an old man
for the first time.
Nature gets us out of youth into manhood, as sailors are hurried on
board of vessels,--in a state of intoxication. We are hustled into
maturity reeling with our passions and imaginations, and we have
drifted far away from port before we awake out of our illusions.
But to carry us out of maturity into old age, without our knowing
where we are going, she drugs us with strong opiates, and so we
stagger along with wide open eyes that see nothing until snow
enough has fallen on our heads to rouse our comatose brains out of
their stupid trances.
There is one mark of age that strikes me more than any of the
physical ones;--I mean the formation of Habits. An old man who
shrinks into himself falls into ways that become as positive and as
much beyond the reach of outside influences as if they were
governed by clock-work. The ANIMAL functions, as the physiologists
call them, in distinction from the ORGANIC, tend, in the process of
deterioration to which age and neglect united gradually lead them,
to assume the periodical or rhythmical type of movement. Every
man's HEART (this organ belongs, you know, to the organic system)
has a regular mode of action; but I know a great many men whose
BRAINS, and all their voluntary existence flowing from their
brains, have a systole and diastole as regular as that of the heart
itself. Habit is the approximation of the animal system to the
organic. It is a confession of failure in the highest function of
being, which involves a perpetual self-determination, in full view
of all existing circumstances. But habit, you see, is an action in
present circumstances from past motives. It is substituting a vis
a tergo for the evolution of living force.
When a man, instead of burning up three hundred pounds of carbon a
year, has got down to two hundred and fifty, it is plain enough he
must economize force somewhere. Now habit is a labor-saving
invention which enables a man to get along with less fuel,--that is
all; for fuel is force, you know, just as much in the page I am
writing for you as in the locomotive or the legs that carry it to
you. Carbon is the same thing, whether you call it wood, or coal,
or bread and cheese. A reverend gentleman demurred to this
statement,--as if, because combustion is asserted to be the sine
qua non of thought, therefore thought is alleged to be a purely
chemical process. Facts of chemistry are one thing, I told him,
and facts of consciousness another. It can be proved to him, by a
very simple analysis of some of his spare elements, that every
Sunday, when he does his duty faithfully, he uses up more
phosphorus out of his brain and nerves than on ordinary days. But
then he had his choice whether to do his duty, or to neglect it,
and save his phosphorus and other combustibles.
It follows from all this that THE FORMATION OF HABITS ought
naturally to be, as it is, the special characteristic of age. As
for the muscular powers, they pass their maximum long before the
time when the true decline of life begins, if we may judge by the
experience of the ring. A man is "stale," I think, in their
language, soon after thirty,--often, no doubt, much earlier, as
gentlemen of the pugilistic profession are exceedingly apt to keep
their vital fire burning WITH THE BLOWER UP.
- So far without Tully. But in the mean time I have been reading
the treatise, "De Senectute." It is not long, but a leisurely
performance. The old gentleman was sixty-three years of age when
he addressed it to his friend T. Pomponius Atticus, Eq., a person
of distinction, some two or three years older. We read it when we
are schoolboys, forget all about it for thirty years, and then take
it up again by a natural instinct,--provided always that we read
Latin as we drink water, without stopping to taste it, as all of us
who ever learned it at school or college ought to do.
Cato is the chief speaker in the dialogue. A good deal of it is
what would be called in vulgar phrase "slow." It unpacks and
unfolds incidental illustrations which a modern writer would look
at the back of, and toss each to its pigeon-hole. I think ancient
classics and ancient people are alike in the tendency to this kind
An old doctor came to me once (this is literal fact) with some
contrivance or other for people with broken kneepans. As the
patient would be confined for a good while, he might find it dull
work to sit with his hands in his lap. Reading, the ingenious
inventor suggested, would be an agreeable mode of passing the time.
He mentioned, in his written account of his contrivance, various
works that might amuse the weary hour. I remember only three,--Don
Quixote, Tom Jones, and WATTS ON THE MIND.
It is not generally understood that Cicero's essay was delivered as
a lyceum lecture, (concio popularis,) at the Temple of Mercury.
The journals (papyri) of the day ("Tempora Quotidiana,"--"Tribuinus
Quirinalis,"--"Praeco Romanus," and the rest) gave abstracts of it,
one of which I have translated and modernized, as being a
substitute for the analysis I intended to make.
IV. Kal. Mart. . . . .
The lecture at the Temple of Mercury, last evening, was well
attended by the elite of our great city. Two hundred thousand
sestertia were thought to have been represented in the house. The
doors were besieged by a mob of shabby fellows, (illotum vulgus,)
who were at length quieted after two or three had been somewhat
roughly handled (gladio jugulati). The speaker was the well-known
Mark Tully, Eq.,--the subject Old Age. Mr. T. has a lean and
scraggy person, with a very unpleasant excrescence upon his nasal
feature, from which his nickname of CHICK-PEA (Cicero) is said by
some to be derived. As a lecturer is public property, we may
remark, that his outer garment (toga) was of cheap stuff and
somewhat worn, and that his general style and appearance of dress
and manner (habitus, vestitusque) were somewhat provincial.
The lecture consisted of an imaginary dialogue between Cato and
Laelius. We found the first portion rather heavy, and retired a
few moments for refreshment (pocula quaedam vini).--All want to
reach old age, says Cato, and grumble when they get it; therefore
they are donkeys.--The lecturer will allow us to say that he is the
donkey; we know we shall grumble at old age, but we want to live
through youth and manhood, IN SPITE of the troubles we shall groan
over.--There was considerable prosing as to what old age can do and
can't.--True, but not new. Certainly, old folks can't jump,--break
the necks of their thigh-bones, (femorum cervices,) if they do;
can't crack nuts with their teeth; can't climb a greased pole
(malum inunctum scandere non possunt); but they can tell old
stories and give you good advice; if they know what you have made
up your mind to do when you ask them.--All this is well enough, but
won't set the Tiber on fire (Tiberim accendere nequaquam potest.)
There were some clever things enough, (dicta hand inepta,) a few of
which are worth reporting.--Old people are accused of being
forgetful; but they never forget where they have put their money.--
Nobody is so old he doesn't think he can live a year.--The lecturer
quoted an ancient maxim,--Grow old early, if you would be old
long,--but disputed it.--Authority, he thought, was the chief
privilege of age.--It is not great to have money, but fine to
govern those that have it.--Old age begins at FORTY-SIX years,
according to the common opinion.--It is not every kind of old age
or of wine that grows sour with time.--Some excellent remarks were
made on immortality, but mainly borrowed from and credited to
Plato.--Several pleasing anecdotes were told.--Old Milo, champion
of the heavy weights in his day, looked at his arms and whimpered,
"They are dead." Not so dead as you, you old fool,--says Cato;--
you never were good for anything but for your shoulders and
flanks.--Pisistratus asked Solon what made him dare to be so
obstinate. Old age, said Solon.
