The Complete PG Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (The Physician and Poet)
Part 13 out of 51
generous glow of enthusiasm. As for the Young Girl, she did not
often get a chance for a drive, and liked the idea of it for its own
sake, as children do, and she insisted that the Lady should go in the
carriage with her. So it was settled that the Capitalist should take
the three ladies in a carriage, and the rest of us go on foot.
The evening behaved as it was bound to do on so momentous an
occasion. The Capitalist was dressed with almost suspicious nicety.
We pedestrians could not help waiting to see them off, and I thought
he handed the ladies into the carriage with the air of a French
I walked with Dr. Benjamin and That Boy, and we had to keep the
little imp on the trot a good deal of the way in order not to be too
long behind the carriage party. The Member of the Haouse walked with
our two dummies,--I beg their pardon, I mean the Register of Deeds
and the Salesman.
The Man of Letters, hypothetically so called, walked by himself,
smoking a short pipe which was very far from suggesting the spicy
breezes that blow soft from Ceylon's isle.
I suppose everybody who reads this paper has visited one or more
observatories, and of course knows all about them. But as it may
hereafter be translated into some foreign tongue and circulated among
barbarous, but rapidly improving people, people who have as yet no
astronomers among them, it may be well to give a little notion of
what kind of place an observatory is.
To begin then: a deep and solid stone foundation is laid in the
earth, and a massive pier of masonry is built up on it. A heavy
block of granite forms the summit of this pier, and on this block
rests the equatorial telescope. Around this structure a circular
tower is built, with two or more floors which come close up to the
pier, but do not touch it at any point. It is crowned with a
hemispherical dome, which, I may remark, half realizes the idea of my
egg-shell studio. This dome is cleft from its base to its summit by
a narrow, ribbon-like opening, through which is seen the naked sky.
It revolves on cannon-balls, so easily that a single hand can move
it, and thus the opening may be turned towards any point of the
compass. As the telescope can be raised or depressed so as to be
directed to any elevation from the horizon to the zenith, and turned
around the entire circle with the dome, it can be pointed to any part
of the heavens. But as the star or other celestial object is always
apparently moving, in consequence of the real rotatory movement of
the earth, the telescope is made to follow it automatically by an
ingenious clock-work arrangement. No place, short of the temple of
the living God, can be more solemn. The jars of the restless life
around it do not disturb the serene intelligence of the half-
reasoning apparatus. Nothing can stir the massive pier but the
shocks that shake the solid earth itself. When an earthquake thrills
the planet, the massive turret shudders with the shuddering rocks on
which it rests, but it pays no heed to the wildest tempest, and while
the heavens are convulsed and shut from the eye of the far-seeing
instrument it waits without a tremor for the blue sky to come back.
It is the type of the true and steadfast man of the Roman poet, whose
soul remains unmoved while the firmament cracks and tumbles about
him. It is the material image of the Christian; his heart resting on
the Rock of Ages, his eye fixed on the brighter world above.
I did not say all this while we were looking round among these
wonders, quite new to many of us. People don't talk in straight-off
sentences like that. They stumble and stop, or get interrupted,
change a word, begin again, miss connections of verbs and nouns, and
so on, till they blunder out their meaning. But I did let fall a
word or two, showing the impression the celestial laboratory produced
upon me. I rather think I must own to the "Rock of Ages" comparison.
Thereupon the "Man of Letters," so called, took his pipe from his
mouth, and said that he did n't go in "for sentiment and that sort of
thing. Gush was played out."
The Member of the Haouse, who, as I think, is not wanting in that
homely good sense which one often finds in plain people from the
huckleberry districts, but who evidently supposes the last speaker to
be what he calls "a tahlented mahn," looked a little puzzled. My
remark seemed natural and harmless enough to him, I suppose, but I
had been distinctly snubbed, and the Member of the Haouse thought I
must defend myself, as is customary in the deliberative body to which
he belongs, when one gentleman accuses another gentleman of mental
weakness or obliquity. I could not make up my mind to oblige him at
that moment by showing fight. I suppose that would have pleased my
assailant, as I don't think he has a great deal to lose, and might
have made a little capital out of me if he could have got a laugh out
of the Member or either of the dummies,--I beg their pardon again, I
mean the two undemonstrative boarders. But I will tell you, Beloved,
just what I think about this matter.
We poets, you know, are much given to indulging in sentiment, which
is a mode of consciousness at a discount just now with the new
generation of analysts who are throwing everything into their
crucibles. Now we must not claim too much for sentiment. It does
not go a great way in deciding questions of arithmetic, or algebra,
or geometry. Two and two will undoubtedly make four, irrespective of
the emotions or other idiosyncrasies of the calculator; and the three
angles of a triangle insist on being equal to two right angles, in
the face of the most impassioned rhetoric or the most inspired verse.
But inasmuch as religion and law and the whole social order of
civilized society, to say nothing of literature and art, are so
founded on and pervaded by sentiment that they would all go to pieces
without it, it is a word not to be used too lightly in passing
judgment, as if it were an element to be thrown out or treated with
small consideration. Reason may be the lever, but sentiment gives
you the fulcrum and the place to stand on if you want to move the
world. Even "sentimentality," which is sentiment overdone, is better
than that affectation of superiority to human weakness which is only
tolerable as one of the stage properties of full-blown dandyism, and
is, at best, but half-blown cynicism; which participle and noun you
can translate, if you happen to remember the derivation of the last
of them, by a single familiar word. There is a great deal of false
sentiment in the world, as there is of bad logic and erroneous
doctrine; but--it is very much less disagreeable to hear a young poet
overdo his emotions, or even deceive himself about them, than to hear
a caustic-epithet flinger repeating such words as "sentimentality"
and "entusymusy,"--one of the least admirable of Lord Byron's
bequests to our language,--for the purpose of ridiculing him into
silence. An overdressed woman is not so pleasing as she might be,
but at any rate she is better than the oil of vitriol squirter, whose
profession it is to teach young ladies to avoid vanity by spoiling
their showy silks and satins.
The Lady was the first of our party who was invited to look through
the equatorial. Perhaps this world had proved so hard to her that
she was pained to think that other worlds existed, to be homes of
suffering and sorrow. Perhaps she was thinking it would be a happy
change when she should leave this dark planet for one of those
brighter spheres. She sighed, at any rate, but thanked the Young
Astronomer for the beautiful sights he had shown her, and gave way to
the next comer, who was That Boy, now in a state of irrepressible
enthusiasm to see the Man in the Moon. He was greatly disappointed
at not making out a colossal human figure moving round among the
shining summits and shadowy ravines of the "spotty globe."
The Landlady came next and wished to see the moon also, in preference
to any other object. She was astonished at the revelations of the
powerful telescope. Was there any live creatures to be seen on the
moon? she asked. The Young Astronomer shook his head, smiling a
little at the question.--Was there any meet'n'-houses? There was no
evidence, he said, that the moon was inhabited. As there did not
seem to be either air or water on its surface, the inhabitants would
have a rather hard time of it, and if they went to meeting the
sermons would be apt to be rather dry. If there were a building on
it as big as York minster, as big as the Boston Coliseum, the great
telescopes like Lord Rosse's would make it out. But it seemed to be
a forlorn place; those who had studied it most agreed in considering
it a "cold, crude, silent, and desolate" ruin of nature, without the
possibility, if life were on it, of articulate speech, of music, even
of sound. Sometimes a greenish tint was seen upon its surface, which
might have been taken for vegetation, but it was thought not
improbably to be a reflection from the vast forests of South America.
The ancients had a fancy, some of them, that the face of the moon was
a mirror in which the seas and shores of the earth were imaged. Now
we know the geography of the side toward us about as well as that of
Asia, better than that of Africa. The Astronomer showed them one of
the common small photographs of the moon. He assured them that he
had received letters inquiring in all seriousness if these alleged
lunar photographs were not really taken from a peeled orange. People
had got angry with him for laughing at them for asking such a
question. Then he gave them an account of the famous moon-hoax which
came out, he believed, in 1835. It was full of the most bare-faced
absurdities, yet people swallowed it all, and even Arago is said to
have treated it seriously as a thing that could not well be true, for
Mr. Herschel would have certainly notified him of these marvellous
discoveries. The writer of it had not troubled himself to invent
probabilities, but had borrowed his scenery from the Arabian Nights
and his lunar inhabitants from Peter Wilkins.
After this lecture the Capitalist stepped forward and applied his eye
to the lens. I suspect it to have been shut most of the time, for I
observe a good many elderly people adjust the organ of vision to any
optical instrument in that way. I suppose it is from the instinct of
protection to the eye, the same instinct as that which makes the raw
militia-man close it when he pulls the, trigger of his musket the
first time. He expressed himself highly gratified, however, with
what he saw, and retired from the instrument to make room for the
She threw her hair back and took her position at the instrument.
Saint Simeon Stylites the Younger explained the wonders of the moon
to her,--Tycho and the grooves radiating from it, Kepler and
Copernicus with their craters and ridges, and all the most brilliant
shows of this wonderful little world. I thought he was more diffuse
and more enthusiastic in his descriptions than he had been with the
older members of the party. I don't doubt the old gentleman who
lived so long on the top of his pillar would have kept a pretty
sinner (if he could have had an elevator to hoist her up to him)
longer than he would have kept her grandmother. These young people
are so ignorant, you know. As for our Scheherezade, her delight was
unbounded, and her curiosity insatiable. If there were any living
creatures there, what odd things they must be. They could n't have
any lungs, nor any hearts. What a pity! Did they ever die? How
could they expire if they didn't breathe? Burn up? No air to burn
in. Tumble into some of those horrid pits, perhaps, and break all to
bits. She wondered how the young people there liked it, or whether
there were any young people there; perhaps nobody was young and
nobody was old, but they were like mummies all of them--what an idea
--two mummies making love to each other! So she went on in a
rattling, giddy kind of way, for she was excited by the strange scene
in which she found herself, and quite astonished the Young Astronomer
with her vivacity. All at once she turned to him.
Will you show me the double star you said I should see?
With the greatest pleasure,--he said, and proceeded to wheel the
ponderous dome, and then to adjust the instrument, I think to the one
in Andromeda, or that in Cygnus, but I should not know one of them
from the other.
How beautiful!--she said as she looked at the wonderful object.---One
is orange red and one is emerald green.
The young man made an explanation in which he said something about
Goodness!--exclaimed the Landlady.---What! complimentary to our
Her wits must have been a good deal confused by the strange sights of
the evening. She had seen tickets marked complimentary, she
remembered, but she could not for the life of her understand why our
party should be particularly favored at a celestial exhibition like
this. On the whole, she questioned inwardly whether it might not be
some subtle pleasantry, and smiled, experimentally, with a note of
interrogation in the smile, but, finding no encouragement, allowed
her features to subside gradually as if nothing had happened. I saw
all this as plainly as if it had all been printed in great-primer
type, instead of working itself out in her features. I like to see
other people muddled now and then, because my own occasional dulness
is relieved by a good solid background of stupidity in my neighbors.
