"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 monument.
"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
"maiden 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 pleased me.
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 subjects."
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 anywhere.
"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 paper.
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 these:
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-place.
"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 Teacups.
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 competition.
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 association.
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 together.
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 Correspond!
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, Anywhere!
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 little differently.
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 Teacup.
"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 it.
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 great Pyramid.
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 be 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 inhabitant?
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 he 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 Sappho?"
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 subsistence."
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 bosom.
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 curious.
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 uttered them.
"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 spiritual being."
"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 our tea-table.
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 diatribe.
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 contradict itself.
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-fashioned standards.
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 exclaiming,—
"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 present itself.
"What is the first thing you would do?" asked Number Five in a pleasant, easy way.
"The first thing? Pick out a few thousand of the best specimens of the best races, and drown the rest like so many blind puppies."
"Why," said she, "that was tried once, and does not seem to have worked very well."
"Very likely. You mean Noah's flood, I suppose. More people nowadays, and a better lot to pick from than Noah had."
"Do tell us whom you would take with you," said Number Five.
"You, if you would go," he answered, and I thought I saw a slight flush on his cheek. "But I didn't say that I should go aboard the new ark myself. I am not sure that I should. No, I am pretty sure that I shouldn't. I don't believe, on the whole, it would pay me to save myself. I ain't of much account. But I could pick out some that were."
And just now he was saying that he should like to boss the universe! All this has nothing very wonderful about it. Every one of us is subject to alternations of overvaluation and undervaluation of ourselves. Do you not remember soliloquies something like this? "Was there ever such a senseless, stupid creature as I am? How have I managed to keep so long out of the idiot asylum? Undertook to write a poem, and stuck fast at the first verse. Had a call from a friend who had just been round the world. Did n't ask him one word about what he had seen or heard, but gave him full details of my private history, I having never been off my own hearth-rug for more than an hour or two at a time, while he was circumnavigating and circumrailroading the globe. Yes, if anybody can claim the title, I am certainly the prize idiot." I am afraid that we all say such things as this to ourselves at times. Do we not use more emphatic words than these in our self-depreciation? I cannot say how it is with others, but my vocabulary of self-reproach and humiliation is so rich in energetic expressions that I should be sorry to have an interviewer present at an outburst of one of its raging geysers, its savage soliloquies. A man is a kind of inverted thermometer, the bulb uppermost, and the column of self-valuation is all the time going up and down. Number Seven is very much like other people in this respect,—very much like you and me.
This train of reflections must not carry me away from Number Seven.
"If I can't get a chance to boss this planet for a week or so," he began again, "I think I could write its history,—yes, the history of the world, in less compass than any one who has tried it so far."
"You know Sir Walter Raleigh's 'History of the World,' of course?" said the Professor.
"More or less,—more or less," said Number Seven prudently. "But I don't care who has written it before me. I will agree to write the story of two worlds, this and the next, in such a compact way that you can commit them both to memory in less time than you can learn the answer to the first question in the Catechism."
What he had got into his head we could not guess, but there was no little curiosity to discover the particular bee which was buzzing in his bonnet. He evidently enjoyed our curiosity, and meant to keep us waiting awhile before revealing the great secret.
"How many words do you think I shall want?"
It is a formula, I suppose, I said, and I will grant you a hundred words.
"Twenty," said the Professor. "That was more than the wise men of Greece wanted for their grand utterances."
The two Annexes whispered together, and the American Annex gave their joint result. One thousand was the number they had fixed on. They were used to hearing lectures, and could hardly conceive that any subject could be treated without taking up a good part of an hour.
"Less than ten," said Number Five. "If there are to be more than ten, I don't believe that Number Seven would think the surprise would be up to our expectations."
"Guess as much as you like," said Number Seven.
"The answer will keep. I don't mean to say what it is until we are ready to leave the table." He took a blank card from his pocket-book, wrote something on it, or appeared, at any rate, to write, and handed it, face down, to the Mistress. What was on the card will be found near the end of this paper. I wonder if anybody will be curious enough to look further along to find out what it was before she reads the next paragraph?
In the mean time there is a train of thought suggested by Number Seven and his whims. If you want to know how to account for yourself, study the characters of your relations. All of our brains squint more or less. There is not one in a hundred, certainly, that does not sometimes see things distorted by double refraction, out of plumb or out of focus, or with colors which do not belong to it, or in some way betraying that the two halves of the brain are not acting in harmony with each other. You wonder at the eccentricities of this or that connection of your own. Watch yourself, and you will find impulses which, but for the restraints you put upon them, would make you do the same foolish things which you laugh at in that cousin of yours. I once lived in the same house with the near relative of a very distinguished person, whose name is still honored and revered among us. His brain was an active one, like that of his famous relative, but it was full of random ideas, unconnected trains of thought, whims, crotchets, erratic suggestions. Knowing him, I could interpret the mental characteristics of the whole family connection in the light of its exaggerated peculiarities as exhibited in my odd fellow-boarder. Squinting brains are a great deal more common than we should at first sight believe. Here is a great book, a solid octavo of five hundred pages, full of the vagaries of this class of organizations. I hope to refer to this work hereafter, but just now I will only say that, after reading till one is tired the strange fancies of the squarers of the circle, the inventors of perpetual motion, and the rest of the moonstruck dreamers, most persons will confess to themselves that they have had notions as wild, conceptions as extravagant, theories as baseless, as the least rational of those which are here recorded.
Some day I want to talk about my library. It is such a curious collection of old and new books, such a mosaic of learning and fancies and follies, that a glance over it would interest the company. Perhaps I may hereafter give you a talk abut books, but while I am saying a few passing words upon the subject the greatest bibliographical event that ever happened in the book-market of the New World is taking place under our eyes. Here is Mr. Bernard Quaritch just come from his well-known habitat, No. 15 Piccadilly, with such a collection of rare, beautiful, and somewhat expensive volumes as the Western Continent never saw before on the shelves of a bibliopole.
We bookworms are all of us now and then betrayed into an extravagance. The keen tradesmen who tempt us are like the fishermen who dangle a minnow, a frog, or a worm before the perch or pickerel who may be on the lookout for his breakfast. But Mr. Quaritch comes among us like that formidable angler of whom it is said,
His hook he baited with a dragon's tail, And sat upon a rock and bobbed for whale.
The two catalogues which herald his coming are themselves interesting literary documents. One can go out with a few shillings in his pocket, and venture among the books of the first of these catalogues without being ashamed to show himself with no larger furnishing of the means for indulging his tastes,—he will find books enough at comparatively modest prices. But if one feels very rich, so rich that it requires a good deal to frighten him, let him take the other catalogue and see how many books he proposes to add to his library at the prices affixed. Here is a Latin Psalter with the Canticles, from the press of Fust and Schoeffer, the second book issued from their press, the second book printed with a date, that date being 1459. There are only eight copies of this work known to exist; you can have one of them, if so disposed, and if you have change enough in your pocket. Twenty-six thousand two hundred and fifty dollars will make you the happy owner of this precious volume. If this is more than you want to pay, you can have the Gold Gospels of Henry VIII., on purple vellum, for about half the money. There are pages on pages of titles of works any one of which would be a snug little property if turned into money at its catalogue price.