The Complete PG Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (The Physician and Poet)
Part 17 out of 51
number of this record, the company fell into talk upon the subject
with which it dealt.
The Mistress. "I could have wished you had said more about the
religious attitude of old age as such. Surely the thoughts of aged
persons must be very much taken up with the question of what is to
become of them. I should like to have The Dictator explain himself a
little more fully on this point."
My dear madam, I said, it is a delicate matter to talk about. You
remember Mr. Calhoun's response to the advances of an over-zealous
young clergyman who wished to examine him as to his outfit for the
long journey. I think the relations between man and his Maker grow
more intimate, more confidential, if I may say so, with advancing
years. The old man is less disposed to argue about special matters
of belief, and more ready to sympathize with spiritually minded
persons without anxious questioning as to the fold to which they
belong. That kindly judgment which he exercises with regard to
others he will, naturally enough, apply to himself. The caressing
tone in which the Emperor Hadrian addresses his soul is very much
like that of an old person talking with a grandchild or some other
"Animula, vagula, blandula,
Hospes comesque corporis."
"Dear little, flitting, pleasing sprite,
The body's comrade and its guest."
How like the language of Catullus to Lesbia's sparrow!
More and more the old man finds his pleasures in memory, as the
present becomes unreal and dreamlike, and the vista of his earthly
future narrows and closes in upon him. At last, if he live long
enough, life comes to be little more than a gentle and peaceful
delirium of pleasing recollections. To say, as Dante says, that
there is no greater grief than to remember past happiness in the hour
of misery is not giving the whole truth. In the midst of the misery,
as many would call it, of extreme old age, there is often a divine
consolation in recalling the happy moments and days and years of
times long past. So beautiful are the visions of bygone delight that
one could hardly wish them to become real, lest they should lose
their ineffable charm. I can almost conceive of a dozing and dreamy
centenarian saying to one he loves, "Go, darling, go! Spread your
wings and leave me. So shall you enter that world of memory where
all is lovely. I shall not hear the sound of your footsteps any
more, but you will float before me, an aerial presence. I shall not
hear any word from your lips, but I shall have a deeper sense of your
nearness to me than speech can give. I shall feel, in my still
solitude, as the Ancient Mariner felt when the seraph band gathered
"'No voice did they impart
No voice; but oh! the silence sank
Like music on my heart.'"
I said that the lenient way in which the old look at the failings of
others naturally leads them to judge themselves more charitably.
They find an apology for their short-comings and wrong-doings in
another consideration. They know very well that they are not the
same persons as the middle-aged individuals, the young men, the boys,
the children, that bore their names, and whose lives were continuous
with theirs. Here is an old man who can remember the first time he
was allowed to go shooting. What a remorseless young destroyer he
was, to be sure! Wherever he saw a feather, wherever a poor little
squirrel showed his bushy tail, bang! went the old "king's arm," and
the feathers or the fur were set flying like so much chaff. Now that
same old man,--the mortal that was called by his name and has passed
for the same person for some scores of years,--is considered absurdly
sentimental by kind-hearted women, because he opens the fly-trap and
sets all its captives free,--out-of-doors, of course, but the dear
souls all insisting, meanwhile, that the flies will, every one of
them, be back again in the house before the day is over. Do you
suppose that venerable sinner expects to be rigorously called to
account for the want of feeling he showed in those early years, when
the instinct of destruction, derived from his forest-roaming
ancestors, led him to acts which he now looks upon with pain and
"Senex" has seen three generations grow up, the son repeating the
virtues and the failings of the father, the grandson showing the same
characteristics as the father and grandfather. He knows that if such
or such a young fellow had lived to the next stage of life he would
very probably have caught up with his mother's virtues, which, like a
graft of a late fruit on an early apple or pear tree, do not ripen in
her children until late in the season. He has seen the successive
ripening of one quality after another on the boughs of his own life,
and he finds it hard to condemn himself for faults which only needed
time to fall off and be succeeded by better fruitage. I cannot help
thinking that the recording angel not only drops a tear upon many a
human failing, which blots it out forever, but that he hands many an
old record-book to the imp that does his bidding, and orders him to
throw that into the fire instead of the sinner for whom the little
wretch had kindled it.
"And pitched him in after it, I hope," said Number Seven, who is in
some points as much of an optimist as any one among us, in spite of
the squint in his brain,--or in virtue of it, if you choose to have
"I like Wordsworth's 'Matthew,'" said Number Five, "as well as any
picture of old age I remember."
"Can you repeat it to us?" asked one of The Teacups.
"I can recall two verses of it," said Number Five, and she recited
the two following ones. Number Five has a very sweet voice. The
moment she speaks all the faces turn toward her. I don't know what
its secret is, but it is a voice that makes friends of everybody.
"'The sighs which Matthew heaved were sighs
Of one tired out with fun and madness;
The tears which came to Matthew's eyes
Were tears of light, the dew of gladness.
"'Yet, sometimes, when the secret cup
Of still and serious thought went round,
It seemed as if he drank it up,
He felt with spirit so profound:'
"This was the way in which Wordsworth paid his tribute to a
"'Soul of God's best earthly mould.'"
The sweet voice left a trance-like silence after it, which may have
lasted twenty heart-beats. Then I said, We all thank you for your
charming quotation. How much more wholesome a picture of humanity
than such stuff as the author of the "Night Thoughts" has left us:
"Heaven's Sovereign saves all beings but Himself
That hideous sight, a naked human heart."
Or the author of "Don Juan," telling us to look into
"Man's heart, and view the hell that's there!"
I hope I am quoting correctly, but I am more of a scholar in
Wordsworth than in Byron. Was Parson Young's own heart such a
hideous spectacle to himself?
If it was, he had better have stripped off his surplice. No,--it was
nothing but the cant of his calling. In Byron it was a mood, and he
might have said just the opposite thing the next day, as he did in
his two descriptions of the Venus de' Medici. That picture of old
Matthew abides in the memory, and makes one think better of his kind.
What nobler tasks has the poet than to exalt the idea of manhood, and
to make the world we live in more beautiful?
We have two or three young people with us who stand a fair chance of
furnishing us the element without which life and tea-tables alike are
wanting in interest. We are all, of course, watching them, and
curious to know whether we are to have a romance or not. Here is one
of them; others will show themselves presently.
I cannot say just how old the Tutor is, but I do not detect a gray
hair in his head. My sight is not so good as it was, however, and he
may have turned the sharp corner of thirty, and even have left it a
year or two behind him. More probably he is still in the twenties,
--say twenty-eight or twenty-nine. He seems young, at any rate,
excitable, enthusiastic, imaginative, but at the same time reserved.
I am afraid that he is a poet. When I say "I am afraid," you wonder
what I mean by the expression. I may take another opportunity to
explain and justify it; I will only say now that I consider the Muse
the most dangerous of sirens to a young man who has his way to make
in the world. Now this young man, the Tutor, has, I believe, a
future before him. He was born for a philosopher,--so I read his
horoscope,--but he has a great liking for poetry and can write well
in verse. We have had a number of poems offered for our
entertainment, which I have commonly been requested to read. There
has been some little mystery about their authorship, but it is
evident that they are not all from the same hand. Poetry is as
contagious as measles, and if a single case of it break out in any
social circle, or in a school, there are certain to be a number of
similar cases, some slight, some serious, and now and then one so
malignant that the subject of it should be put on a spare diet of
stationery, say from two to three penfuls of ink and a half sheet of
notepaper per diem. If any of our poetical contributions are
presentable, the reader shall have a chance to see them.
It must be understood that our company is not invariably made up of
the same persons. The Mistress, as we call her, is expected to be
always in her place. I make it a rule to be present. The Professor
is almost as sure to be at the table as I am. We should hardly know
what to do without Number Five. It takes a good deal of tact to
handle such a little assembly as ours, which is a republic on a small
scale, for all that they give me the title of Dictator, and Number
Five is a great help in every social emergency. She sees when a
discussion tends to become personal, and heads off the threatening
antagonists. She knows when a subject has been knocking about long
enough and dexterously shifts the talk to another track. It is true
that I am the one most frequently appealed to as the highest tribunal
in doubtful cases, but I often care more for Number Five's opinion
than I do for my own. Who is this Number Five, so fascinating, so
wise, so full of knowledge, and so ready to learn? She is suspected
of being the anonymous author of a book which produced a sensation
when published, not very long ago, and which those who read are very
apt to read a second time, and to leave on their tables for frequent
reference. But we have never asked her. I do not think she wants to
be famous. How she comes to be unmarried is a mystery to me; it must
be that she has found nobody worth caring enough for. I wish she
would furnish us with the romance which, as I said, our tea-table
needs to make it interesting. Perhaps the new-comer will make love
to her,--I should think it possible she might fancy him.
And who is the new-comer? He is a Counsellor and a Politician. Has
a good war record. Is about forty-five years old, I conjecture. Is
engaged in a great law case just now. Said to be very eloquent. Has
an intellectual head, and the bearing of one who has commanded a
regiment or perhaps a brigade. Altogether an attractive person,
scholarly, refined has some accomplishments not so common as they
might be in the class we call gentlemen, with an accent on the word.
There is also a young Doctor, waiting for his bald spot to come, so
that he may get into practice.
We have two young ladies at the table,--the English girl referred to
in a former number, and an American girl of about her own age. Both
of them are students in one of those institutions--I am not sure
whether they call it an "annex" or not; but at any rate one of those
schools where they teach the incomprehensible sort of mathematics and
other bewildering branches of knowledge above the common level of
high-school education. They seem to be good friends, and form a very
pleasing pair when they walk in arm in arm; nearly enough alike to
seem to belong together, different enough to form an agreeable
Of course we were bound to have a Musician at our table, and we have
one who sings admirably, and accompanies himself, or one or more of
our ladies, very frequently.
Such is our company when the table is full. But sometimes only half
a dozen, or it may be only three or four, are present. At other
times we have a visitor or two, either in the place of one of our
habitual number, or in addition to it. We have the elements, we
think, of a pleasant social gathering,--different sexes, ages,
pursuits, and tastes,--all that is required for a "symphony concert"
of conversation. One of the curious questions which might well be
asked by those who had been with us on different occasions would be,
"How many poets are there among you?" Nobody can answer this
question. It is a point of etiquette with us not to press our
inquiries about these anonymous poems too sharply, especially if any
of them betray sentiments which would not bear rough handling.
I don't doubt that the different personalities at our table will get
mixed up in the reader's mind if be is not particularly clear-headed.
That happens very often, much oftener than all would be willing to
confess, in reading novels and plays. I am afraid we should get a
good deal confused even in reading our Shakespeare if we did not look
back now and then at the dramatis personae. I am sure that I am very
apt to confound the characters in a moderately interesting novel;
indeed, I suspect that the writer is often no better off than the
reader in the dreary middle of the story, when his characters have
all made their appearance, and before they have reached near enough
to the denoument to have fixed their individuality by the position
they have arrived at in the chain of the narrative.