The lecture was on the whole acceptable, and a credit to our
culture and civilization.--The reporter goes on to state that there
will be no lecture next week, on account of the expected combat
between the bear and the barbarian. Betting (sponsio) two to one
(duo ad unum) on the bear.
- After all, the most encouraging things I find in the treatise,
"De Senectute," are the stories of men who have found new
occupations when growing old, or kept up their common pursuits in
the extreme period of life. Cato learned Greek when he was old,
and speaks of wishing to learn the fiddle, or some such instrument,
(fidibus,) after the example of Socrates. Solon learned something
new, every day, in his old age, as he gloried to proclaim. Cyrus
pointed out with pride and pleasure the trees he had planted with
his own hand. [I remember a pillar on the Duke of Northumberland's
estate at Alnwick, with an inscription in similar words, if not the
same. That, like other country pleasures, never wears out. None
is too rich, none too poor, none too young, none too old to enjoy
it.] There is a New England story I have heard more to the point,
however, than any of Cicero's. A young farmer was urged to set out
some apple-trees.--No, said he, they are too long growing, and I
don't want to plant for other people. The young farmer's father
was spoken to about it, but he, with better reason, alleged that
apple-trees were slow and life was fleeting. At last some one
mentioned it to the old grandfather of the young farmer. He had
nothing else to do,--so he stuck in some trees. He lived long
enough to drink barrels of cider made from the apples that grew on
As for myself, after visiting a friend lately,--[Do remember all
the time that this is the Professor's paper.]--I satisfied myself
that I had better concede the fact that--my contemporaries are not
so young as they have been,--and that,--awkward as it is,--science
and history agree in telling me that I can claim the immunities and
must own the humiliations of the early stage of senility. Ah! but
we have all gone down the hill together. The dandies of my time
have split their waistbands and taken to high-low shoes. The
beauties of my recollections--where are they? They have run the
gantlet of the years as well as I. First the years pelted them
with red roses till their cheeks were all on fire. By and by they
began throwing white roses, and that morning flush passed away. At
last one of the years threw a snow-ball, and after that no year let
the poor girls pass without throwing snow-balls. And then came
rougher missiles,--ice and stones; and from time to time an arrow
whistled, and down went one of the poor girls. So there are but
few left; and we don't call those few GIRLS, but -
Ah, me! Here am I groaning just as the old Greek sighed Ai, ai!
and the old Roman, Eheu! I have no doubt we should die of shame
and grief at the indignities offered us by age, if it were not that
we see so many others as badly or worse off than ourselves. We
always compare ourselves with our contemporaries.
[I was interrupted in my reading just here. Before I began at the
next breakfast, I read them these verses;--I hope you will like
them, and get a useful lesson from them.]
THE LAST BLOSSOM.
Though young no more, we still would dream
Of beauty's dear deluding wiles;
The leagues of life to graybeards seem
Shorter than boyhood's lingering miles.
Who knows a woman's wild caprice?
It played with Goethe's silvered hair,
And many a Holy Father's "niece"
Has softly smoothed the papal chair.
When sixty bids us sigh in vain
To melt the heart of sweet sixteen,
We think upon those ladies twain
Who loved so well the tough old Dean.
We see the Patriarch's wintry face,
The maid of Egypt's dusky glow,
And dream that Youth and Age embrace,
As April violets fill with snow.
Tranced in her Lord's Olympian smile
His lotus-loving Memphian lies, -
The musky daughter of the Nile
With plaited hair and almond eyes.
Might we but share one wild caress
Ere life's autumnal blossoms fall,
And Earth's brown, clinging lips impress
The long cold kiss that waits us all!
My bosom heaves, remembering yet
The morning of that blissful day
When Rose, the flower of spring, I met,
And gave my raptured soul away.
Flung from her eyes of purest blue,
A lasso, with its leaping chain
Light as a loop of larkspurs, flew
O'er sense and spirit, heart and brain.
Thou com'st to cheer my waning age,
Sweet vision, waited for so long!
Dove that would seek the poet's cage
Lured by the magic breath of song!
She blushes! Ah, reluctant maid,
Love's drapeau rouge the truth has told!
O'er girlhood's yielding barricade
Floats the great Leveller's crimson fold!
Come to my arms!--love heeds not years
No frost the bud of passion knows. -
Ha! what is this my frenzy hears?
A voice behind me uttered,--Rose!
Sweet was her smile,--but not for me;
Alas, when woman looks TOO kind,
Just turn your foolish head and see, -
Some youth is walking close behind!
As to GIVING UP because the almanac or the Family-Bible says that
it is about time to do it, I have no intention of doing any such
thing. I grant you that I burn less carbon than some years ago. I
see people of my standing really good for nothing, decrepit,
effete, la levre inferieure deja pendante, with what little life
they have left mainly concentrated in their epigastrium. But as
the disease of old age is epidemic, endemic, and sporadic, and
everybody that lives long enough is sure to catch it, I am going to
say, for the encouragement of such as need it, how I treat the
malady in my own case.
First. As I feel, that, when I have anything to do, there is less
time for it than when I was younger, I find that I give my
attention more thoroughly, and use my time more economically than
ever before; so that I can learn anything twice as easily as in my
earlier days. I am not, therefore, afraid to attack a new study.
I took up a difficult language a very few years ago with good
success, and think of mathematics and metaphysics by-and-by.
Secondly. I have opened my eyes to a good many neglected
privileges and pleasures within my reach, and requiring only a
little courage to enjoy them. You may well suppose it pleased me
to find that old Cato was thinking of learning to play the fiddle,
when I had deliberately taken it up in my old age, and satisfied
myself that I could get much comfort, if not much music, out of it.
Thirdly. I have found that some of those active exercises, which
are commonly thought to belong to young folks only, may be enjoyed
at a much later period.
A young friend has lately written an admirable article in one of
the journals, entitled, "Saints and their Bodies." Approving of
his general doctrines, and grateful for his records of personal
experience, I cannot refuse to add my own experimental confirmation
of his eulogy of one particular form of active exercise and
amusement, namely, BOATING. For the past nine years, I have rowed
about, during a good part of the summer, on fresh or salt water.
