HotFreeBooks.com
The Last Harvest
by John Burroughs
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

What is called Darwinism is entirely an anthropomorphic view of Nature—Nature humanized and doing as man does. What is called Natural Selection is man's selection read into animate nature. We see in nature what we have to call intelligence—the adaptation of means to ends. We see purpose in all living things, but not in the same sense in non-living things. The purpose is not in the light, but in the eye; in the ear, but not in the sound; in the lungs, and not in the air; in the stomach, and not in the food; in the various organs of the body, and not in the forces that surround and act upon it. We cannot say that the purpose of the clouds is to bring rain, or of the sun to give light and warmth, in the sense that we can say it is the purpose of the eyelid to protect the eye, of the teeth to masticate the food, or of the varnish upon the leaves to protect the leaves.

The world was not made for us, but we are here because the world was made as it is. We are the secondary fact and not the primary. Nature is non-human, non-moral, non-religious, non-scientific, though it is from her that we get our ideas of all these things. All parts and organs of living bodies have, or have had, a purpose. Nature is blind, but she knows what she wants and she gets it. She is blind, I say, because she is all eyes, and sees through the buds of her trees and the rootlets of her plants as well as by the optic nerves in her animals. And, though I believe that the accumulation of variations is the key to new species, yet this accumulation is not based upon outward utility but upon an innate tendency to development—the push of life, or creative evolution, as Bergson names it; not primarily because the variations are advantages, but because the formation of a new species is such a slow process, stretches over such a period of geologic time, that the slight variations from generation to generation could have no survival value. The primary factor is the inherent tendency to development. The origin of species is on a scale of time of enormous magnitude. What takes place among our domestic animals of a summer day is by no means a safe guide as to what befell their ancestors in the abysses of geologic time. It is true that Nature may be read in the little as well as in the big,—Natura in minimis existat,—in the gnat as well as in the elephant; but she cannot be read in our yearly calendars as she can in the calendars of the geologic strata. Species go out and species come in; the book of natural revelation opens and closes at chance places, and rarely do we get a continuous record—in no other case more clearly than in that of the horse.

The horse was a horse, from the first five-toed animal in Eocene times, millions of years ago, through all the intermediate forms of four-toed and three-toed, down to the one-toed superb creature of our own day. Amid all the hazards and delays of that vast stretch of time, one may say, the horse-impulse never faltered. The survival value of the slight gains in size and strength from millennium to millennium could have played no part. It was the indwelling necessity toward development that determined the issue. This assertion does not deliver us into the hands of teleology, but is based upon the idea that ontogeny and phylogeny are under the same law of growth. In the little eohippus was potentially the horse we know, as surely as the oak is potential in the acorn, or the bird potential in the egg, whatever element of mystery may enter into the problem.

In fields where speed wins, the fleetest are the fittest. In fields where strength wins, the strongest are the fittest. In fields where sense-acuteness wins, the keenest of eye, ears, and nose are the fittest.

When we come to the race of man, the fittest to survive, from our moral and intellectual point of view, is not always the best. The lower orders of humanity are usually better fitted to survive than the higher orders—they are much more prolific and adaptive. The tares are better fitted to survive than the wheat. Every man's hand is against the weeds, and every man's hand gives a lift to the corn and the wheat, but the weeds do not fail. There is nothing like original sin to keep a man or a plant going. Emerson's gardener was probably better fitted to survive than Emerson; Newton's butler than Newton himself.

Most naturalists will side with Darwin in rejecting the idea of Asa Gray, that the stream of variation has been guided by a higher power, unless they think of the will of this power as inherent in every molecule of matter; but guidance in the usual theological sense is not to be thought of; the principle of guidance cannot be separated from the thing guided. It recalls a parable of Charles Kingsley's which he related to Huxley. A heathen khan in Tartary was visited by a pair of proselytizing moollahs. The first moollah said, "O Khan, worship my god. He is so wise that he made all things!" Moollah Number Two said, "O Khan, worship my god. He is so wise that he makes all things make themselves!" Number Two won the day.

IV

How often it turns out that a man's minor works outlive his major! This is true in both literature and science, but more often in the former than in the latter. Darwin furnishes a case in the field of science. He evidently looked upon his "Origin of Species" as his great contribution to biological science; but it is highly probable that his "Voyage of the Beagle" will outlast all his other books. The "Voyage" is of perennial interest and finds new readers in each generation. I find myself re-reading it every eight or ten years. I have lately read it for the fourth time. It is not an argument or a polemic; it is a personal narrative of a disinterested yet keen observer, and is always fresh and satisfying. For the first time we see a comparatively unknown country like South America through the eyes of a born and trained naturalist. It is the one book of his that makes a wide appeal and touches life and nature the most closely.

We may say that Darwin was a Darwinian from the first,—a naturalist and a philosopher combined,—and was predisposed to look at animate nature in the way his works have since made us familiar with.

In his trip on the Beagle he saw from the start with the eyes of a born evolutionist. In South America he saw the fossil remains of the Toxodon, and observed, "How wonderful are the different orders, at the present time so well separated, blended together in the different points of the structure of the Toxodon!" All forms of life attracted him. He looked into the brine-pans of Lymington and found that water with one quarter of a pound of salt to the pint was inhabited, and he was led to say: "Well may we affirm that every part of the world is habitable! Whether lakes of brine or those subterranean ones hidden beneath volcanic mountains,—warm mineral springs,—the wide expanse and depth of the ocean,—the upper regions of the atmosphere, and even the surface of perpetual snow,—all support organic beings."

He studies the parasitical habit of the cuckoo and hits on an explanation of it. He speculates why the partridges and deer in South America are so tame.

His "Voyage of the Beagle" alone would insure him lasting fame. It is a classic among scientific books of travel. Here is a traveler of a new kind: a natural-history voyager, a man bent on seeing and taking note of everything going on in nature about him, in the non-human, as well as in the human world. The minuteness of his observation and the significance of its subject-matter are a lesson to all observers. Darwin's interests are so varied and genuine. One sees in this volume the seed-bed of much of his subsequent work. He was quite a young man (twenty-four) when he made this voyage; he was ill more than half the time; he was as yet only an observer and appreciator of Nature, quite free from any theories about her ways and methods. He says that this was by far the most important event of his life and determined his whole career. His theory of descent was already latent in his mind, as is evinced by an observation he made about the relationship in South America between the extinct and the living forms. "This relationship," he said, "will, I do not doubt, hereafter throw more light on the appearance of organic beings on our earth, and their disappearance from it, than any other class of facts."

He looked into the muddy waters of the sea off the coast of Chile, and found a curious new form of minute life—microscopic animals that exploded as they swam through the water. In South America he saw an intimate relationship between the extinct species of ant-eaters, armadillos, tapirs, peccaries, guanacos, opossums, and so on, and the living species of these animals; and he adds that the wonderful relationship in the same continent between the dead and the living would doubtless hereafter throw more light on the appearance of organic beings on our earth, and their disappearance from it, than any other class of facts.

His observation of the evidences of the rise and fall of thousands of feet of the earth along the Cordilleras leads him to make this rather startling statement: "Daily it is forced home on the mind of the geologist that nothing, not even the wind that blows, is so unstable as the level of the crust of the earth."

There is now and then a twinkle of humor in Darwin's eyes, as when he says that in the high altitude of the Andes the inhabitants recommend onions for the "puna," or shortness of breath, but that he found nothing so good as fossil shells.

Water boils at such a low temperature in the high Andes that potatoes will not cook if boiled all night. Darwin heard his guides discussing the cause. "They had come to the simple conclusion that 'the cursed pot' (which was a new one) did not choose to boil potatoes."

In all Darwin's record we see that the book of nature, which ordinary travelers barely glance at, he opened and carefully perused.

V

Natural Selection turns out to be of only secondary importance. It is not creative, but only confirmative. It is a weeding-out process; it is Nature's way of improving the stock. Its tendency is to make species more and more hardy and virile. The weak and insufficiently endowed among all forms tend to drop out. Life to all creatures is more or less a struggle, a struggle with the environment, with the inorganic forces,—storm, heat, cold, sterile land, and engulfing floods,—and it is a struggle with competing forms for food and shelter and a place in the sun. The strongest, the most amply endowed with what we call vitality or power to live, win. Species have come to be what they are through this process. Immunity from disease comes through this fight for life; and adaptability—through trial and struggle species adapt themselves, as do our own bodies, to new and severe conditions. The naturally weak fall by the wayside as in an army on a forced march.

Every creature becomes the stronger by the opposition it overcomes. Natural Selection gives speed, where speed is the condition of safety, strength where strength is the condition, keenness and quickness of sense-perception where these are demanded. Natural Selection works upon these attributes and tends to perfect them. Any group of men or beasts or birds brought under any unusual strain from cold, hunger, labor, effort, will undergo a weeding-out process. Populate the land with more animal life than it can support, or with more vegetable forms than it can sustain, and a weeding-out process will begin. A fuller measure of vitality, or a certain hardiness and toughness, will enable some species to hold on longer than others, and, maybe, keep up the fight till the struggle lessens and victory is won.