My reader might be a little puzzled when he read that Number Five did
or said such or such a thing, and ask, "Whom do you mean by that
title? I am not quite sure that I remember." Just associate her with
that line of Emerson,
"Why nature loves the number five,"
and that will remind you that she is the favorite of our table.
You cannot forget who Number Seven is if I inform you that he
specially prides himself on being a seventh son of a seventh son.
The fact of such a descent is supposed to carry wonderful endowments
with it. Number Seven passes for a natural healer. He is looked
upon as a kind of wizard, and is lucky in living in the nineteenth
century instead of the sixteenth or earlier. How much confidence he
feels in himself as the possessor of half-supernatural gifts I cannot
say. I think his peculiar birthright gives him a certain confidence
in his whims and fancies which but for that he would hardly feel.
After this explanation, when I speak of Number Five or Number Seven,
you will know to whom I refer.
The company are very frank in their criticisms of each other. "I did
not like that expression of yours, planetary foundlings," said the
Mistress. "It seems to me that it is too like atheism for a good
Christian like you to use."
Ah, my dear madam, I answered, I was thinking of the elements and the
natural forces to which man was born an almost helpless subject in
the rudimentary stages of his existence, and from which he has only
partially got free after ages upon ages of warfare with their
tyranny. Think what hunger forced the caveman to do! Think of the
surly indifference of the storms that swept the forest and the
waters, the earthquake chasms that engulfed him, the inundations that
drowned him out of his miserable hiding-places, the pestilences that
lay in wait for him, the unequal strife with ferocious animals!
I need not sum up all the wretchedness that goes to constitute the
"martyrdom of man." When our forefathers came to this wilderness as
it then was, and found everywhere the bones of the poor natives who
had perished in the great plague (which our Doctor there thinks was
probably the small-pox), they considered this destructive malady as a
special mark of providential favor for them. How about the miserable
Indians? Were they anything but planetary foundlings? No!
Civilization is a great foundling hospital, and fortunate are all
those who get safely into the creche before the frost or the malaria
has killed them, the wild beasts or the venomous reptiles worked out
their deadly appetites and instincts upon them. The very idea of
humanity seems to be that it shall take care of itself and develop
its powers in the "struggle for life." Whether we approve it or not,
if we can judge by the material record, man was born a foundling, and
fought his way as he best might to that kind of existence which we
call civilized,--one which a considerable part of the inhabitants of
our planet have reached.
If you do not like the expression planetary foundlings, I have no
objection to your considering the race as put out to nurse. And what
a nurse Nature is! She gives her charge a hole in the rocks to live
in, ice for his pillow and snow for his blanket, in one part of the
world; the jungle for his bedroom in another, with the tiger for his
watch-dog, and the cobra as his playfellow.
Well, I said, there may be other parts of the universe where there
are no tigers and no cobras. It is not quite certain that such
realms of creation are better off, on the whole, than this earthly
residence of ours, which has fought its way up to the development of
such centres of civilization as Athens and Rome, to such
personalities as Socrates, as Washington.
"One of our company has been on an excursion among the celestial
bodies of our system, I understand," said the Professor.
Number Five colored. "Nothing but a dream," she said. "The truth
is, I had taken ether in the evening for a touch of neuralgia, and it
set my imagination at work in a way quite unusual with me. I had
been reading a number of books about an ideal condition of society,--
Sir Thomas Mores 'Utopia,' Lord Bacon's 'New Atlantis,' and another
of more recent date. I went to bed with my brain a good deal
excited, and fell into a deep slumber, in which I passed through some
experiences so singular that, on awaking, I put them down on paper.
I don't know that there is anything very original about the
experiences I have recorded, but I thought them worth preserving.
Perhaps you would not agree with me in that belief."
"If Number Five will give us a chance to form our own judgment about
her dream or vision, I think we shall enjoy it," said the Mistress.
"She knows what will please The Teacups in the way of reading as well
as I do how many lumps of sugar the Professor wants in his tea and
how many I want in mine."
The company was so urgent that Number Five sent up-stairs for her
Number Five reads the story of her dream.
It cost me a great effort to set down the words of the manuscript
from which I am reading. My dreams for the most part fade away so
soon after their occurrence that I cannot recall them at all. But in
this case my ideas held together with remarkable tenacity. By
keeping my mind steadily upon the work, I gradually unfolded the
narrative which follows, as the famous Italian antiquary opened one
of those fragile carbonized manuscripts found in the ruins of
Herculaneum or Pompeii.
The first thing I remember about it is that I was floating upward,
without any sense of effort on my part. The feeling was that of
flying, which I have often had in dreams, as have many other persons.
It was the most natural thing in the world,--a semi-materialized
volition, if I may use such an expression.
At the first moment of my new consciousness,--for I seemed to have
just emerged from a deep slumber, I was aware that there was a
companion at my side. Nothing could be more gracious than the way in
which this being accosted me. I will speak of it as she, because
there was a delicacy, a sweetness, a divine purity, about its aspect
that recalled my ideal of the loveliest womanhood.
"I am your companion and your guide," this being made me understand,
as she looked at me. Some faculty of which I had never before been
conscious had awakened in me, and I needed no interpreter to explain
the unspoken language of my celestial attendant.
"You are not yet outside of space and time," she said, "and I am
going with you through some parts of the phenomenal or apparent
universe,--what you call the material world. We have plenty of what
you call time before us, and we will take our voyage leisurely,
looking at such objects of interest as may attract our attention as
we pass. The first thing you will naturally wish to look at will be
the earth you have just left. This is about the right distance," she
said, and we paused in our flight.
The great globe we had left was rolling beneath us. No eye of one in
the flesh could see it as I saw or seemed to see it. No ear of any
mortal being could bear the sounds that came from it as I heard or
seemed to hear them. The broad oceans unrolled themselves before me.
I could recognize the calm Pacific and the stormy Atlantic,--the
ships that dotted them, the white lines where the waves broke on the
shore,--frills on the robes of the continents,--so they looked to
my woman's perception; the--vast South American forests; the
glittering icebergs about the poles; the snowy mountain ranges, here
and there a summit sending up fire and smoke; mighty rivers, dividing
provinces within sight of each other, and making neighbors of realms
thousands of miles apart; cities; light-houses to insure the safety
of sea-going vessels, and war-ships to knock them to pieces and sink
them. All this, and infinitely more, showed itself to me during a
single revolution of the sphere: twenty-four hours it would have
been, if reckoned by earthly measurements of time. I have not spoken
of the sounds I heard while the earth was revolving under us. The
howl of storms, the roar and clash of waves, the crack and crash of
the falling thunderbolt,--these of course made themselves heard as
they do to mortal ears. But there were other sounds which enchained
my attention more than these voices of nature. As the skilled leader
of an orchestra hears every single sound from each member of the mob
of stringed and wind instruments, and above all the screech of the
straining soprano, so my sharpened perceptions made what would have
been for common mortals a confused murmur audible to me as compounded
of innumerable easily distinguished sounds. Above them all arose one
continued, unbroken, agonizing cry. It was the voice of suffering
womanhood, a sound that goes up day and night, one long chorus of
"Let us get out of reach of this," I said; and we left our planet,
with its blank, desolate moon staring at it, as if it had turned pale
at the sights and sounds it had to witness.
Presently the gilded dome of the State House, which marked our
starting-point, came into view for the second time, and I knew that
this side-show was over. I bade farewell to the Common with its
Cogswell fountain, and the Garden with its last awe-inspiring
"Oh, if I could sometimes revisit these beloved scenes! "I exclaimed.
"There is nothing to hinder that I know of," said my companion.
"Memory and imagination as you know them in the flesh are two winged
creatures with strings tied to their legs, and anchored to a bodily
weight of a hundred and fifty pounds, more or less. When the string
is cut you can be where you wish to be,--not merely a part of you,
leaving the rest behind, but the whole of you. Why shouldn't you
want to revisit your old home sometimes?"
I was astonished at the human way in which my guide conversed with
me. It was always on the basis of my earthly habits, experiences,
and limitations. "Your solar system," she said, "is a very small
part of the universe, but you naturally feel a curiosity about the
bodies which constitute it and about their inhabitants. There is
your moon: a bare and desolate-looking place it is, and well it may
be, for it has no respirable atmosphere, and no occasion for one.
The Lunites do not breathe; they live without waste and without
supply. You look as if you do not understand this. Yet your people
have, as you well know, what they call incandescent lights
everywhere. You would have said there can be no lamp without oil or
gas, or other combustible substance, to feed it; and yet you see a
filament which sheds a light like that of noon all around it, and
does not waste at all. So the Lunites live by influx of divine
energy, just as the incandescent lamp glows,--glows, and is not
consumed; receiving its life, if we may call it so, from the central
power, which wears the unpleasant name of 'dynamo.'"
The Lunites appeared to me as pale phosphorescent figures of ill-
defined outline, lost in their own halos, as it were. I could not
help thinking of Shelley's
With white fire laden."
But as the Lunites were after all but provincials, as are the tenants
of all the satellites, I did not care to contemplate them for any
great length of time.
I do not remember much about the two planets that came next to our
own, except the beautiful rosy atmosphere of one and the huge bulk of
the other. Presently, we found ourselves within hailing distance of
another celestial body, which I recognized at once, by the rings
which girdled it, as the planet Saturn. A dingy, dull-looking sphere
it was in its appearance. "We will tie up here for a while," said my
attendant. The easy, familiar way in which she spoke surprised and
Why, said I,--The Dictator,--what is there to prevent beings of
another order from being as cheerful, as social, as good companions,
as the very liveliest of God's creatures whom we have known in the
flesh? Is it impossible for an archangel to smile? Is such a
phenomenon as a laugh never heard except in our little sinful corner
of the universe? Do you suppose, that when the disciples heard from
the lips of their Master the play of words on the name of Peter,
there was no smile of appreciation on the bearded faces of those holy
men? From any other lips we should have called this pleasantry a
Number Five shook her head very slightly, and gave me a look that
seemed to say, "Don't frighten the other Teacups. We don't call
things by the names that belong to them when we deal with celestial
We tied up, as my attendant playfully called our resting, so near the
planet that I could know--I will not say see and hear, but apprehend
--all that was going on in that remote sphere; remote, as we who live
in what we have been used to consider the centre of the rational
universe regard it. What struck me at once was the deadness of
everything I looked upon. Dead, uniform color of surface and
surrounding atmosphere. Dead complexion of all the inhabitants.
Dead-looking trees, dead-looking grass, no flowers to be seen
"What is the meaning of all this?" I said to my guide.