My present fleet on the river Charles consists of three row-boats.
1. A small flat-bottomed skiff of the shape of a flat-iron, kept
mainly to lend to boys. 2. A fancy "dory" for two pairs of sculls,
in which I sometimes go out with my young folks. 3. My own
particular water-sulky, a "skeleton" or "shell" race-boat, twenty-
two feet long, with huge outriggers, which boat I pull with ten-
foot sculls,--alone, of course, as it holds but one, and tips him
out, if he doesn't mind what he is about. In this I glide around
the Back Bay, down the stream, up the Charles to Cambridge and
Watertown, up the Mystic, round the wharves, in the wake of
steamboats which leave a swell after them delightful to rock upon;
I linger under the bridges,--those "caterpillar bridges," as my
brother professor so happily called them; rub against the black
sides of old wood-schooners; cool down under the overhanging stern
of some tall Indiaman; stretch across to the Navy-Yard, where the
sentinel warns me off from the Ohio,--just as if I should hurt her
by lying in her shadow; then strike out into the harbor, where the
water gets clear and the air smells of the ocean,--till all at once
I remember, that, if a west wind blows up of a sudden, I shall
drift along past the islands, out of sight of the dear old State-
house,--plate, tumbler, knife and fork all waiting at home, but no
chair drawn up at the table,--all the dear people waiting, waiting,
waiting, while the boat is sliding, sliding, sliding into the great
desert, where there is no tree and no fountain. As I don't want my
wreck to be washed up on one of the beaches in company with
devil's-aprons, bladder-weeds, dead horse-shoes, and bleached crab-
shells, I turn about and flap my long narrow wings for home. When
the tide is running out swiftly, I have a splendid fight to get
through the bridges, but always make it a rule to beat,--though I
have been jammed up into pretty tight places at times, and was
caught once between a vessel swinging round and the pier, until our
bones (the boat's, that is) cracked as if we had been in the jaws
of Behemoth. Then back to my moorings at the foot of the Common,
off with the rowing-dress, dash under the green translucent wave,
return to the garb of civilization, walk through my Garden, take a
look at my elms on the Common, and, reaching my habitat, in
consideration of my advanced period of life, indulge in the Elysian
abandonment of a huge recumbent chair.
When I have established a pair of well-pronounced feathering-
calluses on my thumbs, when I am in training so that I can do my
fifteen miles at a stretch without coming to grief in any way, when
I can perform my mile in eight minutes or a little less, then I
feel as if I had old Time's head in chancery, and could give it to
him at my leisure.
I do not deny the attraction of walking. I have bored this ancient
city through and through in my daily travels, until I know it as an
old inhabitant of a Cheshire knows his cheese. Why, it was I who,
in the course of these rambles, discovered that remarkable avenue
called Myrtle Street, stretching in one long line from east of the
Reservoir to a precipitous and rudely paved cliff which looks down
on the grim abode of Science, and beyond it to the far hills; a
promenade so delicious in its repose, so cheerfully varied with
glimpses down the northern slope into busy Cambridge Street with
its iron river of the horse-railroad, and wheeled barges gliding
back and forward over it,--so delightfully closing at its western
extremity in sunny courts and passages where I know peace, and
beauty, and virtue, and serene old age must be perpetual tenants,--
so alluring to all who desire to take their daily stroll, in the
words of Dr. Watts, -
"Alike unknowing and unknown," -
that nothing but a sense of duty would have prompted me to reveal
the secret of its existence. I concede, therefore, that walking is
an immeasurably fine invention, of which old age ought constantly
to avail itself.
Saddle-leather is in some respects even preferable to sole-leather.
The principal objection to it is of a financial character. But you
may be sure that Bacon and Sydenham did not recommend it for
nothing. One's hepar, or, in vulgar language, liver,--a ponderous
organ, weighing some three or four pounds,--goes up and down like
the dasher of a churn in the midst of the other vital arrangements,
at every step of a trotting horse. The brains also are shaken up
like coppers in a money-box. Riding is good, for those that are
born with a silver-mounted bridle in their hand, and can ride as
much and as often as they like, without thinking all the time they
hear that steady grinding sound as the horse's jaws triturate with
calm lateral movement the bank-bills and promises to pay upon which
it is notorious that the profligate animal in question feeds day
Instead, however, of considering these kinds of exercise in this
empirical way, I will devote a brief space to an examination of
them in a more scientific form.
The pleasure of exercise is due first to a purely physical
impression, and secondly to a sense of power in action. The first
source of pleasure varies of course with our condition and the
state of the surrounding circumstances; the second with the amount
and kind of power, and the extent and kind of action. In all forms
of active exercise there are three powers simultaneously in
action,--the will, the muscles, and the intellect. Each of these
predominates in different kinds of exercise. In walking, the will
and muscles are so accustomed to work together and perform their
task with so little expenditure of force, that the intellect is
left comparatively free. The mental pleasure in walking, as such,
is in the sense of power over all our moving machinery. But in
riding, I have the additional pleasure of governing another will,
and my muscles extend to the tips of the animal's ears and to his
four hoofs, instead of stopping at my hands and feet. Now in this
extension of my volition and my physical frame into another animal,
my tyrannical instincts and my desire for heroic strength are at
once gratified. When the horse ceases to have a will of his own
and his muscles require no special attention on your part, then you
may live on horseback as Wesley did, and write sermons or take
naps, as you like. But you will observe, that, in riding on
horseback, you always have a feeling, that, after all, it is not
you that do the work, but the animal, and this prevents the
satisfaction from being complete.
Now let us look at the conditions of rowing. I won't suppose you
to be disgracing yourself in one of those miserable tubs, tugging
in which is to rowing the true boat what riding a cow is to
bestriding an Arab. You know the Esquimaux kayak, (if that is the
name of it,) don't you? Look at that model of one over my door.
Sharp, rather?--On the contrary, it is a lubber to the one you and
I must have; a Dutch fish-wife to Psyche, contrasted with what I
will tell you about.--Our boat, then, is something of the shape of
a pickerel, as you look down upon his back, he lying in the
sunshine just where the sharp edge of the water cuts in among the
lily-pads. It is a kind of a giant pod, as one may say,--tight
everywhere, except in a little place in the middle, where you sit.