The flame of life is easily blown out in certain forms, and is very tenacious in others. How unequally the power to resist cold, for instance, seems to be distributed among plants and trees, and probably among animals! One spring an unseasonable cold snap in May (mercury 28) killed or withered about one per cent of the leaves on the lilacs, and one tenth of one per cent of the leaves of our crab-apple tree. In the woods around Slabsides I observed that nearly half the plants of Solomon's-seal (Polygonatum) and false Solomon's-seal (Smilacina) were withered. The vital power, the power to live, seems stronger in some plants than in others of the same kind. I suppose this law holds throughout animate nature. When a strain of any kind comes, these weaker ones drop out. In reading the stories of Arctic explorers, I see this process going on among their dog-teams: some have greater power of endurance than others. A few are constantly dropping out or falling by the wayside. With an army on a forced march the same thing happens. In the struggle for existence the weak go to the wall. Of course the struggle among animals is at least a toughening process. It seems as if the old Indian legend, that the strength of the foe overcome passes into the victor, were true. But how a new species could arrive as the result of such struggle is past finding out. Variation with all forms of life is more or less constant, but it is around a given mean. Only those acquired characters are transmitted that arise from the needs of the organism.

A vast number of changes in plants and animals are superficial and in no way vital. It is hard to find two leaves of the same tree that will exactly coincide in all their details; but a difference that was in some way a decided advantage would tend to be inherited and passed along. It is said that the rabbits in Australia have developed a longer and stronger nail on the first toe of each front foot, which aids them in climbing over the wire fences. The aye-aye has a specially adapted finger for extracting insects from their hiding-places. Undoubtedly such things are inherited. The snowshoes of the partridge and rabbit are inherited. The needs of the organism influence structure. The spines in the quills in the tails of woodpeckers, and in the brown creeper, are other cases in point. The nuthatch has no spines on its tail, because it can move in all directions, as well with head down as with head up. I have read of a serpent somewhere that feeds upon eggs. As the serpent has no lips or distendable cheeks, and as its mechanism of deglutition acts very slowly, an egg crushed in the mouth would be mostly spilled. So the eggs are swallowed whole; but in the throat they come in contact with sharp tooth-like spines, which are not teeth, but downward projections from the backbone, and which serve to break the shells of the eggs. Radical or vital variations are rare, and we do not witness them any more than we witness the birth of a new species. And that is all there is to Natural Selection. It is a name for a process of elimination which is constantly going on in animate nature all about us. It is in no sense creative, it originates nothing, but clinches and toughens existing forms.

The mutation theory of De Vries is a much more convincing theory of the origin of species than is Darwin's Natural Selection. If things would only mutate a little oftener! But they seem very reluctant to do so. There does seem to have been some mutation among plants,—De Vries has discovered several such,—but in animal life where are the mutants? When or where has a new species originated in this way? Surely not during the historic period.

Fluctuations are in all directions around a center—the mean is always returned to; but mutations, or the progressive steps in evolution, are divergent lines away from the center. Fluctuations are superficial and of little significance; but mutations, if they occur, involve deep-seated, fundamental factors, factors more or less responsive to the environment, but not called into being by it. Of the four factors in the Darwinian formula,—variation, heredity, the struggle, and natural selection,—variation is the most negligible; it furnishes an insufficient handle for selection to take hold of. Something more radical must lead the way to new species.

As applied to species, the fittest to survive is a misleading term. All are fit to survive from the fact that they do survive. In a world where, as a rule, the race is to the swift and the battle to the strong, the slow and the frail also survive because they do not come in competition with the swift and the strong. Nature mothers all, and assigns to each its sphere.

The Darwinians are hostile to Lamarck with his inner developing and perfecting principle, and, by the same token, to Aristotle, who is the father of the theory. They regard organic evolution as a purely mechanical process.

Variation can work only upon a variable tendency—an inherent impulse to development. A rock, a hill, a stream, may change, but it is not variable in the biological sense: it can never become anything but a rock, a hill, a stream; but a flower, an egg, a seed, a plant, a baby, can. What I mean to say is that there must be the primordial tendency to development which Natural Selection is powerless to beget, and which it can only speed up or augment. It cannot give the wing to the seed, or the spring, or the hook; or the feather to the bird; or the scale to the fish; but it can perfect all these things. The fittest of its kind does stand the best chance to survive.

VI

After we have Darwin shorn of his selection theories, what has he left? His significance is not lessened. He is still the most impressive figure in modern biological science. His attitude of mind, the problems he tackled, his methods of work, the nature and scope of his inquiries, together with his candor, and his simplicity and devotion to truth, are a precious heritage to all mankind.

Darwin's work is monumental because he belongs to the class of monumental men. The doctrine of evolution as applied to animate nature reached its complete evolution in his mind. He stated the theory in broader and fuller terms than had any man before him; he made it cover the whole stupendous course of evolution. He showed man once for all an integral part of the zooelogic system. He elevated natural history, or biology, to the ranks of the great sciences, a worthy member of the triumvirate—astronomy, geology, biology. He taught us how to cross-question the very gods of life in their council chambers; he showed us what significance attaches to the simplest facts of natural history.

Darwin impresses by his personality not less than by his logic and his vast storehouse of observations. He was a great man before he was a great natural-history philosopher. His patient and painstaking observation is a lesson to all nature students. The minutest facts engaged him. He studies the difference between the stamens of the same plant. He counted nine thousand seeds, one by one, from artificially fertilized pods. Plants from two pollens, he says, grow at different rates. Any difference in the position of the pistil, or in the size and color of the stamens, in individuals of the same species grown together, was of keen interest to him.

The best thing about Darwinism is Darwin—his candor, his patience, his simplicity, his devotion to truth, and his power of observation. This is about what Professor T. H. Morgan meant when he said: "It is the spirit of Darwinism, not its formulae, that we proclaim as our best heritage." He gave us a new point of view of the drama of creation; he gave us ideas that are applicable to the whole domain of human activities. It is true, he was not a pioneer in this field: he did not blaze the first trail through this wilderness of biological facts and records; rather was he like a master-engineer who surveys and establishes the great highway. All the world now travels along the course he established and perfected. He made the long road of evolution easy, and he placed upon permanent foundations the doctrine of the animal origin of man. He taught the world to think in terms of evolution, and he pointed the way to a rational explanation of the diversity of living forms.



V

WHAT MAKES A POEM?

Pope said that a middling poet was no poet at all. Middling things in art or in any field of human endeavor do not arouse our enthusiasm, and it is enthusiasm that fans the fires of life. There are all degrees of excellence, but in poetry one is always looking for the best. Pope himself holds a place in English literature which he could not hold had he been only a middling poet. He is not a poet of the highest order certainly, but a poet of the third or fourth order—the poet of the reason, the understanding, but not of the creative imagination. It is wit and not soul that keeps Pope alive.

Nearly every age and land has plenty of middling poets. Probably there were never more of them in the land than there are to-day. Scores of volumes of middling verse are issued from the press every week. The magazines all have middling verse; only at rare intervals do they have something more. The May "Atlantic," for instance, had a poem by a (to me) comparatively new writer, Olive Tilford Dargan, that one would hardly stigmatize as middling poetry. Let the reader judge for himself. It is called "Spring in the Study." I quote only the second part:

"What is this sudden gayety that shakes the grayest boughs? A voice is calling fieldward—'T is time to start the ploughs! To set the furrows rolling, while all the old crows nod; And deep as life, the kernel, to cut the golden sod. The pen—let nations have it;—we'll plough a while for God.

"When half the things that must be done are greater than our art, And half the things that must be done are smaller than our heart, And poorest gifts are dear to burn on altars unrevealed, Like music comes the summons, the challenge from the weald! 'They tread immortal measures who make a mellow field!'

"The planet's rather pleasant, alluring in its way; But let the ploughs be idle and none of us can stay. Here's where there is no doubting, no ghosts uncertain stalk, A-traveling with the plough beam, beneath the sailing hawk, Cutting the furrow deep and true where Destiny will walk."

Lafcadio Hearn spoke with deep truth when he said that "the measure of a poet is the largeness of thought which he can bring to any subject, however trifling." Certainly Mrs. Dargan brings this largeness of thought to her subject. Has the significance of the plough ever before been so brought out? She makes one feel that there should be a plough among the constellations. What are the chairs and harps and dippers in comparison?

The poetry of mere talent is always middling poetry—"poems distilled from other poems," as Whitman says. The work of a genius is of a different order. Most current verse is merely sweetened prose put up in verse form. It serves its purpose; the mass of readers like it. Nearly all educated persons can turn it off with little effort. I have done my share of it myself—rhymed natural history, but not poetry. "Waiting" is my nearest approach to a true poem.

