The Complete PG Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (The Physician and Poet)
Part 12 out of 51
--But my habits are quite regular,--I said; for I remembered that the
distinguished essayist was too fond of his brandy and water, and I
confess that the thought was not pleasant to me of following Dr.
Johnson's advice, with the slight variation of giving my days and my
nights to trying on the favorite maladies of Addison.
--Temperance people are subject to it!--exclaimed Dr. Benjamin,
almost exultingly, I thought.
--But I had the impression that the author of the Spectator was
afflicted with a dropsy, or some such inflated malady, to which
persons of sedentary and bibacious habits are liable. [A literary
swell,--I thought to myself, but I did not say it. I felt too
--The author of the Spectator!--cried out Dr. Benjamin,--I mean the
celebrated Dr. Addison, inventor, I would say discoverer, of the
wonderful new disease called after him.
---And what may this valuable invention or discovery consist in?--I
asked, for I was curious to know the nature of the gift which this
benefactor of the race had bestowed upon us.
--A most interesting affection, and rare, too. Allow me to look
closely at that discoloration once more for a moment. Cutis cenea,
bronze skin, they call it sometimes--extraordinary pigmentation--a
little more to the light, if you please--ah! now I get the bronze
coloring admirably, beautifully! Would you have any objection to
showing your case to the Societies of Medical Improvement and Medical
[--My case! O dear!] May I ask if any vital organ is commonly
involved in this interesting complaint?--I said, faintly.
--Well, sir,--the young Doctor replied,--there is an organ which is--
sometimes--a little touched, I may say; a very curious and ingenious
little organ or pair of organs. Did you ever hear of the Capsulae,
--No,--said I,--is it a mortal complaint?--I ought to have known
better than to ask such a question, but I was getting nervous and
thinking about all sorts of horrid maladies people are liable to,
with horrid names to match.
--It is n't a complaint,--I mean they are not a complaint,--they are
two small organs, as I said, inside of you, and nobody knows what is
the use of them. The most curious thing is that when anything is the
matter with them you turn of the color of bronze. After all, I
didn't mean to say I believed it was Morbus Addisonii; I only thought
of that when I saw the discoloration.
So he gave me a recipe, which I took care to put where it could do no
hurt to anybody, and I paid him his fee (which he took with the air
of a man in the receipt of a great income) and said Good-morning.
--What in the name of a thousand diablos is the reason these
confounded doctors will mention their guesses about "a case," as they
call it, and all its conceivable possibilities, out loud before their
patients? I don't suppose there is anything in all this nonsense
about "Addison's Disease," but I wish he hadn't spoken of that very
interesting ailment, and I should feel a little easier if that
discoloration would leave my forehead. I will ask the Landlady about
it,--these old women often know more than the young doctors just come
home with long names for everything they don't know how to cure. But
the name of this complaint sets me thinking. Bronzed skin! What an
odd idea! Wonder if it spreads all over one. That would be
picturesque and pleasant, now, wouldn't it? To be made a living
statue of,--nothing to do but strike an attitude. Arm up--so--like
the one in the Garden. John of Bologna's Mercury--thus on one foot.
Needy knife-grinder in the Tribune at Florence. No, not "needy,"
come to think of it. Marcus Aurelius on horseback. Query. Are
horses subject to the Morbus Addisonii? Advertise for a bronzed
living horse--Lyceum invitations and engagements--bronze versus
brass.---What 's the use in being frightened? Bet it was a bump.
Pretty certain I bumped my forehead against something. Never heard
of a bronzed man before. Have seen white men, black men, red men,
yellow men, two or three blue men, stained with doctor's stuff; some
green ones, from the country; but never a bronzed man. Poh, poh!
Sure it was a bump. Ask Landlady to look at it.
--Landlady did look at it. Said it was a bump, and no mistake.
Recommended a piece of brown paper dipped in vinegar. Made the house
smell as if it were in quarantine for the plague from Smyrna, but
discoloration soon disappeared,--so I did not become a bronzed man
after all,--hope I never shall while I am alive. Should n't mind
being done in bronze after I was dead. On second thoughts not so
clear about it, remembering how some of them look that we have got
stuck up in public; think I had rather go down to posterity in an
Ethiopian Minstrel portrait, like our friend's the other day.
--You were kind enough to say, I remarked to the Master, that you
read my poems and liked them. Perhaps you would be good enough to
tell me what it is you like about them?
The Master harpooned a breakfast-roll and held it up before me.--Will
you tell me,--he said,--why you like that breakfast-roll?--I suppose
he thought that would stop my mouth in two senses. But he was
--To be sure I will,--said I.---First, I like its mechanical
consistency; brittle externally,--that is for the teeth, which want
resistance to be overcome; soft, spongy, well tempered and flavored
internally, that is for the organ of taste; wholesome, nutritious,--
that is for the internal surfaces and the system generally.
--Good,--said the Master, and laughed a hearty terrestrial laugh.
I hope he will carry that faculty of an honest laugh with him
wherever he goes,--why shouldn't he? The "order of things," as he
calls it, from which hilarity was excluded, would be crippled and
one-sided enough. I don't believe the human gamut will be cheated of
a single note after men have done breathing this fatal atmospheric
mixture and die into the ether of immortality!
I did n't say all that; if I had said it, it would have brought a
pellet from the popgun, I feel quite certain.
The Master went on after he had had out his laugh.--There is one
thing I am His Imperial Majesty about, and that is my likes and
dislikes. What if I do like your verses,--you can't help yourself.
I don't doubt somebody or other hates 'em and hates you and
everything you do, or ever did, or ever can do. He is all right;
there is nothing you or I like that somebody does n't hate. Was
there ever anything wholesome that was not poison to somebody? If
you hate honey or cheese, or the products of the dairy,--I know a
family a good many of whose members can't touch milk, butter, cheese,
and the like, why, say so, but don't find fault with the bees and the
cows. Some are afraid of roses, and I have known those who thought a
pond-lily a disagreeable neighbor. That Boy will give you the
metaphysics of likes and dislikes. Look here,--you young philosopher
over there,--do you like candy?
That Boy.---You bet! Give me a stick and see if I don't.
And can you tell me why you like candy?
That Boy.--Because I do.
--There, now, that is the whole matter in a nutshell. Why do your
teeth like crackling crust, and your organs of taste like spongy
crumb, and your digestive contrivances take kindly to bread rather
That Boy (thinking he was still being catechised).--Because they do.
Whereupon the Landlady said, Sh! and the Young Girl laughed, and the
Lady smiled; and Dr. Ben Franklin kicked him, moderately, under the
table, and the Astronomer looked up at the ceiling to see what had
happened, and the Member of the Haouse cried, Order! Order! and the
Salesman said, Shut up, cash-boy! and the rest of the boarders kept
on feeding; except the Master, who looked very hard but half
approvingly at the small intruder, who had come about as nearly right
as most professors would have done.
--You poets,--the Master said after this excitement had calmed down,
--you poets have one thing about you that is odd. You talk about
everything as if you knew more about it than the people whose
business it is to know all about it. I suppose you do a little of
what we teachers used to call "cramming" now and then?
--If you like your breakfast you must n't ask the cook too many
--Oh, come now, don't be afraid of letting out your secrets. I have
a notion I can tell a poet that gets himself up just as I can tell a
make-believe old man on the stage by the line where the gray skullcap
joins the smooth forehead of the young fellow of seventy. You'll
confess to a rhyming dictionary anyhow, won't you?
--I would as lief use that as any other dictionary, but I don't want
it. When a word comes up fit to end a line with I can feel all the
rhymes in the language that are fit to go with it without naming
them. I have tried them all so many times, I know all the polygamous
words and all the monogamous ones, and all the unmarrying ones,--the
whole lot that have no mates,--as soon as I hear their names called.
Sometimes I run over a string of rhymes, but generally speaking it is
strange what a short list it is of those that are good for anything.
That is the pitiful side of all rhymed verse. Take two such words as
home and world. What can you do with chrome or loam or gnome or
tome? You have dome, foam, and roam, and not much more to use in
your pome, as some of our fellow-countrymen call it. As for world,
you know that in all human probability somebody or something will be
hurled into it or out of it; its clouds may be furled or its grass
impearled; possibly something may be whirled, or curled, or have
swirled, one of Leigh Hunt's words, which with lush, one of Keats's,
is an important part of the stock in trade of some dealers in rhyme.
--And how much do you versifiers know of all those arts and sciences
you refer to as if you were as familiar with them as a cobbler is
with his wax and lapstone?
--Enough not to make too many mistakes. The best way is to ask some
expert before one risks himself very far in illustrations from a
branch he does not know much about. Suppose, for instance, I wanted
to use the double star to illustrate anything, say the relation of
two human souls to each other, what would I--do? Why, I would ask
our young friend there to let me look at one of those loving
celestial pairs through his telescope, and I don't doubt he'd let me
do so, and tell me their names and all I wanted to know about them.
--I should be most happy to show any of the double stars or whatever
else there might be to see in the heavens to any of our friends at
this table,--the young man said, so cordially and kindly that it was
a real invitation.
--Show us the man in the moon,--said That Boy.---I should so like to
see a double star!--said Scheherezade, with a very pretty air of
--Will you go, if we make up a party?--I asked the Master.
--A cold in the head lasts me from three to five days,--answered the
Master.--I am not so very fond of being out in the dew like
Nebuchadnezzar: that will do for you young folks.
--I suppose I must be one of the young folks, not so young as our
Scheherezade, nor so old as the Capitalist,--young enough at any rate
to want to be of the party. So we agreed that on some fair night
when the Astronomer should tell us that there was to be a fine show
in the skies, we would make up a party and go to the Observatory. I
asked the Scarabee whether he would not like to make one of us.
--Out of the question, sir, out of the question. I am altogether too
much occupied with an important scientific investigation to devote
any considerable part of an evening to star-gazing.
--Oh, indeed,--said I,--and may I venture to ask on what particular
point you are engaged just at present?
-Certainly, sir, you may. It is, I suppose, as difficult and
important a matter to be investigated as often comes before a student
of natural history. I wish to settle the point once for all whether
the Pediculus Mellitae is or is not the larva of Meloe.
[--Now is n't this the drollest world to live in that one could
imagine, short of being in a fit of delirium tremens? Here is a
fellow-creature of mine and yours who is asked to see all the glories
of the firmament brought close to him, and he is too busy with a
little unmentionable parasite that infests the bristly surface of a
bee to spare an hour or two of a single evening for the splendors of
the universe! I must get a peep through that microscope of his and
see the pediculus which occupies a larger space in his mental vision
than the midnight march of the solar systems.---The creature, the
human one, I mean, interests me.]
--I am very curious,--I said,--about that pediculus melittae,--(just
as if I knew a good deal about the little wretch and wanted to know
more, whereas I had never heard him spoken of before, to my
knowledge,)--could you let me have a sight of him in your microscope?