Its length is from seven to ten yards, and as it is only from
sixteen to thirty inches wide in its widest part, you understand
why you want those "outriggers," or projecting iron frames with the
rowlocks in which the oars play. My rowlocks are five feet apart;
double the greatest width of the boat.
Here you are, then, afloat with a body a rod and a half long, with
arms, or wings, as you may choose to call them, stretching more
than twenty feet from tip to tip; every volition of yours extending
as perfectly into them as if your spinal cord ran down the centre
strip of your boat, and the nerves of your arms tingled as far as
the broad blades of your oars,--oars of spruce, balanced,
leathered, and ringed under your own special direction. This, in
sober earnest, is the nearest approach to flying that man has ever
made or perhaps ever will make. As the hawk sails without flapping
his pinions, so you drift with the tide when you will, in the most
luxurious form of locomotion indulged to an embodied spirit. But
if your blood wants rousing, turn round that stake in the river,
which you see a mile from here; and when you come in in sixteen
minutes, (if you do, for we are old boys, and not champion
scullers, you remember,) then say if you begin to feel a little
warmed up or not! You can row easily and gently all day, and you
can row yourself blind and black in the face in ten minutes, just
as you like. It has been long agreed that there is no way in which
a man can accomplish so much labor with his muscles as in rowing.
It is in the boat, then, that man finds the largest extension of
his volitional and muscular existence; and yet he may tax both of
them so slightly, in that most delicious of exercises, that he
shall mentally write his sermon, or his poem, or recall the remarks
he has made in company and put them in form for the public, as well
as in his easy-chair.
I dare not publicly name the rare joys, the infinite delights, that
intoxicate me on some sweet June morning, when the river and bay
are smooth as a sheet of beryl-green silk, and I run along ripping
it up with my knife-edged shell of a boat, the rent closing after
me like those wounds of angels which Milton tells of, but the seam
still shining for many a long rood behind me. To lie still over
the Flats, where the waters are shallow, and see the crabs crawling
and the sculpins gliding busily and silently beneath the boat,--to
rustle in through the long harsh grass that leads up some tranquil
creek,--to take shelter from the sunbeams under one of the
thousand-footed bridges, and look down its interminable colonnades,
crusted with green and oozy growths, studded with minute barnacles,
and belted with rings of dark muscles, while overhead streams and
thunders that other river whose every wave is a human soul flowing
to eternity as the river below flows to the ocean,--lying there
moored unseen, in loneliness so profound that the columns of Tadmor
in the Desert could not seem more remote from life,--the cool
breeze on one's forehead, the stream whispering against the half-
sunken pillars,--why should I tell of these things, that I should
live to see my beloved haunts invaded and the waves blackened with
boats as with a swarm of water-beetles? What a city of idiots we
must be not to have covered this glorious bay with gondolas and
wherries, as we have just learned to cover the ice in winter with
I am satisfied that such a set of black-coated, stiff-jointed,
soft-muscled, paste-complexioned youth as we can boast in our
Atlantic cities never before sprang from loins of Anglo-Saxon
lineage. Of the females that are the mates of these males I do not
here speak. I preached my sermon from the lay-pulpit on this
matter a good while ago. Of course, if you heard it, you know my
belief is that the total climatic influences here are getting up a
number of new patterns of humanity, some of which are not an
improvement on the old model. Clipper-built, sharp in the bows,
long in the spars, slender to look at, and fast to go, the ship,
which is the great organ of our national life of relation, is but a
reproduction of the typical form which the elements impress upon
its builder. All this we cannot help; but we can make the best of
these influences, such as they are. We have a few good boatmen,--
no good horsemen that I hear of,--I cannot speak for cricketing,--
but as for any great athletic feat performed by a gentleman in
these latitudes, society would drop a man who should run round the
Common in five minutes. Some of our amateur fencers, single-stick
players, and boxers, we have no reason to be ashamed of. Boxing is
rough play, but not too rough for a hearty young fellow. Anything
is better than this white-blooded degeneration to which we all
I dropped into a gentlemen's sparring exhibition only last evening.
It did my heart good to see that there were a few young and
youngish youths left who could take care of their own heads in case
of emergency. It is a fine sight, that of a gentleman resolving
himself into the primitive constituents of his humanity. Here is a
delicate young man now, with an intellectual countenance, a slight
figure, a sub-pallid complexion, a most unassuming deportment, a
mild adolescent in fact, that any Hiram or Jonathan from between
the ploughtails would of course expect to handle with perfect ease.
Oh, he is taking off his gold-bowed spectacles! Ah, he is
divesting himself of his cravat! Why, he is stripping off his
coat! Well, here he is, sure enough, in a tight silk shirt, and
with two things that look like batter puddings in the place of his
fists. Now see that other fellow with another pair of batter
puddings,--the big one with the broad shoulders; he will certainly
knock the little man's head off, if he strikes him. Feinting,
dodging, stopping, hitting, countering,--little man's head not off
yet. You might as well try to jump upon your own shadow as to hit
the little man's intellectual features. He needn't have taken off
the gold-bowed spectacles at all. Quick, cautious, shifty, nimble,
cool, he catches all the fierce lunges or gets out of their reach,
till his turn comes, and then, whack goes one of the batter
puddings against the big one's ribs, and bang goes the other into
the big one's face, and, staggering, shuffling, slipping, tripping,
collapsing, sprawling, down goes the big one in a miscellaneous
bundle.--If my young friend, whose excellent article I have
referred to, could only introduce the manly art of self-defence
among the clergy, I am satisfied that we should have better sermons
and an infinitely less quarrelsome church-militant. A bout with
the gloves would let off the ill-nature, and cure the indigestion,
which, united, have embroiled their subject in a bitter
controversy. We should then often hear that a point of difference
between an infallible and a heretic, instead of being vehemently
discussed in a series of newspaper articles, had been settled by a
friendly contest in several rounds, at the close of which the
parties shook hands and appeared cordially reconciled,
But boxing you and I are too old for, I am afraid. I was for a
moment tempted, by the contagion of muscular electricity last
evening, to try the gloves with the Benicia Boy, who looked in as a
friend to the noble art; but remembering that he had twice my
weight and half my age, besides the advantage of his training, I
sat still and said nothing.