Wordsworth quotes Aristotle as saying that poetry is the most philosophical of all writing, and Wordsworth agrees with him. There certainly can be no great poetry without a great philosopher behind it—a man who has thought and felt profoundly upon nature and upon life, as Wordsworth himself surely had. The true poet, like the philosopher, is a searcher after truth, and a searcher at the very heart of things—not cold, objective truth, but truth which is its own testimony, and which is carried alive into the heart by passion. He seeks more than beauty, he seeks the perennial source of beauty. The poet leads man to nature as a mother leads her child there—to instill a love of it into his heart. If a poet adds neither to my knowledge nor to my love, of what use is he? For instance, Poe does not make me know more or love more, but he delights me by his consummate art. Bryant's long poem "The Ages" has little value, mainly because it is charged with no philosophy, and no imaginative emotion. His "Lines to a Waterfowl" will last because of the simple, profound human emotion they awaken. The poem is marred, however, by the stanza that he tacks on the end, which strikes a note entirely foreign to the true spirit of the poem. You cannot by tacking a moral to a poem give it the philosophical breadth to which I have referred. "Thanatopsis" has a solemn and majestic music, but not the unique excellence of the waterfowl poem. Yet it may be generally said of Bryant that he has a broad human outlook on life and is free from the subtleties and ingenious refinements of many of our younger poets.

I know of only three poets in this century who bring a large measure of thought and emotion to their task. I refer to William Vaughn Moody, to John Russell McCarthy (author of "Out-of-Doors" and "Gods and Devils"), and to Robert Loveman, best known for his felicitous "Rain Song," a poem too well known to be quoted here. Any poet who has ever lived might have been proud to have written that poem. It goes as lightly as thistle-down, yet is freighted with thought. Its philosophy is so sublimated and so natural and easy that we are likely to forget that it has any philosophy at all. The fifty or more stanzas of his "Gates of Silence" are probably far less well known. Let me quote a few of them:

"The races rise and fall, The nations come and go, Time tenderly doth cover all With violets and snow.

"The mortal tide moves on To some immortal shore, Past purple peaks of dusk and dawn, Into the evermore.

* * * * *

"All the tomes of all the tribes, All the songs of all the scribes, All that priest and prophet say, What is it? and what are they?

"Fancies futile, feeble, vain, Idle dream-drift of the brain,— As of old the mystery Doth encompass you and me.

* * * * *

"Old and yet young, the jocund Earth Doth speed among the spheres, Her children of imperial birth Are all the golden years.

"The happy orb sweeps on, Led by some vague unrest, Some mystic hint of joys unborn Springing within her breast."

What takes one in "The Gates of Silence," which, of course, means the gates of death, are the large, sweeping views. The poet strides through time and space like a Colossus and

"flings Out of his spendthrift hands The whirling worlds like pebbles, The meshed stars like sands."

Loveman's stanzas have not the flexibility and freedom of those of Moody and McCarthy, but they bring in full measure the largeness of thought which a true poem requires.

Some of Moody's poems rank with the best in the literature of his time. He was deeply moved by the part we played in the Spanish-American War. It was a war of shame and plunder from the point of view of many of the noblest and most patriotic men of the country. We freed Cuba from the Spanish yoke and left her free; but we seized the Philippines and subdued the native population by killing a vast number of them—more than half of them, some say. Commercial exploitation inspired our policy. How eloquently Senator Hoar of Massachusetts inveighed against our course! We promised the Filipinos their freedom—a promise we have not yet fulfilled.

Moody's most notable poems are "Gloucester Moors," "An Ode in Time of Hesitation" (inspired by the Shaw Monument in Boston, the work of Saint-Gaudens), "The Brute," "The Daguerreotype," and "On a Soldier Fallen in the Philippines." In this last poem throb and surge the mingled emotions of pride and shame which the best minds in the country felt at the time—shame at our mercenary course, and pride in the fine behavior of our soldiers. It is true we made some pretense of indemnifying Spain by paying her twenty million dollars, which was much like the course of a boy who throws another boy down and forcibly takes his jack-knife from him, then gives him a few coppers to salve his wounds. I remember giving Moody's poem to Charles Eliot Norton (one of those who opposed the war), shortly after it appeared. He read it aloud with marked emotion. Let me quote two of its stanzas:

"Toll! Let the great bells toll Till the clashing air is dim. Did we wrong this parted soul? We will make it up to him. Toll! Let him never guess What work we set him to. Laurel, laurel, yes; He did what we bade him do. Praise, and never a whispered hint but the fight he fought was good; Never a word that the blood on his sword was his country's own heart's-blood.

"A flag for the soldier's bier Who dies that his land may live; O, banners, banners here, That he doubt not nor misgive! That he heed not from the tomb The evil days draw near When the nation, robed in gloom, With its faithless past shall strive. Let him never dream that his bullet's scream went wide of its island mark, Home to the heart of his darling land where she stumbled and sinned in the dark."

When I say that every true poet must have a philosophy, I do not mean that he must be what is commonly called a philosophical poet; from such we steer clear. The philosophy in a poem must be like the iron in the blood. It is the iron that gives color and vigor to the blood. Reduce it and we become an anaemic and feeble race. Much of the popular poetry is anaemic in this respect. There is no virile thought in it. All of which amounts to saying that there is always a great nature back of a great poem.

The various forms of verse are skillfully used by an increasing number of educated persons, but the number of true poets is not increasing. Quite the contrary, I fear. The spirit of the times in which we live does not favor meditation and absorption in the basic things out of which great poetry arises. "The world is too much with us." Yet we need not be too much discouraged. England has produced Masefield, and we have produced John Russell McCarthy, who has written the best nature poetry since Emerson. The genius of a race does not repeat. We shall never again produce poets of the type of those that are gone, and we should not want to. All we may hope for is to produce poets as original and characteristic and genuine as those of the past—poets who as truly express the spirit of their time, as the greater poets did of theirs—not Emerson and Whitman over again, but a wide departure from their types.

Speaking of Whitman, may we not affirm that it is his tremendous and impassioned philosophy suffusing his work, as the blood suffuses the body, that keeps "Leaves of Grass" forever fresh? We do not go to Whitman for pretty flowers of poesy, although they are there, but we go to him for his attitude toward life and the universe, we go to stimulate and fortify our souls—in short, for his cosmic philosophy incarnated in a man.

What largeness of thought Tennyson brings to all his themes! There is plenty of iron in his blood, though it be the blood of generations of culture, and of an overripe civilization. We cannot say as much of Swinburne's poetry or prose. I do not think either will live. Bigness of words, and fluency, and copiousness of verse cannot make up for the want of a sane and rational philosophy. Arnold's poems always have real and tangible subject matter. His "Dover Beach" is a great stroke of poetic genius. Let me return to Poe: what largeness of thought did he bring to his subjects? Emerson spoke of him as "the jingle man," and Poe, in turn, spoke of Emerson with undisguised contempt. Poe's picture indicates a neurotic person. There is power in his eyes, but the shape of his head is abnormal, and a profound melancholy seems to rest on his very soul. What a conjurer he was with words and meters and measures! No substance at all in his "Raven," only shadows—a wonderful dance of shadows, all tricks of a verbal wizard. "The Bells," a really powerful poem, is his masterpiece, unique in English literature; but it has no intellectual content. Its appeal is to the eye and ear alone. It has a verbal splendor and a mastery over measure and rhythm far beyond anything in Shelley, or in any other poet of his time. It is art glorified; it is full of poetic energy. No wonder foreign critics see in Poe something far beyond that found in any other American, or in any British poet!

Poe set to work to write "The Raven" as deliberately as a mechanic goes to work to make a machine, or an architect to build a house. It was all a matter of calculation with him. He did not believe in long poems, hence decided at the outset that his poem should not be more than one hundred lines in length. Then he asked himself, what is the legitimate end and aim of a poem? and answered emphatically, Beauty. The next point to settle was, what impression must be made to produce that effect? He decided that "melancholy is the most legitimate of all poetic tones." Why joy or gladness, like that of the birds, is not equally legitimate, he does not explain. Then, to give artistic piquancy to the whole, he decided that there must be "some pivot upon which the whole structure might turn." He found that "no one had been so universally employed as the refrain." The burden of the poem should be given by the refrain, and it should be a monotone, and should have brevity. Then his task was to select a single word that would be in keeping with the melancholy at which he was aiming, and this he found in the word nevermore. He next invented a pretext for the frequent but varying use of nevermore. This word could not be spoken in the right tone by a human being; it must come from an unreasoning creature, hence the introduction of the raven, an ill-omened bird, in harmony with the main tone of the poem. He then considered what was the most melancholy subject of mankind, and found it was death, and that that melancholy theme was most poetical when allied to beauty. Hence the death of a beautiful woman was unquestionably the most poetic topic in the world. It was equally beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic were those of a bereaved lover. Thus he worked himself up, or rather back, to the climax of the poem, for he wrote the last stanza, in which the climax occurs, first. His own analysis of the poem is like a chemist's analysis of some new compound he has produced; it is full of technical terms and subtle distinctions. Probably no other famous poem was turned out in just that studied and deliberate architectural way—no pretense of inspiration, or of "eyes in fine frenzy rolling": just skilled craftsmanship—only this and nothing more.

Arnold's dictum that poetry is a criticism of life is, in a large and flexible sense, true. The poet does not criticize life as the conscious critic does, but as we unconsciously do in our most exalted moments. Arnold, I believe, did not appreciate Whitman, but one function of the poet upon which Whitman lays emphasis, is criticism of his country and times.