--You ought to have seen the way in which the poor dried-up little
Scarabee turned towards me. His eyes took on a really human look,
and I almost thought those antennae-like arms of his would have
stretched themselves out and embraced me. I don't believe any of the
boarders had ever shown any interest in--him, except the little
monkey of a Boy, since he had been in the house. It is not strange;
he had not seemed to me much like a human being, until all at once I
touched the one point where his vitality had concentrated itself, and
he stood revealed a man and a brother.
--Come in,--said he,--come in, right after breakfast, and you shall
see the animal that has convulsed the entomological world with
questions as to his nature and origin.
--So I went into the Scarabee's parlor, lodging-room, study,
laboratory, and museum,--a--single apartment applied to these various
uses, you understand.
--I wish I had time to have you show me all your treasures,--I said,
--but I am afraid I shall hardly be able to do more than look at the
bee-parasite. But what a superb butterfly you have in that case!
--Oh, yes, yes, well enough,--came from South America with the beetle
there; look at him! These Lepidoptera are for children to play with,
pretty to look at, so some think. Give me the Coleoptera, and the
kings of the Coleoptera are the beetles! Lepidoptera and Neuroptera
for little folks; Coleopteras for men, sir!
--The particular beetle he showed me in the case with the magnificent
butterfly was an odious black wretch that one would say, Ugh! at, and
kick out of his path, if he did not serve him worse than that. But
he looked at it as a coin-collector would look at a Pescennius Niger,
if the coins of that Emperor are as scarce as they used to be when I
was collecting half-penny tokens and pine-tree shillings and battered
bits of Roman brass with the head of Gallienus or some such old
fellow on them.
--A beauty!--he exclaimed,--and the only specimen of the kind in this
country, to the best of my belief. A unique, sir, and there is a
pleasure in exclusive possession. Not another beetle like that short
of South America, sir.
--I was glad to hear that there were no more like it in this
neighborhood, the present supply of cockroaches answering every
purpose, so far as I am concerned, that such an animal as this would
be likely to serve.
--Here are my bee-parasites,--said the Scarabee, showing me a box
full of glass slides, each with a specimen ready mounted for the
microscope. I was most struck with one little beast flattened out
like a turtle, semi-transparent, six-legged, as I remember him, and
every leg terminated by a single claw hooked like a lion's and as
formidable for the size of the creature as that of the royal beast.
--Lives on a bumblebee, does he?--I said. That's the way I call it.
Bumblebee or bumblybee and huckleberry. Humblebee and whortleberry
for people that say Woos-ses-ter and Nor-wich.
--The Scarabee did not smile; he took no interest in trivial matters
--Lives on a bumblebee. When you come to think of it, he must lead a
pleasant kind of life. Sails through the air without the trouble of
flying. Free pass everywhere that the bee goes. No fear of being
dislodged; look at those six grappling-hooks. Helps himself to such
juices of the bee as he likes best; the bee feeds on the choicest
vegetable nectars, and he feeds on the bee. Lives either in the air
or in the perfumed pavilion of the fairest and sweetest flowers.
Think what tents the hollyhocks and the great lilies spread for him!
And wherever he travels a band of music goes with him, for this hum
which wanders by us is doubtless to him a vast and inspiring strain
of melody.--I thought all this, while the Scarabee supposed I was
studying the minute characters of the enigmatical specimen.
--I know what I consider your pediculus melittae, I said at length.
Do you think it really the larva of meloe?
--Oh, I don't know much about that, but I think he is the best cared
for, on the whole, of any animal that I know of; and if I wasn't a
man I believe I had rather be that little sybarite than anything that
feasts at the board of nature.
--The question is, whether he is the larva of meloe,--the Scarabee
said, as if he had not heard a word of what I had just been saying.--
--If I live a few years longer it shall be settled, sir; and if my
epitaph can say honestly that I settled it, I shall be willing to
trust my posthumous fame to that achievement.
I said good morning to the specialist, and went off feeling not only
kindly, but respectfully towards him. He is an enthusiast, at any
rate, as "earnest" a man as any philanthropic reformer who, having
passed his life in worrying people out of their misdoings into good
behavior, comes at last to a state in which he is never contented
except when he is making somebody uncomfortable. He does certainly
know one thing well, very likely better than anybody in the world.
I find myself somewhat singularly placed at our table between a
minute philosopher who has concentrated all his faculties on a single
subject, and my friend who finds the present universe too restricted
for his intelligence. I would not give much to hear what the
Scarabee says about the old Master, for he does not pretend to form a
judgment of anything but beetles, but I should like to hear what the
Master has to say about the Scarabee. I waited after breakfast until
he had gone, and then asked the Master what he could make of our
--Well,--he said,--I am hospitable enough in my feelings to him and
all his tribe. These specialists are the coral-insects that build up
a reef. By and by it will be an island, and for aught we know may
grow into a continent. But I don't want to be a coral-insect myself.
I had rather be a voyager that visits all the reefs and islands the
creatures build, and sails over the seas where they have as yet built
up nothing. I am a little afraid that science is breeding us down
too fast into coral-insects. A man like Newton or Leibnitz or Haller
used to paint a picture of outward or inward nature with a free hand,
and stand back and look at it as a whole and feel like an archangel;
but nowadays you have a Society, and they come together and make a
great mosaic, each man bringing his little bit and sticking it in its
place, but so taken up with his petty fragment that he never thinks
of looking at the picture the little bits make when they are put
together. You can't get any talk out of these specialists away from
their own subjects, any more than you can get help from a policeman
outside of his own beat.
--Yes,--said I,--but why should n't we always set a man talking about
the thing he knows best?
--No doubt, no doubt, if you meet him once; but what are you going to
do with him if you meet him every day? I travel with a man and we
want to make change very often in paying bills. But every time I ask
him to change a pistareen, or give me two fo'pencehappennies for a
ninepence, or help me to make out two and thrippence (mark the old
Master's archaisms about the currency), what does the fellow do but
put his hand in his pocket and pull out an old Roman coin; I have no
change, says he, but this assarion of Diocletian. Mighty deal of
good that'll do me!
--It isn't quite so handy as a few specimens of the modern currency
would be, but you can pump him on numismatics.
--To be sure, to be sure. I've pumped a thousand men of all they
could teach me, or at least all I could learn from 'em; and if it
comes to that, I never saw the man that couldn't teach me something.
I can get along with everybody in his place, though I think the place
of some of my friends is over there among the feeble-minded pupils,
and I don't believe there's one of them, I couldn't go to school to
for half an hour and be the wiser for it. But people you talk with
every day have got to have feeders for their minds, as much as the
stream that turns a millwheel has. It isn't one little rill that's
going to keep the float-boards turning round. Take a dozen of the
brightest men you can find in the brightest city, wherever that may
be,--perhaps you and I think we know,--and let 'em come together once
a month, and you'll find out in the course of a year or two the ones
that have feeders from all the hillsides. Your common talkers, that
exchange the gossip of the day, have no wheel in particular to turn,
and the wash of the rain as it runs down the street is enough for
--Do you mean you can always see the sources from which a man fills
his mind,--his feeders, as you call them?
-I don't go quite so far as that,--the Master said.---I've seen men
whose minds were always overflowing, and yet they did n't read much
nor go much into the world. Sometimes you'll find a bit of a pond-
hole in a pasture, and you'll plunge your walking-stick into it and
think you are going to touch bottom. But you find you are mistaken.
Some of these little stagnant pond-holes are a good deal deeper than
you think; you may tie a stone to a bed-cord and not get soundings in
some of 'em. The country boys will tell you they have no bottom, but
that only means that they are mighty deep; and so a good many
stagnant, stupid-seeming people are a great deal deeper than the
length of your intellectual walking-stick, I can tell you. There are
hidden springs that keep the little pond-holes full when the mountain
brooks are all dried up. You poets ought to know that.
--I can't help thinking you are more tolerant towards the specialists
than I thought at first, by the way you seemed to look at our dried-
up neighbor and his small pursuits.
--I don't like the word tolerant,--the Master said.---As long as the
Lord can tolerate me I think I can stand my fellow-creatures.
Philosophically, I love 'em all; empirically, I don't think I am very
fond of all of 'em. It depends on how you look at a man or a woman.
Come here, Youngster, will you? he said to That Boy.
The Boy was trying to catch a blue-bottle to add to his collection,
and was indisposed to give up the chase; but he presently saw that
the Master had taken out a small coin and laid it on the table, and
felt himself drawn in that direction.
Read that,--said the Master.
U-n-i-ni United States of America 5 cents.
The Master turned the coin over. Now read that.
In God is our t-r-u-s-t--trust. 1869.
--Is that the same piece of money as the other one?
--There ain't any other one,--said the Boy, there ain't but one, but
it's got two sides to it with different reading.
--That 's it, that 's it,--said the Master,--two sides to everybody,
as there are to that piece of money. I've seen an old woman that
wouldn't fetch five cents if you should put her up for sale at public
auction; and yet come to read the other side of her, she had a trust
in God Almighty that was like the bow anchor of a three-decker. It's
faith in something and enthusiasm for something that makes a life
worth looking at. I don't think your ant-eating specialist, with his
sharp nose and pin-head eyes, is the best every-day companion; but
any man who knows one thing well is worth listening to for once; and
if you are of the large-brained variety of the race, and want to fill
out your programme of the Order of Things in a systematic and
exhaustive way, and get all the half-notes and flats and sharps of
humanity into your scale, you'd a great deal better shut your front
door and open your two side ones when you come across a fellow that
has made a real business of doing anything.
--That Boy stood all this time looking hard at the five-cent piece.
--Take it,--said the Master, with a good-natured smile.
--The Boy made a snatch at it and was off for the purpose of
--A child naturally snaps at a thing as a dog does at his meat,--said
the Master.---If you think of it, we've all been quadrupeds. A child
that can only crawl has all the instincts of a four-footed beast. It
carries things in its mouth just as cats and dogs do. I've seen the
little brutes do it over and over again. I suppose a good many
children would stay quadrupeds all their lives, if they didn't learn
the trick of walking on their hind legs from seeing all the grown
people walking in that way.
--Do you accept Mr. Darwin's notions about the origin of the race?--
The Master looked at me with that twinkle in his eye which means that
he is going to parry a question.
--Better stick to Blair's Chronology; that settles it. Adam and Eve,
created Friday, October 28th, B. C. 4004. You've been in a ship for
a good while, and here comes Mr. Darwin on deck with an armful of
sticks and says, "Let's build a raft, and trust ourselves to that."
If your ship springs a leak, what would you do?
He looked me straight in the eyes for about half a minute.---If I
heard the pumps going, I'd look and see whether they were gaining on
the leak or not. If they were gaining I'd stay where I was.---Go and
find out what's the matter with that young woman.