--And the two revolve round each other?--said the Young Girl.
--Yes,--he answered,--two suns, a greater and a less, each shining,
but with a different light, for the other.
--How charming! It must be so much pleasanter than to be alone in
such a great empty space! I should think one would hardly care to
shine if its light wasted itself in the monstrous solitude of the
sky. Does not a single star seem very lonely to you up there?
--Not more lonely than I am myself,--answered the Young Astronomer.
--I don't know what there was in those few words, but I noticed that
for a minute or two after they, were uttered I heard the ticking of
the clock-work that moved the telescope as clearly as if we had all
been holding our breath, and listening for the music of the spheres.
The Young Girl kept her eye closely applied to the eye-piece of the
telescope a very long time, it seemed to me. Those double stars
interested her a good deal, no doubt. When she looked off from the
glass I thought both her eyes appeared very much as if they had been
a little strained, for they were suffused and glistening. It may be
that she pitied the lonely young man.
I know nothing in the world tenderer than the pity that a kind-
hearted young girl has for a young man who feels lonely. It is true
that these dear creatures are all compassion for every form of human
woe, and anxious to alleviate all human misfortunes. They will go to
Sunday-schools through storms their brothers are afraid of, to teach
the most unpleasant and intractable classes of little children the
age of Methuselah and the dimensions of Og the King of Bashan's
bedstead. They will stand behind a table at a fair all day until
they are ready to drop, dressed in their prettiest clothes and their
sweetest smiles, and lay hands upon you, like--so many Lady
Potiphars,--perfectly correct ones, of course,--to make you buy what
you do not want, at prices which you cannot afford; all this as
cheerfully as if it were not martyrdom to them as well as to you.
Such is their love for all good objects, such their eagerness to
sympathize with all their suffering fellow-creatures! But there is
nothing they pity as they pity a lonely young man.
I am sure, I sympathize with her in this instance. To see a pale
student burning away, like his own midnight lamp, with only dead
men's hands to hold, stretched out to him from the sepulchres of
books, and dead men's souls imploring him from their tablets to warm
them over again just for a little while in a human consciousness,
when all this time there are soft, warm, living hands that would ask
nothing better than to bring the blood back into those cold thin
fingers, and gently caressing natures that would wind all their
tendrils about the unawakened heart which knows so little of itself,
is pitiable enough and would be sadder still if we did not have the
feeling that sooner or later the pale student will be pretty sure to
feel the breath of a young girl against his cheek as she looks over
his shoulder; and that he will come all at once to an illuminated
page in his book that never writer traced in characters, and never
printer set up in type, and never binder enclosed within his covers!
But our young man seems farther away from life than any student whose
head is bent downwards over his books. His eyes are turned away from
all human things. How cold the moonlight is that falls upon his
forehead, and how white he looks in it! Will not the rays strike
through to his brain at last, and send him to a narrower cell than
this egg-shell dome which is his workshop and his prison?
I cannot say that the Young Astronomer seemed particularly impressed
with a sense of his miserable condition. He said he was lonely, it
is true, but he said it in a manly tone, and not as if he were
repining at the inevitable condition of his devoting himself to that
particular branch of science. Of course, he is lonely, the most
lonely being that lives in the midst of our breathing world. If he
would only stay a little longer with us when we get talking; but he
is busy almost always either in observation or with his calculations
and studies, and when the nights are fair loses so much sleep that he
must make it up by day. He wants contact with human beings. I wish
he would change his seat and come round and sit by our Scheherezade!
The rest of the visit went off well enough, except that the "Man of
Letters," so called, rather snubbed some of the heavenly bodies as
not quite up to his standard of brilliancy. I thought myself that
the double-star episode was the best part of it.
I have an unexpected revelation to make to the reader. Not long
after our visit to the Observatory, the Young Astronomer put a
package into my hands, a manuscript, evidently, which he said he
would like to have me glance over. I found something in it which
interested me, and told him the next day that I should like to read
it with some care. He seemed rather pleased at this, and said that
he wished I would criticise it as roughly as I liked, and if I saw
anything in it which might be dressed to better advantage to treat it
freely, just as if it were my own production. It had often happened
to him, he went on to say, to be interrupted in his observations by
clouds covering the objects he was examining for a longer or shorter
time. In these idle moments he had put down many thoughts,
unskilfully he feared, but just as they came into his mind. His
blank verse he suspected was often faulty. His thoughts he knew must
be crude, many of them. It would please him to have me amuse myself
by putting them into shape. He was kind enough to say that I was an
artist in words, but he held himself as an unskilled apprentice.
I confess I was appalled when I cast my eye upon the title of the
manuscript, "Cirri and Nebulae."
--Oh! oh!--I said,--that will never do. People don't know what
Cirri are, at least not one out of fifty readers. "Wind-Clouds and
Star-Drifts" will do better than that.
--Anything you like,--he answered,--what difference does it make how
you christen a foundling? These are not my legitimate scientific
offspring, and you may consider them left on your doorstep.
--I will not attempt to say just how much of the diction of these
lines belongs to him, and how much to me. He said he would never
claim them, after I read them to him in my version. I, on my part,
do not wish to be held responsible for some of his more daring
thoughts, if I should see fit to reproduce them hereafter. At this
time I shall give only the first part of the series of poetical
outbreaks for which the young devotee of science must claim his share
of the responsibility. I may put some more passages into shape by
WIND-CLOUDS AND STAR-DRIFTS.
Another clouded night; the stars are hid,
The orb that waits my search is hid with them.
Patience! Why grudge an hour, a month, a year,
To plant my ladder and to gain the round
That leads my footsteps to the heaven of fame,
Where waits the wreath my sleepless midnights won?
Not the stained laurel such as heroes wear
That withers when some stronger conqueror's heel
Treads down their shrivelling trophies in the dust;
But the fair garland whose undying green
Not time can change, nor wrath of gods or men!
With quickened heart-beats I shall hear the tongues
That speak my praise; but better far the sense
That in the unshaped ages, buried deep
In the dark mines of unaccomplished time
Yet to be stamped with morning's royal die
And coined in golden days,--in those dim years
I shall be reckoned with the undying dead,
My name emblazoned on the fiery arch,
Unfading till the stars themselves shall fade.
Then, as they call the roll of shining worlds,
Sages of race unborn in accents new
Shall count me with the Olympian ones of old,
Whose glories kindle through the midnight sky
Here glows the God of Battles; this recalls
The Lord of Ocean, and yon far-off sphere
The Sire of Him who gave his ancient name
To the dim planet with the wondrous rings;
Here flames the Queen of Beauty's silver lamp,
And there the moon-girt orb of mighty Jove;
But this, unseen through all earth's aeons past,
A youth who watched beneath the western star
Sought in the darkness, found, and showed to men;
Linked with his name thenceforth and evermore!
So shall that name be syllabled anew
In all the tongues of all the tribes of men:
I that have been through immemorial years
Dust in the dust of my forgotten time
Shall live in accents shaped of blood-warm breath,
Yea, rise in mortal semblance, newly born
In shining stone, in undecaying bronze,
And stand on high, and look serenely down
On the new race that calls the earth its own.
Is this a cloud, that, blown athwart my soul,
Wears a false seeming of the pearly stain
Where worlds beyond the world their mingling rays
Blend in soft white,--a cloud that, born of earth,
Would cheat the soul that looks for light from heaven?
Must every coral-insect leave his sign
On each poor grain he lent to build the reef,
As Babel's builders stamped their sunburnt clay,
Or deem his patient service all in vain?
What if another sit beneath the shade
Of the broad elm I planted by the way,--
What if another heed the beacon light
I set upon the rock that wrecked my keel,
Have I not done my task and served my kind?
Nay, rather act thy part, unnamed, unknown,
And let Fame blow her trumpet through the world
With noisy wind to swell a fool's renown,
Joined with some truth be stumbled blindly o'er,
Or coupled with some single shining deed
That in the great account of all his days
Will stand alone upon the bankrupt sheet
His pitying angel shows the clerk of Heaven.
The noblest service comes from nameless hands,
And the best servant does his work unseen.
Who found the seeds of fire and made them shoot,
Fed by his breath, in buds and flowers of flame?
Who forged in roaring flames the ponderous stone,
And shaped the moulded metal to his need?
Who gave the dragging car its rolling wheel,
And tamed the steed that whirls its circling round?
All these have left their work and not their names,
Why should I murmur at a fate like theirs?
This is the heavenly light; the pearly stain
Was but a wind-cloud drifting oer the stars!
I find I have so many things in common with the old Master of Arts,
that I do not always know whether a thought was originally his or
mine. That is what always happens where two persons of a similar
cast of mind talk much together. And both of them often gain by the
interchange. Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another
mind than in the one where they sprang up. That which was a weed in
one intelligence becomes a flower in the other. A flower, on the
other hand, may dwindle down to a mere weed by the same change.
Healthy growths may become poisonous by falling upon the wrong mental
soil, and what seemed a night-shade in one mind unfold as a morning-
glory in the other.
--I thank God,--the Master said,--that a great many people believe a
great deal more than I do. I think, when it comes to serious
matters, I like those who believe more than I do better than those
who believe less.
--Why,--said I,--you have got hold of one of my own working axioms.
I should like to hear you develop it.
The Member of the Haouse said he should be glad to listen to the
debate. The gentleman had the floor. The Scarabee rose from his
chair and departed;--I thought his joints creaked as he straightened
The Young Girl made a slight movement; it was a purely accidental
coincidence, no doubt, but I saw That Boy put his hand in his pocket
and pull out his popgun, and begin loading it. It cannot be that our
Scheherezade, who looks so quiet and proper at the table, can make
use of That Boy and his catapult to control the course of
conversation and change it to suit herself! She certainly looks
innocent enough; but what does a blush prove, and what does its
absence prove, on one of these innocent faces? There is nothing in
all this world that can lie and cheat like the face and the tongue of
a young girl. Just give her a little touch of hysteria,--I don't
mean enough of it to make her friends call the doctor in, but a
slight hint of it in the nervous system,--and "Machiavel the waiting-
maid" might take lessons of her. But I cannot think our Scheherezade
is one of that kind, and I am ashamed of myself for noting such a
trifling coincidence as that which excited my suspicion.
--I say,--the Master continued,--that I had rather be in the company
of those who believe more than I do, in spiritual matters at least,
than of those who doubt what I accept as a part of my belief.
--To tell the truth,--said I,--I find that difficulty sometimes in
talking with you. You have not quite so many hesitations as I have
in following out your logical conclusions. I suppose you would bring
some things out into daylight questioning that I had rather leave in
that twilight of half-belief peopled with shadows--if they are only
shadows--more sacred to me than many realities.
There is nothing I do not question,--said the Master;--I not only
begin with the precept of Descartes, but I hold all my opinions
involving any chain of reasoning always open to revision.
--I confess that I smiled internally to hear him say that. The old
Master thinks he is open to conviction on all subjects; but if you
meddle with some of his notions and don't get tossed on his horns as
if a bull had hold of you, I should call you lucky.