"What is this you bring, my America? Is it uniform with my country? Is it not something that has been better done or told before? Have you not imported this or the spirit of it in some ship? Is it not a mere tale? a rhyme? a pettiness?—is the good old cause in it? Has it not dangled long at the heels of the poets, politicians, literates of enemies, lands? Does it not assume that what is notoriously gone is still here? Does it answer universal needs? will it improve manners? Can your performance face the open fields and the seaside? Will it absorb into me as I absorb food, air, to appear again in my strength, gait, face? Have real employments contributed to it? Original makers, not mere amanuenses?"

Speaking of criticism, it occurs to me how important it is that a poet, or any other writer, should be a critic of himself. Wordsworth, who was a really great poet, was great only at rare intervals. His habitual mood was dull and prosy. His sin was that he kept on writing during those moods, grinding out sonnets by the hundred—one hundred and thirty-two ecclesiastical sonnets, and over half as many on liberty, all very dull and wooden. His mill kept on grinding whether it had any grist of the gods to grind or not. He told Emerson he was never in haste to publish, but he seems to have been in haste to write, and wrote on all occasions, producing much dull and trivial work. We speak of a man's work as being heavy. Let us apply the test literally to Wordsworth and weigh his verse. The complete edition of his poems, edited by Henry Reed and published in Philadelphia in 1851, weighs fifty-five ounces; the selection which Matthew Arnold made from his complete works, and which is supposed to contain all that is worth preserving, weighs ten ounces. The difference represents the dead wood. That Wordsworth was a poor judge of his own work is seen in the remark he made to Emerson that he did not regard his "Tintern Abbey" as highly as some of the sonnets and parts of "The Excursion." I believe the Abbey poem is the one by which he will longest be remembered. "The Excursion" is a long, dull sermon. Its didacticism lies so heavily upon it that it has nearly crushed its poetry—like a stone on a flower.

All poetry is true, but all truth is not poetry. When Burns treats a natural-history theme, as in his verses on the mouse and the daisy, and even on the louse, how much more there is in them than mere natural history! With what a broad and tender philosophy he clothes them! how he identifies himself with the mouse and regards himself as its fellow mortal! So have Emerson's "Titmouse" and "Humble-Bee" a better excuse for being than their natural history. So have McCarthy's "For a Bunny" and "The Snake," and "To a Worm."

THE SNAKE

Poor unpardonable length, All belly to the mouth, Writhe then and wriggle, If there's joy in it!

My heel, at least, shall spare you.

A little sun on a stone, A mouse or two, And all that unreasonable belly Is happy.

No wonder God wasn't satisfied— And went on creating.

TO A WORM

Do you know you are green, little worm, Like the leaf you feed on? Perhaps it is on account of the birds, who would like to eat you. But is there any reason why they shouldn't eat you, little worm?

Do you know you are comical, little worm? How you double yourself up and wave your head, And then stretch out and double up again, All after a little food.

Do you know you have a long, strange name, little worm? I will not tell you what it is. That is for men of learning. You—and God—do not care about such things.

WHAT MAKES A POEM?

You would wave about and double up just as much, and be just as futile, with it as without it. Why do you crawl about on the top of that post, little worm? It should have been a tree, eh? with green leaves for eating. But it isn't, and you have crawled about it all day, looking for a new brown branch, or a green leaf. Do you know anything about tears, little worm?

Or take McCarthy's lines to the honey bee:

"Poor desolate betrayer of Pan's trust, Who turned from mating and the sweets thereof, To make of labor an eternal lust, And with pale thrift destroy the red of love, The curse of Pan has sworn your destiny. Unloving, unbeloved, you go your way Toiling forever, and unwittingly You bear love's precious burden every day From flower to flower (for your blasphemy), Poor eunuch, making flower lovers gay."

Or this:

GODLINESS

I know a man who says That he gets godliness out of a book.

He told me this as we sought arbutus On the April hills— Little color-poems of God Lilted to us from the ground, Lyric blues and whites and pinks. We climbed great rocks, Eternally chanting their gray elegies, And all about, the cadenced hills Were proud With the stately green epic of the Almighty.

And then we walked home under the stars, While he kept telling me about his book And the godliness in it.

There are many great lyrics in our literature which have no palpable or deducible philosophy; but they are the utterance of deep, serious, imaginative natures, and they reach our minds and hearts. Wordsworth's "Daffodils," his "Cuckoo," his "Skylark," and scores of others, live because they have the freshness and spontaneity of birds and flowers themselves.

Such a poem as Gray's "Elegy" holds its own, and will continue to hold it, because it puts in pleasing verse form the universal human emotion which all persons feel more or less when gazing upon graves.

The intellectual content of Scott's poems is not great but the human and emotional content in them is great. A great minstrel of the border speaks in them. The best that Emerson could say of Scott was that "he is the delight of generous boys," but the spirit of romance offers as legitimate a field for the poet as does the spirit of transcendentalism, though yielding, of course, different human values.

Every poet of a high order has a deep moral nature, and yet the poet is far from being a mere moralist—

"A reasoning, self-sufficing thing, An intellectual all-in-all."

Every true poem is an offering upon the altar of art; it exists to no other end; it teaches as nature teaches; it is good as nature is good; its art is the art of nature; it brings our spirits in closer and more loving contact with the universe; it is for the edification of the soul.



VI

SHORT STUDIES IN CONTRASTS

THE TRANSIENT AND THE PERMANENT

The clouds are transient, but the sky is permanent. The petals of a flowering plant are transient, the leaves and fruit are less so, and the roots the least transient of all. The dew on the grass is transient, as is the frost of an autumn morning. The snows and the rains abide longer. The splendors of summer and sunrise and sunset soon pass, but the glory of the day lasts. The rainbow vanishes in a few moments, but the prismatic effect of the drops of rain is a law of optics. Colors fade while texture is unimpaired.

Of course change marks everything, living or dead. Even the pole star in astronomic time will vanish. But consider things mundane only. How the rocks on the seacoast seem to defy and withstand the waves that beat against them! "Weak as is a breaking wave" is a line of Wordsworth's. Yet the waves remain after the rocks are gone. The sea knows no change as the land does. It and the sky are the two unchanging earth features.

In our own lives how transient are our moments of inspiration, our morning joy, our ecstasies of the spirit! Upon how much in the world of art, literature, invention, modes, may be written the word "perishable"! "All flesh is grass," says the old Book. Individuals, species, races, pass. Life alone remains and is immortal.

POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE

Positive and negative go hand in hand through the world. Victory and defeat, hope and despair, pleasure and pain. Man is positive, woman is negative in comparison. The day is positive, the night is negative. But it is a pleasure to remember that it is always day in the universe.

The shadow of the earth does not extend very far, nor the shadow of any other planet. Day is the great cosmic fact. The masses of men are negative to the few master and compelling minds. Cold is negative, heat is positive, though the difference is only one of degree. The negative side of life, the side of meditation, reflection, and reverie, is no less important than the side of action and performance. Youth is positive, age is negative. Age says No where it used to say Yes. It takes in sail. Life's hurry and heat are over, the judgment is calm, the passions subdued, the stress of effort relaxed. Our temper is less aggressive, events seem less imminent.

The morning is positive; in the evening we muse and dream and take our ease, we see our friends, we unstring the bow, we indulge our social instincts.

Optimism is positive, pessimism is negative. Fear, suspicion, distrust—are all negative.

On the seashore where I write[4] I see the ebbing tide, the exposed sand and rocks, the receding waves; and I know the sea is showing us its negative side; there is a lull in the battle. But wait a little and the mad assault of the waves upon the land will be renewed.

[Footnote 4: La Jolla, California.]

PALM AND FIST

The palm is for friendship, hospitality, and good will; the fist is to smite the enemies of truth and justice.

How many men are like the clenched fist—pugnacious, disputatious, quarrelsome, always spoiling for a fight; a verbal fisticuff, if not a physical one, is their delight. Others are more conciliatory and peace-loving, not forgetting that a soft answer turneth away wrath. Roosevelt was the man of the clenched fist; not one to stir up strife, but a merciless hitter in what he believed a just cause. He always had the fighting edge, yet could be as tender and sympathetic as any one. This latter side of him is clearly shown in his recently published "Letters to His Children." Lincoln was, in contrast, the man with the open palm, tempering justice with kindness, and punishment with leniency. His War Secretary, Stanton, wielded the hard fist.

PRAISE AND FLATTERY

"More men know how to flatter," said Wendell Phillips, "than how to praise." To flatter is easy, to condemn is easy, but to praise judiciously and discriminatingly is not easy. Extravagant praise defeats itself, as does extravagant blame. A man is rarely overpraised during his own time by his own people. If he is an original, forceful character, he is much more likely to be overblamed than overpraised. He disturbs old ways and institutions. We require an exalted point of view to take in a great character, as we do to take in a great mountain.