She smiled good-naturedly, and replied, "It is a forlorn home for
anything above a lichen or a toadstool; but that is no wonder, when
you know what the air is which they breathe. It is pure nitrogen."
The Professor spoke up. "That can't be, madam," he said. "The
spectroscope shows the atmosphere of Saturn to be--no matter, I have
forgotten what; but it was not pure nitrogen, at any rate."
Number Five is never disconcerted. "Will you tell me," she said,
"where you have found any account of the bands and lines in the
spectrum of dream-nitrogen? I should be so pleased to become
acquainted with them."
The Professor winced a little, and asked Delilah, the handmaiden, to
pass a plate of muffins to him. The dream had carried him away, and
he thought for the moment that he was listening to a scientific
Of course, my companion went on to say, the bodily constitution of
the Saturnians is wholly different from that of air-breathing, that
is oxygen-breathing, human beings. They are the dullest, slowest,
most torpid of mortal creatures.
All this is not to be wondered at when you remember the inert
characteristics of nitrogen. There are in some localities natural
springs which give out slender streams of oxygen. You will learn by
and by what use the Saturnians make of this dangerous gas, which, as
you recollect, constitutes about one fifth of your own atmosphere.
Saturn has large lead mines, but no other metal is found on this
planet. The inhabitants have nothing else to make tools of, except
stones and shells. The mechanical arts have therefore made no great
progress among them. Chopping down a tree with a leaden axe is
necessarily a slow process.
So far as the Saturnians can be said to have any pride in anything,
it is in the absolute level which characterizes their political and
social order. They profess to be the only true republicans in the
solar system. The fundamental articles of their Constitution are
All Saturnians are born equal, live equal, and die equal.
All Saturnians are born free,--free, that is, to obey the rules laid
down for the regulation of their conduct, pursuits, and opinions,
free to be married to the person selected for them by the
physiological section of the government, and free to die at such
proper period of life as may best suit the convenience and general
welfare of the community.
The one great industrial product of Saturn is the bread-root. The
Saturnians find this wholesome and palatable enough; and it is well
they do, as they have no other vegetable. It is what I should call a
most uninteresting kind of eatable, but it serves as food and drink,
having juice enough, so that they get along without water. They have
a tough, dry grass, which, matted together, furnishes them with
clothes sufficiently warm for their cold-blooded constitutions, and
more than sufficiently ugly.
A piece of ground large enough to furnish bread-root for ten persons
is allotted to each head of a household, allowance being made for the
possible increase of families. This, however, is not a very
important consideration, as the Saturnians are not a prolific race.
The great object of life being the product of the largest possible
quantity of bread-roots, and women not being so capable in the fields
as the stronger sex, females are considered an undesirable addition
to society. The one thing the Saturnians dread and abhor is
inequality. The whole object of their laws and customs is to
maintain the strictest equality in everything,--social relations,
property, so far as they can be said to have anything which can be so
called, mode of living, dress, and all other matters. It is their
boast that nobody ever starved under their government. Nobody goes
in rags, for the coarse-fibred grass from which they fabricate their
clothes is very durable. (I confess I wondered how a woman could
live in Saturn. They have no looking-glasses. There is no such
article as a ribbon known among them. All their clothes are of one
pattern. I noticed that there were no pockets in any of their
garments, and learned that a pocket would be considered prima facie
evidence of theft, as no honest person would have use for such a
secret receptacle.) Before the revolution which established the
great law of absolute and lifelong equality, the inhabitants used to
feed at their own private tables. Since the regeneration of society
all meals are taken in common. The last relic of barbarism was the
use of plates,--one or even more to each individual. This "odious
relic of an effete civilization," as they called it, has long been
superseded by oblong hollow receptacles, one of which is allotted to
each twelve persons. A great riot took place when an attempt was
made by some fastidious and exclusive egotists to introduce
partitions which should partially divide one portion of these
receptacles into individual compartments. The Saturnians boast that
they have no paupers, no thieves, none of those fictitious values
called money,--all which things, they hear, are known in that small
Saturn nearer the sun than the great planet which is their dwelling-
"I suppose that now they have levelled everything they are quiet and
contented. Have they any of those uneasy people called reformers?"
"Indeed they have," said my attendant. "There are the
Orthobrachians, who declaim against the shameful abuse of the left
arm and hand, and insist on restoring their perfect equality with the
right. Then there are Isopodic societies, which insist on bringing
back the original equality of the upper and lower limbs. If you can
believe it, they actually practise going on all fours,--generally in
a private way, a few of them together, but hoping to bring the world
round to them in the near future."
Here I had to stop and laugh.
"I should think life might be a little dull in Saturn," I said.
"It is liable to that accusation," she answered. "Do you notice how
many people you meet with their mouths stretched wide open?"
"Yes," I said, "and I do not know what to make of it. I should think
every fourth or fifth person had his mouth open in that way."
"They are suffering from the endemic disease of their planet,
prolonged and inveterate gaping or yawning, which has ended in
dislocation of the lower jaw. After a time this becomes fixed, and
requires a difficult surgical operation to restore it to its place."
It struck me that, in spite of their boast that they have no paupers,
no thieves, no money, they were a melancholy-looking set of beings.
"What are their amusements?" I asked.
"Intoxication and suicide are their chief recreations. They have a
way of mixing the oxygen which issues in small jets from certain
natural springs with their atmospheric nitrogen in the proportion of
about twenty per cent, which makes very nearly the same thing as the
air of your planet. But to the Saturnians the mixture is highly
intoxicating, and is therefore a relief to the monotony of their
every-day life. This mixture is greatly sought after, but hard to
obtain, as the sources of oxygen are few and scanty. It shortens the
lives of those who have recourse to it; but if it takes too long,
they have other ways of escaping from a life which cuts and dries
everything for its miserable subjects, defeats all the natural
instincts, confounds all individual characteristics, and makes
existence such a colossal bore, as your worldly people say, that
self-destruction becomes a luxury."
Number Five stopped here.
Your imaginary wholesale Shakerdom is all very fine, said I. Your
Utopia, your New Atlantis, and the rest are pretty to look at. But
your philosophers are treating the world of living souls as if they
were, each of them, playing a game of solitaire,--all the pegs and
all the holes alike. Life is a very different sort of game. It is a
game of chess, and not of solitaire, nor even of checkers. The men
are not all pawns, but you have your knights, bishops, rooks,--yes,
your king and queen,--to be provided for. Not with these names, of
course, but all looking for their proper places, and having their own
laws and modes of action. You can play solitaire with the members of
your own family for pegs, if you like, and if none of them rebel.
You can play checkers with a little community of meek, like-minded
people. But when it comes to the handling of a great state, you will
find that nature has emptied a box of chessmen before you, and you
must play with them so as to give each its proper move, or sweep them
off the board, and come back to the homely game such as I used to see
played with beans and kernels of corn on squares marked upon the back
of the kitchen bellows.
It was curious to see how differently Number Five's narrative was
received by the different listeners in our circle. Number Five
herself said she supposed she ought to be ashamed of its absurdities,
but she did not know that it was much sillier than dreams often are,
and she thought it might amuse the company. She was herself always
interested by these ideal pictures of society. But it seemed to her
that life must be dull in any of them, and with that idea in her head
her dreaming fancy had drawn these pictures.
The Professor was interested in her conception of the existence of
the Lunites without waste, and the death in life of the nitrogen-
breathing Saturnians. Dream-chemistry was a new subject to him.
Perhaps Number Five would give him some lessons in it.
At this she smiled, and said she was afraid she could not teach him
anything, but if he would answer a few questions in matter-of-fact
chemistry which had puzzled her she would be vastly obliged to him.
"You must come to my laboratory," said the Professor.
"I will come to-morrow," said Number Five.
Oh, yes! Much laboratory work they will do! Play of mutual
affinities. Amalgamates. No freezing mixtures, I'll warrant
Why shouldn't we get a romance out of all this, hey?
But Number Five looks as innocent as a lamb, and as brave as a lion.
She does not care a copper for the looks that are going round The
Our Doctor was curious about those cases of anchylosis, as he called
it, of the lower jaw. He thought it a quite possible occurrence.
Both the young girls thought the dream gave a very hard view of the
optimists, who look forward to a reorganization of society which
shall rid mankind of the terrible evils of over-crowding and
Number Seven was quite excited about the matter. He had himself
drawn up a plan for a new social arrangement. He had shown it to the
legal gentleman who has lately joined us. This gentleman thought it
well-intended, but that it would take one constable to every three
inhabitants to enforce its provisions.
I said the dream could do no harm; it was too outrageously improbable
to come home to anybody's feelings. Dreams were like broken
mosaics,--the separated stones might here and there make parts of
pictures. If one found a caricature of himself made out of the
pieces which had accidentally come together, he would smile at it,
knowing that it was an accidental effect with no malice in it. If
any of you really believe in a working Utopia, why not join the
Shakers, and convert the world to this mode of life? Celibacy alone
would cure a great many of the evils you complain of.
I thought this suggestion seemed to act rather unfavorably upon the
ladies of our circle. The two Annexes looked inquiringly at each
other. Number Five looked smilingly at them. She evidently thought
it was time to change the subject of conversation, for she turned to
me and said, "You promised to read us the poem you read before your
old classmates the other evening."
I will fulfill my promise, I said. We felt that this might probably
be our last meeting as a Class. The personal reference is to our
greatly beloved and honored classmate, James Freeman Clarke.
AFTER THE CURFEW.
The Play is over. While the light
Yet lingers in the darkening hall,
I come to say a last Good-night
Before the final Exeunt all.
We gathered once, a joyous throng:
The jovial toasts went gayly round;
With jest, and laugh, and shout, and song
we made the floors and walls resound.
We come with feeble steps and slow,
A little band of four or five,
Left from the wrecks of long ago,
Still pleased to find ourselves alive.
Alive! How living, too, are they
whose memories it is ours to share!
Spread the long table's full array,
There sits a ghost in every chair!
One breathing form no more, alas!
Amid our slender group we see;
With him we still remained "The Class,"
without his presence what are we?
The hand we ever loved to clasp,
That tireless hand which knew no rest,
Loosed from affection's clinging grasp,
Lies nerveless on the peaceful breast.
The beaming eye, the cheering voice,
That lent to life a generous glow,
whose every meaning said "Rejoice,"
we see, we hear, no more below.
The air seems darkened by his loss,
Earth's shadowed features look less fair,
And heavier weighs the daily cross
His willing shoulders helped as bear.
Why mourn that we, the favored few
Whom grasping Time so long has spared
Life's sweet illusions to pursue,
The common lot of age have shared?
In every pulse of Friendship's heart
There breeds unfelt a throb of pain,
One hour must rend its links apart,
Though years on years have forged the chain.