--You don't mean you doubt everything?--I said.
--What do you think I question everything for, the Master replied,--
if I never get any answers? You've seen a blind man with a stick,
feeling his way along? Well, I am a blind man with a stick, and I
find the world pretty full of men just as blind as I am, but without
any stick. I try the ground to find out whether it is firm or not
before I rest my weight on it; but after it has borne my weight, that
question at least is answered. It very certainly was strong enough
once; the presumption is that it is strong enough now. Still the
soil may have been undermined, or I may have grown heavier. Make as
much of that as you will. I say I question everything; but if I find
Bunker Hill Monument standing as straight as when I leaned against it
a year or ten years ago, I am not very much afraid that Bunker Hill
will cave in if I trust myself again on the soil of it.
I glanced off, as one often does in talk.
The Monument is an awful place to visit,--I said.---The waves of time
are like the waves of the ocean; the only thing they beat against
without destroying it is a rock; and they destroy that at last. But
it takes a good while. There is a stone now standing in very good
order that was as old as a monument of Louis XIV. and Queen Anne's
day is now when Joseph went down into Egypt. Think of the shaft on
Bunker Hill standing in the sunshine on the morning of January 1st in
the year 5872!
It won't be standing,--the Master said.---We are poor bunglers
compared to those old Egyptians. There are no joints in one of their
obelisks. They are our masters in more ways than we know of, and in
more ways than some of us are willing to know. That old Lawgiver
wasn't learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians for nothing. It
scared people well a couple of hundred years ago when Sir John
Marsham and Dr. John Spencer ventured to tell their stories about the
sacred ceremonies of the Egyptian priesthood. People are beginning
to find out now that you can't study any religion by itself to any
good purpose. You must have comparative theology as you have
comparative anatomy. What would you make of a cat's foolish little
good-for-nothing collar-bone, if you did not know how the same bone
means a good deal in other creatures,--in yourself, for instance, as
you 'll find out if you break it? You can't know too much of your
race and its beliefs, if you want to know anything about your Maker.
I never found but one sect large enough to hold the whole of me.
--And may I ask what that was?--I said.
--The Human sect,--the Master answered. That has about room enough
for me,--at present, I mean to say.
--Including cannibals and all?--said I.
-Oh, as to that, the eating of one's kind is a matter of taste, but
the roasting of them has been rather more a specialty of our own
particular belief than of any other I am acquainted with. If you
broil a saint, I don't see why, if you have a mind, you shouldn't
serve him up at your
Pop! went the little piece of artillery. Don't tell me it was
accident. I know better. You can't suppose for one minute that a
boy like that one would time his interruptions so cleverly. Now it
so happened that at that particular moment Dr. B. Franklin was not at
the table. You may draw your own conclusions. I say nothing, but I
think a good deal.
--I came back to the Bunker Hill Monument.---I often think--I said--
of the dynasty which is to reign in its shadow for some thousands of
years, it may be.
The "Man of Letters," so called, asked me, in a tone I did not
exactly like, whether I expected to live long enough to see a
monarchy take the place of a republic in this country.
--No,--said I,--I was thinking of something very different. I was
indulging a fancy of mine about the Man who is to sit at the foot of
the monument for one, or it may be two or three thousand years. As
long as the monument stands and there is a city near it, there will
always be a man to take the names of visitors and extract some small
tribute from their pockets, I suppose. I sometimes get thinking of
the long, unbroken succession of these men, until they come to look
like one Man; continuous in being, unchanging as the stone he
watches, looking upon the successive generations of human beings as
they come and go, and outliving all the dynasties of the world in all
probability. It has come to such a pass that I never speak to the
Man of the Monument without wanting to take my hat off and feeling as
if I were looking down a vista of twenty or thirty centuries.
The "Man of Letters," so called, said, in a rather contemptuous way,
I thought, that he had n't got so far as that. He was n't quite up
to moral reflections on toll-men and ticket-takers. Sentiment was
n't his tap.
He looked round triumphantly for a response: but the Capitalist was a
little hard of hearing just then; the Register of Deeds was browsing
on his food in the calm bovine abstraction of a quadruped, and paid
no attention; the Salesman had bolted his breakfast, and whisked
himself away with that peculiar alacrity which belongs to the retail
dealer's assistant; and the Member of the Haouse, who had sometimes
seemed to be impressed with his "tahlented mahn's" air of superiority
to the rest of us, looked as if he thought the speaker was not
exactly parliamentary. So he failed to make his point, and reddened
a little, and was not in the best humor, I thought, when he left the
table. I hope he will not let off any of his irritation on our poor
little Scheherezade; but the truth is, the first person a man of this
sort (if he is what I think him) meets, when he is out of humor, has
to be made a victim of, and I only hope our Young Girl will not have
to play Jephthah's daughter.
And that leads me to say, I cannot help thinking that the kind of
criticism to which this Young Girl has been subjected from some
person or other, who is willing to be smart at her expense, is
hurtful and not wholesome. The question is a delicate one. So many
foolish persons are rushing into print, that it requires a kind of
literary police to hold them back and keep them in order. Where
there are mice there must be cats, and where there are rats we may
think it worth our while to keep a terrier, who will give them a
shake and let them drop, with all the mischief taken out of them.
But the process is a rude and cruel one at best, and it too often
breeds a love of destructiveness for its own sake in those who get
their living by it. A poor poem or essay does not do much harm after
all; nobody reads it who is like to be seriously hurt by it. But a
sharp criticism with a drop of witty venom in it stings a young
author almost to death, and makes an old one uncomfortable to no
purpose. If it were my business to sit in judgment on my neighbors,
I would try to be courteous, at least, to those who had done any good
service, but, above all, I would handle tenderly those young authors
who are coming before the public in the flutter of their first or
early appearance, and are in the trembling delirium of stage-fright
already. Before you write that brilliant notice of some alliterative
Angelina's book of verses, I wish you would try this experiment.
Take half a sheet of paper and copy upon it any of Angelina's
stanzas,--the ones you were going to make fun of, if you will. Now
go to your window, if it is a still day, open it, and let the half-
sheet of paper drop on the outside. How gently it falls through the
soft air, always tending downwards, but sliding softly, from side to
side, wavering, hesitating, balancing, until it settles as
noiselessly as a snow-flake upon the all-receiving bosom of the
earth! Just such would have been the fate of poor Angelina's
fluttering effort, if you had left it to itself. It would have
slanted downward into oblivion so sweetly and softly that she would
have never known when it reached that harmless consummation.
Our epizoic literature is becoming so extensive that nobody is safe
from its ad infinitum progeny. A man writes a book of criticisms. A
Quarterly Review criticises the critic. A Monthly Magazine takes up
the critic's critic. A Weekly Journal criticises the critic of the
critic's critic, and a daily paper favors us with some critical
remarks on the performance of the writer in the Weekly, who has
criticised the critical notice in the Monthly of the critical essay
in the Quarterly on the critical work we started with. And thus we
see that as each flea "has smaller fleas that on him prey," even the
critic himself cannot escape the common lot of being bitten. Whether
all this is a blessing or a curse, like that one which made Pharaoh
and all his household run to their toilet-tables, is a question about
which opinions might differ. The physiologists of the time of Moses
--if there were vivisectors other than priests in those days--would
probably have considered that other plague, of the frogs, as a
fortunate opportunity for science, as this poor little beast has been
the souffre-douleur of experimenters and schoolboys from time
But there is a form of criticism to which none will object. It is
impossible to come before a public so alive with sensibilities as
this we live in, with the smallest evidence of a sympathetic
disposition, without making friends in a very unexpected way.
Everywhere there are minds tossing on the unquiet waves of doubt. If
you confess to the same perplexities and uncertainties that torture
them, they are grateful for your companionship. If you have groped
your way out of the wilderness in which you were once wandering with
them, they will follow your footsteps, it may be, and bless you as
their deliverer. So, all at once, a writer finds he has a parish of
devout listeners, scattered, it is true, beyond the reach of any
summons but that of a trumpet like the archangel's, to whom his
slight discourse may be of more value than the exhortations they hear
from the pulpit, if these last do not happen to suit their special
needs. Young men with more ambition and intelligence than force of
character, who have missed their first steps in life and are
stumbling irresolute amidst vague aims and changing purposes, hold
out their hands, imploring to be led into, or at least pointed
towards, some path where they can find a firm foothold. Young women
born into a chilling atmosphere of circumstance which keeps all the
buds of their nature unopened and always striving to get to a ray of
sunshine, if one finds its way to their neighborhood, tell their
stories, sometimes simply and touchingly, sometimes in a more or less
affected and rhetorical way, but still stories of defeated and
disappointed instincts which ought to make any moderately impressible
person feel very tenderly toward them.
In speaking privately to these young persons, many of whom have
literary aspirations, one should be very considerate of their human
feelings. But addressing them collectively a few plain truths will
not give any one of them much pain. Indeed, almost every individual
among them will feel sure that he or she is an exception to those
generalities which apply so well to the rest.
If I were a literary Pope sending out an Encyclical, I would tell
these inexperienced persons that nothing is so frequent as to mistake
an ordinary human gift for a special and extraordinary endowment.
The mechanism of breathing and that of swallowing are very wonderful,
and if one had seen and studied them in his own person only, he might
well think himself a prodigy. Everybody knows these and other bodily
faculties are common gifts; but nobody except editors and school-
teachers and here and there a literary than knows how common is the
capacity of rhyming and prattling in readable prose, especially among
young women of a certain degree of education. In my character of
Pontiff, I should tell these young persons that most of them labored
under a delusion. It is very hard to believe it; one feels so full
of intelligence and so decidedly superior to one's dull relations and
schoolmates; one writes so easily and the lines sound so prettily to
one's self; there are such felicities of expression, just like those
we hear quoted from the great poets; and besides one has been told by
so many friends that all one had to do was to print and be famous!
Delusion, my poor dear, delusion at least nineteen times out of
twenty, yes, ninety-nine times in a hundred.
But as private father confessor, I always allow as much as I can for
the one chance in the hundred. I try not to take away all hope,
unless the case is clearly desperate, and then to direct the
activities into some other channel.
Using kind language, I can talk pretty freely. I have counselled
more than one aspirant after literary fame to go back to his tailor's
board or his lapstone. I have advised the dilettanti, whose foolish
friends praised their verses or their stories, to give up all their
deceptive dreams of making a name by their genius, and go to work in
the study of a profession which asked only for the diligent use of
average; ordinary talents. It is a very grave responsibility which
these unknown correspondents throw upon their chosen counsellors.