I had noticed that the Young Girl--the storywriter, our Scheherezade,
as I called her--looked as if she had been crying or lying awake half
the night. I found on asking her,--for she is an honest little body
and is disposed to be confidential with me for some reason or other,
--that she had been doing both.
--And what was the matter now, I questioned her in a semi-paternal
kind of way, as soon as I got a chance for a few quiet words with
She was engaged to write a serial story, it seems, and had only got
as far as the second number, and some critic had been jumping upon
it, she said, and grinding his heel into it, till she couldn't bear
to look at it. He said she did not write half so well as half a
dozen other young women. She did n't write half so well as she used
to write herself. She hadn't any characters and she had n't any
incidents. Then he went to work to show how her story was coming
out, trying to anticipate everything she could make of it, so that
her readers should have nothing to look forward to, and he should
have credit for his sagacity in guessing, which was nothing so very
wonderful, she seemed to think. Things she had merely hinted and
left the reader to infer, he told right out in the bluntest and
coarsest way. It had taken all the life out of her, she said. It
was just as if at a dinner-party one of the guests should take a
spoonful of soup and get up and say to the company, "Poor stuff, poor
stuff; you won't get anything better; let's go somewhere else where
things are fit to eat."
What do you read such things for, my dear? said I.
The film glistened in her eyes at the strange sound of those two soft
words; she had not heard such very often, I am afraid.
--I know I am a foolish creature to read them, she answered,--but I
can't help it; somebody always sends me everything that will make me
wretched to read, and so I sit down and read it, and ache all over
for my pains, and lie awake all night.
--She smiled faintly as she said this, for she saw the sub-ridiculous
side of it, but the film glittered still in her eyes. There are a
good many real miseries in life that we cannot help smiling at, but
they are the smiles that make wrinkles and not dimples. "Somebody
always sends her everything that will make her wretched." Who can
those creatures be who cut out the offensive paragraph and send it
anonymously to us, who mail the newspaper which has the article we
had much better not have seen, who take care that we shall know
everything which can, by any possibility, help to make us
discontented with ourselves and a little less light-hearted than we
were before we had been fools enough to open their incendiary
packages? I don't like to say it to myself, but I cannot help
suspecting, in this instance, the doubtful-looking personage who sits
on my left, beyond the Scarabee. I have some reason to think that he
has made advances to the Young Girl which were not favorably
received, to state the case in moderate terms, and it may be that he
is taking his revenge in cutting up the poor girl's story. I know
this very well, that some personal pique or favoritism is at the
bottom of half the praise and dispraise which pretend to be so very
ingenuous and discriminating. (Of course I have been thinking all
this time and telling you what I thought.)
--What you want is encouragement, my dear, said I,--I know that as
well, as you. I don't think the fellows that write such criticisms
as you tell me of want to correct your faults. I don't mean to say
that you can learn nothing from them, because they are not all fools
by any means, and they will often pick out your weak points with a
malignant sagacity, as a pettifogging lawyer will frequently find a
real flaw in trying to get at everything he can quibble about. But
is there nobody who will praise you generously when you do well,--
nobody that will lend you a hand now while you want it,--or must they
all wait until you have made yourself a name among strangers, and
then all at once find out that you have something in you?
Oh,--said the girl, and the bright film gathered too fast for her
young eyes to hold much longer,--I ought not to be ungrateful! I
have found the kindest friend in the world. Have you ever heard the
Lady--the one that I sit next to at the table--say anything about me?
I have not really made her acquaintance, I said. She seems to me a
little distant in her manners and I have respected her pretty evident
liking for keeping mostly to herself.
--Oh, but when you once do know her! I don't believe I could write
stories all the time as I do, if she didn't ask me up to her chamber,
and let me read them to her. Do you know, I can make her laugh and
cry, reading my poor stories? And sometimes, when I feel as if I had
written out all there is in me, and want to lie down and go to sleep
and never wake up except in a world where there are no weekly
papers,--when everything goes wrong, like a car off the track,--she
takes hold and sets me on the rails again all right.
--How does she go to work to help you?
--Why, she listens to my stories, to begin with, as if she really
liked to hear them. And then you know I am dreadfully troubled now
and then with some of my characters, and can't think how to get rid
of them. And she'll say, perhaps, Don't shoot your villain this
time, you've shot three or four already in the last six weeks; let
his mare stumble and throw him and break his neck. Or she'll give me
a hint about some new way for my lover to make a declaration. She
must have had a good many offers, it's my belief, for she has told me
a dozen different ways for me to use in my stories. And whenever I
read a story to her, she always laughs and cries in the right places;
and that's such a comfort, for there are some people that think
everything pitiable is so funny, and will burst out laughing when
poor Rip Van Winkle--you've seen Mr. Jefferson, haven't you?--is
breaking your heart for you if you have one. Sometimes she takes a
poem I have written and reads it to me so beautifully, that I fall in
love with it, and sometimes she sets my verses to music and sings
them to me.
--You have a laugh together sometimes, do you?
--Indeed we do. I write for what they call the "Comic Department" of
the paper now and then. If I did not get so tired of story-telling,
I suppose I should be gayer than I am; but as it is, we two get a
little fun out of my comic pieces. I begin them half-crying
sometimes, but after they are done they amuse me. I don't suppose my
comic pieces are very laughable; at any rate the man who makes a
business of writing me down says the last one I wrote is very
melancholy reading, and that if it was only a little better perhaps
some bereaved person might pick out a line or two that would do to
put on a gravestone.
--Well, that is hard, I must confess. Do let me see those lines
which excite such sad emotions.
--Will you read them very good-naturedly? If you will, I will get
the paper that has "Aunt Tabitha." That is the one the fault-finder
said produced such deep depression of feeling. It was written for
the "Comic Department." Perhaps it will make you cry, but it was n't
--I will finish my report this time with our Scheherezade's poem,
hoping that--any critic who deals with it will treat it with the
courtesy due to all a young lady's literary efforts.
Whatever I do, and whatever I say,
Aunt Tabitha tells me that isn't the way;
When she was a girl (forty summers ago)
Aunt Tabitha tells me they never did so.
Dear aunt! If I only would take her advice!
But I like my own way, and I find it so nice!
And besides, I forget half the things I am told;
But they all will come back to me--when I am old.
If a youth passes by, it may happen, no doubt,
He may chance to look in as I chance to look out;
She would never endure an impertinent stare,
It is horrid, she says, and I mustn't sit there.
A walk in the moonlight has pleasures, I own,
But it is n't quite safe to be walking alone;
So I take a lad's arm,--just for safety, you know,
But Aunt Tabitha tells me they didn't do so.
How wicked we are, and how good they were then!
They kept at arm's length those detestable men;
What an era of virtue she lived in!--But stay
Were the men all such rogues in Aunt Tabitha's day?
If the men were so wicked, I'll ask my papa
How he dared to propose to my darling mamma;
Was he like the rest of them? Goodness! Who knows
And what shall I say if a wretch should propose?
I am thinking if aunt knew so little of sin,
What a wonder Aunt Tabitha's aunt must have been!
And her grand-aunt--it scares me--how shockingly sad.
That we girls of to-day are so frightfully bad!
A martyr will save us, and nothing else can;
Let me perish--to rescue some wretched young man!
Though when to the altar a victim I go,
Aunt Tabitha'll tell me she never did so!
The old Master has developed one quality of late for which I am
afraid I hardly gave him credit. He has turned out to be an
--I love to talk,--he said,--as a goose loves to swim. Sometimes I
think it is because I am a goose. For I never talked much at any one
time in my life without saying something or other I was sorry for.
--You too!--said I--Now that is very odd, for it is an experience I
have habitually. I thought you were rather too much of a philosopher
to trouble yourself about such small matters as to whether you had
said just what you meant to or not; especially as you know that the
person you talk to does not remember a word of what you said the next
morning, but is thinking, it is much more likely, of what she said,
or how her new dress looked, or some other body's new dress which
made--hers look as if it had been patched together from the leaves of
last November. That's what she's probably thinking about.
--She!--said the Master, with a look which it would take at least
half a page to explain to the entire satisfaction of thoughtful
readers of both sexes.
--I paid the respect due to that most significant monosyllable,
which, as the old Rabbi spoke it, with its targum of tone and
expression, was not to be answered flippantly, but soberly,
advisedly, and after a pause long enough for it to unfold its meaning
in the listener's mind. For there are short single words (all the
world remembers Rachel's Helas!) which are like those Japanese toys
that look like nothing of any significance as you throw them on the
water, but which after a little time open out into various strange
and unexpected figures, and then you find that each little shred had
a complicated story to tell of itself.
-Yes,--said I, at the close of this silent interval, during which the
monosyllable had been opening out its meanings,--She. When I think
of talking, it is of course with a woman. For talking at its best
being an inspiration, it wants a corresponding divine quality of
receptiveness; and where will you find this but in woman?
The Master laughed a pleasant little laugh,--not a harsh, sarcastic
one, but playful, and tempered by so kind a look that it seemed as if
every wrinkled line about his old eyes repeated, "God bless you," as
the tracings on the walls of the Alhambra repeat a sentence of the
I said nothing, but looked the question, What are you laughing at?
--Why, I laughed because I couldn't help saying to myself that a
woman whose mind was taken up with thinking how she looked, and how
her pretty neighbor looked, wouldn't have a great deal of thought to
spare for all your fine discourse.
--Come, now,--said I,--a man who contradicts himself in the course of
two minutes must have a screw loose in his mental machinery. I never
feel afraid that such a thing can happen to me, though it happens
often enough when I turn a thought over suddenly, as you did that
five-cent piece the other day, that it reads differently on its two
sides. What I meant to say is something like this. A woman,
notwithstanding she is the best of listeners, knows her business, and
it is a woman's business to please. I don't say that it is not her
business to vote, but I do say that a woman who does not please is a
false note in the harmonies of nature. She may not have youth, or
beauty, or even manner; but she must have something in her voice or
expression, or both, which it makes you feel better disposed towards
your race to look at or listen to. She knows that as well as we do;
and her first question after you have been talking your soul into her
consciousness is, Did I please? A woman never forgets her sex. She
would rather talk with a man than an angel, any day.
--This frightful speech of mine reached the ear of our Scheherezade,
who said that it was perfectly shocking and that I deserved to be
shown up as the outlaw in one of her bandit stories.
Hush, my dear,--said the Lady,--you will have to bring John Milton
into your story with our friend there, if you punish everybody who
says naughty things like that. Send the little boy up to my chamber
for Paradise Lost, if you please. He will find it lying on my table.
The little old volume,--he can't mistake it.
So the girl called That Boy round and gave him the message; I don't
know why she should give it, but she did, and the Lady helped her out
with a word or two.
The little volume--its cover protected with soft white leather from a
long kid glove, evidently suggesting the brilliant assemblies of the
days when friends and fortune smiled-came presently and the Lady
opened it.---You may read that, if you like, she said,--it may show
you that our friend is to be pilloried in good company.