There is one other delicate point I wish to speak of with reference
to old age. I refer to the use of dioptric media which correct the
diminished refracting power of the humors of the eye,--in other
words, spectacles. I don't use them. All I ask is a large, fair
type, a strong daylight or gas-light, and one yard of focal
distance, and my eyes are as good as ever. But if YOUR eyes fail,
I can tell you something encouraging. There is now living in New
York State an old gentleman who, perceiving his sight to fail,
immediately took to exercising it on the finest print, and in this
way fairly bullied Nature out of her foolish habit of taking
liberties at five-and-forty, or thereabout. And now this old
gentleman performs the most extraordinary feats with his pen,
showing that his eyes must be a pair of microscopes. I should be
afraid to say to you how much he writes in the compass of a half-
dime,--whether the Psalms or the Gospels, or the Psalms AND the
Gospels, I won't be positive.
But now let rue tell you this. If the time comes when you must lay
down the fiddle and the bow, because your fingers are too stiff,
and drop the ten-foot sculls, because your arms are too weak, and,
after dallying awhile with eye-glasses, come at last to the
undisguised reality of spectacles,--if the time comes when that
fire of life we spoke of has burned so low that where its flames
reverberated there is only the sombre stain of regret, and where
its coals glowed, only the white ashes that cover the embers of
memory,--don't let your heart grow cold, and you may carry
cheerfulness and love with you into the teens of your second
century, if you can last so long. As our friend, the Poet, once
said, in some of those old-fashioned heroics of his which he keeps
for his private reading, -
Call him not old, whose visionary brain
Holds o'er the past its undivided reign.
For him in vain the envious seasons roll
Who bears eternal summer in his soul.
If yet the minstrel's song, the poet's lay,
Spring with her birds, or children with their play,
Or maiden's smile, or heavenly dream of art
Stir the few life-drops creeping round his heart, -
Turn to the record where his years are told, -
Count his gray hairs,--they cannot make him old!
End of the Professor's paper.
[The above essay was not read at one time, but in several
instalments, and accompanied by various comments from different
persons at the table. The company were in the main attentive, with
the exception of a little somnolence on the part of the old
gentleman opposite at times, and a few sly, malicious questions
about the "old boys" on the part of that forward young fellow who
has figured occasionally, not always to his advantage, in these
On Sunday mornings, in obedience to a feeling I am not ashamed of,
I have always tried to give a more appropriate character to our
conversation. I have never read them my sermon yet, and I don't
know that I shall, as some of them might take my convictions as a
personal indignity to themselves. But having read our company so
much of the Professor's talk about age and other subjects connected
with physical life, I took the next Sunday morning to repeat to
them the following poem of his, which I have had by me some time.
He calls it--I suppose, for his professional friends--THE
ANATOMIST'S HYMN, but I shall name it--]
THE LIVING TEMPLE.
Not in the world of light alone,
Where God has built his blazing throne,
Nor yet alone in earth below,
With belted seas that come and go,
And endless isles of sunlit green,
Is all thy Maker's glory seen:
Look in upon thy wondrous frame, -
Eternal wisdom still the same!
The smooth, soft air with pulse-like waves
Flows murmuring through its hidden caves
Whose streams of brightening purple rush
Fired with a new and livelier blush,
While all their burden of decay
The ebbing current steals away,
And red with Nature's flame they start
From the warm fountains of the heart.
No rest that throbbing slave may ask,
Forever quivering o'er his task,
While far and wide a crimson jet
Leaps forth to fill the woven net
Which in unnumbered crossing tides
The flood of burning life divides,
Then kindling each decaying part
Creeps back to find the throbbing heart.
But warmed with that uchanging flame
Behold the outward moving frame,
Its living marbles jointed strong
With glistening band and silvery thong,
And linked to reason's guiding reins
By myriad rings in trembling chains,
Each graven with the threaded zone
Which claims it as the master's own.
See how yon beam of seeming white
Is braided out of seven-hued light,
Yet in those lucid globes no ray
By any chance shall break astray.
Hark how the rolling surge of sound,
Arches and spirals circling round,
Wakes the hushed spirit through thine ear
With music it is heaven to hear.
Then mark the cloven sphere that holds
All thought in its mysterious folds,
That feels sensation's faintest thrill
And flashes forth the sovereign will;
Think on the stormy world that dwells
Locked in its dim and clustering cells!
The lightning gleams of power it sheds
Along its hollow glassy threads!
O Father! grant thy love divine
To make these mystic temples thine!
When wasting age and wearying strife
Have sapped the leaning walls of life,
When darkness gathers over all,
And the last tottering pillars fall,
Take the poor dust thy mercy warms
And mould it into heavenly forms!
[Spring has come. You will find some verses to that effect at the
end of these notes. If you are an impatient reader, skip to them
at once. In reading aloud, omit, if you please, the sixth and
seventh verses. These are parenthetical and digressive, and,
unless your audience is of superior intelligence, will confuse
them. Many people can ride on horseback who find it hard to get on
and to get off without assistance. One has to dismount from an
idea, and get into the saddle again, at every parenthesis.]
- The old gentleman who sits opposite, finding that spring had
fairly come, mounted a white hat one day, and walked into the
street. It seems to have been a premature or otherwise
exceptionable exhibition, not unlike that commemorated by the late
Mr. Bayly. When the old gentleman came home, he looked very red in
the face, and complained that he had been "made sport of." By
sympathizing questions, I learned from him that a boy had called
him "old daddy," and asked him when he had his hat whitewashed.
This incident led me to make some observations at table the next
morning, which I here repeat for the benefit of the readers of this
- The hat is the vulnerable point of the artificial integument. I
learned this in early boyhood. I was once equipped in a hat of
Leghorn straw, having a brim of much wider dimensions than were
usual at that time, and sent to school in that portion of my native
town which lies nearest to this metropolis. On my way I was met by
a "Port-chuck," as we used to call the young gentlemen of that
locality, and the following dialogue ensued.
The Port-chuck. Hullo, You-sir, joo know th' wuz gon-to be a race
Myself. No. Who's gon-to run, 'n' wher's't gon-to be?
The Port-chuck. Squire Mico 'n' Doctor Wiliams, round the brim o'
These two much-respected gentlemen being the oldest inhabitants at
that time, and the alleged race-course being out of the question,
the Port-chuck also winking and thrusting his tongue into his
cheek, I perceived that I had been trifled with, and the effect has
been to make me sensitive and observant respecting this article of
dress ever since. Here is an axiom or two relating to it.
A hat which has been POPPED, or exploded by being sat down upon, is
never itself again afterwards.