One whom you have never seen, who lives in a community of which you
know nothing, sends you specimens more or less painfully voluminous
of his writings, which he asks you to read over, think over, and pray
over, and send back an answer informing him whether fame and fortune
are awaiting him as the possessor of the wonderful gifts his writings
manifest, and whether you advise him to leave all,--the shop he
sweeps out every morning, the ledger he posts, the mortar in which he
pounds, the bench at which he urges the reluctant plane,--and follow
his genius whithersoever it may lead him. The next correspondent
wants you to mark out a whole course of life for him, and the means
of judgment he gives you are about as adequate as the brick which the
simpleton of old carried round as an advertisement of the house he
had to sell. My advice to all the young men that write to me depends
somewhat on the handwriting and spelling. If these are of a certain
character, and they have reached a mature age, I recommend some
honest manual calling, such as they have very probably been bred to,
and which will, at least, give them a chance of becoming President of
the United States by and by, if that is any object to them. What
would you have done with the young person who called on me a good
many years ago, so many that he has probably forgotten his literary
effort,--and read as specimens of his literary workmanship lines like
those which I will favor you with presently? He was an able-bodied,
grown-up young person, whose ingenuousness interested me; and I am
sure if I thought he would ever be pained to see his maiden effort in
print, I would deny myself the pleasure of submitting it to the
reader. The following is an exact transcript of the lines he showed
me, and which I took down on the spot:
"Are you in the vein for cider?
Are you in the tune for pork ?
Hist! for Betty's cleared the larder
And turned the pork to soap."
Do not judge too hastily this sincere effort of a maiden muse. Here
was a sense of rhythm, and an effort in the direction of rhyme; here
was an honest transcript of an occurrence of daily life, told with a
certain idealizing expression, recognizing the existence of impulses,
mysterious instincts, impelling us even in the selection of our
bodily sustenance. But I had to tell him that it wanted dignity of
incident and grace of narrative, that there was no atmosphere to it,
nothing of the light that never was and so forth. I did not say this
in these very words, but I gave him to understand, without being too
hard upon him, that he had better not desert his honest toil in
pursuit of the poet's bays. This, it must be confessed, was a rather
discouraging case. A young person like this may pierce, as the
Frenchmen say, by and by, but the chances are all the other way.
I advise aimless young men to choose some profession without needless
delay, and so get into a good strong current of human affairs, and
find themselves bound up in interests with a compact body of their
I advise young women who write to me for counsel,--perhaps I do not
advise them at all, only sympathize a little with them, and listen to
what they have to say (eight closely written pages on the average,
which I always read from beginning to end, thinking of the widow's
cruse and myself in the character of Elijah) and--and--come now, I
don't believe Methuselah would tell you what he said in his letters
to young ladies, written when he was in his nine hundred and sixty-
But, dear me! how much work all this private criticism involves! An
editor has only to say "respectfully declined," and there is the end
of it. But the confidential adviser is expected to give the reasons
of his likes and dislikes in detail, and sometimes to enter into an
argument for their support. That is more than any martyr can stand,
but what trials he must go through, as it is! Great bundles of
manuscripts, verse or prose, which the recipient is expected to read,
perhaps to recommend to a publisher, at any rate to express a well-
digested and agreeably flavored opinion about; which opinion, nine
times out of ten, disguise it as we may, has to be a bitter draught;
every form of egotism, conceit, false sentiment, hunger for
notoriety, and eagerness for display of anserine plumage before the
admiring public;--all these come in by mail or express, covered with
postage-stamps of so much more cost than the value of the waste words
they overlie, that one comes at last to groan and change color at the
very sight of a package, and to dread the postman's knock as if it
were that of the other visitor whose naked knuckles rap at every
Still there are experiences which go far towards repaying all these
inflictions. My last young man's case looked desperate enough; some
of his sails had blown from the rigging, some were backing in the
wind, and some were flapping and shivering, but I told him which way
to head, and to my surprise he promised to do just as I directed, and
I do not doubt is under full sail at this moment.
What if I should tell my last, my very recent experience with the
other sex? I received a paper containing the inner history of a
young woman's life, the evolution of her consciousness from its
earliest record of itself, written so thoughtfully, so sincerely,
with so much firmness and yet so much delicacy, with such truth of
detail and such grace in the manner of telling, that I finished the
long manuscript almost at a sitting, with a pleasure rarely, almost
never experienced in voluminous communications which one has to spell
out of handwriting. This was from a correspondent who made my
acquaintance by letter when she was little more than a child, some
years ago. How easy at that early period to have silenced her by
indifference, to have wounded her by a careless epithet, perhaps even
to have crushed her as one puts his heel on a weed! A very little
encouragement kept her from despondency, and brought back one of
those overflows of gratitude which make one more ashamed of himself
for being so overpaid than he would be for having committed any of
the lesser sins. But what pleased me most in the paper lately
received was to see how far the writer had outgrown the need of any
encouragement of mine; that she had strengthened out of her tremulous
questionings into a self-reliance and self-poise which I had hardly
dared to anticipate for her. Some of my readers who are also writers
have very probably had more numerous experiences of this kind than I
can lay claim to; self-revelations from unknown and sometimes
nameless friends, who write from strange corners where the winds have
wafted some stray words of theirs which have lighted in the minds and
reached the hearts of those to whom they were as the angel that
stirred the pool of Bethesda. Perhaps this is the best reward
authorship brings; it may not imply much talent or literary
excellence, but it means that your way of thinking and feeling is
just what some one of your fellow-creatures needed.
--I have been putting into shape, according to his request, some
further passages from the Young Astronomer's manuscript, some of
which the reader will have a chance to read if he is so disposed.
The conflict in the young man's mind between the desire for fame and
the sense of its emptiness as compared with nobler aims has set me
thinking about the subject from a somewhat humbler point of view. As
I am in the habit of telling you, Beloved, many of my thoughts, as
well as of repeating what was said at our table, you may read what
follows as if it were addressed to you in the course of an ordinary
conversation, where I claimed rather more than my share, as I am
afraid I am a little in the habit of doing.
I suppose we all, those of us who write in verse or prose, have the
habitual feeling that we should like to be remembered. It is to be
awake when all of those who were round us have been long wrapped in
slumber. It is a pleasant thought enough that the name by which we
have been called shall be familiar on the lips of those who come
after us, and the thoughts that wrought themselves out in our
intelligence, the emotions that trembled through our frames, shall
live themselves over again in the minds and hearts of others.
But is there not something of rest, of calm, in the thought of gently
and gradually fading away out of human remembrance? What line have
we written that was on a level with our conceptions? What page of
ours that does not betray some weakness we would fain have left
unrecorded? To become a classic and share the life of a language is
to be ever open to criticisms, to comparisons, to the caprices of
successive generations, to be called into court and stand a trial
before a new jury, once or more than once in every century. To be
forgotten is to sleep in peace with the undisturbed myriads, no
longer subject to the chills and heats, the blasts, the sleet, the
dust, which assail in endless succession that shadow of a man which
we call his reputation. The line which dying we could wish to blot
has been blotted out for us by a hand so tender, so patient, so used
to its kindly task, that the page looks as fair as if it had never
borne the record of our infirmity or our transgression. And then so
few would be wholly content with their legacy of fame. You remember
poor Monsieur Jacques's complaint of the favoritism shown to Monsieur
Berthier,--it is in that exquisite "Week in a French Country-House."
"Have you seen his room? Have you seen how large it is? Twice as
large as mine! He has two jugs, a large one and a little one. I
have only one small one. And a tea-service and a gilt Cupid on the
top of his looking-glass." The famous survivor of himself has had his
features preserved in a medallion, and the slice of his countenance
seems clouded with the thought that it does not belong to a bust; the
bust ought to look happy in its niche, but the statue opposite makes
it feel as if it had been cheated out of half its personality, and
the statue looks uneasy because another stands on a loftier pedestal.
But "Ignotus " and "Miserrimus" are of the great majority in that
vast assembly, that House of Commons whose members are all peers,
where to be forgotten is the standing rule. The dignity of a silent
memory is not to be undervalued. Fame is after all a kind of rude
handling, and a name that is often on vulgar lips seems to borrow
something not to be desired, as the paper money that passes from hand
to hand gains somewhat which is a loss thereby. O sweet, tranquil
refuge of oblivion, so far as earth is concerned, for us poor
blundering, stammering, misbehaving creatures who cannot turn over a
leaf of our life's diary without feeling thankful that its failure
can no longer stare us in the face! Not unwelcome shall be the
baptism of dust which hides forever the name that was given in the
baptism of water! We shall have good company whose names are left
unspoken by posterity. "Who knows whether the best of men be known,
or whether there be not more remarkable persons forgot than any that
stand remembered in the known account of time? The greater part must
be content to be as though they had not been; to be found in the
register of God, not in the record of man. Twenty-seven names make
up the first story before the flood, and the recorded names ever
since contain not one living century."
I have my moods about such things as the Young Astronomer has, as we
all have. There are times when the thought of becoming utterly
nothing to the world we knew so well and loved so much is painful and
oppressive; we gasp as if in a vacuum, missing the atmosphere of life
we have so long been in the habit of breathing. Not the less are
there moments when the aching need of repose comes over us and the
requiescat in pace, heathen benediction as it is, sounds more sweetly
in our ears than all the promises that Fame can hold out to us.
I wonder whether it ever occurred to you to reflect upon another
horror there must be in leaving a name behind you. Think what a
horrid piece of work the biographers make of a man's private history!
Just imagine the subject of one of those extraordinary fictions
called biographies coming back and reading the life of himself,
written very probably by somebody or other who thought he could turn
a penny by doing it, and having the pleasure of seeing
"His little bark attendant sail,
Pursue the triumph and partake the gale."
The ghost of the person condemned to walk the earth in a biography
glides into a public library, and goes to the shelf where his mummied
life lies in its paper cerements. I can see the pale shadow glancing
through the pages and hear the comments that shape themselves in the
bodiless intelligence as if they were made vocal by living lips.
"Born in July, 1776! " And my honored father killed at the battle of
Bunker Hill! Atrocious libeller! to slander one's family at the
start after such a fashion!
"The death of his parents left him in charge of his Aunt Nancy, whose
tender care took the place of those parental attentions which should
have guided and protected his infant years, and consoled him for the
severity of another relative."
--Aunt Nancy! It was Aunt Betsey, you fool! Aunt Nancy used to--she
has been dead these eighty years, so there is no use in mincing
matters--she used to keep a bottle and a stick, and when she had been
tasting a drop out of the bottle the stick used to come off the shelf
and I had to taste that. And here she is made a saint of, and poor
Aunt Betsey, that did everything for me, is slandered by implication
as a horrid tyrant
"The subject of this commemorative history was remarkable for a
precocious development of intelligence. An old nurse who saw him at
the very earliest period of his existence is said to have spoken of
him as one of the most promising infants she had seen in her long
experience. At school he was equally remarkable, and at a tender age
he received a paper adorned with a cut, inscribed REWARD OF MERIT."
--I don't doubt the nurse said that,--there were several promising
children born about that time. As for cuts, I got more from the
schoolmaster's rattan than in any other shape. Didn't one of my
teachers split a Gunter's scale into three pieces over the palm of my
hand? And didn't I grin when I saw the pieces fly? No humbug, now,
about my boyhood!
"His personal appearance was not singularly prepossessing.
Inconspicuous in stature and unattractive in features"
--You misbegotten son of an ourang and grandson of an ascidian
(ghosts keep up with science, you observe), what business have you to
be holding up my person to the contempt of my posterity? Haven't I
been sleeping for this many a year in quiet, and don't the dandelions
and buttercups look as yellow over me as over the best-looking
neighbor I have in the dormitory? Why do you want to people the
minds of everybody that reads your good-for-nothing libel which you
call a "biography" with your impudent caricatures of a man who was a
better-looking fellow than yourself, I 'll bet you ten to one, a man
whom his Latin tutor called fommosus puer when he was only a
freshman? If that's what it means to make a reputation,--to leave
your character and your person, and the good name of your sainted
relatives, and all you were, and all you had and thought and felt, so
far as can be gathered by digging you out of your most private
records, to be manipulated and bandied about and cheapened in the
literary market as a chicken or a turkey or a goose is handled and
bargained over at a provision stall, is n't it better to be content
with the honest blue slate-stone and its inscription informing
posterity that you were a worthy citizen and a respected father of a
--I should like to see any man's biography with corrections and
emendations by his ghost. We don't know each other's secrets quite
so well as we flatter ourselves we do. We don't always know our own
secrets as well as we might. You have seen a tree with different
grafts upon it, an apple or a pear tree we will say. In the late
summer months the fruit on one bough will ripen; I remember just such
a tree, and the early ripening fruit was the Jargonelle. By and by
the fruit of another bough will begin to come into condition; the
lovely Saint Michael, as I remember, grew on the same stock as the
Jargonelle in the tree I am thinking of; and then, when these have
all fallen or been gathered, another, we will say the Winter Nelis,
has its turn, and so out of the same juices have come in succession
fruits of the most varied aspects and flavors. It is the same thing
with ourselves, but it takes us a long while to find it out. The
various inherited instincts ripen in succession. You may be nine
tenths paternal at one period of your life, and nine tenths maternal
at another. All at once the traits of some immediate ancestor may
come to maturity unexpectedly on one of the branches of your
character, just as your features at different periods of your life
betray different resemblances to your nearer or more remote
But I want you to let me go back to the Bunker Hill Monument and the
dynasty of twenty or thirty centuries whose successive
representatives are to sit in the gate, like the Jewish monarchs,
while the people shall come by hundreds and by thousands to visit the
memorial shaft until the story of Bunker's Hill is as old as that of
Would not one like to attend twenty consecutive soirees, at each one
of which the lion of the party should be the Man of the Monument, at
the beginning of each century, all the way, we will say, from Anno
Domini 2000 to Ann. Dom. 4000,--or, if you think the style of dating
will be changed, say to Ann. Darwinii (we can keep A. D. you see)
1872? Will the Man be of the Indian type, as President Samuel
Stanhope Smith and others have supposed the transplanted European
will become by and by? Will he have shortened down to four feet and
a little more, like the Esquimaux, or will he have been bred up to
seven feet by the use of new chemical diets, ozonized and otherwise
improved atmospheres, and animal fertilizers? Let us summon him in
imagination and ask him a few questions.
Is n't it like splitting a toad out of a rock to think of this man of
nineteen or twenty centuries hence coming out from his stony
dwelling-place and speaking with us? What are the questions we
should ask him? He has but a few minutes to stay. Make out your own
list; I will set down a few that come up to me as I write.
--What is the prevalent religious creed of civilization ?
--Has the planet met with any accident of importance?
--How general is the republican form of government ?
--Do men fly yet?
--Has the universal language come into use?
--Is there a new fuel since the English coal-mines have given out?
--Is the euthanasia a recognized branch of medical science?
--Is the oldest inhabitant still living?
--Is the Daily Advertiser still published?
--And the Evening Transcript?
--Is there much inquiry for the works of a writer of the nineteenth
century (Old Style) by--the name of--of--
My tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth. I cannot imagine the
putting of that question without feeling the tremors which shake a
wooer as he falters out the words the answer to which will make him
happy or wretched.
Whose works was I going to question him about, do you ask me?
Oh, the writings of a friend of mine, much esteemed by his relatives
and others. But it's of no consequence, after all; I think he says
he does not care much for posthumous reputation.
I find something of the same interest in thinking about one of the
boarders at our table that I find in my waking dreams concerning the
Man of the Monument. This personage is the Register of Deeds. He is
an unemotional character, living in his business almost as
exclusively as the Scarabee, but without any of that eagerness and
enthusiasm which belong to our scientific specialist. His work is
largely, principally, I may say, mechanical. He has developed,
however, a certain amount of taste for the antiquities of his
department, and once in a while brings out some curious result of his
investigations into ancient documents. He too belongs to a dynasty
which will last as long as there is such a thing as property in land
and dwellings. When that is done away with, and we return to the
state of villanage, holding our tenement-houses, all to be of the
same pattern, of the State, that is to say, of the Tammany Ring which
is to take the place of the feudal lord,--the office of Register of
Deeds will, I presume, become useless, and the dynasty will be
As we grow older we think more and more of old persons and of old
things and places. As to old persons, it seems as if we never know
how much they have to tell until we are old ourselves and they have
been gone twenty or thirty years. Once in a while we come upon some
survivor of his or her generation that we have overlooked, and feel
as if we had recovered one of the lost books of Livy or fished up the
golden candlestick from the ooze of the Tiber. So it was the other
day after my reminiscences of the old gambrel-roofed house and its
visitors. They found an echo in the recollections of one of the
brightest and liveliest of my suburban friends, whose memory is exact
about everything except her own age, which, there can be no doubt,
she makes out a score or two of years more than it really is. Still
she was old enough to touch some lights--and a shadow or two--into
the portraits I had drawn, which made me wish that she and not I had
been the artist who sketched the pictures. Among the lesser regrets
that mingle with graver sorrows for the friends of an earlier
generation we have lost, are our omissions to ask them so many
questions they could have answered easily enough, and would have been
pleased to be asked. There! I say to myself sometimes, in an absent
mood, I must ask her about that. But she of whom I am now thinking
has long been beyond the reach of any earthly questioning, and I sigh
to think how easily I could have learned some fact which I should
have been happy to have transmitted with pious care to those who are
to come after me. How many times I have heard her quote the line
about blessings brightening as they take their flight, and how true
it proves in many little ways that one never thinks of until it is
The Register of Deeds is not himself advanced in years. But he
borrows an air of antiquity from the ancient records which are stored
in his sepulchral archives. I love to go to his ossuary of dead
transactions, as I would visit the catacombs of Rome or Paris. It is
like wandering up the Nile to stray among the shelves of his
monumental folios. Here stands a series of volumes, extending over a
considerable number of years, all of which volumes are in his
handwriting. But as you go backward there is a break, and you come
upon the writing of another person, who was getting old apparently,
for it is beginning to be a little shaky, and then you know that you
have gone back as far as the last days of his predecessor. Thirty or
forty years more carry you to the time when this incumbent began the
duties of his office; his hand was steady then; and the next volume
beyond it in date betrays the work of a still different writer. All
this interests me, but I do not see how it is going to interest my
reader. I do not feel very happy about the Register of Deeds. What
can I do with him? Of what use is he going to be in my record of
what I have seen and heard at the breakfast-table? The fact of his
being one of the boarders was not so important that I was obliged to
speak of him, and I might just as well have drawn on my imagination
and not allowed this dummy to take up the room which another guest
might have profitably filled at our breakfast-table.
I suppose he will prove a superfluity, but I have got him on my
hands, and I mean that he shall be as little in the way as possible.
One always comes across people in actual life who have no particular
business to be where we find them, and whose right to be at all is
I am not going to get rid of the Register of Deeds by putting him out
of the way; but I confess I do not see of what service he is going to
be to me in my record. I have often found, however, that the
Disposer of men and things understands much better than we do how to
place his pawns and other pieces on the chess-board of life. A fish
more or less in the ocean does not seem to amount to much. It is not
extravagant to say that any one fish may be considered a
supernumerary. But when Captain Coram's ship sprung a leak and the
carpenter could not stop it, and the passengers had made up their
minds that it was all over with them, all at once, without any
apparent reason, the pumps began gaining on the leak, and the sinking
ship to lift herself out of the abyss which was swallowing her up.
And what do you think it was that saved the ship, and Captain Coram,
and so in due time gave to London that Foundling Hospital which he
endowed, and under the floor of which he lies buried? Why, it was
that very supernumerary fish, which we held of so little account, but
which had wedged itself into the rent of the yawning planks, and
served to keep out the water until the leak was finally stopped.
I am very sure it was Captain Coram, but I almost hope it was
somebody else, in order to give some poor fellow who is lying in wait
for the periodicals a chance to correct me. That will make him happy
for a month, and besides, he will not want to pick a quarrel about
anything else if he has that splendid triumph. You remember
Alcibiades and his dog's tail.
Here you have the extracts I spoke of from the manuscript placed in
my hands for revision and emendation. I can understand these
alternations of feeling in a young person who has been long absorbed
in a single pursuit, and in whom the human instincts which have been
long silent are now beginning to find expression. I know well what
he wants; a great deal better, I think, than he knows himself.
WIND-CLOUDS AND STAR-DRIFTS.
Brief glimpses of the bright celestial spheres,
False lights, false shadows, vague, uncertain gleams,
Pale vaporous mists, wan streaks of lurid flame,
The climbing of the upward-sailing cloud,
The sinking of the downward-falling star,
All these are pictures of the changing moods
Borne through the midnight stillness of my soul.
Here am I, bound upon this pillared rock,
Prey to the vulture of a vast desire
That feeds upon my life. I burst my bands
And steal a moment's freedom from the beak,
The clinging talons and the shadowing plumes;
Then comes the false enchantress, with her song;
"Thou wouldst not lay thy forehead in the dust
Like the base herd that feeds and breeds and dies!
Lo, the fair garlands that I weave for thee,
Unchanging as the belt Orion wears,
Bright as the jewels of the seven-starred Crown,
The spangled stream of Berenice's hair!"
And so she twines the fetters with the flowers
Around my yielding limbs, and the fierce bird
Stoops to his quarry,--then to feed his rage
Of ravening hunger I must drain my blood
And let the dew-drenched, poison-breeding night
Steal all the freshness from my fading cheek,
And leave its shadows round my caverned eyes.
All for a line in some unheeded scroll;
All for a stone that tells to gaping clowns,
"Here lies a restless wretch beneath a clod
Where squats the jealous nightmare men call Fame!"
I marvel not at him who scorns his kind
And thinks not sadly of the time foretold
When the old hulk we tread shall be a wreck,
A slag, a cinder drifting through the sky
Without its crew of fools! We live too long
And even so are not content to die,
But load the mould that covers up our bones
With stones that stand like beggars by the road
And show death's grievous wound and ask for tears;
Write our great books to teach men who we are,
Sing our fine songs that tell in artful phrase
The secrets of our lives, and plead and pray
For alms of memory with the after time,
Those few swift seasons while the earth shall wear
Its leafy summers, ere its core grows cold
And the moist life of all that breathes shall die;
Or as the new-born seer, perchance more wise,
Would have us deem, before its growing mass,
Pelted with stardust, atoned with meteor-balls,
Heats like a hammered anvil, till at last Man
and his works and all that stirred itself
Of its own motion, in the fiery glow
Turns to a flaming vapor, and our orb
Shines a new sun for earths that shall be born.
I am as old as Egypt to myself,
Brother to them that squared the pyramids
By the same stars I watch. I read the page
Where every letter is a glittering world,
With them who looked from Shinar's clay-built towers,
Ere yet the wanderer of the Midland sea
Had missed the fallen sister of the seven.
I dwell in spaces vague, remote, unknown,
Save to the silent few, who, leaving earth,
Quit all communion with their living time.
I lose myself in that ethereal void,
Till I have tired my wings and long to fill
My breast with denser air, to stand, to walk
With eyes not raised above my fellow-men.
Sick of my unwalled, solitary realm,
I ask to change the myriad lifeless worlds
I visit as mine own for one poor patch
Of this dull spheroid and a little breath
To shape in word or deed to serve my kind.
Was ever giant's dungeon dug so deep,
Was ever tyrant's fetter forged so strong,
Was e'er such deadly poison in the draught
The false wife mingles for the trusting fool,
As he whose willing victim is himself,
Digs, forges, mingles, for his captive soul?
I was very sure that the old Master was hard at work about
something,--he is always very busy with something,--but I mean
Whether it was a question of history or of cosmogony, or whether he
was handling a test-tube or a blow-pipe; what he was about I did not
feel sure; but I took it for granted that it was some crucial
question or other he was at work on, some point bearing on the
thought of the time. For the Master, I have observed, is pretty
sagacious in striking for the points where his work will be like to
tell. We all know that class of scientific laborers to whom all
facts are alike nourishing mental food, and who seem to exercise no
choice whatever, provided only they can get hold of these same
indiscriminate facts in quantity sufficient. They browse on them, as
the animal to which they would not like to be compared browses on his
thistles. But the Master knows the movement of the age he belongs
to; and if he seems to be busy with what looks like a small piece of
trivial experimenting, one may feel pretty sure that he knows what he
is about, and that his minute operations are looking to a result that
will help him towards attaining his great end in life,--an insight,
so far as his faculties and opportunities will allow, into that order
of things which he believes he can study with some prospect of taking
in its significance.
I became so anxious to know what particular matter he was busy with,
that I had to call upon him to satisfy my curiosity. It was with a
little trepidation that I knocked at his door. I felt a good deal as
one might have felt on disturbing an alchemist at his work, at the
very moment, it might be, when he was about to make projection.
--Come in!--said the Master in his grave, massive tones.
I passed through the library with him into a little room evidently
devoted to his experiments.
--You have come just at the right moment,--he said.--Your eyes are
better than mine. I have been looking at this flask, and I should
like to have you look at it.
It was a small matrass, as one of the elder chemists would have
called it, containing a fluid, and hermetically sealed. He held it
up at the window; perhaps you remember the physician holding a flask
to the light in Gerard Douw's "Femme hydropique"; I thought of that
fine figure as I looked at him. Look!--said he,--is it clear or
--You need not ask me that,--I answered. It is very plainly turbid.
I should think that some sediment had been shaken up in it. What is
it, Elixir Vitae or Aurum potabile?
--Something that means more than alchemy ever did! Boiled just three
hours, and as clear as a bell until within the last few days; since
then has been clouding up.
--I began to form a pretty shrewd guess at the meaning of all this,
and to think I knew very nearly what was coming next. I was right in
my conjecture. The Master broke off the sealed end of his little
flask, took out a small portion of the fluid on a glass rod, and
placed it on a slip of glass in the usual way for a microscopic
--One thousand diameters,--he said, as he placed it on the stage of
the microscope.---We shall find signs of life, of course.--He bent
over the instrument and looked but an instant.
--There they are!--he exclaimed,--look in.
I looked in and saw some objects:
The straight linear bodies were darting backward and forward in every
direction. The wavy ones were wriggling about like eels or water-
snakes. The round ones were spinning on their axes and rolling in
every direction. All of them were in a state of incessant activity,
as if perpetually seeking something and never finding it.
They are tough, the germs of these little bodies, said the Master.---
Three hours' boiling has n't killed 'em. Now, then, let us see what
has been the effect of six hours' boiling.
He took up another flask just like the first, containing fluid and
hermetically sealed in the same way.
--Boiled just three hours longer than the other, he said,--six hours
in all. This is the experimentum crucis. Do you see any cloudiness
--Not a sign of it; it is as clear as crystal, except that there may
be a little sediment at the bottom.
--That is nothing. The liquid is clear. We shall find no signs of
life.---He put a minute drop of the liquid under the microscope as
before. Nothing stirred. Nothing to be seen but a clear circle of
light. We looked at it again and again, but with the same result.
--Six hours kill 'em all, according to this experiment,--said the
Master.---Good as far as it goes. One more negative result. Do you
know what would have happened if that liquid had been clouded, and we
had found life in the sealed flask? Sir, if that liquid had held
life in it the Vatican would have trembled to hear it, and there
would have been anxious questionings and ominous whisperings in the
halls of Lambeth palace! The accepted cosmogonies on trial, sir!
Traditions, sanctities, creeds, ecclesiastical establishments, all
shaking to know whether my little sixpenny flask of fluid looks muddy
or not! I don't know whether to laugh or shudder. The thought of an
oecumenical council having its leading feature dislocated by my
trifling experiment! The thought, again, of the mighty revolution in
human beliefs and affairs that might grow out of the same
insignificant little phenomenon. A wine-glassful of clear liquid
growing muddy. If we had found a wriggle, or a zigzag, or a shoot
from one side to the other, in this last flask, what a scare there
would have been, to be sure, in the schools of the prophets! Talk
about your megatherium and your megalosaurus,--what are these to the
bacterium and the vibrio? These are the dreadful monsters of today.
If they show themselves where they have no business, the little
rascals frighten honest folks worse than ever people were frightened
by the Dragon of Rhodes!
The Master gets going sometimes, there is no denying it, until his
imagination runs away with him. He had been trying, as the reader
sees, one of those curious experiments in spontaneous generation, as
it is called, which have been so often instituted of late years, and
by none more thoroughly than by that eminent American student of
nature (Professor Jeffries Wyman) whose process he had imitated with
a result like his.
We got talking over these matters among us the next morning at the
We must agree they couldn't stand six hours' boiling,--I said.
--Good for the Pope of Rome!--exclaimed the Master.
--The Landlady drew back with a certain expression of dismay in her
countenance. She hoped he did n't want the Pope to make any more
converts in this country. She had heard a sermon only last Sabbath,
and the minister had made it out, she thought, as plain as could be,
that the Pope was the Man of Sin and that the Church of Rome was--
Well, there was very strong names applied to her in Scripture.
What was good for the Pope was good for your minister, too, my dear
madam,--said the Master. Good for everybody that is afraid of what
people call "science." If it should prove that dead things come to
life of themselves, it would be awkward, you know, because then
somebody will get up and say if one dead thing made itself alive
another might, and so perhaps the earth peopled itself without any
help. Possibly the difficulty wouldn't be so great as many people
suppose. We might perhaps find room for a Creator after all, as we
do now, though we see a little brown seed grow till it sucks up the
juices of half an acre of ground, apparently all by its own inherent
power. That does not stagger us; I am not sure that it would if Mr.
Crosses or Mr. Weekes's acarus should show himself all of a sudden,
as they said he did, in certain mineral mixtures acted on by
The Landlady was off soundings, and looking vacant enough by this
The Master turned to me.---Don't think too much of the result of our
one experiment. It means something, because it confirms those other
experiments of which it was a copy; but we must remember that a
hundred negatives don't settle such a question. Life does get into
the world somehow. You don't suppose Adam had the cutaneous
unpleasantness politely called psora, do you?
--Hardly,--I answered.---He must have been a walking hospital if he
carried all the maladies about him which have plagued his
--Well, then, how did the little beast which is peculiar to that
special complaint intrude himself into the Order of Things? You
don't suppose there was a special act of creation for the express
purpose of bestowing that little wretch on humanity, do you?
I thought, on the whole, I would n't answer that question.
--You and I are at work on the same problem, said the Young
Astronomer to the Master.---I have looked into a microscope now and
then, and I have seen that perpetual dancing about of minute atoms in
a fluid, which you call molecular motion. Just so, when I look
through my telescope I see the star-dust whirling about in the
infinite expanse of ether; or if I do not see its motion, I know that
it is only on account of its immeasurable distance. Matter and
motion everywhere; void and rest nowhere. You ask why your restless
microscopic atoms may not come together and become self-conscious and
self-moving organisms. I ask why my telescopic star-dust may not
come together and grow and organize into habitable worlds,--the
ripened fruit on the branches of the tree Yggdrasil, if I may borrow
from our friend the Poet's province. It frightens people, though, to
hear the suggestion that worlds shape themselves from star-mist. It
does not trouble them at all to see the watery spheres that round
themselves into being out of the vapors floating over us; they are
nothing but raindrops. But if a planet can grow as a rain-drop
grows, why then--It was a great comfort to these timid folk when
Lord Rosse's telescope resolved certain nebula into star-clusters.
Sir John Herschel would have told them that this made little
difference in accounting for the formation of worlds by aggregation,
but at any rate it was a comfort to them.
--These people have always been afraid of the astronomers,--said the
Master.--They were shy, you know, of the Copernican system, for a
long while; well they might be with an oubliette waiting for them if
they ventured to think that the earth moved round the sun. Science
settled that point finally for them, at length, and then it was all
right,--when there was no use in disputing the fact any longer. By
and by geology began turning up fossils that told extraordinary
stories about the duration of life upon our planet. What subterfuges
were not used to get rid of their evidence! Think of a man seeing
the fossilized skeleton of an animal split out of a quarry, his teeth
worn down by mastication, and the remains of food still visible in
his interior, and, in order to get rid of a piece of evidence
contrary to the traditions he holds to, seriously maintaining that
this skeleton never belonged to a living creature, but was created
with just these appearances; a make-believe, a sham, a Barnum's-
mermaid contrivance to amuse its Creator and impose upon his
intelligent children! And now people talk about geological epochs
and hundreds of millions of years in the planet's history as calmly
as if they were discussing the age of their deceased great-
grandmothers. Ten or a dozen years ago people said Sh! Sh! if you
ventured to meddle with any question supposed to involve a doubt of
the generally accepted Hebrew traditions. To-day such questions are
recognized as perfectly fair subjects for general conversation; not
in the basement story, perhaps, or among the rank and file of the
curbstone congregations, but among intelligent and educated persons.
You may preach about them in your pulpit, you may lecture about them,
you may talk about them with the first sensible-looking person you
happen to meet, you may write magazine articles about them, and the
editor need not expect to receive remonstrances from angry
subscribers and withdrawals of subscriptions, as he would have been
sure to not a great many years ago. Why, you may go to a tea-party
where the clergyman's wife shows her best cap and his daughters
display their shining ringlets, and you will hear the company
discussing the Darwinian theory of the origin of the human race as if
it were as harmless a question as that of the lineage of a spinster's
lapdog. You may see a fine lady who is as particular in her
genuflections as any Buddhist or Mahometan saint in his
manifestations of reverence, who will talk over the anthropoid ape,
the supposed founder of the family to which we belong, and even go
back with you to the acephalous mollusk, first cousin to the clams
and mussels, whose rudimental spine was the hinted prophecy of
humanity; all this time never dreaming, apparently, that what she
takes for a matter of curious speculation involves the whole future
of human progress and destiny.
I can't help thinking that if we had talked as freely as we can and
do now in the days of the first boarder at this table,--I mean the
one who introduced it to the public,--it would have sounded a good
deal more aggressively than it does now.--The old Master got rather
warm in talking; perhaps the consciousness of having a number of
listeners had something to do with it.
--This whole business is an open question,--he said,--and there is no
use in saying, "Hush! don't talk about such things! "People do talk
about 'em everywhere; and if they don't talk about 'em they think
about 'em, and that is worse,--if there is anything bad about such
questions, that is. If for the Fall of man, science comes to
substitute the RISE of man, sir, it means the utter disintegration of
all the spiritual pessimisms which have been like a spasm in the
heart and a cramp in the intellect of men for so many centuries. And
yet who dares to say that it is not a perfectly legitimate and proper
question to be discussed, without the slightest regard to the fears
or the threats of Pope or prelate?
Sir, I believe,--the Master rose from his chair as he spoke, and said
in a deep and solemn tone, but without any declamatory vehemence,--
sir, I believe that we are at this moment in what will be recognized
not many centuries hence as one of the late watches in the night of
the dark ages. There is a twilight ray, beyond question. We know
something of the universe, a very little, and, strangely enough, we
know most of what is farthest from us. We have weighed the planets
and analyzed the flames of the--sun and stars. We predict their
movements as if they were machines we ourselves had made and
regulated. We know a good deal about the earth on which we live.
But the study of man has been so completely subjected to our
preconceived opinions, that we have got to begin all over again. We
have studied anthropology through theology; we have now to begin the
study of theology through anthropology. Until we have exhausted the
human element in every form of belief, and that can only be done by
what we may call comparative spiritual anatomy, we cannot begin to
deal with the alleged extra-human elements without blundering into
all imaginable puerilities. If you think for one moment that there
is not a single religion in the world which does not come to us
through the medium of a preexisting language; and if you remember
that this language embodies absolutely nothing but human conceptions
and human passions, you will see at once that every religion
presupposes its own elements as already existing in those to whom it
is addressed. I once went to a church in London and heard the famous
Edward Irving preach, and heard some of his congregation speak in the
strange words characteristic of their miraculous gift of tongues. I
had a respect for the logical basis of this singular phenomenon. I
have always thought it was natural that any celestial message should
demand a language of its own, only to be understood by divine
illumination. All human words tend, of course, to stop short in
human meaning. And the more I hear the most sacred terms employed,
the more I am satisfied that they have entirely and radically
different meanings in the minds of those who use them. Yet they deal
with them as if they were as definite as mathematical quantities or
geometrical figures. What would become of arithmetic if the figure 2
meant three for one man and five for another and twenty for a third,
and all the other numerals were in the same way variable quantities?
Mighty intelligent correspondence business men would have with each
other! But how is this any worse than the difference of opinion
which led a famous clergyman to say to a brother theologian, "Oh, I
see, my dear sir, your God is my Devil."
Man has been studied proudly, contemptuously, rather, from the point
of view supposed to be authoritatively settled. The self-sufficiency
of egotistic natures was never more fully shown than in the
expositions of the worthlessness and wretchedness of their fellow-
creatures given by the dogmatists who have "gone back," as the vulgar
phrase is, on their race, their own flesh and blood. Did you ever
read what Mr. Bancroft says about Calvin in his article on Jonathan
Edwards?--and mighty well said it is too, in my judgment. Let me
remind you of it, whether you have read it or not. "Setting himself
up over against the privileged classes, he, with a loftier pride than
theirs, revealed the power of a yet higher order of nobility, not of
a registered ancestry of fifteen generations, but one absolutely
spotless in its escutcheon, preordained in the council chamber of
eternity." I think you'll find I have got that sentence right, word
for word, and there 's a great deal more in it than many good folks
who call themselves after the reformer seem to be aware of. The Pope
put his foot on the neck of kings, but Calvin and his cohort crushed
the whole human race under their heels in the name of the Lord of
Hosts. Now, you see, the point that people don't understand is the
absolute and utter humility of science, in opposition to this
doctrinal self-sufficiency. I don't doubt this may sound a little
paradoxical at first, but I think you will find it is all right. You
remember the courtier and the monarch,--Louis the Fourteenth, wasn't
it?--never mind, give the poor fellows that live by setting you
right a chance. "What o'clock is it?" says the king. "Just whatever
o'clock your Majesty pleases," says the courtier. I venture to say
the monarch was a great deal more humble than the follower, who
pretended that his master was superior to such trifling facts as the
revolution of the planet. It was the same thing, you remember, with
King Canute and the tide on the sea-shore. The king accepted the
scientific fact of the tide's rising. The loyal hangers-on, who
believed in divine right, were too proud of the company they found
themselves in to make any such humiliating admission. But there are
people, and plenty of them, to-day, who will dispute facts just as
clear to those who have taken the pains to learn what is known about
them, as that of the tide's rising. They don't like to admit these
facts, because they throw doubt upon some of their cherished
opinions. We are getting on towards the last part of this nineteenth
century. What we have gained is not so much in positive knowledge,
though that is a good deal, as it is in the freedom of discussion of
every subject that comes within the range of observation and
inference. How long is it since Mrs. Piozzi wrote,--"Let me hope
that you will not pursue geology till it leads you into doubts
destructive of all comfort in this world and all happiness in the
The Master paused and I remained silent, for I was thinking things I
could not say.
--It is well always to have a woman near by when one is talking on
this class of subjects. Whether there will be three or four women to
one man in heaven is a question which I must leave to those who talk
as if they knew all about the future condition of the race to answer.
But very certainly there is much more of hearty faith, much more of
spiritual life, among women than among men, in this world. They need
faith to support them more than men do, for they have a great deal
less to call them out of themselves, and it comes easier to them, for
their habitual state of dependence teaches them to trust in others.
When they become voters, if they ever do, it may be feared that the
pews will lose what the ward-rooms gain. Relax a woman's hold on
man, and her knee-joints will soon begin to stiffen. Self-assertion
brings out many fine qualities, but it does not promote devotional
I remember some such thoughts as this were passing through my mind
while the Master was talking. I noticed that the Lady was listening
to the conversation with a look of more than usual interest. We men
have the talk mostly to ourselves at this table; the Master, as you
have found out, is fond of monologues, and I myself--well, I suppose
I must own to a certain love for the reverberated music of my own
accents; at any rate, the Master and I do most of the talking. But
others help us do the listening. I think I can show that they listen
to some purpose. I am going to surprise my reader with a letter
which I received very shortly after the conversation took place which
I have just reported. It is of course by a special license, such as
belongs to the supreme prerogative of an author, that I am enabled to
present it to him. He need ask no questions: it is not his affair
how I obtained the right to give publicity to a private
communication. I have become somewhat more intimately acquainted
with the writer of it than in the earlier period of my connection
with this establishment, and I think I may say have gained her
confidence to a very considerable degree.
MY DEAR SIR: The conversations I have had with you, limited as they
have been, have convinced me that I am quite safe in addressing you
with freedom on a subject which interests me, and others more than
myself. We at our end of the table have been listening, more or less
intelligently, to the discussions going on between two or three of
you gentlemen on matters of solemn import to us all. This is nothing
very new to me. I have been used, from an early period of my life,
to hear the discussion of grave questions, both in politics and
religion. I have seen gentlemen at my father's table get as warm
over a theological point of dispute as in talking over their
political differences. I rather think it has always been very much
so, in bad as well as in good company; for you remember how Milton's
fallen angels amused themselves with disputing on "providence,
foreknowledge, will, and fate," and it was the same thing in that
club Goldsmith writes so pleasantly about. Indeed, why should not
people very often come, in the course of conversation, to the one
subject which lies beneath all else about which our thoughts are
occupied? And what more natural than that one should be inquiring
about what another has accepted and ceased to have any doubts
concerning? It seems to me all right that at the proper time, in the
proper place, those who are less easily convinced than their
neighbors should have the fullest liberty of calling to account all
the opinions which others receive without question. Somebody must
stand sentry at the outposts of belief, and it is a sentry's
business, I believe, to challenge every one who comes near him,
friend or foe.
I want you to understand fully that I am not one of those poor
nervous creatures who are frightened out of their wits when any
question is started that implies the disturbance of their old
beliefs. I manage to see some of the periodicals, and now and then
dip a little way into a new book which deals with these curious
questions you were talking about, and others like them. You know
they find their way almost everywhere. They do not worry me in the
least. When I was a little girl, they used to say that if you put a
horsehair into a tub of water it would turn into a snake in the
course of a few days. That did not seem to me so very much stranger
than it was that an egg should turn into a chicken. What can I say
to that? Only that it is the Lord's doings, and marvellous in my
eyes; and if our philosophical friend should find some little live
creatures, or what seem to be live creatures, in any of his messes, I
should say as much, and no more. You do not think I would shut up my
Bible and Prayer-Book because there is one more thing I do not
understand in a world where I understand so very little of all the
wonders that surround me?
It may be very wrong to pay any attention to those speculations about
the origin of mankind which seem to conflict with the Sacred Record.
But perhaps there is some way of reconciling them, as there is of
making the seven days of creation harmonize with modern geology. At
least, these speculations are curious enough in themselves; and I
have seen so many good and handsome children come of parents who were
anything but virtuous and comely, that I can believe in almost any
amount of improvement taking place in a tribe of living beings, if
time and opportunity favor it. I have read in books of natural
history that dogs came originally from wolves. When I remember my
little Flora, who, as I used to think, could do everything but talk,
it does not seem to me that she was much nearer her savage ancestors
than some of the horrid cannibal wretches are to their neighbors the
You see that I am tolerably liberal in my habit of looking at all
these questions. We women drift along with the current of the times,
listening, in our quiet way, to the discussions going on round us in
books and in conversation, and shift the phrases in which we think
and talk with something of the same ease as that with which we change
our style of dress from year to year. I doubt if you of the other
sex know what an effect this habit of accommodating our tastes to
changing standards has upon us. Nothing is fixed in them, as you
know; the very law of fashion is change. I suspect we learn from our
dressmakers to shift the costume of our minds, and slip on the new
fashions of thinking all the more easily because we have been.
accustomed to new styles of dressing every season.
It frightens me to see how much I have written without having yet
said a word of what I began this letter on purpose to say. I have
taken so much space in "defining my position," to borrow the
politicians' phrase, that I begin to fear you will be out of patience
before you come to the part of my letter I care most about your
What I want to say is this. When these matters are talked about
before persons of different ages and various shades of intelligence,
I think one ought to be very careful that his use of language does
not injure the sensibilities, perhaps blunt the reverential feelings,
of those who are listening to him. You of the sterner sex say that
we women have intuitions, but not logic, as our birthright. I shall
not commit my sex by conceding this to be true as a whole, but I will
accept the first half of it, and I will go so far as to say that we
do not always care to follow out a train of thought until it ends in
a blind cul de sac, as some of what are called the logical people are
fond of doing.
Now I want to remind you that religion is not a matter of
intellectual luxury to those of us who are interested in it, but
something very different. It is our life, and more than our life;
for that is measured by pulse-beats, but our religious consciousness
partakes of the Infinite, towards which it is constantly yearning.
It is very possible that a hundred or five hundred years from now the
forms of religious belief may be so altered that we should hardly
know them. But the sense of dependence on Divine influence and the
need of communion with the unseen and eternal will be then just what
they are now. It is not the geologist's hammer, or the astronomer's
telescope, or the naturalist's microscope, that is going to take away
the need of the human soul for that Rock to rest upon which is higher
than itself, that Star which never sets, that all-pervading Presence
which gives life to all the least moving atoms of the immeasurable
I have no fears for myself, and listen very quietly to all your
debates. I go from your philosophical discussions to the reading of
Jeremy Taylor's "Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying " without feeling
that I have unfitted myself in the least degree for its solemn
reflections. And, as I have mentioned his name, I cannot help saying
that I do not believe that good man himself would have ever shown the
bitterness to those who seem to be at variance with the received
doctrines which one may see in some of the newspapers that call
themselves "religious." I have kept a few old books from my honored
father's library, and among them is another of his which I always
thought had more true Christianity in its title than there is in a
good many whole volumes. I am going to take the book down, or up,--
for it is not a little one,--and write out the title, which, I dare
say, you remember, and very likely you have the book. "Discourse of
the Liberty of Prophesying, showing the Unreasonableness of
prescribing to other Men's Faith, and the Iniquity of persecuting
Now, my dear sir, I am sure you believe that I want to be liberal and
reasonable, and not to act like those weak alarmists who, whenever
the silly sheep begin to skip as if something was after them, and
huddle together in their fright, are sure there must be a bear or a
lion coming to eat them up. But for all that, I want to beg you to
handle some of these points, which are so involved in the creed of a
good many well-intentioned persons that you cannot separate them from
it without picking their whole belief to pieces, with more thought
for them than you might think at first they were entitled to. I have
no doubt you gentlemen are as wise as serpents, and I want you to be
as harmless as doves.
The Young Girl who sits by me has, I know, strong religious
instincts. Instead of setting her out to ask all sorts of questions,
I would rather, if I had my way, encourage her to form a habit of
attending to religious duties, and make the most of the simple faith
in which she was bred. I think there are a good many questions young
persons may safely postpone to a more convenient season; and as this
young creature is overworked, I hate to have her excited by the fever
of doubt which it cannot be denied is largely prevailing in our time.
I know you must have looked on our other young friend, who has
devoted himself to the sublimest of the sciences, with as much
interest as I do. When I was a little girl I used to write out a
line of Young's as a copy in my writing-book,
"An undevout astronomer is mad";
but I do not now feel quite so sure that the contemplation of all the
multitude of remote worlds does not tend to weaken the idea of a
personal Deity. It is not so much that nebular theory which worries
me, when I think about this subject, as a kind of bewilderment when I
try to conceive of a consciousness filling all those frightful blanks
of space they talk about. I sometimes doubt whether that young man
worships anything but the stars. They tell me that many young
students of science like him never see the inside of a church. I
cannot help wishing they did. It humanizes people, quite apart from
any higher influence it exerts upon them. One reason, perhaps, why
they do not care to go to places of worship is that they are liable
to hear the questions they know something about handled in sermons by
those who know very much less about them. And so they lose a great
deal. Almost every human being, however vague his notions of the
Power addressed, is capable of being lifted and solemnized by the
exercise of public prayer. When I was a young girl we travelled in
Europe, and I visited Ferney with my parents; and I remember we all
stopped before a chapel, and I read upon its front, I knew Latin
enough to understand it, I am pleased to say,--Deo erexit Voltaire.
I never forgot it; and knowing what a sad scoffer he was at most
sacred things, I could not but be impressed with the fact that even
he was not satisfied with himself, until he had shown his devotion in
a public and lasting form.
We all want religion sooner or later. I am afraid there are some who
have no natural turn for it, as there are persons without an ear for
music, to which, if I remember right, I heard one of you comparing
what you called religious genius. But sorrow and misery bring even
these to know what it means, in a great many instances. May I not
say to you, my friend, that I am one who has learned the secret of
the inner life by the discipline of trials in the life of outward
circumstance? I can remember the time when I thought more about the
shade of color in a ribbon, whether it matched my complexion or not,
than I did about my spiritual interests in this world or the next.
It was needful that I should learn the meaning of that text, "Whom
the Lord loveth he chasteneth."
Since I have been taught in the school of trial I have felt, as I
never could before, how precious an inheritance is the smallest
patrimony of faith. When everything seemed gone from me, I found I
had still one possession. The bruised reed that I had never leaned
on became my staff. The smoking flax which had been a worry to my
eyes burst into flame, and I lighted the taper at it which has since
guided all my footsteps. And I am but one of the thousands who have
had the same experience. They have been through the depths of
affliction, and know the needs of the human soul. It will find its
God in the unseen,--Father, Saviour, Divine Spirit, Virgin Mother, it
must and will breathe its longings and its griefs into the heart of a
Being capable of understanding all its necessities and sympathizing
with all its woes.
I am jealous, yes, I own I am jealous of any word, spoken or written,
that would tend to impair that birthright of reverence which becomes
for so many in after years the basis of a deeper religious sentiment.
And yet, as I have said, I cannot and will not shut my eyes to the
problems which may seriously affect our modes of conceiving the
eternal truths on which, and by which, our souls must live. What a
fearful time is this into which we poor sensitive and timid creatures
are born! I suppose the life of every century has more or less
special resemblance to that of some particular Apostle. I cannot
help thinking this century has Thomas for its model. How do you
suppose the other Apostles felt when that experimental philosopher
explored the wounds of the Being who to them was divine with his
inquisitive forefinger? In our time that finger has multiplied
itself into ten thousand thousand implements of research, challenging
all mysteries, weighing the world as in a balance, and sifting
through its prisms and spectroscopes the light that comes from the
throne of the Eternal.
Pity us, dear Lord, pity us! The peace in believing which belonged
to other ages is not for us. Again Thy wounds are opened that we may
know whether it is the blood of one like ourselves which flows from
them, or whether it is a Divinity that is bleeding for His creatures.
Wilt Thou not take the doubt of Thy children whom the time commands
to try all things in the place of the unquestioning faith of earlier
and simpler-hearted generations? We too have need of Thee. Thy
martyrs in other ages were cast into the flames, but no fire could
touch their immortal and indestructible faith. We sit in safety and
in peace, so far as these poor bodies are concerned; but our
cherished beliefs, the hopes, the trust that stayed the hearts of
those we loved who have gone before us, are cast into the fiery
furnace of an age which is fast turning to dross the certainties and
the sanctities once prized as our most precious inheritance.
You will understand me, my dear sir, and all my solicitudes and
apprehensions. Had I never been assailed by the questions that meet
all thinking persons in our time, I might not have thought so
anxiously about the risk of perplexing others. I know as well as you
must that there are many articles of belief clinging to the skirts of
our time which are the bequests of the ages of ignorance that God
winked at. But for all that I would train a child in the nurture and
admonition of the Lord, according to the simplest and best creed I
could disentangle from those barbarisms, and I would in every way try
to keep up in young persons that standard of reverence for all sacred
subjects which may, without any violent transition, grow and ripen
into the devotion of later years. Believe me,
Very sincerely yours,
I have thought a good deal about this letter and the writer of it
lately. She seemed at first removed to a distance from all of us,
but here I find myself in somewhat near relations with her. What has
surprised me more than that, however, is to find that she is becoming
so much acquainted with the Register of Deeds. Of all persons in the
world, I should least have thought of him as like to be interested in
her, and still less, if possible, of her fancying him. I can only
say they have been in pretty close conversation several times of
late, and, if I dared to think it of so very calm and dignified a
personage, I should say that her color was a little heightened after
one or more of these interviews. No! that would be too absurd! But
I begin to think nothing is absurd in the matter of the relations of
the two sexes; and if this high-bred woman fancies the attentions of
a piece of human machinery like this elderly individual, it is none
of my business.
I have been at work on some more of the Young Astronomer's lines. I
find less occasion for meddling with them as he grows more used to
versification. I think I could analyze the processes going on in his
mind, and the conflict of instincts which he cannot in the nature of
things understand. But it is as well to give the reader a chance to
find out for himself what is going on in the young man's heart and
WIND-CLOUDS AND STAR-DRIFTS.
The snows that glittered on the disk of Mars
Have melted, and the planet's fiery orb
Rolls in the crimson summer of its year;
But what to me the summer or the snow
Of worlds that throb with life in forms unknown,
If life indeed be theirs; I heed not these.
My heart is simply human; all my care
For them whose dust is fashioned like mine own;
These ache with cold and hunger, live in pain,
And shake with fear of worlds more full of woe;
There may be others worthier of my love,
But such I know not save through these I know.
There are two veils of language, hid beneath
Whose sheltering folds, we dare to be ourselves;
And not that other self which nods and smiles
And babbles in our name; the one is Prayer,
Lending its licensed freedom to the tongue
That tells our sorrows and our sins to Heaven;
The other, Verse, that throws its spangled web
Around our naked speech and makes it bold.
I, whose best prayer is silence; sitting dumb
In the great temple where I nightly serve
Him who is throned in light, have dared to claim
The poet's franchise, though I may not hope
To wear his garland; hear me while I tell
My story in such form as poets use,
But breathed in fitful whispers, as the wind
Sighs and then slumbers, wakes and sighs again.
Thou Vision, floating in the breathless air
Between me and the fairest of the stars,
I tell my lonely thoughts as unto thee.
Look not for marvels of the scholar's pen
In my rude measure; I can only show
A slender-margined, unillumined page,
And trust its meaning to the flattering eye
That reads it in the gracious light of love.
Ah, wouldst thou clothe thyself in breathing shape
And nestle at my side, my voice should lend
Whate'er my verse may lack of tender rhythm
To make thee listen.
I have stood entranced
When, with her fingers wandering o'er the keys,
The white enchantress with the golden hair
Breathed all her soul through some unvalued rhyme;
Some flower of song that long had lost its bloom;
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