The Young Girl ran her eye along the passage the Lady pointed out,
blushed, laughed, and slapped the book down as though she would have
liked to box the ears of Mr. John Milton, if he had been a
contemporary and fellow-contributor to the "Weekly Bucket."--I won't
touch the thing,--she said.---He was a horrid man to talk so: and he
had as many wives as Blue-Beard.
--Fair play,--said the Master.---Bring me the book, my little
fractional superfluity,--I mean you, my nursling,--my boy, if that
suits your small Highness better.
The Boy brought the book.
The old Master, not unfamiliar with the great epic opened pretty
nearly to the place, and very soon found the passage: He read, aloud
with grand scholastic intonation and in a deep voice that silenced
the table as if a prophet had just uttered Thus saith the Lord:--
"So spake our sire, and by his countenance seemed
Entering on studious thoughts abstruse; which Eve
went to water her geraniums, to make a short story of it, and left
the two "conversationists," to wit, the angel Raphael and the
gentleman,--there was but one gentleman in society then, you know,--
to talk it out.
"Yet went she not, as not with such discourse
Delighted, or not capable her ear
Of what was high; such pleasure she reserved,
Adam relating, she sole auditress;
Her husband the relater she preferred
Before the angel, and of him to ask
Chose rather; he she knew would intermix
Grateful digressions, and solve high dispute
With conjugal caresses: from his lips
Not words alone pleased her."
Everybody laughed, except the Capitalist, who was a little hard of
hearing, and the Scarabee, whose life was too earnest for
demonstrations of that kind. He had his eyes fixed on the volume,
however, with eager interest.
--The p'int 's carried,--said the Member of the Haouse.
Will you let me look at that book a single minute?--said the
Scarabee. I passed it to him, wondering what in the world he wanted
of Paradise Lost.
Dermestes lardarius,--he said, pointing to a place where the edge of
one side of the outer cover had been slightly tasted by some insect.
--Very fond of leather while they 're in the larva state.
--Damage the goods as bad as mice,--said the Salesman.
--Eat half the binding off Folio 67,--said the Register of Deeds.
Something did, anyhow, and it was n't mice. Found the shelf covered
with little hairy cases belonging to something or other that had no
Skins of the Dermestes lardaraus,--said the Scarabee,--you can always
tell them by those brown hairy coats. That 's the name to give them.
--What good does it do to give 'em a name after they 've eat the
binding off my folios?--asked the Register of Deeds.
The Scarabee had too much respect for science to answer such a
question as that; and the book, having served its purposes, was
passed back to the Lady.
I return to the previous question,--said I,--if our friend the Member
of the House of Representatives will allow me to borrow the phrase.
Womanly women are very kindly critics, except to themselves and now
and then to their own sex. The less there is of sex about a woman,
the more she is to be dreaded. But take a real woman at her best
moment,--well dressed enough to be pleased with herself, not so
resplendent as to be a show and a sensation, with those varied
outside influences which set vibrating the harmonic notes of her
nature stirring in the air about her, and what has social life to
compare with one of those vital interchanges of thought and feeling
with her that make an hour memorable? What can equal her tact, her
delicacy, her subtlety of apprehension, her quickness to feel the
changes of temperature as the warm and cool currents of talk blow by
turns? At one moment she is microscopically intellectual, critical,
scrupulous in judgment as an analyst's balance, and the next as
sympathetic as the open rose that sweetens the wind from whatever
quarter it finds its way to her bosom. It is in the hospitable soul
of a woman that a man forgets he is a stranger, and so becomes
natural and truthful, at the same time that he is mesmerized by all
those divine differences which make her a mystery and a bewilderment
If you fire your popgun at me, you little chimpanzee, I will stick a
pin right through the middle of you and put you into one of this
I caught the imp that time, but what started him was more than I
could guess. It is rather hard that this spoiled child should spoil
such a sentence as that was going to be; but the wind shifted all at
once, and the talk had to come round on another tack, or at least
fall off a point or two from its course.
--I'll tell you who I think are the best talkers in all probability,
--said I to the Master, who, as I mentioned, was developing
interesting talent as a listener,--poets who never write verses. And
there are a good many more of these than it would seem at first
sight. I think you may say every young lover is a poet, to begin
with. I don't mean either that all young lovers are good talkers,--
they have an eloquence all their own when they are with the beloved
object, no doubt, emphasized after the fashion the solemn bard of
Paradise refers to with such delicious humor in the passage we just
heard,--but a little talk goes a good way in most of these cooing
matches, and it wouldn't do to report them too literally. What I
mean is, that a man with the gift of musical and impassioned phrase
(and love often deeds that to a young person for a while), who
"wreaks" it, to borrow Byron's word, on conversation as the natural
outlet of his sensibilities and spiritual activities, is likely to
talk better than the poet, who plays on the instrument of verse. A
great pianist or violinist is rarely a great singer. To write a poem
is to expend the vital force which would have made one brilliant for
an hour or two, and to expend it on an instrument with more pipes,
reeds, keys, stops, and pedals than the Great Organ that shakes New
England every time it is played in full blast.
Do you mean that it is hard work to write a poem?--said the old
Master.---I had an idea that a poem wrote itself, as it were, very
often; that it came by influx, without voluntary effort; indeed, you
have spoken of it as an inspiration rather than a result of volition.
--Did you ever see a great ballet-dancer?--I asked him.
--I have seen Taglioni,--he answered.---She used to take her steps
rather prettily. I have seen the woman that danced the capstone on
to Bunker Hill Monument, as Orpheus moved the rocks by music, the
Elssler woman,--Fanny Elssler. She would dance you a rigadoon or cut
a pigeon's wing for you very respectably.
(Confound this old college book-worm,----he has seen everything!)
Well, did these two ladies dance as if it was hard work to them?
--Why no, I should say they danced as if they liked it and couldn't
help dancing; they looked as if they felt so "corky" it was hard to
keep them down.
--And yet they had been through such work to get their limbs strong
and flexible and obedient, that a cart-horse lives an easy life
compared to theirs while they were in training.
--The Master cut in just here--I had sprung the trap of a
--When I was a boy,--he said,--some of the mothers in our small town,
who meant that their children should know what was what as well as
other people's children, laid their heads together and got a dancing-
master to come out from the city and give instruction at a few
dollars a quarter to the young folks of condition in the village.
Some of their husbands were ministers and some were deacons, but the
mothers knew what they were about, and they did n't see any reason
why ministers' and deacons' wives' children shouldn't have as easy
manners as the sons and daughters of Belial. So, as I tell you, they
got a dancing-master to come out to our place,--a man of good repute,
a most respectable man,--madam (to the Landlady), you must remember
the worthy old citizen, in his advanced age, going about the streets,
a most gentlemanly bundle of infirmities,--only he always cocked his
hat a little too much on one side, as they do here and there along
the Connecticut River, and sometimes on our city sidewalks, when
they've got a new beaver; they got him, I say, to give us boys and
girls lessons in dancing and deportment. He was as gray and as
lively as a squirrel, as I remember him, and used to spring up in the
air and "cross his feet," as we called it, three times before he came
down. Well, at the end of each term there was what they called an
"exhibition ball," in which the scholars danced cotillons and
country-dances; also something called a "gavotte," and I think one or
more walked a minuet. But all this is not what--I wanted to say. At
this exhibition ball he used to bring out a number of hoops wreathed
with roses, of the perennial kind, by the aid of which a number of
amazingly complicated and startling evolutions were exhibited; and
also his two daughters, who figured largely in these evolutions, and
whose wonderful performances to us, who had not seen Miss Taglioni or
Miss Elssler, were something quite bewildering, in fact, surpassing
the natural possibilities of human beings. Their extraordinary
powers were, however, accounted for by the following explanation,
which was accepted in the school as entirely satisfactory. A certain
little bone in the ankles of each of these young girls had been
broken intentionally, secundum artem, at a very early age, and thus
they had been fitted to accomplish these surprising feats which threw
the achievements of the children who were left in the condition of
the natural man into ignominious shadow.
--Thank you,--said I,--you have helped out my illustration so as to
make it better than I expected. Let me begin again. Every poem that
is worthy of the name, no matter how easily it seems to be written,
represents a great amount of vital force expended at some time or
other. When you find a beach strewed with the shells and other
spoils that belonged once to the deep sea, you know the tide has been
there, and that the winds and waves have wrestled over its naked
sands. And so, if I find a poem stranded in my soul and have nothing
to do but seize it as a wrecker carries off the treasure he finds
cast ashore, I know I have paid at some time for that poem with some
inward commotion, were it only an excess of enjoyment, which has used
up just so much of my vital capital. But besides all the impressions
that furnished the stuff of the poem, there has been hard work to get
the management of that wonderful instrument I spoke of,---the great
organ, language. An artist who works in marble or colors has them
all to himself and his tribe, but the man who moulds his thought in
verse has to employ the materials vulgarized by everybody's use, and
glorify them by his handling. I don't know that you must break any
bones in a poet's mechanism before his thought can dance in rhythm,
but read your Milton and see what training, what patient labor, it
took before he could shape our common speech into his majestic
It is rather singular, but the same kind of thing has happened to me
not very rarely before, as I suppose it has to most persons, that
just when I happened to be thinking about poets and their conditions,
this very morning, I saw a paragraph or two from a foreign paper
which is apt to be sharp, if not cynical, relating to the same
matter. I can't help it; I want to have my talk about it, and if I
say the same things that writer did, somebody else can have the
satisfaction of saying I stole them all.
[I thought the person whom I have called hypothetically the Man of
Letters changed color a little and betrayed a certain awkward
consciousness that some of us were looking at him or thinking of him;
but I am a little suspicious about him and may do him wrong.]
That poets are treated as privileged persons by their admirers and
the educated public can hardly be disputed. That they consider
themselves so there is no doubt whatever. On the whole, I do not
know so easy a way of shirking all the civic and social and domestic
duties, as to settle it in one's mind that one is a poet. I have,
therefore, taken great pains to advise other persons laboring under
the impression that they were gifted beings, destined to soar in the
atmosphere of song above the vulgar realities of earth, not to
neglect any homely duty under the influence of that impression. The
number of these persons is so great that if they were suffered to
indulge their prejudice against every-day duties and labors, it would
be a serious loss to the productive industry of the country. My
skirts are clear (so far as other people are concerned) of
countenancing that form of intellectual opium-eating in which rhyme
takes the place of the narcotic. But what are you going to do when
you find John Keats an apprentice to a surgeon or apothecary? Is n't
it rather better to get another boy to sweep out the shop and shake
out the powders and stir up the mixtures, and leave him undisturbed
to write his Ode on a Grecian Urn or to a Nightingale? Oh yes, the
critic I have referred to would say, if he is John Keats; but not if
he is of a much lower grade, even though he be genuine, what there is
of him. But the trouble is, the sensitive persons who belong to the
lower grades of the poetical hierarchy do not--know their own
poetical limitations, while they do feel a natural unfitness and
disinclination for many pursuits which young persons of the average
balance of faculties take to pleasantly enough. What is forgotten is
this, that every real poet, even of the humblest grade, is an artist.
Now I venture to say that any painter or sculptor of real genius,
though he may do nothing more than paint flowers and fruit, or carve
cameos, is considered a privileged person. It is recognized
perfectly that to get his best work he must be insured the freedom
from disturbances which the creative power absolutely demands, more
absolutely perhaps in these slighter artists than in the great
masters. His nerves must be steady for him to finish a rose-leaf or
the fold of a nymph's drapery in his best manner; and they will be
unsteadied if he has to perform the honest drudgery which another can
do for him quite as well. And it is just so with the poet, though he
were only finishing an epigram; you must no more meddle roughly with
him than you would shake a bottle of Chambertin and expect the
"sunset glow" to redden your glass unclouded. On the other hand, it
may be said that poetry is not an article of prime necessity, and
potatoes are. There is a disposition in many persons just now to
deny the poet his benefit of clergy, and to hold him no better than
other people. Perhaps he is not, perhaps he is not so good, half the
time; but he is a luxury, and if you want him you must pay for him,
by not trying to make a drudge of him while he is all his lifetime
struggling with the chills and heats of his artistic intermittent
There may have been some lesser interruptions during the talk I have
reported as if it was a set speech, but this was the drift of what I
said and should have said if the other man, in the Review I referred
to, had not seen fit to meddle with the subject, as some fellow
always does, just about the time when I am going to say something
about it. The old Master listened beautifully, except for cutting in
once, as I told you he did. But now he had held in as long as it was
in his nature to contain himself, and must have his say or go off in
an apoplexy, or explode in some way.--I think you're right about the
poets,--he said.--They are to common folks what repeaters are to
ordinary watches. They carry music in their inside arrangements, but
they want to be handled carefully or you put them out of order. And
perhaps you must n't expect them to be quite as good timekeepers as
the professional chronometer watches that make a specialty of being
exact within a few seconds a month. They think too much of
themselves. So does everybody that considers himself as having a
right to fall back on what he calls his idiosyncrasy. Yet a man has
such a right, and it is no easy thing to adjust the private claim to
the fair public demand on him. Suppose you are subject to tic
douloureux, for instance. Every now and then a tiger that nobody can
see catches one side of your face between his jaws and holds on till
he is tired and lets go. Some concession must be made to you on that
score, as everybody can see. It is fair to give you a seat that is
not in the draught, and your friends ought not to find fault with you
if you do not care to join a party that is going on a sleigh-ride.
Now take a poet like Cowper. He had a mental neuralgia, a great deal
worse in many respects than tic douloureux confined to the face. It
was well that he was sheltered and relieved, by the cares of kind
friends, especially those good women, from as many of the burdens of
life as they could lift off from him. I am fair to the poets,--don't
you agree that I am?
Why, yes,--I said,--you have stated the case fairly enough, a good
deal as I should have put it myself.
Now, then,--the Master continued,--I 'll tell you what is necessary
to all these artistic idiosyncrasies to bring them into good square
human relations outside of the special province where their ways
differ from those of other people. I am going to illustrate what I
mean by a comparison. I don't know, by the way, but you would be
disposed to think and perhaps call me a wine-bibber on the strength
of the freedom with which I deal with that fluid for the purposes of
illustration. But I make mighty little use of it, except as it
furnishes me an image now and then, as it did, for that matter, to
the Disciples and their Master. In my younger days they used to
bring up the famous old wines, the White-top, the Juno, the Eclipse,
the Essex Junior, and the rest, in their old cobwebbed, dusty
bottles. The resurrection of one of these old sepulchred dignitaries
had something of solemnity about it; it was like the disinterment of
a king; the bringing to light of the Royal Martyr King Charles I.,
for instance, that Sir Henry Halford gave such an interesting account
of. And the bottle seemed to inspire a personal respect; it was
wrapped in a napkin and borne tenderly and reverently round to the
guests, and sometimes a dead silence went before the first gush of
its amber flood, and
"The boldest held his breath
For a time."
But nowadays the precious juice of a long-dead vintage is transferred
carefully into a cut-glass decanter, and stands side by side with the
sherry from a corner grocery, which looks just as bright and
apparently thinks just as well of itself. The old historic Madeiras,
which have warmed the periods of our famous rhetoricians of the past
and burned in the impassioned eloquence of our earlier political
demigods, have nothing to mark them externally but a bit of thread,
it may be, round the neck of the decanter, or a slip of ribbon, pink
on one of them and blue on another.
Go to a London club,--perhaps I might find something nearer home that
would serve my turn,--but go to a London club, and there you will see
the celebrities all looking alike modern, all decanted off from their
historic antecedents and their costume of circumstance into the
every-day aspect of the gentleman of common cultivated society. That
is Sir Coeur de Lion Plantagenet in the mutton-chop whiskers and the
plain gray suit; there is the Laureate in a frockcoat like your own,
and the leader of the House of Commons in a necktie you do not envy.
That is the kind of thing you want to take the nonsense out of you.
If you are not decanted off from yourself every few days or weeks,
you will think it sacrilege to brush a cobweb from your cork by and
by. O little fool, that has published a little book full of little
poems or other sputtering tokens of an uneasy condition, how I love
you for the one soft nerve of special sensibility that runs through
your exiguous organism, and the one phosphorescent particle in your
unilluminated intelligence! But if you don't leave your spun-sugar
confectionery business once in a while, and come out among lusty
men,--the bristly, pachydermatous fellows that hew out the highways
for the material progress of society, and the broad-shouldered, out-
of-door men that fight for the great prizes of life,--you will come
to think that the spun-sugar business is the chief end of man, and
begin to feel and look as if you believed yourself as much above
common people as that personage of whom Tourgueneff says that "he had
the air of his own statue erected by national subscription."
--The Master paused and fell into a deep thinking fit, as he does
sometimes. He had had his own say, it is true, but he had
established his character as a listener to my own perfect
satisfaction, for I, too, was conscious of having preached with a
--I am always troubled when I think of my very limited mathematical
capacities. It seems as if every well-organized mind should be able
to handle numbers and quantities through their symbols to an
indefinite extent; and yet, I am puzzled by what seems to a clever
boy with a turn for calculation as plain as counting his fingers. I
don't think any man feels well grounded in knowledge unless he has a
good basis of mathematical certainties, and knows how to deal with
them and apply them to every branch of knowledge where they can come
in to advantage.
Our Young Astronomer is known for his mathematical ability, and I
asked him what he thought was the difficulty in the minds that are
weak in that particular direction, while they may be of remarkable
force in other provinces of thought, as is notoriously the case with
some men of great distinction in science.
The young man smiled and wrote a few letters and symbols on a piece
of paper.---Can you see through that at once?--he said.
I puzzled over it for some minutes and gave it up.
--He said, as I returned it to him, You have heard military men say
that such a person had an eye for country, have n't you? One man
will note all the landmarks, keep the points of compass in his head,
observe how the streams run, in short, carry a map in his brain of
any region that he has marched or galloped through. Another man
takes no note of any of these things; always follows somebody else's
lead when he can, and gets lost if he is left to himself; a mere owl
in daylight. Just so some men have an eye for an equation, and would
read at sight the one that you puzzled over. It is told of Sir Isaac
Newton that he required no demonstration of the propositions in
Euclid's Geometry, but as soon as he had read the enuciation the
solution or answer was plain at once. The power may be cultivated,
but I think it is to a great degree a natural gift, as is the eye for
color, as is the ear for music.
--I think I could read equations readily enough,--I said,--if I could
only keep my attention fixed on them; and I think I could keep my
attention on them if I were imprisoned in a thinking-cell, such as
the Creative Intelligence shapes for its studio when at its divinest
The young man's lustrous eyes opened very widely as he asked me to
explain what I meant.
--What is the Creator's divinest work?--I asked.
--Is there anything more divine than the sun; than a sun with its
planets revolving about it, warming them, lighting them, and giving
conscious life to the beings that move on them?
--You agree, then, that conscious life is the grand aim and end of
all this vast mechanism. Without life that could feel and enjoy, the
splendors and creative energy would all be thrown away. You know
Harvey's saying, omnia animalia ex ovo,--all animals come from an
egg. You ought to know it, for the great controversy going on about
spontaneous generation has brought it into special prominence lately.
Well, then, the ovum, the egg, is, to speak in human phrase, the
Creator's more private and sacred studio, for his magnum opus. Now,
look at a hen's egg, which is a convenient one to study, because it
is large enough and built solidly enough to look at and handle
easily. That would be the form I would choose for my thinking-cell.
Build me an oval with smooth, translucent walls, and put me in the
centre of it with Newton's "Principia" or Kant's "Kritik," and I
think I shall develop "an eye for an equation," as you call it, and a
capacity for an abstraction.
But do tell me,--said the Astronomer, a little incredulously,--what
there is in that particular form which is going to help you to be a
mathematician or a metaphysician?
--It is n't help I want, it is removing hindrances. I don't want to
see anything to draw off my attention. I don't want a cornice, or an
angle, or anything but a containing curve. I want diffused light and
no single luminous centre to fix my eye, and so distract my mind from
its one object of contemplation. The metaphysics of attention have
hardly been sounded to their depths. The mere fixing the look on any
single object for a long time may produce very strange effects.
Gibbon's well-known story of the monks of Mount Athos and their
contemplative practice is often laughed over, but it has a meaning.
They were to shut the door of the cell, recline the beard and chin on
the breast, and contemplate the abdominal centre.