So ends "The Boys,"--a lifelong play.
We too must hear the Prompter's call
To fairer scenes and brighter day
Farewell! I let the curtain fall.
If the reader thinks that all these talking Teacups came together by
mere accident, as people meet at a boarding-house, I may as well tell
him at once that he is mistaken. If he thinks I am going to explain
how it is that he finds them thus brought together, whether they form
a secret association, whether they are the editors of this or that
periodical, whether they are connected with some institution, and so
on,--I must disappoint him. It is enough that he finds them in each
other's company, a very mixed assembly, of different sexes, ages, and
pursuits; and if there is a certain mystery surrounds their meetings,
he must not be surprised. Does he suppose we want to be known and
talked about in public as "Teacups"? No; so far as we give to the
community some records of the talks at our table our thoughts become
public property, but the sacred personality of every Teacup must be
properly respected. If any wonder at the presence of one of our
number, whose eccentricities might seem to render him an undesirable
associate of the company, he should remember that some people may
have relatives whom they feel bound to keep their eye on; besides the
cracked Teacup brings out the ring of the sound ones as nothing else
does. Remember also that soundest teacup does not always hold the
best tea, or the cracked teacup the worst.
This is a hint to the reader, who is not expected to be too curious
about the individual Teacups constituting our unorganized
The Dictator Discourses.
I have been reading Balzac's Peau de Chagrin. You have all read the
story, I hope, for it is the first of his wonderful romances which
fixed the eyes of the reading world upon him, and is a most
fascinating if somewhat fantastic tale. A young man becomes the
possessor of a certain magic skin, the peculiarity of which is that,
while it gratifies every wish formed by its possessor, it shrinks in
all its dimensions each time that a wish is gratified. The young man
makes every effort to ascertain the cause of its shrinking; invokes
the aid of the physicist, the chemist, the student of natural
history, but all in vain. He draws a red line around it. That same
day he indulges a longing for a certain object. The next morning
there is a little interval between the red line and the skin, close
to which it was traced. So always, so inevitably. As he lives on,
satisfying one desire, one passion, after another, the process of
shrinking continues. A mortal disease sets in, which keeps pace with
the shrinking skin, and his life and his talisman come to an end
One would say that such a piece of integument was hardly a desirable
possession. And yet, how many of us have at this very moment a peau
de chagrin of our own, diminishing with every costly wish indulged,
and incapable, like the magical one of the story, of being arrested
in its progress
Need I say that I refer to those coupon bonds, issued in the days of
eight and ten per cent interest, and gradually narrowing as they drop
their semiannual slips of paper, which represent wishes to be
realized, as the roses let fall their leaves in July, as the icicles
melt away in the thaw of January?
How beautiful was the coupon bond, arrayed in its golden raiment of
promises to pay at certain stated intervals, for a goodly number of
coming years! What annual the horticulturist can show will bear
comparison with this product of auricultural industry, which has
flowered in midsummer and midwinter for twenty successive seasons?
And now the last of its blossoms is to be plucked, and the bare stem,
stripped of its ever maturing and always welcome appendages, is
reduced to the narrowest conditions of reproductive existence. Such
is the fate of the financial peau de chagrin. Pity the poor
fractional capitalist, who has just managed to live on the eight per
cent of his coupon bonds. The shears of Atropos were not more fatal
to human life than the long scissors which cut the last coupon to the
lean proprietor, whose slice of dry toast it served to flatter with
oleomargarine. Do you wonder that my thoughts took the poetical
form, in the contemplation of these changes and their melancholy
consequences? If the entire poem, of several hundred lines, was
"declined with thanks" by an unfeeling editor, that is no reason why
you should not hear a verse or two of it.
THE PEAU DE CHAGRIN OF STATE STREET.
How beauteous is the bond
In the manifold array
Of its promises to pay,
While the eight per cent it gives
And the rate at which one lives
But at last the bough is bare
Where the coupons one by one
Through their ripening days have run,
And the bond, a beggar now,
Seeks investment anyhow,
The Mistress commonly contents herself with the general supervision
of the company, only now and then taking an active part in the
conversation. She started a question the other evening which set
some of us thinking.
"Why is it," she said, "that there is so common and so intense a
desire for poetical reputation? It seems to me that, if I were a
man, I had rather have done something worth telling of than make
verses about what other people had done."
"You agree with Alexander the Great," said the Professor. "You would
prefer the fame of Achilles to that of Homer, who told the story of
his wrath and its direful consequences. I am afraid that I should
hardly agree with you. Achilles was little better than a Choctaw
brave. I won't quote Horace's line which characterizes him so
admirably, for I will take it for granted that you all know it. He
was a gentleman,--so is a first-class Indian,--a very noble gentleman
in point of courage, lofty bearing, courtesy, but an unsoaped, ill-
clad, turbulent, high-tempered young fellow, looked up to by his
crowd very much as the champion of the heavy weights is looked up to
by his gang of blackguards. Alexander himself was not much better,--
a foolish, fiery young madcap. How often is he mentioned except as a
warning? His best record is that he served to point a moral as
'Macedonian's madman.' He made a figure, it is true, in Dryden's
great Ode, but what kind of a figure? He got drunk,--in very bad
company, too,--and then turned fire-bug. He had one redeeming
point,--he did value his Homer, and slept with the Iliad under his
pillow. A poet like Homer seems to me worth a dozen such fellows as
Achilles and Alexander."
"Homer is all very well far those that can read him," said Number
Seven, "but the fellows that tag verses together nowadays are mostly
fools. That's my opinion. I wrote some verses once myself, but I
had been sick and was very weak; hadn't strength enough to write in
prose, I suppose."
This aggressive remark caused a little stir at our tea-table. For
you must know, if I have not told you already, there are suspicions
that we have more than one "poet" at our table. I have already
confessed that I do myself indulge in verse now and then, and have
given my readers a specimen of my work in that line. But there is so
much difference of character in the verses which are produced at our
table, without any signature, that I feel quite sure there are at
least two or three other contributors besides myself. There is a
tall, old-fashioned silver urn, a sugar-bowl of the period of the
Empire, in which the poems sent to be read are placed by unseen
hands. When the proper moment arrives, I lift the cover of the urn
and take out any manuscript it may contain. If conversation is going
on and the company are in a talking mood, I replace the manuscript or
manuscripts, clap on the cover, and wait until there is a moment's
quiet before taking it off again. I might guess the writers
sometimes by the handwriting, but there is more trouble taken to
disguise the chirography than I choose to take to identify it as that
of any particular member of our company.
The turn the conversation took, especially the slashing onslaught of
Number Seven on the writers of verse, set me thinking and talking
about the matter. Number Five turned on the stream of my discourse
by a question.
"You receive a good many volumes of verse, do you not?" she said,
with a look which implied that she knew I did.
I certainly do, I answered. My table aches with them. My shelves
groan with them. Think of what a fuss Pope made about his trials,
when he complained that
"All Bedlam or Parnassus is let out"!
What were the numbers of the
"Mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease"
to that great multitude of contributors to our magazines, and authors
of little volumes--sometimes, alas! big ones--of verse, which pour
out of the press, not weekly, but daily, and at such a rate of
increase that it seems as if before long every hour would bring a
book, or at least an article which is to grow into a book by and by?
I thanked Heaven, the other day, that I was not a critic. These
attenuated volumes of poetry in fancy bindings open their covers at
one like so many little unfledged birds, and one does so long to drop
a worm in,--a worm in the shape of a kind word for the poor
fledgling! But what a desperate business it is to deal with this
army of candidates for immortality! I have often had something to
say about them, and I may be saying over the same things; but if I do
not remember what I have said, it is not very likely that my reader
will; if he does, he will find, I am very sure, that I say it a
What astonishes me is that this enormous mass of commonplace verse,
which burdens the postman who brings it, which it is a serious task
only to get out of its wrappers and open in two or three places, is
on the whole of so good an average quality. The dead level of
mediocrity is in these days a table-land, a good deal above the old
sea-level of laboring incapacity. Sixty years ago verses made a
local reputation, which verses, if offered today to any of our first-
class magazines, would go straight into the waste-basket. To write
"poetry" was an art and mystery in which only a few noted men and a
woman or two were experts.
When "Potter the ventriloquist," the predecessor of the well-
remembered Signor Blitz, went round giving his entertainments, there
was something unexplained, uncanny, almost awful, and beyond dispute
marvellous, in his performances. Those watches that disappeared and
came back to their owners, those endless supplies of treasures from
empty hats, and especially those crawling eggs that travelled all
over the magician's person, sent many a child home thinking that Mr.
Potter must have ghostly assistants, and raised grave doubts in the
minds of "professors," that is members of the church, whether they
had not compromised their characters by being seen at such an
unhallowed exhibition. Nowadays, a clever boy who has made a study
of parlor magic can do many of those tricks almost as well as the
great sorcerer himself. How simple it all seems when we have seen
the mechanism of the deception!
It is just so with writing in verse. It was not understood that
everybody can learn to make poetry, just as they can learn the more
difficult tricks of juggling. M. Jourdain's discovery that he had
been speaking and writing prose all his life is nothing to that of
the man who finds out in middle life, or even later, that he might
have been writing poetry all his days, if he had only known how
perfectly easy and simple it is. Not everybody, it is true, has a
sufficiently good ear, a sufficient knowledge of rhymes and capacity
for handling them, to be what is called a poet. I doubt whether more
than nine out of ten, in the average, have that combination of gifts
required for the writing of readable verse.
This last expression of opinion created a sensation among The
Teacups. They looked puzzled for a minute. One whispered to the
next Teacup, "More than nine out of ten! I should think that was a
pretty liberal allowance."
Yes, I continued; perhaps ninety-nine in a hundred would come nearer
to the mark. I have sometimes thought I might consider it worth
while to set up a school for instruction in the art. "Poetry taught
in twelve lessons." Congenital idiocy is no disqualification.
Anybody can write "poetry." It is a most unenviable distinction to
leave published a thin volume of verse, which nobody wanted, nobody
buys, nobody reads, nobody cares for except the author, who cries
over its pathos, poor fellow, and revels in its beauties, which he
has all to himself. Come! who will be my pupils in a Course,--Poetry
taught in twelve lessons? That made a laugh, in which most of The
Teacups, myself included, joined heartily. Through it all I heard
the sweet tones of Number Five's caressing voice; not because it was
more penetrating or louder than the others, for it was low and soft,
but it was so different from the others, there was so much more
life,--the life of sweet womanhood,--dissolved in it.
(Of course he will fall in love with her. "He? Who?" Why, the
newcomer, the Counsellor. Did I not see his eyes turn toward her as
the silvery notes rippled from her throat? Did they not follow her
in her movements, as she turned her tread this or that way?