We are likely to overpraise and overblame our presidents. Lincoln was greatly overblamed in his day, but we have made it up to his memory. President Wilson won the applause of both political parties during his first term, but how overwhelmingly did the tide turn against him before the end of his second term! All his high and heroic service (almost his martyrdom) in the cause of peace, and for the league to prevent war, were forgotten in a mad rush of the populace to the other extreme. But Wilson will assuredly come to his own in time, and take his place among the great presidents.

A little of the Scottish moderation is not so bad; it is always safe. A wise man will always prefer unjust blame to fulsome praise. Extremes in the estimation of a sound character are bound sooner or later to correct themselves. Wendell Phillips himself got more than his share of blame during the antislavery days, but the praise came in due time.

GENIUS AND TALENT

The difference between the two is seen in nothing more clearly than in the fact that so many educated persons can and do write fairly good verse, in fact, write most of the popular newspaper and magazine poetry, while only those who have a genius for poetry write real poems. Could mere talent have written Bryant's lines "To a Waterfowl"? or his "Thanatopsis"? or "June"? Or the small volume of selections of great poetry which Arnold made from the massive works of Wordsworth?

Talent could have produced a vast deal of Wordsworth's work—all the "Ecclesiastical Sonnets" and much of "The Excursion." Could talent have written Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass"? It could have produced all that Whitman wrote before that time—all his stories and poems. Give talent inspiration and it becomes genius. The grub is metamorphosed into the butterfly.

"To do what is impossible to Talent is the mark of Genius," says Amiel.

Talent may judge, Genius creates. Talent keeps the rules, Genius knows when to break them.

"You may know Genius," says the ironical Swift, "by this sign: All the dunces are against him."

There is fine talent in Everett's oration at Gettysburg, but what a different quality spoke in Lincoln's brief but immortal utterance on the same occasion! Is anything more than bright, alert talent shown in the mass of Lowell's work, save perhaps in his "Biglow Papers"? If he had a genius for poetry, though he wrote much, I cannot see it. His tone, as Emerson said, is always that of prose. The "Cathedral" is a tour de force. The line of his so often quoted—"What is so rare as a day in June?"—is a line of prose.

The lines "To a Honey Bee" by John Russell McCarthy are the true gold of poetry. "To make of labor an eternal lust" could never have been struck off by mere talent.

INVENTION AND DISCOVERY

Columbus discovered America; Edison invented the phonograph, the incandescent light, and many other things. If Columbus had not discovered America, some other voyager would have. If Harvey had not discovered the circulation of the blood, some one else would have. The wonder is that it was not discovered ages before. So far as I know, no one has yet discovered the function of the spleen, but doubtless in time some one will. It is only comparatively recently that the functions of other ductless glands have been discovered. What did we know about the thyroid gland a half-century ago? All the new discoveries in the heavens waited upon the new astronomic methods, and the end is not yet. Many things in nature are still like an unexplored land. New remedies for the ills of the human body doubtless remain to be found. In the mechanical world probably no new principle remains to be discovered. "Keely" frauds have had their day. In the chemical world, the list of primary elements will probably not be added to, though new combinations of these elements may be almost endless. In the biological world, new species of insects, birds, and mammals doubtless remain to be discovered. Our knowledge of the natural history of the globe is far from being complete.

But in regard to inventions the case is different. I find myself speculating on such a question as this: If Edison had never been born, should we ever have had the phonograph, or the incandescent light? If Graham Bell had died in infancy, should we ever have had the telephone? Or without Marconi should we have had the wireless, or without Morse, the telegraph? Or, to go back still farther, without Franklin should we ever have known the identity of lightning and electricity? Who taught us how to control electricity and make it do our work? One of the questions of Job was, "Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go, and say unto thee, Here we are?" Yes, we can. "We are ready to do your bidding," they seem to say, "to run your errands, to carry your burdens, to grind your grist, to light your houses, to destroy your enemies."

The new inventions that the future holds for us wait upon the new man. The discovery of radium—what a secret that was! But in all probability had not Curie and his wife discovered it, some other investigator would.

Shall we ever learn how to use the atomic energy that is locked up in matter? Or how to use the uniform temperature of the globe? Or the secret of the glow-worm and firefly—light without heat?

The laws of the conservation of energy and of the correlation of forces were discoveries. The art of aviation was both an invention and a discovery. The soaring hawks and eagles we have always been familiar with; the Wright brothers invented the machine that could do the trick.

"Necessity is the mother of invention." As our wants increase, new devices to meet them appear. How the diving-bell answered a real need! The motor-car also, and the flying-machine. The sewing-machine is a great time-saver; the little hooks in our shoes in place of eyelets are great time-savers; pins, and friction matches, and rubber overshoes, and scores on scores of other inventions answer to real needs. Necessity did not call the phonograph into being, nor the incandescent light, but the high explosives, dynamite and T. N. T. (trinitrotoluol) met real wants.

The Great War with its submarines stimulated inventors to devise weapons to cope with them. Always as man's hand and eyes and ears have needed reenforcing or extending, his wit has come to his rescue. In fact, his progress has been contingent upon this very fact. His necessities and his power of invention react upon one another; the more he invents, the more he wants, and the more he wants, the more he invents.

TOWN AND COUNTRY

I was saying to myself, why do not all literary men go to the country to do their work, where they can have health, peace, and solitude? Then it occurred to me that there are many men of many minds, and that many need to be in the thick of life; they get more stimulus out of people than out of nature. The novelist especially needs to be in touch with multitudes of men and women. But the poet and the philosopher will usually prosper better in the country. A man like myself, who is an observer and of a meditative cast, does better in the country. Emerson, though city born and bred, finally settled in the country. Whitman, on the other hand, loved "populous pavements." But he was at home anywhere under the stars. He had no study, no library, no club, other than the street, the beach, the hilltop, and the marts of men. Mr. Howells was country-born, but came to the city for employment and remained there. Does not one wish that he had gone back to his Ohio boyhood home? It was easy for me to go back because I came of generations of farmer folk. The love of the red soil was in my blood. My native hills looked like the faces of my father and mother. I could never permanently separate myself from them. I have always had a kind of chronic homesickness. Two or three times a year I must revisit the old scenes. I have had a land-surveyor make a map of the home farm, and I have sketched in and colored all the different fields as I knew them in my youth. I keep the map hung up in my room here in California, and when I want to go home, I look at this map. I do not see the paper. I see fields and woods and stone walls and paths and roads and grazing cattle. In this field I used to help make hay; in this one I wore my fingers sore picking up stones for these stone walls; in this I planted corn and potatoes with my brothers. In these maple woods I helped make sugar in the spring; in these I killed my first ruffed grouse. In this field I did my first ploughing, with thoughts of an academy in a neighboring town at the end of every furrow. In this one I burned the dry and decayed stumps in the April days, with my younger brother, and a spark set his cap on fire. In this orchard I helped gather the apples in October. In this barn we husked the corn in the November nights. In this one Father sheared the sheep, and Mother picked the geese. My paternal grandfather cleared these fields and planted this orchard. I recall the hired man who worked for us during my time, and every dog my father had, and my adventures with them, hunting wood-chucks and coons. All these things and memories have been valuable assets in my life. But it is well that not all men have my strong local attachments. The new countries would never get settled. My forefathers would never have left Connecticut for the wilderness of the Catskills.

As a rule, however, we are a drifting, cosmopolitan people. We are easily transplanted; we do not strike our roots down into the geology of long-gone time.

I often wonder how so many people of the Old World can pull themselves up and migrate to America and never return. The Scots, certainly a home-loving race, do it, and do not seem to suffer from homesickness.



VII

DAY BY DAY

We often hear it said of a man that he was born too early, or too late, but is it ever true? If he is behind his times, would he not have been behind at whatever period he had been born? If he is ahead of his times, is not the same thing true? In the vegetable world the early flowers and fruit blossoms are often cut off by the frost, but not so in the world of man. Babies are in order at any time. Is a poet, or a philosopher, ever born too late? or too early? If Emerson had been born a century earlier, his heterodoxy would have stood in his way; but in that case he would not have been a heretic. Whitman would have had to wait for a hearing at whatever period he was born. He said he was willing to wait for the growth of the taste for himself, and it finally came. Emerson's first thin volume called "Nature" did not sell the first edition of five hundred copies in ten years, but would it have been different at any other time? A piece of true literature is not superseded. The fame of man may rise and fall, but it lasts. Was Watt too early with his steam-engine, or Morse too early with his telegraph? Or Bell too early with his telephone? Or Edison with his phonograph or his incandescent light? Or the Wright brothers with their flying-machine? Or Henry Ford with his motor-car? Before gasolene was discovered they would have been too early, but then their inventions would not have materialized.

The world moves, and great men are the springs of progress. But no man is born too soon or too late.

* * * * *

A fadeless flower is no flower at all. How Nature ever came to produce one is a wonder. Would not paper flowers do as well?

* * * * *

The most memorable days in our lives are the days when we meet a great man.

* * * * *

How stealthy and silent a thing is that terrible power which we have under control in our homes, yet which shakes the heavens in thunder! It comes and goes as silently as a spirit. In fact, it is nearer a spirit than anything else known to us. We touch a button and here it is, like an errand-boy who appears with his cap in his hand and meekly asks, "What will you have?"