It is a favorite illusion of sanguine natures to believe the
Shabby gentility has nothing so characteristic as its hat. There
is always an unnatural calmness about its nap, and an unwholesome
gloss, suggestive of a wet brush.
The last effort of decayed fortune is expended in smoothing its
dilapidated castor. The hat is the ULTIMUM MORIENS of
- The old gentleman took all these remarks and maxims very
pleasantly, saying, however, that he had forgotten most of his
French except the word for potatoes,--pummies de tare.-- Ultimum
moriens, I told him, is old Italian, and signifies LAST THING TO
DIE. With this explanation he was well contented, and looked quite
calm when I saw him afterwards in the entry with a black hat on his
head and the white one in his hand.
- I think myself fortunate in having the Poet and the Professor for
my intimates. We are so much together, that we no doubt think and
talk a good deal alike; yet our points of view are in many respects
individual and peculiar. You know me well enough by this time. I
have not talked with you so long for nothing and therefore I don't
think it necessary to draw my own portrait. But let me say a word
or two about my friends.
The Professor considers himself, and I consider him, a very useful
and worthy kind of drudge. I think he has a pride in his small
technicalities. I know that he has a great idea of fidelity; and
though I suspect he laughs a little inwardly at times at the grand
airs "Science" puts on, as she stands marking time, but not getting
on, while the trumpets are blowing and the big drums beating,--yet
I am sure he has a liking for his specially, and a respect for its
But I'll tell you what the Professor said to the Poet the other
day.--My boy, said he, I can work a great deal cheaper than you,
because I keep all my goods in the lower story. You have to hoist
yours into the upper chambers of the brain, and let them down again
to your customers. I take mine in at the level of the ground, and
send them off from my doorstep almost without lifting. I tell you,
the higher a man has to carry the raw material of thought before he
works it up, the more it costs him in blood, nerve, and muscle.
Coleridge knew all this very well when he advised every literary
man to have a profession.
- Sometimes I like to talk with one of them, and sometimes with the
other. After a while I get tired of both. When a fit of
intellectual disgust comes over me, I will tell you what I have
found admirable as a diversion, in addition to boating and other
amusements which I have spoken of,--that is, working at my
carpenter's-bench. Some mechanical employment is the greatest
possible relief, after the purely intellectual faculties begin to
tire. When I was quarantined once at Marseilles, I got to work
immediately at carving a wooden wonder of loose rings on a stick,
and got so interested in it, that when we were set loose, I
"regained my freedom with a sigh," because my toy was unfinished.
There are long seasons when I talk only with the Professor, and
others when I give myself wholly up to the Poet. Now that my
winter's work is over and spring is with us, I feel naturally drawn
to the Poet's company. I don't know anybody more alive to life
than he is. The passion of poetry seizes on him every spring, he
says,--yet oftentimes he complains, that, when he feels most, he
can sing least.
Then a fit of despondency comes over him.--I feel ashamed,
sometimes,--said he, the other day,--to think how far my worst
songs fall below my best. It sometimes seems to me, as I know it
does to others who have told me so, that they ought to be ALL
BEST,--if not in actual execution, at least in plan and motive. I
am grateful--he continued--for all such criticisms. A man is
always pleased to have his most serious efforts praised, and the
highest aspect of his nature get the most sunshine.
Yet I am sure, that, in the nature of things, many minds must
change their key now and then, on penalty of getting out of tune or
losing their voices. You know, I suppose,--he said,--what is meant
by complementary colors? You know the effect, too, which the
prolonged impression of any one color has on the retina. If you
close your eyes after looking steadily at a RED object, you see a
It is so with many minds,--I will not say with all. After looking
at one aspect of external nature, or of any form of beauty or
truth, when they turn away, the COMPLEMENTARY aspect of the same
object stamps itself irresistibly and automatically upon the mind.
Shall they give expression to this secondary mental state, or not?
When I contemplate--said my friend, the Poet--the infinite
largeness of comprehension belonging to the Central Intelligence,
how remote the creative conception is from all scholastic and
ethical formulae, I am led to think that a healthy mind ought to
change its mood from time to time, and come down from its noblest
condition,--never, of course, to degrade itself by dwelling upon
what is itself debasing, but to let its lower faculties have a
chance to air and exercise themselves. After the first and second
floor have been out in the bright street dressed in all their
splendors, shall not our humble friends in the basement have their
holiday, and the cotton velvet and the thin-skinned jewelry--simple
adornments, but befitting the station of those who wear them--show
themselves to the crowd, who think them beautiful, as they ought
to, though the people up stairs know that they are cheap and
- I don't know that I may not bring the Poet here, some day or
other, and let him speak for himself. Still I think I can tell you
what he says quite as well as he could do it.--Oh,--he said to me,
one day,--I am but a hand-organ man,--say rather, a hand-organ.
Life turns the winch, and fancy or accident pulls out the stops. I
come under your windows, some fine spring morning, and play you one
of my adagio movements, and some of you say,--This is good,--play
us so always. But, dear friends, if I did not change the stop
sometimes, the machine would wear out in one part and rust in
another. How easily this or that tune flows!--you say,--there must
be no end of just such melodies in him.--I will open the poor
machine for you one moment, and you shall look.--Ah! Every note
marks where a spur of steel has been driven in. It is easy to
grind out the song, but to plant these bristling points which make
it was the painful task of time.
I don't like to say it,--he continued,--but poets commonly have no
larger stock of tunes than hand-organs; and when you hear them
piping up under your window, you know pretty well what to expect.
The more stops, the better. Do let them all be pulled out in their
So spoke my friend, the Poet, and read me one of his stateliest
songs, and after it a gay chanson, and then a string of epigrams.
All true,--he said,--all flowers of his soul; only one with the
corolla spread, and another with its disk half opened, and the
third with the heart-leaves covered up and only a petal or two
showing its tip through the calyx. The water-lily is the type of
the poet's soul,--he told me.
- What do you think, Sir,--said the divinity-student,--opens the
souls of poets most fully?
Why, there must be the internal force and the external stimulus.
Neither is enough by itself. A rose will not flower in the dark,
and a fern will not flower anywhere.
What do I think is the true sunshine that opens the poet's
corolla?--I don't like to say. They spoil a good many, I am
afraid; or at least they shine on a good many that never come to
Who are THEY?--said the schoolmistress.