--What nonsense for me to be arranging matters between two people
strangers to each other before to-day!)
"A fellow writes in verse when he has nothing to say, and feels too
dull and silly to say it in prose," said Number Seven.
This made us laugh again, good-naturedly. I was pleased with a kind
of truth which it seemed to me to wrap up in its rather startling
affirmation. I gave a piece of advice the other day which I said I
thought deserved a paragraph to itself. It was from a letter I wrote
not long ago to an unknown young correspondent, who had a longing for
seeing himself in verse but was not hopelessly infatuated with the
idea that he was born a "poet." "When you write in prose," I said,
"you say what you mean. When you write in verse you say what you
must." I was thinking more especially of rhymed verse. Rhythm alone
is a tether, and not a very long one. But rhymes are iron fetters;
it is dragging a chain and ball to march under their incumbrance; it
is a clog-dance you are figuring in, when you execute your metrical
pas seul. Consider under what a disadvantage your thinking powers
are laboring when you are handicapped by the inexorable demands of
our scanty English rhyming vocabulary! You want to say something
about the heavenly bodies, and you have a beautiful line ending with
the word stars. Were you writing in prose, your imagination, your
fancy, your rhetoric, your musical ear for the harmonies of language,
would all have full play. But there is your rhyme fastening you by
the leg, and you must either reject the line which pleases you, or
you must whip your hobbling fancy and all your limping thoughts into
the traces which are hitched to one of three or four or half a dozen
serviceable words. You cannot make any use of cars, I will suppose;
you have no occasion to talk about scars; "the red planet Mars" has
been used already; Dibdin has said enough about the gallant tars;
what is there left for you but bars? So you give up your trains of
thought, capitulate to necessity, and manage to lug in some kind of
allusion, in place or out of place, which will allow you to make use
of bars. Can there be imagined a more certain process for breaking
up all continuity of thought, for taking out all the vigor, all the
virility, which belongs to natural prose as the vehicle of strong,
graceful, spontaneous thought, than this miserable subjugation of
intellect to the-clink of well or ill matched syllables? I think you
will smile if I tell you of an idea I have had about teaching the art
of writing "poems" to the half-witted children at the Idiot Asylum.
The trick of rhyming cannot be more usefully employed than in
furnishing a pleasant amusement to the poor feeble-minded children.
I should feel that I was well employed in getting up a Primer for the
pupils of the Asylum, and other young persons who are incapable of
serious thought and connected expression. I would start in the
simplest way; thus:--
When darkness veils the evening....
I love to close my weary....
The pupil begins by supplying the missing words, which most children
who are able to keep out of fire and water can accomplish after a
certain number of trials. When the poet that is to be has got so as
to perform this task easily, a skeleton verse, in which two or three
words of each line are omitted, is given the child to fill up. By
and by the more difficult forms of metre are outlined, until at
length a feebleminded child can make out a sonnet, completely
equipped with its four pairs of rhymes in the first section and its
three pairs in the second part.
Number Seven interrupted my discourse somewhat abruptly, as is his
wont; for we grant him a license, in virtue of his eccentricity,
which we should hardly expect to be claimed by a perfectly sound
"That's the way,--that 's the way!" exclaimed he. "It's just the
same thing as my plan for teaching drawing."
Some curiosity was shown among The Teacups to know what the queer
creature had got into his mind, and Number Five asked him, in her
irresistible tones, if he wouldn't oblige us by telling us all about
He looked at her a moment without speaking. I suppose he has often
been made fun of,--slighted in conversation, taken as a butt for
people who thought themselves witty, made to feel as we may suppose a
cracked piece of china-ware feels when it is clinked in the company
of sound bits of porcelain. I never saw him when he was carelessly
dealt with in conversation,--for it would sometimes happen, even at
our table,--without recalling some lines of Emerson which always
struck me as of wonderful force and almost terrible truthfulness:--
"Alas! that one is born in blight,
Victim of perpetual slight
When thou lookest in his face
Thy heart saith, 'Brother, go thy ways
None shall ask thee what thou doest,
Or care a rush for what thou knowest,
Or listen when thou repliest,
Or remember where thou liest,
Or how thy supper is sodden;'
And another is born
To make the sun forgotten."
Poor fellow! Number Seven has to bear a good deal in the way of
neglect and ridicule, I do not doubt. Happily, he is protected by an
amount of belief in himself which shields him from many assailants
who would torture a more sensitive nature. But the sweet voice of
Number Five and her sincere way of addressing him seemed to touch his
feelings. That was the meaning of his momentary silence, in which I
saw that his eyes glistened and a faint flush rose on his cheeks. In
a moment, however, as soon as he was on his hobby, he was all right,
and explained his new and ingenious system as follows:
"A man at a certain distance appears as a dark spot,--nothing more.
Good. Anybody, man, woman, or child, can make a dot, say a period,
such as we use in writing. Lesson No. 1. Make a dot; that is, draw
your man, a mile off, if that is far enough. Now make him come a
little nearer, a few rods, say. The dot is an oblong figure now.
Good. Let your scholar draw the oblong figure. It is as easy as it
is to make a note of admiration. Your man comes nearer, and now some
hint of a bulbous enlargement at one end, and perhaps of lateral
appendages and a bifurcation, begins to show itself. The pupil sets
down with his pencil just what he sees,--no more. So by degrees the
man who serves as model approaches. A bright pupil will learn to get
the outline of a human figure in ten lessons, the model coming five
hundred feet nearer each time. A dull one may require fifty, the
model beginning a mile off, or more, and coming a hundred feet nearer
at each move."
The company were amused by all this, but could not help seeing that
there was a certain practical possibility about the scheme. Our two
Annexes, as we call then, appeared to be interested in the project,
or fancy, or whim, or whatever the older heads might consider it.
"I guess I'll try it," said the American Annex. "Quite so," answered
the English Annex. Why the first girl "guessed" about her own
intentions it is hard to say. What "quite so" referred to it would
not be easy to determine. But these two expressions would decide the
nationality of our two young ladies if we met them on the top of the
I was very glad that Number Seven had interrupted me. In fact, it is
a good thing once in a while to break in upon the monotony of a
steady talker at a dinner-table, tea-table, or any other place of
social converse. The best talker is liable to become the most
formidable of bores. It is a peculiarity of the bore that he is the
last person to find himself out. Many a terebrant I have known who,
in that capacity, to borrow a line from Coleridge,
"Was great, nor knew how great he was."
A line, by the way, which, as I have remarked, has in it a germ like
that famous "He builded better than he knew" of Emerson.
There was a slight lull in the conversation. The Mistress, who keeps
an eye on the course of things, and feared that one of those panic
silences was impending, in which everybody wants to say something and
does not know just what to say, begged me to go on with my remarks
about the "manufacture" of "poetry."
You use the right term, madam, I said. The manufacture of that
article has become an extensive and therefore an important branch of
industry. One must be an editor, which I am not, or a literary
confidant of a wide circle of correspondents, which I am, to have any
idea of the enormous output of verse which is characteristic of our
time. There are many curious facts connected with this phenomenon.
Educated people--yes, and many who are not educated--have discovered
that rhymes are not the private property of a few noted writers who,
having squatted on that part of the literary domain some twenty or
forty or sixty years ago, have, as it were, fenced it in with their
touchy, barbed-wire reputations, and have come to regard it and cause
it to be regarded as their private property. The discovery having
been made that rhyme is not a paddock for this or that race-horse,
but a common, where every colt, pony, and donkey can range at will;
a vast irruption into that once-privileged inclosure has taken place.
The study of the great invasion is interesting.
Poetry is commonly thought to he the language of emotion. On the
contrary, most of what is so called proves the absence of all
passionate excitement. It is a cold-blooded, haggard, anxious,
worrying hunt after rhymes which can be made serviceable, after
images which will be effective, after phrases which are sonorous; all
this under limitations which restrict the natural movements of fancy
and imagination. There is a secondary excitement in overcoming the
difficulties of rhythm and rhyme, no doubt, but this is not the
emotional heat excited by the subject of the "poet's" treatment.
True poetry, the best of it, is but the ashes of a burnt-out passion.
The flame was in the eye and in the cheek, the coals may be still
burning in the heart, but when we come to the words it leaves behind
it, a little warmth, a cinder or two just glimmering under the dead
gray ashes,--that is all we can look for. When it comes to the
manufactured article, one is surprised to find how well the metrical
artisans have learned to imitate the real thing. They catch all the
phrases of the true poet. They imitate his metrical forms as a mimic
copies the gait of the person he is representing.
Now I am not going to abuse "these same metre ballad-mongers," for
the obvious reason that, as all The Teacups know, I myself belong to
the fraternity. I don't think that this reason should hinder my
having my say about the ballad-mongering business. For the last
thirty years I have been in the habit of receiving a volume of poems
or a poem, printed or manuscript--I will not say daily, though I
sometimes receive more than one in a day, but at very short
intervals. I have been consulted by hundreds of writers of verse as
to the merit of their performances, and have often advised the
writers to the best of my ability. Of late I have found it
impossible to attempt to read critically all the literary
productions, in verse and in prose, which have heaped themselves on
every exposed surface of my library, like snowdrifts along the
railroad tracks,--blocking my literary pathway, so that I can hardly
find my daily papers.
What is the meaning of this rush into rhyming of such a multitude of
people, of all ages, from the infant phenomenon to the oldest
Many of my young correspondents have told me in so many words,
"I want to be famous." Now it is true that of all the short cuts to
fame, in time of peace, there is none shorter than the road paved
with rhymes. Byron woke up one morning and found himself famous.
Still more notably did Rouget de l'Isle fill the air of France, nay,
the whole atmosphere of freedom all the world over, with his name
wafted on the wings of the Marseillaise, the work of a single night.
But if by fame the aspirant means having his name brought before and
kept before the public, there is a much cheaper way of acquiring that
kind of notoriety. Have your portrait taken as a "Wonderful Cure of
a Desperate Disease given up by all the Doctors." You will get a
fair likeness of yourself and a partial biographical notice, and have
the satisfaction, if not of promoting the welfare of the community,
at least that of advancing the financial interests of the benefactor
whose enterprise has given you your coveted notoriety. If a man
wants to be famous, he had much better try the advertising doctor
than the terrible editor, whose waste-basket is a maw which is as
insatiable as the temporary stomach of Jack the Giant-killer.
"You must not talk so," said Number Five. "I know you don't mean any
wrong to the true poets, but you might be thought to hold them cheap,
whereas you value the gift in others,--in yourself too, I rather
think. There are a great many women,--and some men,--who write in
verse from a natural instinct which leads them to that form of
expression. If you could peep into the portfolio of all the
cultivated women among your acquaintances, you would be surprised, I
believe, to see how many of them trust their thoughts and feelings to
verse which they never think of publishing, and much of which never
meets any eyes but their own. Don't be cruel to the sensitive
natures who find a music in the harmonies of rhythm and rhyme which
soothes their own souls, if it reaches no farther."