"At first all will be dark and comfortless; but if you persevere day
and night, you will feel an ineffable joy; and no sooner has the soul
discovered the place of the heart, than it is involved in a mystic
and ethereal light." And Mr. Braid produces absolute anaesthesia,
so that surgical operations can be performed without suffering to the
patient, only by making him fix his eyes and his mind on a single
object; and Newton is said to have said, as you remember, "I keep the
subject constantly before me, and wait till the first dawnings open
slowly by little and little into a full and clear light." These are
different, but certainly very wonderful, instances of what can be
done by attention. But now suppose that your mind is in its nature
discursive, erratic, subject to electric attractions and repulsions,
volage; it may be impossible for you to compel your attention except
by taking away all external disturbances. I think the poets have an
advantage and a disadvantage as compared with the steadier-going
people. Life is so vivid to the poet, that he is too eager to seize
and exhaust its multitudinous impressions. Like Sindbad in the
valley of precious stones, he wants to fill his pockets with
diamonds, but, lo! there is a great ruby like a setting sun in its
glory, and a sapphire that, like Bryant's blue gentian, seems to have
dropped from the cerulean walls of heaven, and a nest of pearls that
look as if they might be unhatched angel's eggs, and so he hardly
knows what to seize, and tries for too many, and comes out of the
enchanted valley with more gems than he can carry, and those that he
lets fall by the wayside we call his poems. You may change the image
a thousand ways to show you how hard it is to make a mathematician or
a logician out of a poet. He carries the tropics with him wherever
he goes; he is in the true sense felius naturae, and Nature tempts
him, as she tempts a child walking through a garden where all the
finest fruits are hanging over him and dropping round him, where
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon (his) mouth do crush their wine,
The nectarine and curious peach,
Into (his) hands themselves do reach;
and he takes a bite out of the sunny side of this and the other, and,
ever stimulated and never satisfied, is hurried through the garden,
and, before he knows it, finds himself at an iron gate which opens
outward, and leaves the place he knows and loves
--For one he will perhaps soon learn to love and know better,--said
the Master.---But I can help you out with another comparison, not
quite so poetical as yours. Why did not you think of a railway-
station, where the cars stop five minutes for refreshments? Is n't
that a picture of the poet's hungry and hurried feast at the banquet
of life? The traveller flings himself on the bewildering miscellany
of delicacies spread before him, the various tempting forms of
ambrosia and seducing draughts of nectar, with the same eager hurry
and restless ardor that you describe in the poet. Dear me! If it
wasn't for All aboard! that summons of the deaf conductor which tears
one away from his half-finished sponge-cake and coffee, how I, who do
not call myself a poet, but only a questioner, should have enjoyed a
good long stop--say a couple of thousand years--at this way-station
on the great railroad leading to the unknown terminus!
--You say you are not a poet,--I said, after a little pause, in which
I suppose both of us were thinking where the great railroad would
land us after carrying us into the dark tunnel, the farther end of
which no man has seen and taken a return train to bring us news about
it,--you say you are not a poet, and yet it seems to me you have some
of the elements which go to make one.
--I don't think you mean to flatter me,--the Master answered,--and,
what is more, for I am not afraid to be honest with you, I don't
think you do flatter me. I have taken the inventory of my faculties
as calmly as if I were an appraiser. I have some of the qualities,
perhaps I may say many of the qualities, that make a man a poet, and
yet I am not one. And in the course of a pretty wide experience of
men--and women--(the Master sighed, I thought, but perhaps I was
mistaken)--I have met a good many poets who were not rhymesters and a
good many rhymesters who were not poets. So I am only one of the
Voiceless, that I remember one of you singers had some verses about.
I think there is a little music in me, but it has not found a voice,
and it never will. If I should confess the truth, there is no mere
earthly immortality that I envy so much as the poet's. If your name
is to live at all, it is so much more to have it live in people's
hearts than only in their brains! I don't know that one's eyes fill
with tears when he thinks of the famous inventor of logarithms, but
song of Burns's or a hymn of Charles Wesley's goes straight to your
heart, and you can't help loving both of them, the sinner as well as
the saint. The works of other men live, but their personality dies
out of their labors; the poet, who reproduces himself in his
creation, as no other artist does or can, goes down to posterity with
all his personality blended with whatever is imperishable in his
song. We see nothing of the bees that built the honeycomb and stored
it with its sweets, but we can trace the veining in the wings of
insects that flitted through the forests which are now coal-beds,
kept unchanging in the amber that holds them; and so the passion of
Sappho, the tenderness of Simonides, the purity of holy George
Herbert, the lofty contemplativeness of James Shirley, are before us
to-day as if they were living, in a few tears of amber verse. It
seems, when one reads,
"Sweet day! so cool, so calm, so bright,"
"The glories of our birth and state,"
as if it were not a very difficult matter to gain immortality,--such
an immortality at least as a perishable language can give. A single
lyric is enough, if one can only find in his soul and finish in his
intellect one of those jewels fit to sparkle "on the stretched
forefinger of all time." A coin, a ring, a string of verses. These
last, and hardly anything else does. Every century is an overloaded
ship that must sink at last with most of its cargo. The small
portion of its crew that get on board the new vessel which takes them
off don't pretend to save a great many of the bulky articles. But
they must not and will not leave behind the hereditary jewels of the
race; and if you have found and cut a diamond, were it only a spark
with a single polished facet, it will stand a better chance of being
saved from the wreck than anything, no matter what, that wants much
room for stowage.
The pyramids last, it is true, but most of them have forgotten their
builders' names. But the ring of Thothmes III., who reigned some
fourteen hundred years before our era, before Homer sang, before the
Argonauts sailed, before Troy was built, is in the possession of Lord
Ashburnham, and proclaims the name of the monarch who wore it more
than three thousand years ago. The gold coins with the head of
Alexander the Great are some of them so fresh one might think they
were newer than much of the silver currency we were lately handling.
As we have been quoting from the poets this morning, I will follow
the precedent, and give some lines from an epistle of Pope to Addison
after the latter had written, but not yet published, his Dialogue on
Medals. Some of these lines have been lingering in my memory for a
great many years, but I looked at the original the other day and was
so pleased with them that I got them by heart. I think you will say
they are singularly pointed and elegant.
"Ambition sighed; she found it vain to trust
The faithless column and the crumbling bust;
Huge moles, whose shadows stretched from shore to shore,
Their ruins perished, and their place no more!
Convinced, she now contracts her vast design,
And all her triumphs shrink into a coin.
A narrow orb each crowded conquest keeps,
Beneath her palm here sad Judaea weeps;
Now scantier limits the proud arch confine,
And scarce are seen the prostrate Nile or Rhine;
A small Euphrates through the piece is rolled,
And little eagles wave their wings in gold."
It is the same thing in literature. Write half a dozen folios full
of other people's ideas (as all folios are pretty sure to be), and
you serve as ballast to the lower shelves of a library, about as like
to be disturbed as the kentledge in the hold of a ship. Write a
story, or a dozen stories, and your book will be in demand like an
oyster while it is freshly opened, and after tha--. The highways of
literature are spread over with the shells of dead novels, each of
which has been swallowed at a mouthful by the public, and is done
with. But write a volume of poems. No matter if they are all bad
but one, if that one is very good. It will carry your name down to
posterity like the ring of Thothmes, like the coin of Alexander. I
don't suppose one would care a great deal about it a hundred or a
thousand years after he is dead, but I don't feel quite sure. It
seems as if, even in heaven, King David might remember "The Lord is
my Shepherd" with a certain twinge of earthly pleasure. But we don't
know, we don't know.
--What in the world can have become of That Boy and his popgun while
all this somewhat extended sermonizing was going on? I don't wonder
you ask, beloved Reader, and I suppose I must tell you how we got on
so long without interruption. Well, the plain truth is, the
youngster was contemplating his gastric centre, like the monks of
Mount Athos, but in a less happy state of mind than those tranquil
recluses, in consequence of indulgence in the heterogeneous
assortment of luxuries procured with the five-cent piece given him by
the kind-hearted old Master. But yon need not think I am going to
tell you every time his popgun goes off, making a Selah of him
whenever I want to change the subject. Occasionally he was ill-timed
in his artillery practice and ignominiously rebuked, sometimes he was
harmlessly playful and nobody minded him, but every now and then he
came in so apropos that I am morally certain he gets a hint from
somebody who watches the course of the conversation, and means
through him to have a hand in it and stop any of us when we are
getting prosy. But in consequence of That Boy's indiscretion, we
were without a check upon our expansiveness, and ran on in the way
you have observed and may be disposed to find fault with.
One other thing the Master said before we left the table, after our
long talk of that day.
--I have been tempted sometimes,--said he, to envy the immediate
triumphs of the singer. He enjoys all that praise can do for him and
at the very moment of exerting his talent. And the singing women!
Once in a while, in the course of my life, I have found myself in the
midst of a tulip-bed of full-dressed, handsome women in all their
glory, and when some one among them has shaken her gauzy wings, and
sat down before the piano, and then, only giving the keys a soft
touch now and then to support her voice, has warbled some sweet, sad
melody intertwined with the longings or regrets of some tender-
hearted poet, it has seemed to me that so to hush the rustling of the
silks and silence the babble of the buds, as they call the chicks of
a new season, and light up the flame of romance in cold hearts, in
desolate ones, in old burnt-out ones,--like mine, I was going to say,
but I won't, for it isn't so, and you may laugh to hear me say it
isn't so, if you like,--was perhaps better than to be remembered a
few hundred years by a few perfect stanzas, when your gravestone is
standing aslant, and your name is covered over with a lichen as big
as a militia colonel's cockade, and nobody knows or cares enough
about you to scrape it off and set the tipsy old slate-stone upright
--I said nothing in reply to this, for I was thinking of a sweet
singer to whose voice I had listened in its first freshness, and
which is now only an echo in my memory. If any reader of the
periodical in which these conversations are recorded can remember so
far back as the first year of its publication, he will find among the
papers contributed by a friend not yet wholly forgotten a few verses,
lively enough in their way, headed "The Boys." The sweet singer was
one of this company of college classmates, the constancy of whose
friendship deserves a better tribute than the annual offerings,
kindly meant, as they are, which for many years have not been wanting
at their social gatherings. The small company counts many noted
personages on its list, as is well known to those who are interested
in such local matters, but it is not known that every fifth man of
the whole number now living is more or less of a poet,--using that
word with a generous breadth of significance. But it should seem
that the divine gift it implies is more freely dispensed than some
others, for while there are (or were, for one has taken his Last
Degree) eight musical quills, there was but one pair of lips which
could claim any special consecration to vocal melody. Not that one
that should undervalue the half-recitative of doubtful barytones, or
the brilliant escapades of slightly unmanageable falsettos, or the
concentrated efforts of the proprietors of two or three effective
notes, who may be observed lying in wait for them, and coming down on
them with all their might, and the look on their countenances of "I
too am a singer." But the voice that led all, and that all loved to
listen to, the voice that was at once full, rich, sweet, penetrating,
expressive, whose ample overflow drowned all the imperfections and
made up for all the shortcomings of the others, is silent henceforth
forevermore for all earthly listeners.
And these were the lines that one of "The Boys," as they have always
called themselves for ever so many years, read at the first meeting
after the voice which had never failed them was hushed in the
stillness of death.
One memory trembles on our lips
It throbs in every breast;
In tear-dimmed eyes, in mirth's eclipse,
The shadow stands confessed.
O silent voice, that cheered so long
Our manhood's marching day,
Without thy breath of heavenly song,
How weary seems the way!
Vain every pictured phrase to tell
Our sorrowing hearts' desire;
The shattered harp, the broken shell,
The silent unstrung lyre;
For youth was round us while he sang;
It glowed in every tone;
With bridal chimes the echoes rang,
And made the past our own.
O blissful dream! Our nursery joys
We know must have an end,
But love and friendships broken toys
May God's good angels mend!
The cheering smile, the voice of mirth
And laughter's gay surprise
That please the children born of earth,
Why deem that Heaven denies?
Methinks in that refulgent sphere
That knows not sun or moon,
An earth-born saint might long to hear
One verse of "Bonny Doon";
Or walking through the streets of gold
In Heaven's unclouded light,
His lips recall the song of old
And hum "The sky is bright."
And can we smile when thou art dead?
Ah, brothers, even so!
The rose of summer will be red,
In spite of winter's snow.
Thou wouldst not leave us all in gloom
Because thy song is still,
Nor blight the banquet-garland's bloom
With grief's untimely chill.
The sighing wintry winds complain,
The singing bird has flown,--
Hark! heard I not that ringing strain,
That clear celestial tone?
How poor these pallid phrases seem,
How weak this tinkling line,
As warbles through my waking dream
That angel voice of thine!
Thy requiem asks a sweeter lay;
It falters on my tongue;
For all we vainly strive to say,
Thou shouldst thyself have sung!
I fear that I have done injustice in my conversation and my report of
it to a most worthy and promising young man whom I should be very
sorry to injure in any way. Dr. Benjamin Franklin got hold of my
account of my visit to him, and complained that I had made too much
of the expression he used. He did not mean to say that he thought I
was suffering from the rare disease he mentioned, but only that the
color reminded him of it. It was true that he had shown me various
instruments, among them one for exploring the state of a part by
means of a puncture, but he did not propose to make use of it upon my
person. In short, I had colored the story so as to make him look
--I am afraid I did,--I said,--but was n't I colored myself so as to
look ridiculous? I've heard it said that people with the jaundice
see everything yellow; perhaps I saw things looking a little queerly,
with that black and blue spot I could n't account for threatening to
make a colored man and brother of me. But I am sorry if I have done
you any wrong. I hope you won't lose any patients by my making a
little fun of your meters and scopes and contrivances. They seem so
odd to us outside people. Then the idea of being bronzed all over
was such an alarming suggestion. But I did not mean to damage your
business, which I trust is now considerable, and I shall certainly
come to you again if I have need of the services of a physician.
Only don't mention the names of any diseases in English or Latin
before me next time. I dreamed about cutis oenea half the night
after I came to see you.
Dr. Benjamin took my apology very pleasantly. He did not want to be
touchy about it, he said, but he had his way to make in the world,
and found it a little hard at first, as most young men did. People
were afraid to trust them, no matter how much they knew. One of the
old doctors asked him to come in and examine a patient's heart for
him the other day. He went with him accordingly, and when they stood
by the bedside, he offered his stethoscope to the old doctor. The
old doctor took it and put the wrong end to his ear and the other to
the patient's chest, and kept it there about two minutes, looking all
the time as wise as an old owl. Then he, Dr. Benjamin, took it and
applied it properly, and made out where the trouble was in no time at
all. But what was the use of a young man's pretending to know
anything in the presence of an old owl? I saw by their looks, he
said, that they all thought I used the, stethoscope wrong end up, and
was nothing but a 'prentice hand to the old doctor.
--I am much pleased to say that since Dr. Benjamin has had charge of
a dispensary district, and been visiting forty or fifty patients a
day, I have reason to think he has grown a great deal more practical
than when I made my visit to his office. I think I was probably one
of his first patients, and that he naturally made the most of me.
But my second trial was much more satisfactory. I got an ugly cut
from the carving-knife in an affair with a goose of iron constitution
in which I came off second best. I at once adjourned with Dr.
Benjamin to his small office, and put myself in his hands. It was
astonishing to see what a little experience of miscellaneous practice
had done for him. He did not ask me anymore questions about my
hereditary predispositions on the paternal and maternal sides. He
did not examine me with the stethoscope or the laryngoscope. He only
strapped up my cut, and informed me that it would speedily get well
by the "first intention,"--an odd phrase enough, but sounding much
less formidable than cutis oenea.
I am afraid I have had something of the French prejudice which
embodies itself in the maxim "young surgeon, old physician." But a
young physician who has been taught by great masters of the
profession, in ample hospitals, starts in his profession knowing more
than some old doctors have learned in a lifetime. Give him a little
time to get the use of his wits in emergencies, and to know the
little arts that do so much for a patient's comfort,--just as you
give a young sailor time to get his sea-legs on and teach his stomach
to behave itself,--and he will do well enough.
The old Master knows ten times more about this matter and about all
the professions, as he does about everything else, than I do. My
opinion is that he has studied two, if not three, of these
professions in a regular course. I don't know that he has ever
preached, except as Charles Lamb said Coleridge always did, for when
he gets the bit in his teeth he runs away with the conversation, and
if he only took a text his talk would be a sermon; but if he has not
preached, he has made a study of theology, as many laymen do. I know
he has some shelves of medical books in his library, and has ideas on
the subject of the healing art. He confesses to having attended law
lectures and having had much intercourse with lawyers. So he has
something to say on almost any subject that happens to come up. I
told him my story about my visit to the young doctor, and asked him
what he thought of youthful practitioners in general and of Dr.
Benjamin in particular.
I 'll tell you what,--the Master said,--I know something about these
young fellows that come home with their heads full of "science," as
they call it, and stick up their signs to tell people they know how
to cure their headaches and stomach-aches. Science is a first-rate
piece of furniture for a man's upper chamber, if he has common sense
on the ground-floor. But if a man has n't got plenty of good common
sense, the more science he has the worse for his patient.
--I don't know that I see exactly how it is worse for the patient,--I
--Well, I'll tell you, and you'll find it's a mighty simple matter.
When a person is sick, there is always something to be done for him,
and done at once. If it is only to open or shut a window, if it is
only to tell him to keep on doing just what he is doing already, it
wants a man to bring his mind right down to the fact of the present
case and its immediate needs. Now the present case, as the doctor
sees it, is just exactly such a collection of paltry individual facts
as never was before,--a snarl and tangle of special conditions which
it is his business to wind as much thread out of as he can. It is a
good deal as when a painter goes to take the portrait of any sitter
who happens to send for him. He has seen just such noses and just
such eyes and just such mouths, but he never saw exactly such a face
before, and his business is with that and no other person's,--with
the features of the worthy father of a family before him, and not
with the portraits he has seen in galleries or books, or Mr.
Copley's grand pictures of the fine old Tories, or the Apollos and
Jupiters of Greek sculpture. It is the same thing with the patient.
His disease has features of its own; there never was and never will
be another case in all respects exactly like it. If a doctor has
science without common sense, he treats a fever, but not this man's
fever. If he has common sense without science, he treats this man's
fever without knowing the general laws that govern all fevers and all
vital movements. I 'll tell you what saves these last fellows. They
go for weakness whenever they see it, with stimulants and
strengtheners, and they go for overaction, heat, and high pulse, and
the rest, with cooling and reducing remedies. That is three quarters
of medical practice. The other quarter wants science and common
sense too. But the men that have science only, begin too far back,
and, before they get as far as the case in hand, the patient has very
likely gone to visit his deceased relatives. You remember Thomas
Prince's "Chronological History of New England," I suppose? He
begins, you recollect, with Adam, and has to work down five thousand
six hundred and twenty-four years before he gets to the Pilgrim
fathers and the Mayflower. It was all very well, only it did n't
belong there, but got in the way of something else. So it is with
"science" out of place. By far the larger part of the facts of
structure and function you find in the books of anatomy and
physiology have no immediate application to the daily duties of the
practitioner. You must learn systematically, for all that; it is the
easiest way and the only way that takes hold of the memory, except
mere empirical repetition, like that of the handicraftsman. Did you
ever see one of those Japanese figures with the points for
acupuncture marked upon it?
--I had to own that my schooling had left out that piece of
Well, I 'll tell you about it. You see they have a way of pushing
long, slender needles into you for the cure of rheumatism and other
complaints, and it seems there is a choice of spots for the
operation, though it is very strange how little mischief it does in a
good many places one would think unsafe to meddle with. So they had
a doll made, and marked the spots where they had put in needles
without doing any harm. They must have had accidents from sticking
the needles into the wrong places now and then, but I suppose they
did n't say a great deal about those. After a time, say a few
centuries of experience, they had their doll all spotted over with
safe places for sticking in the needles. That is their way of
registering practical knowledge: We, on the other hand, study the
structure of the body as a whole, systematically, and have no
difficulty at all in remembering the track of the great vessels and
nerves, and knowing just what tracks will be safe and what unsafe.
It is just the same thing with the geologists. Here is a man close
by us boring for water through one of our ledges, because somebody
else got water somewhere else in that way; and a person who knows
geology or ought to know it, because he has given his life to it,
tells me he might as well bore there for lager-beer as for water.
--I thought we had had enough of this particular matter, and that I
should like to hear what the Master had to say about the three
professions he knew something about, each compared with the others.
What is your general estimate of doctors, lawyers, and ministers?--
--Wait a minute, till I have got through with your first question,--
said the Master.---One thing at a time. You asked me about the young
doctors, and about our young doctor. They come home tres biens
chausses, as a Frenchman would say, mighty well shod with
professional knowledge. But when they begin walking round among
their poor patients, they don't commonly start with millionnaires,--
they find that their new shoes of scientific acquirements have got to
be broken in just like a pair of boots or brogans. I don't know that
I have put it quite strong enough. Let me try again. You've seen
those fellows at the circus that get up on horseback so big that you
wonder how they could climb into the saddle. But pretty soon they
throw off their outside coat, and the next minute another one, and
then the one under that, and so they keep peeling off one garment
after another till people begin to look queer and think they are
going too far for strict propriety. Well, that is the way a fellow
with a real practical turn serves a good many of his scientific
wrappers, flings 'em off for other people to pick up, and goes right
at the work of curing stomach-aches and all the other little mean
unscientific complaints that make up the larger part of every
doctor's business. I think our Dr. Benjamin is a worthy young man,
and if you are in need of a doctor at any time I hope you will go to
him; and if you come off without harm, I will recommend some other
friend to try him.
--I thought he was going to say he would try him in his own person,
but the Master is not fond of committing himself.
Now, I will answer your other question, he said. The lawyers are the
cleverest men, the ministers are the most learned, and the doctors
are the most sensible.
The lawyers are a picked lot, "first scholars" and the like, but
their business is as unsympathetic as Jack Ketch's. There is nothing
humanizing in their relations with their fellow-creatures. They go
for the side that retains them. They defend the man they know to be
a rogue, and not very rarely throw suspicion on the man they know to
be innocent. Mind you, I am not finding fault with them; every side
of a case has a right to the best statement it admits of; but I say
it does not tend to make them sympathetic. Suppose in a case of
Fever vs. Patient, the doctor should side with either party according
to whether the old miser or his expectant heir was his employer.
Suppose the minister should side with the Lord or the Devil,
according to the salary offered and other incidental advantages,
where the soul of a sinner was in question. You can see what a piece
of work it would make of their sympathies. But the lawyers are
quicker witted than either of the other professions, and abler men
generally. They are good-natured, or, if they quarrel, their
quarrels are above-board. I don't think they are as accomplished as
the ministers, but they have a way of cramming with special knowledge
for a case which leaves a certain shallow sediment of intelligence in
their memories about a good many things. They are apt to talk law in
mixed company, and they have a way of looking round when they make a
point, as if they were addressing a jury, that is mighty aggravating,
as I once had occasion to see when one of 'em, and a pretty famous
one, put me on the witness-stand at a dinner-party once.
The ministers come next in point of talent. They are far more
curious and widely interested outside of their own calling than
either of the other professions. I like to talk with 'em. They are
interesting men, full of good feelings, hard workers, always foremost
in good deeds, and on the whole the most efficient civilizing class,
working downwards from knowledge to ignorance, that is,--not so much
upwards, perhaps,--that we have. The trouble is, that so many of 'em
work in harness, and it is pretty sure to chafe somewhere. They feed
us on canned meats mostly. They cripple our instincts and reason,
and give us a crutch of doctrine. I have talked with a great many of
'em of all sorts of belief, and I don't think they are quite so easy
in their minds, the greater number of them; nor so clear in their
convictions, as one would think to hear 'em lay down the law in the
pulpit. They used to lead the intelligence of their parishes; now
they do pretty well if they keep up with it, and they are very apt to
lag behind it. Then they must have a colleague. The old minister
thinks he can hold to his old course, sailing right into the wind's
eye of human nature, as straight as that famous old skipper John
Bunyan; the young minister falls off three or four points and catches
the breeze that left the old man's sails all shivering. By and by
the congregation will get ahead of him, and then it must, have
another new skipper. The priest holds his own pretty well; the
minister is coming down every generation nearer and nearer to the
common level of the useful citizen,--no oracle at all, but a man of
more than average moral instincts, who, if he knows anything, knows
how little he knows. The ministers are good talkers, only the
struggle between nature and grace makes some of 'em a little awkward
occasionally. The women do their best to spoil 'em, as they do the
poets; you find it very pleasant to be spoiled, no doubt; so do they.
Now and then one of 'em goes over the dam; no wonder, they're always
in the rapids.
By this time our three ladies had their faces all turned toward the
speaker, like the weathercocks in a northeaster, and I thought it
best to switch off the talk on to another rail.
How about the doctors?--I said.
--Theirs is the least learned of the professions, in this country at
least. They have not half the general culture of the lawyers, nor a
quarter of that of the ministers. I rather think, though, they are
more agreeable to the common run of people than the men with black
coats or the men with green bags. People can swear before 'em if
they want to, and they can't very well before ministers. I don't
care whether they want to swear or not, they don't want to be on
their good behavior. Besides, the minister has a little smack of the
sexton about him; he comes when people are in extremis, but they
don't send for him every time they make a slight moral slip, tell a
lie for instance, or smuggle a silk dress through the customhouse;
but they call in the doctor when a child is cutting a tooth or gets a
splinter in its finger. So it does n't mean much to send for him,
only a pleasant chat about the news of the day; for putting the baby
to rights does n't take long. Besides, everybody does n't like to
talk about the next world; people are modest in their desires, and
find this world as good as they deserve; but everybody loves to talk
physic. Everybody loves to hear of strange cases; people are eager
to tell the doctor of the wonderful cures they have heard of; they
want to know what is the matter with somebody or other who is said to
be suffering from "a complication of diseases," and above all to get
a hard name, Greek or Latin, for some complaint which sounds
altogether too commonplace in plain English. If you will only call a
headache a Cephalgia, it acquires dignity at once, and a patient
becomes rather proud of it. So I think doctors are generally welcome
in most companies.
In old times, when people were more afraid of the Devil and of
witches than they are now, they liked to have a priest or a minister
somewhere near to scare 'em off; but nowadays, if you could find an
old woman that would ride round the room on a broomstick, Barnum
would build an amphitheatre to exhibit her in; and if he could come
across a young imp, with hoofs, tail, and budding horns, a lineal
descendant of one of those "daemons" which the good people of
Gloucester fired at, and were fired at by "for the best part of a
month together" in the year 1692, the, great showman would have him
at any cost for his museum or menagerie. Men are cowards, sir, and
are driven by fear as the sovereign motive. Men are idolaters, and
want something to look at and kiss and hug, or throw themselves down
before; they always did, they always will; and if you don't make it
of wood, you must make it of words, which are just as much used for
idols as promissory notes are used for values. The ministers have a
hard time of it without bell and book and holy water; they are
dismounted men in armor since Luther cut their saddle-girths, and you
can see they are quietly taking off one piece of iron after another
until some of the best of 'em are fighting the devil (not the
zoological Devil with the big D) with the sword of the Spirit, and
precious little else in the way of weapons of offence or defence.
But we couldn't get on without the spiritual brotherhood, whatever
became of our special creeds. There is a genius for religion, just
as there is for painting or sculpture. It is half-sister to the
genius for music, and has some of the features which remind us of
earthly love. But it lifts us all by its mere presence. To see a
good man and hear his voice once a week would be reason enough for
building churches and pulpits. The Master stopped all at once, and
after about half a minute laughed his pleasant laugh.
What is it?--I asked him.
I was thinking of the great coach and team that is carrying us fast
enough, I don't know but too fast, somewhere or other. The D. D.'s
used to be the leaders, but now they are the wheel-horses. It's
pretty hard to tell how much they pull, but we know they can hold
back like the
--When we're going down hill,--I said, as neatly as if I had been a
High-Church curate trained to snap at the last word of the response,
so that you couldn't wedge in the tail of a comma between the end of
the congregation's closing syllable and the beginning of the next
petition. They do it well, but it always spoils my devotion. To
save my life, I can't help watching them, as I watch to see a duck
dive at the flash of a gun, and that is not what I go to church for.
It is a juggler's trick, and there is no more religion in it than in
catching a ball on the fly.
I was looking at our Scheherezade the other day, and thinking what a
pity it was that she had never had fair play in the world. I wish I
knew more of her history. There is one way of learning it,--making
love to her. I wonder whether she would let me and like it. It is
an absurd thing, and I ought not to confess, but I tell you and you
only, Beloved, my heart gave a perceptible jump when it heard the
whisper of that possibility overhead! Every day has its ebb and
flow, but such a thought as that is like one of those tidal waves
they talk about, that rolls in like a great wall and overtops and
drowns out all your landmarks, and you, too, if you don't mind what
you are about and stand ready to run or climb or swim. Not quite so
bad as that, though, this time. I take an interest in our
Scheherezade. I am glad she did n't smile on the pipe and the
Bohemian-looking fellow that finds the best part of his life in
sucking at it. A fine thing, isn't it; for a young woman to marry a
man who will hold her
"Something better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse,"
but not quite so good as his meerschaum? It is n't for me to throw
stones, though, who have been a Nicotian a good deal more than half
my days. Cigar-stump out now, and consequently have become very
bitter on more persevering sinners. I say I take an interest in our
Scheherezade, but I rather think it is more paternal than anything
else, though my heart did give that jump. It has jumped a good many
times without anything very remarkable coming of it.
This visit to the Observatory is going to bring us all, or most of
us, together in a new way, and it wouldn't be very odd if some of us
should become better acquainted than we ever have been. There is a
chance for the elective affinities. What tremendous forces they are,
if two subjects of them come within range! There lies a bit of iron.
All the dynamic agencies of the universe are pledged to hold it just
in that position, and there it will lie until it becomes a heap of
red-brown rust. But see, I hold a magnet to it,--it looks to you
like just such a bit of iron as the other,--and lo! it leaves them
all,--the tugging of the mighty earth; of the ghostly moon that walks
in white, trailing the snaky waves of the ocean after her; of the
awful sun, twice as large as a sphere that the whole orbit of the
moon would but just girdle,--it leaves the wrestling of all their
forces, which are at a dead lock with each other, all fighting for
it, and springs straight to the magnet. What a lucky thing it is for
well-conducted persons that the maddening elective affinities don't
come into play in full force very often!
I suppose I am making a good deal more of our prospective visit than
it deserves. It must be because I have got it into my head that we
are bound to have some kind of sentimental outbreak amongst us, and
that this will give a chance for advances on the part of anybody
disposed in that direction. A little change of circumstance often
hastens on a movement that has been long in preparation. A chemist
will show you a flask containing a clear liquid; he will give it a
shake or two, and the whole contents of the flask will become solid
in an instant. Or you may lay a little heap of iron-filings on a
sheet of paper with a magnet beneath it, and they will be quiet
enough as they are, but give the paper a slight jar and the specks of
metal will suddenly find their way to the north or the south pole of
the magnet and take a definite shape not unpleasing to contemplate,
and curiously illustrating the laws of attraction, antagonism, and
average, by which the worlds, conscious and unconscious, are alike
governed. So with our little party, with any little party of persons
who have got used to each other; leave them undisturbed and they
might remain in a state of equilibrium forever; but let anything give
them a shake or a jar, and the long-striving but hindered affinities
come all at once into play and finish the work of a year in five
We were all a good deal excited by the anticipation of this visit.
The Capitalist, who for the most part keeps entirely to himself,
seemed to take an interest in it and joined the group in the parlor
who were making arrangements as to the details of the eventful
expedition, which was very soon to take place. The Young Girl was
full of enthusiasm; she is one of those young persons, I think, who
are impressible, and of necessity depressible when their nervous
systems are overtasked, but elastic, recovering easily from mental
worries and fatigues, and only wanting a little change of their
conditions to get back their bloom and cheerfulness. I could not
help being pleased to see how much of the child was left in her,
after all the drudgery she had been through. What is there that
youth will not endure and triumph over? Here she was; her story for
the week was done in good season; she had got rid of her villain by a
new and original catastrophe; she had received a sum of money for an
extra string of verses,--painfully small, it is true, but it would
buy her a certain ribbon she wanted for the great excursion; and now
her eyes sparkled so that I forgot how tired and hollow they
sometimes looked when she had been sitting up half the night over her
The morning of the day we had looked forward to--promised as good an
evening as we could wish. The Capitalist, whose courteous and bland
demeanor would never have suggested the thought that he was a robber
and an enemy of his race, who was to be trampled underfoot by the
beneficent regenerators of the social order as preliminary to the
universal reign of peace on earth and good-will to men, astonished us
all with a proposal to escort the three ladies and procure a carriage
for their conveyance. The Lady thanked him in a very cordial way,
but said she thought nothing of the walk. The Landlady looked
disappointed at this answer. For her part she was on her legs all
day and should be glad enough to ride, if so be he was going to have
a carriage at any rate. It would be a sight pleasanter than to
trudge afoot, but she would n't have him go to the expense on her
account. Don't mention it, madam,--r--said the Capitalist, in a
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