* * * * *

A few days ago I was writing of meteoric men. But are we not all like meteors that cut across the sky and are quickly swallowed up by the darkness—some of us leaving a trail that lasts a little longer than others, but all gone in a breath?

Our great pulpit orator Beecher, how little he left that cold print does not kill! As a young man I used nearly to run my legs off to get to Plymouth Church before the doors were closed. Under his trumpet-like voice I was like a reed bent by the wind, but now when in a book made up of quotations I see passages from his sermons, they seem thin and flimsy. Beecher's oratory was all for the ear and not for the eye and mind. In truth, is the world indebted to the pulpit for much good literature? Robertson's sermons can be read in the library, and there are others of the great English divines. But oratory is action and passion. "Great volumes of animal heat," Emerson names as one of the qualities of the orator.

The speeches of Wendell Phillips will bear print because his oratory was of the quiet, conversational kind. Webster's, of course, stand the test of print, but do Clay's or Calhoun's? In our time oratory, as such, has about gone out. Rarely now do we hear the eagle scream in Congress or on the platform. Men aim to speak earnestly and convincingly, but not oratorically. President Wilson is a very convincing speaker, but he indulges in no oratory. The one who makes a great effort to be eloquent always fails. Noise and fury and over-emphasis are not eloquent. "True eloquence," says Pascal, "scorns eloquence."

There is no moral law in nature, but there is that out of which the moral law arose. There is no answer to prayer in the heavens above, or in the earth beneath, except in so far as the attitude of sincere prayer is a prophecy of the good it pleads for. Prayer for peace of mind, for charity, for gratitude, for light, for courage, is answered in the sincere asking. Prayer for material good is often prayer against wind and tide, but wind and tide obey those who can rule them.

Our ethical standards injected into world-history lead to confusion and contradiction. Introduced into the jungle, they would put an end to life there; introduced into the sea, they would put an end to life there; the rule that it is more blessed to give than to receive would put an end to all competitive business. Our ethical standards are narrow, artificial, and apply only to civilized communities. Nations have rarely observed them till the present day.

* * * * *

If the world is any better for my having lived in it, it is because I have pointed the way to a sane and happy life on terms within reach of all, in my love and joyous acceptance of the works of Nature about me. I have not tried, as the phrase is, to lead my readers from Nature up to Nature's God, because I cannot separate the one from the other. If your heart warms toward the visible creation, and toward your fellow men, you have the root of the matter in you. The power we call God does not sustain a mechanical or secondary relation to the universe, but is vital in it, or one with it. To give this power human lineaments and attributes, as our fathers did, only limits and belittles it. And to talk of leading from Nature up to Nature's God is to miss the God that throbs in every spear of grass and vibrates in the wing of every insect that hums. The Infinite is immanent in this universe.

* * * * *

"The faith that truth exists" is the way that William James begins one of his sentences. Of course truth exists where the mind of man exists. A new man and there is new truth. Truth, in this sense, is a way of looking at things that is agreeable, or that gives satisfaction to the human mind. Truth is not a definite fixed quantity, like the gold or silver of a country. It is no more a fixed quantity than is beauty. It is an experience of the human mind. Beauty and truth are what we make them. We say the world is full of beauty. What we mean is that the world is full of things that give us the pleasure, or awaken in us the sentiment which we call by that name.

The broadest truths are born of the broadest minds. Narrow minds are so named from their narrow views of things.

Pilate's question, "What is Truth?" sets the whole world by the ears. The question of right and wrong is another thing. Such questions refer to action and the conduct of our lives. In religion, in politics, in economics, in sociology, what is truth to one man may be error to another. We may adopt a course of action because it seems the more expedient. Debatable questions have two sides to them. In the moral realm that is true which is agreeable to the largest number of competent judges. A mind that could see further and deeper might reverse all our verdicts. To be right on any question in the moral realm is to be in accord with that which makes for the greatest good to the greatest number. In our Civil War the South believed itself right in seceding from the Union; the North, in fighting to preserve the Union. Both sections now see that the North had the larger right. The South was sectional, the North national. Each of the great political parties thinks it has a monopoly of the truth, but the truth usually lies midway between them. Questions of right and wrong do not necessarily mean questions of true and false. "There is nothing either good or bad," says Hamlet, "but thinking makes it so." This may be good Christian Science doctrine, but it is doubtful philosophy.

* * * * *

Yesterday, as I stood on the hill above Slabsides and looked over the landscape dotted with farms just greening in the April sun, the thought struck me afresh that all this soil, all the fertile fields, all these leagues on leagues of sloping valleys and rolling hills came from the decay of the rocks, and that the chief agent in bringing about this decay and degradation was the gentle rain from heaven—that without the rain through the past geologic ages, the scene I looked upon would have been only one wild welter of broken or crumpled rocky strata, not a green thing, not a living thing, should I have seen.

In the Hawaiian Islands one may have proof of this before his eyes. On one end of the island of Maui, the rainfall is very great, and its deep valleys and high sharp ridges are clothed with tropical verdure, while on the other end, barely ten miles away, rain never falls, and the barren, rocky desolation which the scene presents I can never forget. No rain, no soil; no soil, no life.

We are, therefore, children of the rocks; the rocks are our mother, and the rains our father.

* * * * *

When the stream of life, through some favoring condition, breaks through its natural checks and bounds, and inundates and destroys whole provinces of other forms, as when the locusts, the forest-worms, the boll-weevil, the currant-worm, the potato beetle, unduly multiply and devastate fields and forests and the farmer's crops, what do we witness but Nature's sheer excess and intemperance? Life as we usually see it is the result of a complex system of checks and counter-checks. The carnivorous animals are a check on the herbivorous; the hawks and owls are a check on the birds and fowls; the cats and weasels are a check on the small rodents, which are very prolific. The different species of plants and trees are a check upon one another.

* * * * *

I think the main reason of the abundance of wealth in the country is that every man, equipped as he is with so many modern scientific appliances and tools, is multiplied four or five times. He is equal to that number of men in his capacity to do things as compared with the men of fifty or seventy years ago. The farmer, with his mowing-machine, his horse-rake, his automobile, his tractor engine and gang ploughs or his sulky ploughs, his hay-loader, his corn-planter, and so on, does the work of many men. Machinery takes the place of men. Gasolene and kerosene oil give man a great advantage. Dynamite, too,—what a giant that is in his service! The higher cost of living does not offset this advantage.

The condition in Europe at this time is quite different: there the energies of men have been directed not to the accumulation of wealth, but to the destruction of wealth. Hence, while the war has enriched us, it has impoverished Europe.

* * * * *

Why are women given so much more to ornaments and superfluities in dress and finery than men? In the animal kingdom below man, save in a few instances, it is the male that wears the showy decorations. The male birds have the bright plumes; the male sheep have the big horns; the stag has the antlers; the male lion has the heavy mane; the male firefly has wings and carries the lamp. With the barnyard fowl the male has the long spurs and the showy comb and wattles. In the crow tribe, the male cannot be distinguished from the female, nor among the fly-catchers, nor among the snipes and plovers. But when we come to the human species, and especially among the white races, the female fairly runs riot in ornamentation. If it is not to attract the male, what is it for? It has been pretty clearly shown that what Darwin calls "sexual selection" plays no part. Woman wishes to excite the passion of love. She has an instinct for motherhood; the perpetuity of the species is at the bottom of it all. Woman knows how to make her dress alluring, how to make it provocative, how much to reveal, how much to conceal. A certain voluptuousness is the ambition of all women; anything but to be skinny and raw-boned. She does not want to be muscular and flat-chested, nor, on the other hand, to be over-stout, but she prays for the flowing lines and the plumpness that belong to youth. A lean man does not repel her, nor a rugged, bony frame. Woman's garments are of a different texture and on a different scale than those of man, and much more hampering. Her ruffles and ribbons and laces all play their part. Her stockings even are a vital problem, more important than her religion. We do not care where she worships if her dress is attractive. Emerson reports that a lady said to him that a sense of being well-dressed at church gave a satisfaction which religion could not give.

With man the male defends and safeguards the female. True that among savage tribes he makes a slave of her, but in the white races he will defend her with his life. She does not take up arms, she does not go to sea. She does not work in mines, or as a rule engage in the rough work of the world. In Europe she works in the field, and we have had farmerettes in this country, but I know of no feminine engineers or carpenters or stone masons. There have been a few women explorers and Alpine climbers, and investigators in science, but only a few. The discovery of radium is chiefly accredited to a woman, and women have a few valuable inventions to their credit. I saw a valuable and ingenious machine, in a great automobile factory, that was invented by a woman. Now that woman has won the franchise in this country, we are waiting to see if politics will be purified.

The "weaker sex," surely. How much easier do women cry than men! how much more easily are they scared! And yet, how much more pain they can endure! And how much more devoted are they to their children!

* * * * *

Why does any extended view from a mountain-top over a broad landscape, no matter what the features of that landscape, awaken in us the emotion of the beautiful? Is it because the eye loves a long range, a broad sweep? Or do we have a sense of victory? The book of the landscape is now open before us, and we can read it page after page. All these weary miles where we tramped, and where the distance, as it were, was in ambush, we now command at a glance. Big views expand the mind as deep inhalations of air expand the lungs.