I was glad that Number Five spoke up as she did. Her generous
instinct came to the rescue of the poor poets just at the right
moment. Not that I meant to deal roughly with them, but the "poets"
I have been forced into relation with have impressed me with certain
convictions which are not flattering to the fraternity, and if my
judgments are not accompanied by my own qualifications, distinctions,
and exceptions, they may seem harsh to many readers.
Let me draw a picture which many a young man and woman, and some no
longer young, will recognize as the story of their own experiences.
--He is sitting alone with his own thoughts and memories. What is
that book he is holding? Something precious, evidently, for it is
bound in "tree calf," and there is gilding enough about it for a
birthday present. The reader seems to be deeply absorbed in its
contents, and at times greatly excited by what he reads; for his face
is flushed, his eyes glitter, and--there rolls a large tear down his
cheek. Listen to him; he is reading aloud in impassioned tones:
And have I coined my soul in words for naught?
And must I, with the dim, forgotten throng
Of silent ghosts that left no earthly trace
To show they once had breathed this vital air,
Die out, of mortal memories?
His voice is choked by his emotion. "How is it possible," he says to
himself, "that any one can read my 'Gaspings for Immortality' without
being impressed by their freshness, their passion, their beauty,
their originality?" Tears come to his relief freely,--so freely that
be has to push the precious volume out of the range of their
blistering shower. Six years ago "Gaspings for Immortality" was
published, advertised, praised by the professionals whose business it
is to boost their publishers' authors. A week and more it was seen
on the counters of the booksellers and at the stalls in the railroad
stations. Then it disappeared from public view. A few copies still
kept their place on the shelves of friends,--presentation copies, of
course, as there is no evidence that any were disposed of by sale;
and now, one might as well ask for the lost books of Livy as inquire
at a bookstore for "Gaspings for Immortality."
The authors of these poems are all round us, men and women, and no
one with a fair amount of human sympathy in his disposition would
treat them otherwise than tenderly. Perhaps they do not need tender
treatment. How do you know that posterity may not resuscitate these
seemingly dead poems, and give their author the immortality for which
he longed and labored? It is not every poet who is at once
appreciated. Some will tell you that the best poets never are. Who
can say that you, dear unappreciated brother or sister, are not one
of those whom it is left for after times to discover among the wrecks
of the past, and hold up to the admiration of the world?
I have not thought it necessary to put in all the interpellations, as
the French call them, which broke the course of this somewhat
extended series of remarks; but the comments of some of The Teacups
helped me to shape certain additional observations, and may seem to
the reader as of more significance than what I had been saying.
Number Seven saw nothing but the folly and weakness of the "rhyming
cranks," as he called them. He thought the fellow that I had
described as blubbering over his still-born poems would have been
better occupied in earning his living in some honest way or other.
He knew one chap that published a volume of verses, and let his wife
bring up the wood for the fire by which he was writing. A fellow
says, "I am a poet!" and he thinks himself different from common
folks. He ought to be excused from military service. He might be
killed, and the world would lose the inestimable products of his
genius. "I believe some of 'em think," said Number Seven, "that they
ought not to be called upon to pay their taxes and their bills for
household expenses, like the rest of us."
"If they would only study and take to heart Horace's 'Ars Poetica,'"
said the Professor, "it would be a great benefit to them and to the
world at large. I would not advise you to follow him too literally,
of course, for, as you will see, the changes that have taken place
since his time would make some of his precepts useless and some
dangerous, but the spirit of them is always instructive. This is the
way, somewhat modernized and accompanied by my running commentary, in
which he counsels a young poet:
"'Don't try to write poetry, my boy, when you are not in the mood for
doing it,--when it goes against the grain. You are a fellow of
sense,--you understand all that.
"'If you have written anything which you think well of, show it to
Mr.______ , the well-known critic; to "the governor," as you call
him,--your honored father; and to me, your friend.'
"To the critic is well enough, if you like to be overhauled and put
out of conceit with yourself,--it may do you good; but I wouldn't go
to 'the governor' with my verses, if I were you. For either he will
think what you have written is something wonderful, almost as good as
he could have written himself,--in fact, he always did believe in
hereditary genius,--or he will pooh-pooh the whole rhyming nonsense,
and tell you that you had a great deal better stick to your business,
and leave all the word-jingling to Mother Goose and her followers.
"'Show me your verses,' says Horace. Very good it was in him, and
mighty encouraging the first counsel he gives! 'Keep your poem to
yourself for some eight or ten years; you will have time to look it
over, to correct it and make it fit to present to the public.'
"'Much obliged for your advice,' says the poor poet, thirsting for a
draught of fame, and offered a handful of dust. And off he hurries
to the printer, to be sure that his poem comes out in the next number
of the magazine he writes for."
"Is not poetry the natural language of lovers?"
It was the Tutor who asked this question, and I thought he looked in
the direction of Number Five, as if she might answer his question.
But Number Five stirred her tea devotedly; there was a lump of sugar,
I suppose, that acted like a piece of marble. So there was a silence
while the lump was slowly dissolving, and it was anybody's chance who
saw fit to take up the conversation.
The voice that broke the silence was not the sweet, winsome one we
were listening for, but it instantly arrested the attention of the
company. It was the grave, manly voice of one used to speaking, and
accustomed to be listened to with deference. This was the first time
that the company as a whole had heard it, for the speaker was the
new-comer who has been repeatedly alluded to,--the one of whom I
spoke as "the Counsellor."
"I think I can tell you something about that," said the Counsellor.
"I suppose you will wonder how a man of my profession can know or
interest himself about a question so remote from his arid pursuits.
And yet there is hardly one man in a thousand who knows from actual
experience a fraction of what I have learned of the lovers'
vocabulary in my professional experience. I have, I am sorry to say,
had to take an important part in a great number of divorce cases.
These have brought before me scores and hundreds of letters, in which
every shade of the great passion has been represented. What has most
struck me in these amatory correspondences has been their remarkable
sameness. It seems as if writing love-letters reduced all sorts of
people to the same level. I don't remember whether Lord Bacon has
left us anything in that line,--unless, indeed, he wrote Romeo and
Juliet' and the 'Sonnets;' but if he has, I don't believe they differ
so very much from those of his valet or his groom to their respective
lady-loves. It is always, My darling! my darling! The words of
endearment are the only ones the lover wants to employ, and he finds
the vocabulary too limited for his vast desires. So his letters are
apt to be rather tedious except to the personage to whom they are
addressed. As to poetry, it is very common to find it in love-
letters, especially in those that have no love in them. The letters
of bigamists and polygamists are rich in poetical extracts.
Occasionally, an original spurt in rhyme adds variety to an otherwise
monotonous performance. I don't think there is much passion in men's
poetry addressed to women. I agree with The Dictator that poetry is
little more than the ashes of passion; still it may show that the
flame has had its sweep where you find it, unless, indeed, it is
shoveled in from another man's fireplace."
"What do you say to the love poetry of women?" asked the Professor.
"Did ever passion heat words to incandescence as it did those of
The Counsellor turned,--not to Number Five, as he ought to have done,
according to my programme, but to the Mistress.
"Madam," he said, "your sex is adorable in many ways, but in the
abandon of a genuine love-letter it is incomparable. I have seen a
string of women's love-letters, in which the creature enlaced herself
about the object of her worship as that South American parasite which
clasps the tree to which it has attached itself, begins with a
slender succulent network, feeds on the trunk, spreads its fingers
out to hold firmly to one branch after another, thickens, hardens,
stretches in every direction, following the boughs,--and at length
gets strong enough to hold in its murderous arms, high up in air, the
stump and shaft of the once sturdy growth that was its support and
The Counsellor did not say all this quite so formally as I have set
it down here, but in a much easier way. In fact, it is impossible to
smooth out a conversation from memory without stiffening it; you
can't have a dress shirt look quite right without starching the
Some of us would have liked to hear more about those letters in the
divorce cases, but the Counsellor had to leave the table. He
promised to show us some pictures he has of the South American
parasite. I have seen them, and I can assure you they are very
The following verses were found in the urn, or sugar-bowl.
If all the trees in all the woods were men,
And each and every blade of grass a pen;
If every leaf on every shrub and tree
Turned to a sheet of foolscap; every sea
Were changed to ink, and all earth's living tribes
Had nothing else to do but act as scribes,
And for ten thousand ages, day and night,
The human race should write, and write, and write,
Till all the pens and paper were used up,
And the huge inkstand was an empty cup,
Still would the scribblers clustered round its brim
Call for more pens, more paper, and more ink.
"Dolce, ma non troppo dolce," said the Professor to the Mistress, who
was sweetening his tea. She always sweetens his and mine for us. He
has been attending a series of concerts, and borrowed the form of the
directions to the orchestra. "Sweet, but not too sweet," he said,
translating the Italian for the benefit of any of the company who
might not be linguists or musical experts.
"Do you go to those musical hullabaloos?" called out Number Seven.
There was something very much like rudeness in this question and the
tone in which it was asked. But we are used to the outbursts, and
extravagances, and oddities of Number Seven, and do not take offence
at his rough speeches as we should if any other of the company
"If you mean the concerts that have been going on this season, yes, I
do," said the Professor, in a bland, good-humored way.
"And do you take real pleasure in the din of all those screeching and
banging and growling instruments?"
"Yes," he answered, modestly, "I enjoy the brouhaha, if you choose to
consider it such, of all this quarrelsome menagerie of noise-making
machines, brought into order and harmony by the presiding genius, the
leader, who has made a happy family of these snarling stringed
instruments and whining wind instruments, so that although
"Linguae centum sent, oraque centum,
"notwithstanding there are a hundred vibrating tongues and a hundred
bellowing mouths, their one grand blended and harmonized uproar sets
all my fibres tingling with a not unpleasing tremor."
"Do you understand it? Do you take any idea from it? Do you know
what it all means?" said Number Seven.
The Professor was long-suffering under this series of somewhat
peremptory questions. He replied very placidly, "I am afraid I have
but a superficial outside acquaintance with the secrets, the
unfathomable mysteries, of music. I can no more conceive of the
working conditions of the great composer,
"'Untwisting all the chains that tie
The hidden soul of harmony,'
"than a child of three years can follow the reasonings of Newton's
'Principia.' I do not even pretend that I can appreciate the work of
a great master as a born and trained musician does. Still, I do love
a great crash of harmonies, and the oftener I listen to these musical
tempests the higher my soul seems to ride upon them, as the wild fowl
I see through my window soar more freely and fearlessly the fiercer
the storm with which they battle."