Women. Their love first inspires the poet, and their praise is his
The schoolmistress reddened a little, but looked pleased.--Did I
really think so?--I do think so; I never feel safe until I have
pleased them; I don't think they are the first to see one's
defects, but they are the first to catch the color and fragrance of
a true poem. Fit the same intellect to a man and it is a bow-
string,--to a woman and it is a harp-string. She is vibratile and
resonant all over, so she stirs with slighter musical tremblings of
the air about her.--Ah, me!--said my friend, the Poet, to me, the
other day,--what color would it not have given to my thoughts, and
what thrice-washed whiteness to my words, had I been fed on women's
praises! I should have grown like Marvell's fawn, -
"Lilies without; roses within!"
But then,--he added,--we all think, IF so and so, we should have
been this or that, as you were saying the other day, in those
rhymes of yours.
- I don't think there are many poets in the sense of creators; but
of those sensitive natures which reflect themselves naturally in
soft and melodious words, pleading for sympathy with their joys and
sorrows, every literature is full. Nature carves with her own
hands the brain which holds the creative imagination, but she casts
the over-sensitive creatures in scores from the same mould.
There are two kinds of poets, just as there are two kinds of
blondes. [Movement of curiosity among our ladies at table.--Please
to tell us about those blondes, said the schoolmistress.] Why,
there are blondes who are such simply by deficiency of coloring
matter,--NEGATIVE or WASHED blondes, arrested by Nature on the way
to become albinesses. There are others that are shot through with
golden light, with tawny or fulvous tinges in various degree,--
POSITIVE or STAINED blondes, dipped in yellow sunbeams, and as
unlike in their mode of being to the others as an orange is unlike
a snowball. The albino-style carries with it a wide pupil and a
sensitive retina. The other, or the leonine blonde, has an opaline
fire in her clear eye, which the brunette can hardly match with her
quick glittering glances.
Just so we have the great sun-kindled, constructive imaginations,
and a far more numerous class of poets who have a certain kind of
moonlight-genius given them to compensate for their imperfection of
nature. Their want of mental coloring-matter makes them sensitive
to those impressions which stronger minds neglect or never feel at
all. Many of them die young, and all of them are tinged with
melancholy. There is no more beautiful illustration of the
principle of compensation which marks the Divine benevolence than
the fact that some of the holiest lives and some of the sweetest
songs are the growth of the infirmity which unfits its subject for
the rougher duties of life. When one reads the life of Cowper, or
of Keats, or of Lucretia and Margaret Davidson,--of so many gentle,
sweet natures, born to weakness, and mostly dying before their
time,--one cannot help thinking that the human race dies out
singing, like the swan in the old story. The French poet, Gilbert,
who died at the Hotel Dieu, at the age of twenty-nine,--(killed by
a key in his throat, which he had swallowed when delirious in
consequence of a fall,)--this poor fellow was a very good example
of the poet by excess of sensibility. I found, the other day, that
some of my literary friends had never heard of him, though I
suppose few educated Frenchmen do not know the lines which he
wrote, a week before his death, upon a mean bed in the great
hospital of Paris.
"Au banquet de la vie, infortune convive,
J'apparus un jour, et je meurs;
Je meurs, et sur ma tombe, ou lentement j'arrive,
Nul ne viendra verser des pleurs."
At life's gay banquet placed, a poor unhappy guest,
One day I pass, then disappear;
I die, and on the tomb where I at length shall rest
No friend shall come to shed a tear.
You remember the same thing in other words some where in Kirke
White's poems. It is the burden of the plaintive songs of all
these sweet albino-poets. "I shall die and be forgotten, and the
world will go on just as if I had never been;--and yet how I have
loved! how I have longed! how I have aspired!" And so singing,
their eyes grow brighter and brighter, and their features thinner
and thinner, until at last the veil of flesh is threadbare, and,
still singing, they drop it and pass onward.
- Our brains are seventy-year clocks. The Angel of Life winds them
up once for all, then closes the case, and gives the key into the
hand of the Angel of the Resurrection.
Tic-tac! tic-tac! go the wheels of thought; our will cannot stop
them; they cannot stop themselves, sleep cannot still them; madness
only makes them go faster; death alone can break into the case,
and, seizing the ever-swinging pendulum, which we call the heart,
silence at last the clicking of the terrible escapement we have
carried so long beneath our wrinkled foreheads.
If we could only get at them, as we lie on our pillows and count
the dead beats of thought after thought and image after image
jarring through the overtired organ! Will nobody block those
wheels, uncouple that pinion, cut the string that holds those
weights, blow up the infernal machine with gunpowder? What a
passion comes over us sometimes for silence and rest!--that this
dreadful mechanism, unwinding the endless tapestry of time,
embroidered with spectral figures of life and death, could have but
one brief holiday! Who can wonder that men swing themselves off
from beams in hempen lassos?--that they jump off from parapets into
the swift and gurgling waters beneath?--that they take counsel of
the grim friend who has but to utter his one peremptory
monosyllable and the restless machine is shivered as a vase that is
dashed upon a marble floor? Under that building which we pass
every day there are strong dungeons, where neither hook, nor bar,
nor bed-cord, nor drinking-vessel from which a sharp fragment may
be shattered, shall by any chance be seen. There is nothing for
it, when the brain is on fire with the whirling of its wheels, but
to spring against the stone wall and silence them with one crash.
Ah, they remembered that,--the kind city fathers,--and the walls
are nicely padded, so that one can take such exercise as he likes
without damaging himself on the very plain and serviceable
upholstery. If anybody would only contrive some kind of a lever
that one could thrust in among the works of this horrid automaton
and check them, or alter their rate of going, what would the world
give for the discovery?
- From half a dime to a dime, according to the style of the place
and the quality of the liquor,--said the young fellow whom they
You speak trivially, but not unwisely,--I said. Unless the will
maintain a certain control over these movements, which it cannot
stop, but can to some extent regulate, men are very apt to try to
get at the machine by some indirect system of leverage or other.
They clap on the brakes by means of opium; they change the
maddening monotony of the rhythm by means of fermented liquors. It
is because the brain is locked up and we cannot touch its movement
directly, that we thrust these coarse tools in through any crevice,
by which they may reach the interior, and so alter its rate of
going for a while, and at last spoil the machine.
Men who exercise chiefly those faculties of the mind which work
independently of the will,--poets and artists, for instance, who
follow their imagination in their creative moments, instead of
keeping it in hand as your logicians and practical men do with
their reasoning faculty,--such men are too apt to call in the
mechanical appliances to help them govern their intellects.
- He means they get drunk,--said the young fellow already alluded
to by name.
Do you think men of true genius are apt to indulge in the use of
inebriating fluids? said the divinity-student.
If you think you are strong enough to bear what I am going to say,-
-I replied,--I will talk to you about this. But mind, now, these
are the things that some foolish people call DANGEROUS subjects,--
as if these vices which burrow into people's souls, as the Guinea-
worm burrows into the naked feet of West-Indian slaves, would be
more mischievous when seen than out of sight. Now the true way to
deal with those obstinate animals, which are a dozen feet long,
some of them, and no bigger than a horse hair, is to get a piece of
silk round their HEADS, and pull them out very cautiously. If you
only break them off, they grow worse than ever, and sometimes kill
the person who has the misfortune to harbor one of them. Whence it
is plain that the first thing to do is to find out where the head
Just so of all the vices, and particularly of this vice of
intemperance. What is the head of it, and where does it lie? For
you may depend upon it, there is not one of these vices that has
not a head of its own,--an intelligence,--a meaning,--a certain
virtue, I was going to say,--but that might, perhaps, sound
paradoxical. I have heard an immense number of moral physicians
lay down the treatment of moral Guinea-worms, and the vast majority
of them would always insist that the creature had no head at all,
but was all body and tail. So I have found a very common result of
their method to be that the string slipped, or that a piece only of
the creature was broken off, and the worm soon grew again, as bad
as ever. The truth is, if the Devil could only appear in church by
attorney, and make the best statement that the facts would bear him
out in doing on behalf of his special virtues, (what we commonly
call vices,) the influence of good teachers would be much greater
than it is. For the arguments by which the Devil prevails are
precisely the ones that the Devil-queller most rarely answers. The
way to argue down a vice is not to tell lies about it,--to say that
it has no attractions, when everybody knows that it has,--but
rather to let it make out its case just as it certainly will in the
moment of temptation, and then meet it with the weapons furnished
by the Divine armory. Ithuriel did not spit the toad on his spear,
you remember, but touched him with it, and the blasted angel took
the sad glories of his true shape. If he had shown fight then, the
fair spirits would have known how to deal with him.
That all spasmodic cerebral action is an evil is not perfectly
clear. Men get fairly intoxicated with music, with poetry, with
religious excitement, oftenest with love. Ninon de l'Enclos said
she was so easily excited that her soup intoxicated her, and
convalescents have been made tipsy by a beef-steak.
There are forms and stages of alcoholic exaltation which, in
themselves, and without regard to their consequences, might be
considered as positive improvements of the persons affected. When
the sluggish intellect is roused, the slow speech quickened, the
cold nature warmed, the latent sympathy developed, the flagging
spirit kindled,--before the trains of thought become confused or
the will perverted, or the muscles relaxed,--just at the moment
when the whole human zoophyte flowers out like a full-blown rose,
and is ripe for the subscription-paper or the contribution-box,--it
would be hard to say that a man was, at that very time, worse, or
less to be loved, than when driving a hard bargain with all his
meaner wits about him. The difficulty is, that the alcoholic
virtues don't wash; but until the water takes their colors out, the
tints are very much like those of the true celestial stuff.
[Here I was interrupted by a question which I am very unwilling to
report, but have confidence enough in those friends who examine
these records to commit to their candor.
A PERSON at table asked me whether I "went in for rum as a steady
drink?"--His manner made the question highly offensive, but I
restrained myself, and answered thus:-]
Rum I take to be the name which unwashed moralists apply alike to
the product distilled from molasses and the noblest juices of the
vineyard. Burgundy "in all its sunset glow" is rum. Champagne,
"the foaming wine of Eastern France," in rum. Hock, which our
friend, the Poet, speaks of as
"The Rhine's breastmilk, gushing cold and bright,
Pale as the moon, and maddening as her light,"
is rum. Sir, I repudiate the loathsome vulgarism as an insult to
the first miracle wrought by the Founder of our religion! I
address myself to the company.--I believe in temperance, nay,
almost in abstinence, as a rule for healthy people. I trust that I
practice both. But let me tell you, there are companies of men of
genius into which I sometimes go, where the atmosphere of intellect
and sentiment is so much more stimulating than alcohol, that, if I
thought fit to take wine, it would be to keep me sober.
Among the gentlemen that I have known, few, if any, were ruined by
drinking. My few drunken acquaintances were generally ruined
before they became drunkards. The habit of drinking is often a
vice, no doubt,--sometimes a misfortune,--as when an almost
irresistible hereditary propensity exists to indulge in it,--but
oftenest of all a PUNISHMENT.
Empty heads,--heads without ideas in wholesome variety and
sufficient number to furnish food for the mental clockwork,--ill-
regulated heads, where the faculties are not under the control of
the will,--these are the ones that hold the brains which their
owners are so apt to tamper with, by introducing the appliances we
have been talking about. Now, when a gentleman's brain is empty or
ill-regulated, it is, to a great extent, his own fault; and so it
is simple retribution, that, while he lies slothfully sleeping or
aimlessly dreaming, the fatal habit settles on him like a vampyre,
and sucks his blood, fanning him all the while with its hot wings
into deeper slumber or idler dreams! I am not such a hard-souled
being as to apply this to the neglected poor, who have had no
chance to fill their heads with wholesome ideas, and to be taught
the lesson of self-government. I trust the tariff of Heaven has an
ad valorem scale for them--and all of us.
But to come back to poets and artists;--if they really are more
prone to the abuse of stimulants,--and I fear that this is true,--
the reason of it is only too clear. A man abandons himself to a
fine frenzy, and the power which flows through him, as I once
explained to you, makes him the medium of a great poem or a great
picture. The creative action is not voluntary at all, but
automatic; we can only put the mind into the proper attitude, and
wait for the wind, that blows where it listeth, to breathe over it.
Thus the true state of creative genius is allied to reverie, or
dreaming. If mind and body were both healthy and had food enough
and fair play, I doubt whether any men would be more temperate than
the imaginative classes. But body and mind often flag,--perhaps
they are ill-made to begin with, underfed with bread or ideas,
overworked, or abused in some way. The automatic action, by which
genius wrought its wonders, fails. There is only one thing which
can rouse the machine; not will,--that cannot reach it; nothing but
a ruinous agent, which hurries the wheels awhile and soon eats out
the heart of the mechanism. The dreaming faculties are always the
dangerous ones, because their mode of action can be imitated by
artificial excitement; the reasoning ones are safe, because they
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