Yesterday I stood on the top of Grossmont,[5] probably a thousand feet above the landscape, and looked out over a wide expanse of what seemed to be parched, barren country; a few artificial lakes or ponds of impounded rains, but not a green thing in sight, and yet I was filled with pleasurable emotion. I lingered and lingered and gazed and gazed. The eye is freed at such times, like a caged bird, and darts far and near without hindrance.

[Footnote 5: In San Diego County, California.]

* * * * *

"The wings of time are black and white, Pied with morning and with night."

Thus do we objectify that which has no objective existence, but is purely a subjective experience. Do we objectify light and sound in the same way? No. One can conceive of the vibrations in the ether that give us the sensation of light, and in the air that give us sound. These vibrations do not depend upon our organs. Time and tide, we say, wait for no man. Certainly the tide does not, as it has a real objective existence. But time does not wait or hurry. It neither lags nor hastens. Yesterday does not exist, nor to-morrow, nor the Now, for that matter. Before we can say the moment has come, it is gone. The only change there is is in our states of consciousness. How the hours lag when we are waiting for a train, and how they hurry when we are happily employed! Can we draw a line between the past and the present? Can you find a point in the current of the stream that is stationary? We speak of being lavish of time and of husbanding time, of improving time, and so on. We divide it into seconds and minutes, hours and days, weeks, and months, and years. Civilized man is compelled to do this; he lives and works by schedule, but it is his states of consciousness that he divides and measures. "Time is but a stream I go fishing in," says Thoreau. The stream goes by, but the fish stay. The river of Time, the tooth of Time—happy comparisons.

"I wasted time and now time wastes me," says Shakespeare. "I have no time." "You have all there is," replied the old Indian.

If time, like money, could be hoarded up, we could get all our work done. Is there any time outside of man? The animals take no note of time.

* * * * *

That is a good saying of Juvenal's, "He who owns the soil, owns up to the sky." So is this of Virgil's, "Command large fields, but cultivate small ones."

* * * * *

Can there be any theory or doctrine not connected with our practical lives so absurd that it will not be accepted as true by many people? How firmly was a belief in witchcraft held by whole populations for a generation! My grandfather believed in it, and in spooks and hobgoblins.

The belief in alchemy still prevails—that the baser metals, by the aid of the philosopher's stone, can be transmuted into gold and silver. Quite recently there was a school in a large town in California for teaching alchemy. As it was a failure, its professor was involved in litigation with his pupils. I believe the pupils were chiefly women.

There is a sect in Florida that believe that we live on the inside of a hollow sphere, instead of on the outside of a revolving globe. I visited the community with Edison, near Fort Myers, several years ago. Some of the women were fine-looking. One old lady looked like Martha Washington, but the men all looked "as if they had a screw loose somewhere." They believe that the sun and moon and all the starry hosts of heaven revolve on the inside of this hollow sphere. All our astronomy goes by the board. They look upon it as puerile and contemptible. The founder of the sect had said he would rise from the dead to confirm its truth. His disciples kept his body till the Board of Health obliged them to bury it.

If any one were seriously to urge that we really walk on our heads instead of our heels, and cite our baldness as proof, there are persons who would believe him. It has been urged that flight to the moon in an aeroplane is possible—the want of air is no hindrance! The belief in perpetual motion is not yet dead. Many believe that snakes charm birds. But it has been found that a stuffed snake-skin will "charm" birds also—the bird is hypnotized by its own fear.

* * * * *

What has become of the hermits?—men and women who preferred to live alone, holding little or no intercourse with their fellows? In my youth I knew of several such. There was old Ike Keator, who lived in a little unpainted house beside the road near the top of the mountain where we passed over into Batavia Kill. He lived there many years. He had a rich brother, a farmer in the valley below. Then there was Eri Gray, who lived to be over one hundred years. He occupied a little house on the side of a mountain, and lived, it was said, like the pigs in the pen. Then there was Aunt Deborah Bouton, who lived in a little house by a lonely road and took care of her little farm and her four or five cows, winter and summer. Since I have lived here on the Hudson there was a man who lived alone in an old stone house amid great filth on the top of the hill above Esopus village.

In my own line of descent there was a Kelley who lived alone in a hut in the woods, not far from Albany. I myself must have a certain amount of solitude, but I love to hear the hum of life all about me. I like to be secluded in a building warmed by the presence of other persons.

* * * * *

When I was a boy on the old farm, the bright, warm, midsummer days were canopied with the mellow hum of insects. You did not see them or distinguish any one species, but the whole upper air resounded like a great harp. It was a very marked feature of midday. But not for fifty years have I heard that sound. I have pressed younger and sharper ears into my service, but to no purpose: there are certainly fewer bumblebees than of old, but not fewer flies or wasps or hornets or honey bees. What has wrought the change I do not know.

* * * * *

If the movements going on around us in inert matter could be magnified so as to come within range of our unaided vision, how agitated the world would seem! The so-called motionless bodies are all vibrating and shifting their places day and night at all seasons. The rocks are sliding down the hills or creeping out of their beds, the stone walls are reeling and toppling, the houses are settling or leaning. All inert material raised by the hand of man above the earth's surface is slowly being pulled down to a uniform level. The crust of the earth is rising or subsiding. The very stars in the constellations are shifting their places.

If we could see the molecular and chemical changes and transformations that are going on around us, another world of instability would be revealed to us. Here we should see real miracles. We should see the odorless gases unite to form water. We should see the building of crystals, catalysis, and the movements of unstable compounds.

* * * * *

Think of what Nature does with varying degrees of temperature—solids, fluids, gases. From the bottom to the top of the universe means simply more or less heat. It seems like a misuse of words to say that iron freezes at a high temperature, that a bar of red-hot or white-hot iron is frozen. Water freezes at a high temperature, the air freezes at a vastly lower. Carbon dioxide becomes a solid at a very low temperature. Hydrogen becomes a liquid at 252 deg. below zero centigrade, and a solid at 264 deg.. The gas fluorine becomes a liquid at 210 deg. below zero centigrade.

In a world of absolute zero everything would be as solid as the rocks, all life, all chemical reactions would cease. All forms of water are the result of more or less heat. The circuit of the waters from the earth to the clouds and back again, which keeps all the machinery of life a-going, is the work of varying degrees of temperature. The Gulf Stream, which plays such a part in the climate of Europe, is the result of the heat in the Gulf of Mexico. The glacial periods which have so modified the surface of the earth in the past were the result of temperature changes.

* * * * *

How habitually we speak of beauty as a positive thing, just as we do of truth! whereas what we call beauty is only an emotional experience of our own minds, just as light and heat are sensations of our bodies. There is no light where there is no eye, and no sound where there is no ear. One is a vibration in the ether, and the other a vibration in the air. The vibrations are positive. We do not all see beauty in the same things. One man is unmoved where another is thrilled. We say the world is full of beauty, when we mean that it is full of objects that excite this emotion in our minds.

We speak of truth as if it, too, were a positive thing, and as if there were a fixed quantity of it in the world, as there is of gold or silver, or diamonds. Truth, again, is an intellectual emotion of the human mind. One man's truth is another man's falsehood—moral and aesthetic truth, I mean. Objective truth (mathematics and science) must be the same to all men.

A certain mode of motion in the molecules of matter gives us the sensation of heat, but heat is not a thing, an entity in itself, any more than cold is. Yet to our senses one seems just as positive as the other.

New truth means a new man. There are as many kinds of truth as there are human experiences and temperaments.

* * * * *

How adaptive is animal life! It adds a new touch of interest to the forbidding cactus to know that the cactus wren builds her nest between its leaves. The spines probably serve to protect the bird from her enemies. But are they not also a menace to her and to her young? But this "procreant cradle" of a bird in the arms of the fanged desert growth softens its aspect a little.

* * * * *

The tree of forbidden fruit—the Tree of Knowledge—how copiously has mankind eaten of it during these latter generations!—and the chaotic state of the world to-day is the result. We have been forcing Nature's hand on a tremendous scale. We have gained more knowledge and power than we can legitimately use. We are drunk with the sense of power. We challenge the very gods. The rapid increase of inventions and the harnessing of the powers of Nature have set all nations to manufacturing vastly more goods than they can use and they all become competitors for world markets, and rivalries and jealousies spring up, and the seeds of war are planted. The rapid growth of towns and cities is one of the results. The sobering and humanizing influence of the country and the farm are less and less in evidence; the excitement, the excesses, the intoxication of the cities are more and more. The follies and extravagances of wealth lead to the insolence and rebellion of the poor. Material power! Drunk with this power, the world is running amuck to-day. We have got rid of kings and despots and autocratic governments; now if we could only keep sober and make democracy safe and enjoyable! Too much science has brought us to grief. Behold what Chemistry has done to put imperial power in our hands during the last decade!