"That's all very well," said Number Seven, "but I wish we could get
the old-time music back again. You ought to have heard,--no, I won't
mention her, dead, poor girl,--dead and singing with the saints in
heaven,--but the S_____ girls. If you could have heard them as I did
when I was a boy, you would have cried, as we all used to. Do you
cry at those great musical smashes? How can you cry when you don't
know what it is all about? We used to think the words meant
something,--we fancied that Burns and Moore said some things very
prettily. I suppose you've outgrown all that."
No one can handle Number Seven in one of his tantrums half so well as
Number Five can do it. She can pick out what threads of sense may be
wound off from the tangle of his ideas when they are crowded and
confused, as they are apt to be at times. She can soften the
occasional expression of half-concealed ridicule with which the poor
old fellow's sallies are liable to be welcomed--or unwelcomed. She
knows that the edge of a broken teacup may be sharper, very possibly,
than that of a philosopher's jackknife. A mind a little off its
balance, one which has a slightly squinting brain as its organ; will
often prove fertile in suggestions. Vulgar, cynical, contemptuous
listeners fly at all its weaknesses, and please themselves with
making light of its often futile ingenuities, when a wiser audience
would gladly accept a hint which perhaps could be developed in some
profitable direction, or so interpret an erratic thought that it
should prove good sense in disguise. That is the way Number Five was
in the habit of dealing with the explosions of Number Seven. Do you
think she did not see the ridiculous element in a silly speech, or
the absurdity of an outrageously extravagant assertion? Then you
never heard her laugh when she could give way to her sense of the
ludicrous without wounding the feelings of any other person. But her
kind heart never would forget itself, and so Number Seven had a
champion who was always ready to see that his flashes of
intelligence, fitful as they were, and liable to be streaked with
half-crazy fancies, always found one willing recipient of what light
there was in them.
Number Five, I have found, is a true lover of music, and has a right
to claim a real knowledge of its higher and deeper mysteries. But
she accepted very cordially what our light-headed companion said
about the songs he used to listen to.
"There is no doubt," she remarked," that the tears which used to be
shed over 'Oft in the sully night,' or 'Auld Robin Gray,' or 'A place
in thy memory, dearest,' were honest tears, coming from the true
sources of emotion. There was no affectation about them; those songs
came home to the sensibilities of young people,--of all who had any
sensibilities to be acted upon. And on the other hand, there is a
great amount of affectation in the apparent enthusiasm of many
persons in admiring and applauding music of which they have not the
least real appreciation. They do not know whether it is good or bad,
the work of a first-rate or a fifth-rate composer; whether there are
coherent elements in it, or whether it is nothing more than 'a
concourse of sweet sounds' with no organic connections. One must be
educated, no doubt, to understand the more complex and difficult
kinds of musical composition. Go to the great concerts where you
know that the music is good, and that you ought to like it whether
you do or not. Take a music-bath once or twice a week for a few
seasons, and you will find that it is to the soul what the water-bath
is to the body. I wouldn't trouble myself about the affectations of
people who go to this or that series of concerts chiefly because it
is fashionable. Some of these people whom we think so silly and hold
so cheap will perhaps find, sooner or later, that they have a dormant
faculty which is at last waking up,--and that they who came because
others came, and began by staring at the audience, are listening with
a newly found delight. Every one of us has a harp under bodice or
waistcoat, and if it can only once get properly strung and tuned it
will respond to all outside harmonies."
The Professor has some ideas about music, which I believe he has
given to the world in one form or another; but the world is growing
old and forgetful, and needs to be reminded now and then of what one
has formerly told it.
"I have had glimpses," the Professor said, "of the conditions into
which music is capable of bringing a sensitive nature. Glimpses, I
say, because I cannot pretend that I am capable of sounding all the
depths or reaching all the heights to which music may transport our
mortal consciousness. Let me remind you of a curious fact with
reference to the seat of the musical sense. Far down below the great
masses of thinking marrow and its secondary agents, just as the brain
is about to merge in the spinal cord, the roots of the nerve of
hearing spread their white filaments out into the sentient matter,
where they report what the external organs of hearing tell them.
This sentient matter is in remote connection only with the mental
organs, far more remote than the centres of the sense of vision and
that of smell. In a word, the musical faculty might be said to have
a little brain of its own. It has a special world and a private
language all to itself. How can one explain its significance to
those whose musical faculties are in a rudimentary state of
development, or who have never had them trained? Can you describe in
intelligible language the smell of a rose as compared with that of a
violet? No,-- music can be translated only by music. Just so far
as it suggests worded thought, it falls short of its highest office.
Pure emotional movements of the spiritual nature,--that is what I ask
of music. Music will be the universal language,--the Volapuk of
"Angels sit down with their harps and play at each other, I suppose,"
said Number Seven. "Must have an atmosphere up there if they have
harps, or they wouldn't get any music. Wonder if angels breathe like
mortals? If they do, they must have lungs and air passages, of
course. Think of an angel with the influenza, and nothing but a
cloud for a handkerchief!"
--This is a good instance of the way in which Number Seven's
squinting brain works. You will now and then meet just such brains
in heads you know very well. Their owners are much given to asking
unanswerable questions. A physicist may settle it for us whether
there is an atmosphere about a planet or not, but it takes a brain
with an extra fissure in it to ask these unexpected questions,--
questions which the natural philosopher cannot answer, and which the
theologian never thinks of asking.
The company at our table do not keep always in the same places. The
first thing I noticed, the other evening, was that the Tutor was
sitting between the two Annexes, and the Counsellor was next to
Number Five. Something ought to come of this arrangement. One of
those two young ladies must certainly captivate and perhaps capture
the Tutor. They are just the age to be falling in love and to be
fallen in love with. The Tutor is good looking, intellectual,
suspected of writing poetry, but a little shy, it appears to me.
I am glad to see him between the two girls. If there were only one,
she might be shy too, and then there would be less chance for a
romance such as I am on the lookout for; but these young persons lend
courage to each other, and between them, if he does not wake up like
Cymon at the sight of Iphigenia, I shall be disappointed. As for the
Counsellor and Number Five, they will soon find each other out. Yes,
it is all pretty clear in my mind,--except that there is always an x
in a problem where sentiments are involved. No, not so clear about
the Tutor. Predestined, I venture my guess, to one or the other, but
to which? I will suspend my opinion for the present.
I have found out that the Counsellor is a childless widower. I am
told that the Tutor is unmarried, and so far as known not engaged.
There is no use in denying it,--a company without the possibility of
a love-match between two of its circle is like a champagne bottle
with the cork out for some hours as compared to one with its pop yet
in reserve. However, if there should be any love-making, it need not
break up our conversations. Most of it will be carried on away from
Some of us have been attending certain lectures on Egypt and its
antiquities. I have never been on the Nile. If in any future state
there shall be vacations in which we may have liberty to revisit our
old home, equipped with a complete brand-new set of mortal senses as
our travelling outfit, I think one of the first places I should go
to, after my birthplace, the old gambrel-roofed house,--the place
where it stood, rather,-- would be that mighty, awe-inspiring river.
I do not suppose we shall ever know half of what we owe to the wise
and wonderful people who confront us with the overpowering monuments
of a past which flows out of the unfathomable darkness as the great
river streams from sources even as yet but imperfectly explored.
I have thought a good deal about Egypt, lately, with reference to our
historical monuments. How did the great unknown mastery who fixed
the two leading forms of their monumental records arrive at those
admirable and eternal types, the pyramid and the obelisk? How did
they get their model of the pyramid?
Here is an hour-glass, not inappropriately filled with sand from the
great Egyptian desert. I turn it, and watch the sand as it
accumulates in the lower half of the glass. How symmetrically, how
beautifully, how inevitably, the little particles pile up the cone,
which is ever building and unbuilding itself, always aiming at the
stability which is found only at a certain fixed angle! The Egyptian
children playing in the sand must have noticed this as they let the
grains fall from their hands, and the sloping sides of the miniature
pyramid must have been among the familiar sights to the little boys
and girls for whom the sand furnished their earliest playthings.
Nature taught her children through the working of the laws of
gravitation how to build so that her forces should act in harmony
with art, to preserve the integrity of a structure meant to reach
a far-off posterity. The pyramid is only the cone in which Nature
arranges her heaped and sliding fragments; the cone with flattened
Surfaces, as it is prefigured in certain well-known crystalline
forms. The obelisk is from another of Nature's patterns; it is only
a gigantic acicular crystal.
The Egyptians knew what a monument should be, simple, noble, durable.
It seems to me that we Americans might take a lesson from those early
architects. Our cemeteries are crowded with monuments which are very
far from simple, anything but noble, and stand a small chance of
being permanent. The pyramid is rarely seen, perhaps because it
takes up so much room; and when built on a small scale seems
insignificant as we think of it, dwarfed by the vast structures of
antiquity. The obelisk is very common, and when in just proportions
and of respectable dimensions is unobjectionable.
But the gigantic obelisks like that on Bunker Hill, and especially
the Washington monument at the national capital, are open to critical
animadversion. Let us contrast the last mentioned of these great
piles with the obelisk as the Egyptian conceived and executed it.
The new Pharaoh ordered a memorial of some important personage or
event. In the first place, a mighty stone was dislodged from its
connections, and lifted, unbroken, from the quarry. This was a feat
from which our modern stone-workers shrink dismayed. The Egyptians
appear to have handled these huge monoliths as our artisans handle
hearthstones and doorsteps, for the land actually bristled with such
giant columns. They were shaped and finished as nicely as if they
were breastpins for the Titans to wear, and on their polished
surfaces were engraved in imperishable characters the records they
were erected to preserve.
Europe and America borrow these noble productions of African art and
power, and find them hard enough to handle after they have succeeded
in transporting them to Rome, or London, or New York. Their
simplicity, grandeur, imperishability, speaking symbolism, shame all
the pretentious and fragile works of human art around them. The
obelisk has no joints for the destructive agencies of nature to
attack; the pyramid has no masses hanging in unstable equilibrium,
and threatening to fall by their own weight in the course of a
thousand or two years.
America says the Father of his Country must have a monument worthy of
his exalted place in history. What shall it be? A temple such as
Athens might have been proud to rear upon her Acropolis? An obelisk
such as Thebes might have pointed out with pride to the strangers who
found admission through her hundred gates? After long meditation and
the rejection of the hybrid monstrosities with which the nation was
menaced, an obelisk is at last decided upon. How can it be made
grand and dignified enough to be equal to the office assigned it? We
dare not attempt to carve a single stone from the living rock,--all
our modern appliances fail to make the task as easy to us as it seems
to have been to the early Egyptians. No artistic skill is required
in giving a four-square tapering figure to a stone column. If we
cannot shape a solid obelisk of the proper dimensions, we can build
one of separate blocks. How can we give it the distinction we demand
for it? The nation which can brag that it has "the biggest show on
earth" cannot boast a great deal in the way of architecture, but it
can do one thing,--it can build an obelisk that shall be taller than
any structure now standing which the hand of man has raised. Build
an obelisk! How different the idea of such a structure from that of
the unbroken, unjointed prismatic shaft, one perfect whole, as
complete in itself, as fitly shaped and consolidated to defy the
elements, as the towering palm or the tapering pine! Well, we had
the satisfaction for a time of claiming the tallest structure in the
world; and now that the new Tower of Babel which has sprung up in
Paris has killed that pretention, I think we shall feel and speak
more modestly about our stone hyperbole, our materialization of the
American love of the superlative. We have the higher civilization
among us, and we must try to keep down the forth-putting instincts of
the lower. We do not want to see our national monument placarded as
"the greatest show on earth,"--perhaps it is well that it is taken
down from that bad eminence.
I do not think that this speech of mine was very well received. It
appeared to jar somewhat on the nerves of the American Annex. There
was a smile on the lips of the other Annex,--the English girl,--which
she tried to keep quiet, but it was too plain that she enjoyed my
It must be remembered that I and the other Teacups, in common with
the rest of our fellow-citizens, have had our sensibilities greatly
worked upon, our patriotism chilled, our local pride outraged, by the
monstrosities which have been allowed to deform our beautiful public
grounds. We have to be very careful in conducting a visitor, say
from his marble-fronted hotel to the City Hall.--Keep pretty
straight along after entering the Garden,--you will not care to
inspect the little figure of the military gentleman to your right.--
Yes, the Cochituate water is drinkable, but I think I would not turn
aside to visit that small fabric which makes believe it is a temple,
and is a weak-eyed fountain feebly weeping over its own
insignificance. About that other stone misfortune, cruelly reminding
us of the "Boston Massacre," we will not discourse; it is not
imposing, and is rarely spoken of.
What a mortification to the inhabitants of a city with some
hereditary and contemporary claims to cultivation; which has noble
edifices, grand libraries, educational institutions of the highest
grade, an art-gallery filled with the finest models and rich in
paintings and statuary,--a stately city that stretches both arms
across the Charles to clasp the hands of Harvard, her twin-sister,
each lending lustre to the other like double stars,--what a pity that
she should be so disfigured by crude attempts to adorn her and
commemorate her past that her most loving children blush for her
artificial deformities amidst the wealth of her natural beauties!
One hardly knows which to groan over most sadly,--the tearing down of
old monuments, the shelling of the Parthenon, the overthrow of the
pillared temples of Rome, and in a humbler way the destruction of the
old Hancock house, or the erection of monuments which are to be a
perpetual eyesore to ourselves and our descendants.
We got talking on the subject of realism, of which so much has been
said of late.
It seems to me, I said, that the great additions which have been made
by realism to the territory of literature consist largely in swampy,
malarious, ill-smelling patches of soil which had previously been
left to reptiles and vermin. It is perfectly easy to be original by
violating the laws of decency and the canons of good taste. The
general consent of civilized people was supposed to have banished
certain subjects from the conversation of well-bred people and the
pages of respectable literature. There is no subject, or hardly any,
which may not be treated of at the proper time, in the proper place,
by the fitting person, for the right kind of listener or reader. But
when the poet or the story-teller invades the province of the man of
science, he is on dangerous ground. I need say nothing of the
blunders he is pretty sure to make. The imaginative writer is after
effects. The scientific man is after truth. Science is decent,
modest; does not try to startle, but to instruct. The same scenes
and objects which outrage every sense of delicacy in the story
teller's highly colored paragraphs can be read without giving offence
in the chaste language of the physiologist or the physician.
There is a very celebrated novel, "Madame Bovary," the work of M.
Flaubert, which is noted for having been the subject of prosecution
as an immoral work. That it has a serious lesson there is no doubt,
if one will drink down to the bottom of the cup. But the honey of
sensuous description is spread so deeply over the surface of the
goblet that a large proportion of its readers never think of its
holding anything else. All the phases of unhallowed passion are
described in full detail. That is what the book is bought and read
for, by the great majority of its purchasers, as all but simpletons
very well know. That is what makes it sell and brought it into the
courts of justice. This book is famous for its realism; in fact, it
is recognized as one of the earliest and most brilliant examples of
that modern style of novel which, beginning where Balzac left off,
attempted to do for literature what the photograph has done for art.
For those who take the trouble to drink out of the cup below the rim
of honey, there is a scene where realism is carried to its extreme,
--surpassed in horror by no writer, unless it be the one whose name
must be looked for at the bottom of the alphabet, as if its natural
place were as low down in the dregs of realism as it could find
itself. This is the death-bed scene, where Madame Bovary expires in
convulsions. The author must have visited the hospitals for the
purpose of watching the terrible agonies he was to depict, tramping
from one bed to another until he reached the one where the cries and
contortions were the most frightful. Such a scene he has reproduced.
No hospital physician would have pictured the straggle in such
colors. In the same way, that other realist, M. Zola, has painted a
patient suffering from delirium tremens, the disease known to common
speech as "the horrors." In describing this case he does all that
language can do to make it more horrible than the reality. He gives
us, not realism, but super-realism, if such a term does not
In this matter of the literal reproduction of sights and scenes which
our natural instinct and our better informed taste and judgment teach
us to avoid, art has been far in advance of literature. It is three
hundred years since Joseph Ribera, more commonly known as
Spagnoletto, was born in the province Valencia, in Spain. We had the
misfortune of seeing a painting of his in a collection belonging to
one of the French princes, and exhibited at the Art Museum. It was
that of a man performing upon himself the operation known to the
Japanese as hararkiri. Many persons who looked upon this revolting
picture will never get rid of its remembrance, and will regret the
day when their eyes fell upon it. I should share the offence of the
painter if I ventured to describe it. Ribera was fond of depicting
just such odious and frightful subjects. "Saint Lawrence writhing on
his gridiron, Saint Sebastian full of arrows, were equally a source
of delight to him. Even in subjects which had no such elements of
horror he finds the materials for the delectation of his ferocious
pencil; he makes up for the defect by rendering with a brutal realism
deformity and ugliness."
The first great mistake made by the ultra-realists; like Flaubert and
Zola, is, as I have said, their ignoring the line of distinction
between imaginative art and science. We can find realism enough in
books of anatomy, surgery, and medicine. In studying the human
figure, we want to see it clothed with its natural integuments. It
is well for the artist to study the ecorche in the dissecting-room,
but we do not want the Apollo or the Venus to leave their skins
behind them when they go into the gallery for exhibition. Lancisi's
figures show us how the great statues look when divested of their
natural covering. It is instructive, but useful chiefly as a means
to aid in the true artistic reproduction of nature. When the,
hospitals are invaded by the novelist, he should learn something from
the physician as well as from the patients. Science delineates in
monochrome. She never uses high tints and strontian lights to
astonish lookers-on. Such scenes as Flaubert and Zola describe would
be reproduced in their essential characters, but not dressed up in
picturesque phrases. That is the first stumbling-block in the way of
the reader of such realistic stories as those to which I have
referred. There are subjects which must be investigated by
scientific men which most educated persons would be glad to know
nothing about. When a realistic writer like Zola surprises his
reader into a kind of knowledge he never thought of wishing for, he
sometimes harms him more than he has any idea of doing. He wants to
produce a sensation, and he leaves a permanent disgust not to be got
rid of. Who does not remember odious images that can never be washed
out from the consciousness which they have stained? A man's
vocabulary is terribly retentive of evil words, and the images they
present cling to his memory and will not loose their hold. One who
has had the mischance to soil his mind by reading certain poems of
Swift will never cleanse it to its original whiteness. Expressions
and thoughts of a certain character stain the fibre of the thinking
organ, and in some degree affect the hue of every idea that passes
through the discolored tissues.
This is the gravest accusation to bring against realism, old or
recent, whether in the brutal paintings of Spagnoletto or in the
unclean revelations of Zola. Leave the description of the drains and
cesspools to the hygienic specialist, the painful facts of disease to
the physician, the details of the laundry to the washerwoman. If we
are to have realism in its tedious descriptions of unimportant
particulars, let it be of particulars which do not excite disgust.
Such is the description of the vegetables in Zola's "Ventre de
Paris," where, if one wishes to see the apotheosis of turnips, beets,
and cabbages, he can find them glorified as supremely as if they had
been symbols of so many deities; their forms, their colors, their
expression, worked upon until they seem as if they were made to be
looked at and worshipped rather than to be boiled and eaten.
I am pleased to find a French critic of M. Flaubert expressing ideas
with which many of my own entirely coincide. "The great mistake of
the realists," he says, "is that they profess to tell the truth
because they tell everything. This puerile hunting after details,
this cold and cynical inventory of all the wretched conditions in the
midst of which poor humanity vegetates, not only do not help us to
understand it better, but, on the contrary, the effect on the
spectators is a kind of dazzled confusion mingled with fatigue and
disgust. The material truthfulness to which the school of M.
Flaubert more especially pretends misses its aim in going beyond it.
Truth is lost in its own excess."
I return to my thoughts on the relations of imaginative art in all
its forms with science. The subject which in the hands of the
scientific student is handled decorously,--reverently, we might
almost say,--becomes repulsive, shameful, and debasing in the
unscrupulous manipulations of the low-bred man of letters.
I confess that I am a little jealous of certain tendencies in our own
American literature, which led one of the severest and most outspoken
of our satirical fellow-countrymen, no longer living to be called to
account for it, to say; in a moment of bitterness, that the mission
of America was to vulgarize mankind. I myself have sometimes
wondered at the pleasure some Old World critics have professed to
find in the most lawless freaks of New World literature. I have
questioned whether their delight was not like that of the Spartans in
the drunken antics of their Helots. But I suppose I belong to
another age, and must not attempt to judge the present by my old-
The company listened very civilly to these remarks, whether they
agreed with them or not. I am not sure that I want all the young
people to think just as I do in matters of critical judgment. New
wine does not go well into old bottles, but if an old cask has held
good wine, it may improve a crude juice to stand awhile upon the lees
of that which once filled it.
I thought the company had had about enough of this disquisition.
They listened very decorously, and the Professor, who agrees very
well with me, as I happen to know, in my views on this business of
realism, thanked me for giving them the benefit of my opinion.
The silence that followed was broken by Number Seven's suddenly
"I should like to boss creation for a week!"
This expression was an outbreak suggested by some train of thought
which Number Seven had been following while I was discoursing. I do
not think one of the company looked as if he or she were shocked by
it as an irreligious or even profane speech. It is a better way
always, in dealing with one of those squinting brains, to let it
follow out its own thought. It will keep to it for a while; then it
will quit the rail, so to speak, and run to any side-track which may
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