* * * * *

The grand movements of history and of mankind are like the movements of nature, under the same law, elemental, regardless of waste and ruin and delays—not the result of human will or design, but of forces we wot not of. They are of the same order as floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, a release of human forces that have slumbered. The chaos of Europe to-day shows the play of such elemental forces, unorganized, at cross-purposes, antagonistic, fighting it out in the attempt to find an equilibrium. The pain, the suffering, the waste, the delays, do not trouble the gods at all. Since man is a part of nature, why should not masses of men be ruled by natural law? The human will reaches but a little way.



VIII

GLEANINGS

I do not believe that one poet can or does efface another, as Arnold suggests. As every gas is a vacuum to every other gas, so every new poet is a vacuum to every other poet. Wordsworth told Arnold that for many years his poems did not bring him enough to buy his shoestrings. The reading public had to acquire a taste for him. Whitman said, "I am willing to wait for the growth of the taste of myself." A man who likes a poet of real worth is going to continue to like him, no matter what new man appears. He may not read him over and over, but he goes back to him when the mood is upon him. We listen to the same music over and over. We take the same walk over and over. We read Shakespeare over and over, and we go back to the best in Wordsworth over and over. We get in Tennyson what we do not get in Wordsworth, and we as truly get in Wordsworth what we do not get in Tennyson. Tennyson was sumptuous and aristocratic. Byron found his audience, but he did not rob Wordsworth.

It seems to me that the preeminence of Wordsworth lies in the fact that he deals so entirely with concrete things—men and objects in nature—and floods or saturates them with moral meanings. There is no straining, no hair-splitting, no contortions of the oracle, but it all comes as naturally as the sunrise or the sunset.

* * * * *

Things not beautiful in themselves, or when seen near at hand, may and do give us the sense of beauty when seen at a distance, or in mass. Who has not stood on a mountain-top, and seen before him a wild, disorderly landscape that has nevertheless awakened in him the emotion of the beautiful? or that has given him the emotion of the sublime? Wordsworth's "Daffodils," "Three Years She Grew," "The Solitary Reaper," "The Rainbow," "The Butterfly," and many others are merely beautiful. These lines from Whitman give one the emotion of the sublime:

"I open my scuttle at night and see the far-sprinkled systems, And all I see multiplied as high as I can cipher edge but the rim of the farther systems.

"Wider and wider they spread, expanding, always expanding, Outward and outward and forever outward.

"My sun has his sun and round him obediently wheels, He joins with his partners a group of superior circuit, And greater sets follow, making specks of the greatest inside them."

All men may slake their thirst at the same spring of water, but all men cannot be thrilled or soothed by beholding the same objects of nature. A beautiful child captivates every one, a beautiful woman ravishes all eyes. On my way to the Imperial Valley, I recently drove across a range of California mountains that had many striking features. A lady asked me if I did not think them beautiful. I said, "No, they are hideous, but the hideous may be interesting."

The snow is beautiful to many persons, but it is not so to me. It is the color of death. I could stand our northern winters very well if I could always see the face of the brown or ruddy earth. The snow, I know, blankets the fields; and Emerson's poem on the snowstorm is fine; at the same time, I would rather not be obliged to look at the white fields.

* * * * *

We are the first great people without a past in the European sense. We are of yesterday. We do not strike our roots down deep into the geology of long-gone ages. We are easily transplanted. We are a mixture of all peoples as the other nations of the world are not. Only yesterday we were foreigners ourselves. Then we made the first experiment on a large scale of a democratic or self-governing people. The masses, and not a privileged few, give the tone and complexion to things in this country. We have not yet had time to develop a truly national literature or art. We have produced but one poet of the highest order. Whitman is autochthonous. He had no precursor. He is a new type of man appearing in this field.

* * * * *

"What think ye of Whitman?" This is the question I feel like putting, and sometimes do put, to each young poet I meet. If he thinks poorly of Whitman, I think poorly of him. I do not expect great things of him, and so far my test holds good. William Winter thought poorly of Whitman, Aldrich thought poorly of him, and what lasting thing has either of them done in poetry? The memorable things of Aldrich are in prose. Stedman showed more appreciation of him, and Stedman wrote two or three things that will keep. His "Osawatomie Brown ... he shoved his ramrod down" is sure of immortality. Higginson could not stand Whitman, and had his little fling at him whenever he got the chance. Who reads Higginson now? Emerson, who far outranks any other New England poet, was fairly swept off his feet by the first appearance of "Leaves of Grass." Whittier, I am told, threw the book in the fire. Whittier's fame has not gone far beyond New England. The scholarly and academic Lowell could not tolerate Whitman, and if Lowell has ever written any true poetry, I have not seen it. What Longfellow thought of him, I do not know. Thoreau saw his greatness at a glance and went to see him. In England, I am told, Tennyson used to read him aloud in select company. I know that the two poets corresponded. We catch a glimpse of Swinburne's spasmodic insight in his first burst of enthusiasm over him, and then of his weakness in recanting. Swinburne's friend and house-mate, Watts Dunton, never could endure him, but what has he done? So it has gone and still is going, though now the acceptance of Whitman has become the fashion.

I have always patted myself on the back for seeing the greatness of Whitman from the first day that I read a line of his. I was bewildered and disturbed by some things, but I saw enough to satisfy me of his greatness.

Whitman had the same faith in himself that Kepler had in his work. Whitman said:

"Whether I come to my own to-day, or in ten thousand, or ten million years, I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait."

Kepler said: "The die is cast; the book is written, to be read either now or by posterity. I care not which. It may well wait a century for a reader, since God has waited six thousand years for an observer like myself."

* * * * *

Judging from fragments of his letters that I have seen, Henry James was unquestionably hypersensitive. In his dislike of publicity he was extreme to the point of abnormality; it made him ill to see his name in print, except under just the right conditions. He wanted all things veiled and softened. He fled his country, abjured it completely. The publicity of it, of everything in America—its climate, its day, its night, the garish sun, its fierce, blazing light, the manner of its people, its politics, its customs—fairly made him cringe. During his last visit here he tried lecturing, but soon gave it up. He fled to veiled and ripened and cushioned England—not to the country, but to smoky London; and there his hypersensitive soul found peace and ease. He became a British subject, washed himself completely of every vestige of Americanism. This predilection of his probably accounts for the obscurity or tantalizing indirectness of his writings. The last story I read of his was called "One More Turn of the Screw," but what the screw was, or what the turn was, or whether anybody got pinched or squeezed, or what it was all about, I have not the slightest idea. He wrote about his visit here, his trip to Boston, to Albany, to New York, but which town he was writing about you could not infer from the context. He had the gift of a rich, choice vocabulary, but he wove it into impenetrable, though silken, veils that concealed more than they revealed. When replying to his correspondents on the typewriter, he would even apologize for "the fierce legibility of the type."

* * * * *

The contrast between the "singing-robes and the overalls of Journalism" is true and striking. Good and true writing no magazine or newspaper editor will blue-pencil. But "fine" writing is a different thing—a style that is conscious of itself, a style in which the thought is commonplace and the language studied and ornate, every judicious editor will blue-pencil. Downrightness and sententiousness are prime qualities; brevity, concreteness, spontaneity—in fact, all forms of genuine expression—help make literature. You know the genuine from the spurious, gold from pinchbeck, that's the rub. The secret of sound writing is not in the language, but in the mind or personality behind the language. The dull writer and the inspired writer use, or may use, the same words, and the product will be gold in the one and lead in the other.

* * * * *

Dana's book ["Two Years Before the Mast"] is a classic because it took no thought of being a classic. It is a plain, unvarnished tale, not loaded up with tedious descriptions. It is all action, a perpetual drama in which the sea, the winds, the seamen, the sails—mainsail, main royal, foresail—play the principal parts.

There is no book depicting life on the sea to compare with it. Lately I have again tried to find the secret of its charm. In the first place, it is a plain, unvarnished tale, no attempt at fine writing in it. All is action from cover to cover. It is full of thrilling, dramatic scenes. In fact, it is almost a perpetual drama in which the sea, the winds, the storms, the sails, and the sailors play their parts. Each sail, from the smallest to the greatest, has its own character and its own part to play; sometimes many of them, sometimes few are upon the stage at once. Occasionally all the canvas was piled on at once, and then what a sight the ship was to behold! Scudding under bare poles was dramatic also.

The life on board ship in those times—its humor, its tedium, its dangers, its hardships—was never before so vividly portrayed. The tyranny and cruelty of sea-captains, the absolute despotism of that little world of the ship's deck, stand out in strong relief. Dana had a memory like a phonographic record. Unless he took copious notes on this journey, it is incredible how he could have made it so complete, so specific is the life of each day. The reader craves more light on one point—the size of the ship, her length and tonnage. In setting out on the homeward journey they took aboard a dozen sheep, four bullocks, a dozen or more pigs, three or four dozen of poultry, thousands of dressed and cured hides, as well as fodder and feed for the cattle and poultry and pigs. The vessel seemed elastic; they could always find room for a few thousand more hides, if the need arose. The hides were folded up like the leaves of a book, and they invented curious machinery to press in a hundred hides where one could not be forced by hand. By this means the forty thousand hides were easily disposed of as part of the home cargo.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse