Now we will consider another poem of the ideal. What we have been reading referred to ghostly ideals, to memories, or to hopes. Let us now see how the poets have talked about realities. Here is a pretty thing by Thomas Ashe. It is entitled "Pansie"; and this flower name is really a corruption of a French word "Penser," meaning a thought. The flower is very beautiful, and its name is sometimes given to girls, as in the present case.
MEET WE NO ANGELS, PANSIE?
Came, on a Sabbath noon, my sweet, In white, to find her lover; The grass grew proud beneath her feet, The green elm-leaves above her:— Meet we no angels, Pansie?
She said, "We meet no angels now;" And soft lights stream'd upon her; And with white hand she touch'd a bough; She did it that great honour:— What! meet no angels, Pansie?
O sweet brown hat, brown hair, brown eyes, Down-dropp'd brown eyes, so tender! Then what said I? Gallant replies Seem flattery, and offend her:— But—meet no angels, Pansie?
The suggestion is obvious, that the maiden realizes to the lover's eye the ideal of an angel. As she comes he asks her slyly,—for she has been to the church—"Is it true that nobody ever sees real angels?" She answers innocently, thinking him to be in earnest, "No—long ago people used to see angels, but in these times no one ever sees them." He does not dare tell her how beautiful she seems to him; but he suggests much more than admiration by the tone of his protesting response to her answer: "What! You cannot mean to say that there are no angels now?" Of course that is the same as to say, "I see an angel now"—but the girl is much too innocent to take the real and flattering meaning.
Wordsworth's portrait of the ideal woman is very famous; it was written about his own wife though that fact would not be guessed from the poem. The last stanza is the most famous, but we had better quote them all.
She was a phantom of delight When first she gleamed upon my sight; A lovely apparition, sent To be a moment's ornament; Her eyes as stars of twilight fair; Like twilight's, too, her dusky hair; But all things else about her drawn From May-time and the cheerful dawn; A dancing shape, an image gay, To haunt, to startle, and waylay.
I saw her upon nearer view, A Spirit, yet a Woman too! Her household motions light and free, And steps of virgin liberty; A countenance in which did meet Sweet records, promises as sweet; A creature not too bright or good For human nature's daily food; For transient sorrows, simple wiles, Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears and smiles.
And now I see with eye serene The very pulse of the machine; A being breathing thoughtful breath, A traveller betwixt life and death; The reason firm, the temperate will, Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill; A perfect woman, nobly plann'd, To warn, to comfort and command; And yet a Spirit still, and bright With something of angelic light.
I quoted this after the Pansie poem to show you how much more deeply Wordsworth could touch the same subject. To him, too, the first apparition of the ideal maiden seemed angelic; like Ashe he could perceive the mingled attraction of innocence and of youth. But innocence and youth are by no means all that make up the best attributes of woman; character is more than innocence and more than youth, and it is character that Wordsworth studies. But in the last verse he tells us that the angel is always there, nevertheless, even when the good woman becomes old. The angel is the Mother-soul.
Wordsworth's idea that character is the supreme charm was expressed very long before him by other English poets, notably by Thomas Carew.
He that loves a rosy cheek, Or a coral lip admires, Or from star-like eyes doth seek Fuel to maintain his fires: As old Time makes these decay, So his flames must waste away.
But a smooth and steadfast mind, Gentle thoughts and calm desires, Hearts with equal love combined, Kindle never-dying fires. Where these, are not, I despise Lovely cheeks or lips or eyes.
For about three hundred years in English literature it was the fashion—a fashion borrowed from the Latin poets—to speak of love as a fire or flame, and you must understand the image in these verses in that signification. To-day the fashion is not quite dead, but very few poets now follow it.
Byron himself, with all his passion and his affected scorn of ethical convention, could and did, when he pleased, draw beautiful portraits of moral as well as physical attraction. These stanzas are famous; they paint for us a person with equal attraction of body and mind.
She walks in beauty, like the night Of cloudless climes and starry skies; And all that's best of dark and bright Meet in her aspect and her eyes: Thus mellow'd to that tender light Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less, Had half impair'd the nameless grace Which waves in every raven tress, Or softly lightens o'er her face; Where thoughts serenely sweet express How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek, and o'er that brow, So soft, so calm, yet eloquent, The smiles that win, the tints that glow, But tell of days in goodness spent, A mind at peace with all below, A heart whose love is innocent!
It is worth noticing that in each of the last three poems, the physical beauty described is that of dark eyes and hair. This may serve to remind you that there are two distinct types, opposite types, of beauty celebrated by English poets; and the next poem which I am going to quote, the beautiful "Ruth" of Thomas Hood, also describes a dark woman.
She stood breast-high amid the corn, Clasp'd by the golden light of morn, Like the sweetheart of the sun, Who many a glowing kiss had won.
On her cheek an autumn flush, Deeply ripen'd;—such a blush In the midst of brown was born, Like red poppies grown with corn.
Round her eyes her tresses fell, Which were blackest none could tell, But long lashes veil'd a light, That had else been all too bright.
And her hat, with shady brim, Made her tressy forehead dim; Thus she stood among the stooks, Praising God with sweetest looks:—
Sure, I said, Heav'n did not mean, Where I reap thou shouldst but glean, Lay thy sheaf adown and come, Share my harvest and my home.
We might call this the ideal of a peasant girl whose poverty appeals to the sympathy of all who behold her. The name of the poem is suggested indeed by the Bible story of Ruth the gleaner, but the story in the poem is only that of a rich farmer who marries a very poor girl, because of her beauty and her goodness. It is just a charming picture—a picture of the dark beauty which is so much admired in Northern countries, where it is less common than in Southern Europe. There are beautiful brown-skinned types; and the flush of youth on the cheeks of such a brown girl has been compared to the red upon a ripe peach or a russet apple—a hard kind of apple, very sweet and juicy, which is brown instead of yellow, or reddish brown. But the poet makes the comparison with poppy flowers and wheat. That, of course, means golden yellow and red; in English wheat fields red poppy flowers grow in abundance. The expression "tressy forehead" in the second line of the fourth stanza means a forehead half covered with falling, loose hair.
The foregoing pretty picture may be offset by charming poem of Browning's describing a lover's pride in his illusion. It is simply entitled "Song," and to appreciate it you must try to understand the mood of a young man who believes that he has actually realized his ideal, and that the woman that he loves is the most beautiful person in the whole world. The fact that this is simply imagination on his part does not make the poem less beautiful—on the contrary, the false imagining is just what makes it beautiful, the youthful emotion of a moment being so humanly and frankly described. Such a youth must imagine that every one else sees and thinks about the girl just as he does, and he expects them to confess it.
Nay but you, who do not love her, Is she not pure gold, my mistress? Holds earth aught—speak truth—above her? Aught like this tress, see, and this tress, And this last fairest tress of all, So fair, see, ere I let it fall?
Because you spend your lives in praising; To praise, you search the wide world over; Then why not witness, calmly gazing, If earth holds aught—speak truth—above her? Above this tress, and this, I touch But cannot praise, I love so much!
You see the picture, I think,—probably some artist's studio for a background. She sits or stands there with her long hair loosely flowing down to her feet like a river of gold; and her lover, lifting up some of the long tresses in his hand, asks his friend, who stands by, to notice how beautiful such hair is. Perhaps the girl was having her picture painted. One would think so from the question, "Since your business is to look for beautiful things, why can you not honestly acknowledge that this woman is the most beautiful thing in the whole world?" Or we might imagine the questioned person to be a critic by profession as well as an artist. Like the preceding poem this also is a picture. But the next poem, also by Browning, is much more than a picture—it is very profound indeed, simple as it looks. An old man is sitting by the dead body of a young girl of about sixteen. He tells us how he secretly loved her, as a father might love a daughter, as a brother might love a sister. But he would have wished, if he had not been so old, and she so young, to love her as a husband. He never could have her in this world, but why should he not hope for it in the future world? He whispers into her dead ear his wish, and he puts a flower into her dead hand, thinking, "When she wakes up, in another life, she will see that flower, and remember what I said to her, and how much I loved her." That is the mere story. But we must understand that the greatness of the love expressed in the poem is awakened by an ideal of innocence and sweetness and goodness, and the affection is of the soul—that is to say, it is the love of beautiful character, not the love of a beautiful face only, that is expressed.
Beautiful Evelyn Hope is dead! Sit and watch by her side an hour. That is her book-shelf, this her bed; She plucked that piece of geranium-flower, Beginning to die too, in the glass; Little has yet been changed, I think: The shutters are shut, no light can pass Save two long rays through the hinge's chink.
Sixteen years old when she died! Perhaps she had scarcely heard my name; It was not her time to love; beside, Her life had many a hope and aim, Duties enough and little cares, And now was quiet, now astir, Till God's hand beckoned unawares,— And the sweet white brow is all of her.
Is it too late, then, Evelyn Hope? What, your soul was pure and true, The good stars met in your horoscope, Made you of spirit, fire and dew— And just because I was thrice as old And our paths in the world diverged so wide, Each was naught to each, must I be told? We were fellow mortals, naught beside?
No, indeed! for God above, Is great to grant, as mighty to make, And creates the love to reward the love: I claim you still, for my own love's sake! Delayed it may be for more lives yet, Through worlds I shall traverse, not a few: Much is to learn, much to forget, Ere the time be come for taking you.
But the time will come,—at last it will, When, Evelyn Hope, what meant (I shall say) In the lower earth, in the years long still, That body and soul so pure and gay? Why your hair was amber, I shall divine, And your mouth of your own geranium's red— And what you would do with me, in fine, In the new life come in the old one's stead.
I have lived (I shall say) so much since then, Given up myself so many times, Gained me the gains of various men, Ransacked the ages, spoiled the climes; Yet one thing, one, in my soul's full scope, Either I missed or itself missed me: And I want and find you, Evelyn Hope! What is the issue? let us see!
I loved you, Evelyn, all the while! My heart seemed full as it could hold; There was space and to spare for the frank young smile, And the red young mouth, and the hair's young gold. So, hush,—I will give you this leaf to keep: See, I shut it inside the sweet cold hand! There, that is our secret: go to sleep! You will wake, and remember, and understand.
No other poet has written so many different kinds of poems on this subject as Browning; and although I can not quote all of them, I must not neglect to make a just representation of the variety. Here is another example: the chief idea is again the beauty of truthfulness and fidelity, but the artistic impression is quite different.
A simple ring with a single stone, To the vulgar eye no stone of price: Whisper the right word, that alone— Forth starts a sprite, like fire from ice. And lo, you are lord (says an Eastern scroll) Of heaven and earth, lord whole and sole Through the power in a pearl.
A woman ('tis I this time that say) With little the world counts worthy praise: Utter the true word—out and away Escapes her soul; I am wrapt in blaze, Creation's lord, of heaven and earth Lord whole and sole—by a minute's birth— Through the love in a girl!
Paraphrased, the meaning will not prove as simple as the verses: Here is a finger ring set with one small stone, one jewel. It is a very cheap-looking stone to common eyes. But if you know a certain magical word, and, after putting the ring on your finger, you whisper that magical word over the cheap-looking stone, suddenly a spirit, a demon or a genie, springs from that gem like a flash of fire miraculously issuing from a lump of ice. And that spirit or genie has power to make you king of the whole world and of the sky above the world, lord of the spirits of heaven and earth and air and fire. Yet the stone is only—a pearl—and it can make you lord of the universe. That is the old Arabian story. The word scroll here means a manuscript, an Arabian manuscript.
But what is after all the happiness of mere power? There is a greater happiness possible than to be lord of heaven and earth; that is the happiness of being truly loved. Here is a woman; to the eye of the world, to the sight of other men, she is not very beautiful nor at all remarkable in any way. She is just an ordinary woman, as the pearl in the ring is to all appearances just a common pearl. But let the right word be said, let the soul of that woman be once really touched by the magic of love, and what a revelation! As the spirit in the Arabian story sprang from the stone of the magical ring, when the word was spoken, so from the heart of this woman suddenly her soul displays itself in shining light. And the man who loves, instantly becomes, in the splendour of that light, verily the lord of heaven and earth; to the eyes of the being who loves him he is a god.
The legend is the legend of Solomon—not the Solomon of the Bible, but the much more wonderful Solomon of the Arabian story-teller. His power is said to have been in a certain seal ring, upon which the mystical name of Allah, or at least one of the ninety and nine mystical names, was engraved. When he chose to use this ring, all the spirits of air, the spirits of earth, the spirits of water and the spirits of fire were obliged to obey him. The name of such a ring is usually "Talisman."
Here is another of Browning's jewels, one of the last poems written shortly before his death. It is entitled "Summum Bonum,"—signifying "the highest good." The subject is a kiss; we may understand that the first betrothal kiss is the mark of affection described. When the promise of marriage has been made, that promise is sealed or confirmed by the first kiss. But this refers only to the refined classes of society. Among the English people proper, especially the country folk, kissing the girls is only a form of showing mere good will, and has no serious meaning at all.
All the breath and the bloom of the year in the bag of one bee: All the wonder and wealth of the mine in the heart of one gem: In the core of one pearl all the shade and the shine of the sea: Breath and bloom, shade and shine,—wonder, wealth, and—how far above them— Truth, that's brighter than gem, Trust, that's purer than pearl,— Brightest truth, purest trust in the universe—all were for me In the kiss of one girl.
There is in this a suggestion of Ben Jonson, who uses almost exactly the same simile without any moral significance. The advantage of Browning is that he has used the sensuous imagery for ethical symbolism; here he greatly surpasses Jonson, though it would be hard to improve upon the beauty of Jonson's verses, as merely describing visual beauty. Here are Jonson's stanzas:
See the Chariot at hand here of Love, Wherein my Lady rideth! Each that draws is a swan or a dove, And well the car Love guideth. As she goes, all hearts do duty Unto her beauty; And enamoured do wish, so they might But enjoy such a sight, That they still were to run by her side, Through swords, through seas, whither she would ride.
Do but look on her eyes, they do light All that Love's world compriseth! Do but look on her hair, it is bright As love's star when it riseth! Do but mark, her forehead's smoother Than words that soothe her; And from her arch'd brows such a grace Sheds itself through the face, As alone there triumphs to the life All the gain, all the good, of the elements' strife.
Have you seen but a bright lily grow Before rude hands have touched it? Have you mark'd but the fall of the snow Before the soil hath smutch'd it? Have you felt the wool of beaver Or swan's down ever? Or have smelt o' the bud o' the brier, Or the nard in the fire? Or have tasted the bag of the bee? O so white, O so soft, O so sweet is she!
The first of the above stanzas is a study after the Roman poets; but the last stanza is Jonson's own and is very famous. You will see that Browning was probably inspired by him, but I think that his verses are much more beautiful in thought and feeling.
There is one type of ideal woman very seldom described in poetry—the old maid, the woman whom sorrow or misfortune prevents from fulfilling her natural destiny. Commonly the woman who never marries is said to become cross, bad tempered, unpleasant in character. She could not be blamed for this, I think; but there are old maids who always remain as unselfish and frank and kind as a girl, and who keep the charm of girlhood even when their hair is white. Hartley Coleridge, son of the great Samuel, attempted to describe such a one, and his picture is both touching and beautiful.
She was a queen of noble Nature's crowning, A smile of hers was like an act of grace; She had no winsome looks, no pretty frowning, Like daily beauties of the vulgar race: But if she smiled, a light was on her face, A clear, cool kindliness, a lunar beam Of peaceful radiance, silvering o'er the stream Of human thought with unabiding glory; Not quite a waking truth, not quite a dream, A visitation, bright and transitory.
But she is changed,—hath felt the touch of sorrow, No love hath she, no understanding friend; O grief! when Heaven is forced of earth to borrow What the poor niggard earth has not to lend; But when the stalk is snapt, the rose must bend. The tallest flower that skyward rears its head Grows from the common ground, and there must shed Its delicate petals. Cruel fate, too surely That they should find so base a bridal bed, Who lived in virgin pride, so sweet and purely.
She had a brother, and a tender father, And she was loved, but not as others are From whom we ask return of love,—but rather As one might love a dream; a phantom fair Of something exquisitely strange and rare, Which all were glad to look on, men and maids, Yet no one claimed—as oft, in dewy glades, The peering primrose, like a sudden gladness, Gleams on the soul, yet unregarded fades;— The joy is ours, but all its own the sadness.
'Tis vain to say—her worst of grief is only The common lot, which all the world have known To her 'tis more, because her heart is lonely, And yet she hath no strength to stand alone,— Once she had playmates, fancies of her own, And she did love them. They are past away As fairies vanish at the break of day; And like a spectre of an age departed, Or unsphered angel woefully astray, She glides along—the solitary-hearted.
Perhaps it is scarcely possible for you to imagine that a woman finds it impossible to marry because of being too beautiful, too wise, and too good. In Western countries it is not impossible at all. You must try to imagine entirely different social conditions—conditions in which marriage depends much more upon the person than upon the parents, much more upon inclination than upon anything else. A woman's chances of marriage depend very much upon herself, upon her power of pleasing and charming. Thousands and tens of thousands can never get married. Now there are cases in which a woman can please too much. Men become afraid of her. They think, "She knows too much, I dare not be frank with her"—or, "She is too beautiful, she never would accept a common person like me"—or, "She is too formal and correct, she would never forgive a mistake, and I could never be happy with her." Not only is this possible, but it frequently happens. Too much excellence makes a misfortune. I think you can understand it best by the reference to the very natural prejudice against over-educated women, a prejudice founded upon experience and existing in all countries, even in Japan. Men are not attracted to a woman because she is excellent at mathematics, because she knows eight or nine different languages, because she has acquired all the conventions of high-pressure training. Men do not care about that. They want love and trust and kindliness and ability to make a home beautiful and happy. Well, the poem we have been reading is very pathetic because it describes a woman who can not fulfil her natural destiny, can not be loved—this through no fault of her own, but quite the reverse. To be too much advanced beyond one's time and environment is even a worse misfortune than to be too much behind.
NOTE UPON THE SHORTEST FORMS OF ENGLISH POETRY
Perhaps there is an idea among Japanese students that one general difference between Japanese and Western poetry is that the former cultivates short forms and the latter longer ones, gut this is only in part true. It is true that short forms of poetry have been cultivated in the Far East more than in modern Europe; but in all European literature short forms of poetry are to be found—indeed quite as short as anything in Japanese. Like the Japanese, the old Greeks, who carried poetry to the highest perfection that it has ever attained, delighted in short forms; and the Greek Anthology is full of compositions containing only two or three lines. You will find beautiful translations of these in Symonds's "Studies of Greek Poets," in the second volume. Following Greek taste, the Roman poets afterwards cultivated short forms of verse, but they chiefly used such verse for satirical purposes, unfortunately; I say, unfortunately, because the first great English poets who imitated the ancients were chiefly influenced by the Latin writers, and they also used the short forms for epigrammatic satire rarely for a purely esthetic object. Ben Jonson both wrote and translated a great number of very short stanzas—two lines and four lines; but Jonson was a satirist in these forms. Herrick, as you know, delighted in very short poems; but he was greatly influenced by Jonson, and many of his couplets and of his quatrains are worthless satires or worthless jests. However, you will find some short verses in Herrick that almost make you think of a certain class of Japanese poems. After the Elizabethan Age, also, the miniature poems were still used in the fashion set by the Roman writers,—then the eighteenth century deluged us with ill-natured witty epigrams of the like brief form. It was not until comparatively modern times that our Western world fully recognized the value of the distich, triplet or quatrain for the expression of beautiful thoughts, rather than for the expression of ill-natured ones. But now that the recognition has come, it has been discovered that nothing is harder than to write a beautiful poem of two or four lines. Only great masters have been truly successful at it. Goethe, you know, made a quatrain that has become a part of world-literature:
Who ne'er his bread in sorrow ate,— Who ne'er the lonely midnight hours, Weeping upon his bed has sate, He knows ye not, ye Heavenly Powers!
—meaning, of course, that inspiration and wisdom come to us only through sorrow, and that those who have never suffered never can be wise. But in the universities of England a great deal of short work of a most excellent kind has been done in Greek and Latin; and there is the celebrated case of an English student who won a prize by a poem of a single line. The subject given had been the miracle of Christ's turning water into wine at the marriage feast; and while other scholars attempted elaborate composition on the theme, this student wrote but one verse, of which the English translation is
The modest water saw its Lord, and blushed.
Of course the force of the idea depends upon the popular conception of wine being red. The Latin and Greek model, however, did not seem to encourage much esthetic effort in short poems of English verse until the time of the romantic movement. Then, both in France and England, many brief forms of poetry made their appearance. In France, Victor Hugo attempted composition in astonishingly varied forms of verse—some forms actually consisting of only two syllables to a line. With this surprisingly short measure begins one of Hugo's most remarkably early poems, "Les Djins," representing the coming of evil spirits with a storm, their passing over the house where a man is at prayer, and departing into the distance again. Beginning with only two syllables to the line, the measure of the poem gradually widens as the spirits approach, becomes very wide, very long and sonorous as they reach the house, and again shrinks back to lines of two syllables as the sound of them dies away. In England a like variety of experiments has been made; but neither in France nor in England has the short form yet been as successfully cultivated as it was among the Greeks. We have some fine examples; but, as an eminent English editor observed a few years ago, not enough examples to make a book. And of course this means that there are very few; for you can make a book of poetry very well with as little as fifty pages of largely and widely printed text. However, we may cite a few modern instances.
I think that about the most perfect quatrains we have are those of the extraordinary man, Walter Savage Landor, who, you know, was a rare Greek scholar, all his splendid English work being very closely based upon the Greek models. He made a little epitaph upon himself, which is matchless of its kind:
I strove with none, for none was worth my strife; Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art; I warmed both hands before the fire of life: It sinks; and I am ready to depart.
You know that Greeks used the short form a great deal for their exquisite epitaphs, and that a considerable part of the anthology consists of epitaphic literature. But the quatrain has a much wider range than this funereal limitation, and one such example of epitaph will suffice.
Only one English poet of our own day, and that a minor one, has attempted to make the poem of four lines a specialty—that is William Watson. He has written a whole volume of such little poems, but very few of them are successful. As I said before, we have not enough good poems of this sort for a book; and the reason is not because English poets despise the short form, but because it is supremely difficult. The Greeks succeeded in it, but we are still far behind the Greeks in the shaping of any kind of verse. The best of Watson's pieces take the form of philosophical suggestions; and this kind of verse is particularly well adapted to philosophical utterance.
Think not thy wisdom can illume away The ancient tanglement of night and day. Enough to acknowledge both, and both revere; They see not clearliest who see all things clear.
That is to say, do not think that any human knowledge will ever be able to make you understand the mystery of the universe with its darkness and light, its joy and pain. It is best to revere the powers that make both good and evil, and to remember that the keenest, worldly, practical minds are not the minds that best perceive the great truths and mysteries of existence. Here is another little bit, reminding us somewhat of Goethe's quatrain, already quoted.
Lives there whom pain hath evermore passed by And sorrow shunned with an averted eye? Him do thou pity,—him above the rest, Him, of all hapless mortals most unblessed.
That needs no commentary, and it contains a large truth in small space. Here is a little bit on the subject of the artist's ambition, which is also good.
The thousand painful steps at last are trod, At last the temple's difficult door we win, But perfect on his pedestal, the God Freezes us hopeless when we enter in.
The higher that the artist climbs by effort, the nearer his approach to the loftier truth, the more he understands how little his very best can achieve. It is the greatest artist, he who veritably enters the presence of God—that most feels his own weakness; the perception of beauty that other men can not see, terrifies him, freezes him motionless, as the poet says.
Out of all of Watson's epigrams I believe these are the best. The rest with the possible exception of those on the subject of love seem to me altogether failures. Emerson and various American poets also attempted the quatrain—but Emerson's verse is nearly always bad, even when his thought is sublime. One example of Emerson will suffice.
Thou canst not wave thy staff in air, Or dip thy paddle in the lake, But it carves the bow of beauty there, And the ripples in rhyme the oar forsake.
The form is atrociously bad; but the reflection is grand—it is another way of expressing the beautiful old Greek thought that "God geometrizes everywhere"—that is, that all motion is in geometrical lines, and full of beauty. You can pick hundreds of fine things in very short verse out of Emerson, but the verse is nearly always shapeless; the composition of the man invariably makes us think of diamonds in the rough, jewels uncut. So far as form goes a much better master of quatrain is the American poet Aldrich, who wrote the following little thing, entitled "Popularity."
Such kings of shreds have wooed and won her, Such crafty knaves her laurel owned, It has become almost an honour Not to be crowned.
This is good verse. The reference to "a king of shreds and patches"—that is, a beggar king—you will recognize as Shakespearean. But although this pretty verse has in it more philosophy than satire, it approaches the satiric class of epigrams. Neither America nor England has been able to do very much in the sort of verse that we have been talking about. Now this is a very remarkable thing,—because at the English universities beautiful work has been done in Greek or Latin—in poems of a single line, of two lines, of three lines and other very brief measures. Why can it not be done in English? I suspect that it is because our English language has not yet become sufficiently perfect, sufficiently flexible, sufficiently melodious to allow of great effect with a very few words. We can do the thing in Greek or in Latin because either Greek or Latin is a more perfect language.
So much for theory. I should like to suggest, however, that it is very probable many attempts at these difficult forms of poetry will be attempted by English poets within the next few years. There is now a tendency in that direction. I do not know whether such attempts will be successful; but I should like you to understand that for Western poets they are extremely difficult and that you ought to obtain from the recognition of this fact a new sense of the real value of your own short forms of verse in the hands of a master. Effects can be produced in Japanese which the Greeks could produce with few syllables, but which the English can not. Now it strikes me that, instead of even thinking of throwing away old forms of verse in order to invent new ones, the future Japanese poets ought rather to develop and cultivate and prize the forms already existing, which belong to the genius of the language, and which have proved themselves capable of much that no English verse or even French verse could accomplish. Perhaps only the Italian is really comparable to Japanese in some respects; you can perform miracles with Italian verse.
SOME FOREIGN POEMS ON JAPANESE SUBJECTS
The Western poet and writer of romance has exactly the same kind of difficulty in comprehending Eastern subjects as you have in comprehending Western subjects. You will commonly find references to Japanese love poems of the popular kind made in such a way as to indicate the writer's belief that such poems refer to married life or at least to a courtship relation. No Western writer who has not lived for many years in the East, could write correctly about anything on this subject; and even after a long stay in the country he might be unable to understand. Therefore a great deal of Western poetry written about Japan must seem to you all wrong, and I can not hope to offer you many specimens of work in this direction that could deserve your praise. Yet there is some poetry so fine on the subject of Japan that I think you would admire it and I am sure that you should know it. A proof of really great art is that it is generally true—it seldom falls into the misapprehensions to which minor art is liable. What do you think of the fact that the finest poetry ever written upon a Japanese subject by any Western poet, has been written by a man who never saw the land? But he is a member of the French Academy, a great and true lover of art, and without a living superior in that most difficult form of poetry, the sonnet. In the time of thirty years he produced only one very small volume of sonnets, but so fine are these that they were lifted to the very highest place in poetical distinction. I may say that there are now only three really great French poets—survivals of the grand romantic school. These are Leconte de Lisle, Sully-Prudhomme, and Jose Maria de Heredia. It is the last of whom I am speaking. As you can tell by his name, he is not a Frenchman either by birth or blood, but a Spaniard, or rather a Spanish Creole, born in Cuba. Heredia knows Japan only through pictures, armour, objects of art in museums, paintings and carvings. Remembering this, I think that you will find that he does wonderfully well. It is true that he puts a woman in one of his pictures, but I think that his management of his subject is very much nearer the truth than that of almost any writer who has attempted to describe old Japan. And you must understand that the following sonnet is essentially intended to be a picture—to produce upon the mind exactly the same effect that a picture does, with the addition of such life as poetry can give.
D'un doigt distrait frolant la sonore biva, A travers les bambous tresses en fine latte, Elle a vu, par la plage eblouissante et plate, S'avancer le vainqueur que son amour reva.
C'est lui. Sabres au flanc, l'eventail haut, il va. La cordeliere rouge et le gland ecarlate Coupent l'armure sombre, et, sur l'epaule, eclate Le blazon de Hizen ou de Tokungawa.
Ce beau guerrier vetu de lames et de plaques, Sous le bronze, la soie et les brillantes laques, Semble un crustace noir, gigantesque et vermeil.
Il l'a vue. Il sourit dans la barbe du masque, Et son pas plus hatif fait reluire au soleil Les deux antennes d'or qui tremblent a son casque.
"Lightly touching her biva with heedless finger, she has perceived, through the finely woven bamboo screen, the conqueror, lovingly thought of, approach over the dazzling level of the beach.
"It is he. With his swords at his side he advances, holding up his fan. The red girdle and the scarlet tassel appear in sharply cut relief against the dark armour; and upon his shoulder glitters a crest of Hizen or of Tokungawa.
"This handsome warrior sheathed with his scales and plates of metal, under his bronze, his silk and glimmering lacquer, seems a crustacean, gigantic, black and vermilion.
"He has caught sight of her. Under the beaver of the war mask he smiles, and his quickened step makes to glitter in the sun the two antennae of gold that quiver upon his helmet."
The comparison of a warrior in full armour to a gigantic crab or lobster, especially lobster, is not exactly new. Victor Hugo has used it before in French literature, just as Carlyle has used it in English literature; indeed the image could not fail to occur to the artist in any country where the study of armour has been carried on. But here the poet does not speak of any particular creature; he uses only the generic term, crustacean, the vagueness of which makes the comparison much more effective. I think you can see the whole picture at once. It is a Japanese colour-print,—some ancient interior, lighted by the sun of a great summer day; and a woman looking through a bamboo blind toward the seashore, where she sees a warrior approaching. He divines that he is seen; but if he smiles, it is only because the smile is hidden by his iron mask. The only sign of any sentiment on his part is that he walks a little quicker. Still more amazing is a companion picture, containing only a solitary figure:
LE DAIMIO (Matin de bataille)
Sous le noir fouet de guerre a quadruple pompon, L'etalon belliqueux en hennissant se cabre, Et fait bruire, avec de cliquetis de sabre, La cuirasse de bronze aux lames du jupon.
Le Chef vetu d'airain, de laque et de crepon, Otant le masque a poils de son visage glabre, Regarde le volcan sur un ciel de cinabre Dresser la neige ou rit l'aurore du Nippon.
Mais il a vu, vers l'Est eclabousse d'or, l'astre, Glorieux d'eclairer ce matin de desastre, Poindre, orbe eblouissant, au-dessus de la mer;
Et pour couvrir ses yeux dont pas un cil ne bouge, Il ouvre d'un seul coup son eventail de fer, Ou dans le satin blanc se leve un Soleil rouge.
"Under the black war whip with its quadruple pompon the fierce stallion, whinnying, curvets, and makes the rider's bronze cuirass ring against the plates of his shirt of mail, with a sound like the clashing of sword blades.
"The Chief, clad in bronze and lacquer and silken crape, removing the bearded masque from his beardless face, turns his gaze to the great volcano, lifting its snows into the cinnabar sky where the dawn of Nippon begins to smile.
"Nay! he has already seen the gold-spattered day star, gloriously illuminating the morning of disaster, rise, a blinding disk, above the seas. And to shade his eyes, on both of which not even a single eyelash stirs, he opens with one quick movement his iron fan, wherein upon a field of white satin there rises a crimson sun."
Of course this hasty translation is very poor; and you can only get from it the signification and colour of the picture—the beautiful sonority and luminosity of the French is all gone. Nevertheless, I am sure that the more you study the original the more you will see how fine it is. Here also is a Japanese colour print. We see the figure of the horseman on the shore, in the light of dawn; behind him the still dark sky of night; before him the crimson dawn, and Fuji white against the red sky. And in the open fan, with its red sun, we have a grim suggestion of the day of blood that is about to be; that is all. But whoever reads that sonnet will never forget it; it burns into the memory. So, indeed, does everything that Heredia writes. Unfortunately he has not yet written anything more about Japan.
I have quoted Heredia because I think that no other poet has even approached him in the attempt to make a Japanese picture—though many others have tried; and the French, nearly always, have done much better than the English, because they are more naturally artists. Indeed one must be something of an artist to write anything in the way of good poetry on a Japanese subject. If you look at the collection "Poems of Places," in the library, you will see how poorly Japan is there represented; the only respectable piece of foreign work being by Longfellow, and that is only about Japanese vases. But since then some English poems have appeared which are at least worthy of Japanese notice.
THE BIBLE IN ENGLISH LITERATURE
It is no exaggeration to say that the English Bible is, next to Shakespeare, the greatest work in English literature, and that it will have much more influence than even Shakespeare upon the written and spoken language of the English race. For this reason, to study English literature without some general knowledge of the relation of the Bible to that literature would be to leave one's literary education very incomplete. It is not necessary to consider the work from a religious point of view at all; indeed, to so consider it would be rather a hindrance to the understanding of its literary excellence. Some persons have ventured to say that it is only since Englishmen ceased to believe in the Bible that they began to discover how beautiful it was. This is not altogether true; but it is partly true. For it is one thing to consider every word of a book as the word of God or gods, and another thing to consider it simply as the work of men like ourselves. Naturally we should think it our duty to suppose the work of a divine being perfect in itself, and to imagine beauty and truth where neither really exists. The wonder of the English Bible can really be best appreciated by those who, knowing it to be the work of men much less educated and cultivated than the scholars of the nineteenth century, nevertheless perceive that those men were able to do in literature what no man of our own day could possibly do.
Of course in considering the work of the translators, we must remember the magnificence of the original. I should not like to say that the Bible is the greatest of all religious books. From the moral point of view it contains very much that we can not to-day approve of; and what is good in it can be found in the sacred books of other nations. Its ethics can not even claim to be absolutely original. The ancient Egyptian scriptures contain beauties almost superior in moral exaltation to anything contained in the Old Testament; and the sacred books of other Eastern nations, notably the sacred books of India, surpass the Hebrew scriptures in the highest qualities of imagination and of profound thought. It is only of late years that Europe, through the labour of Sanskrit and Pali scholars, has become acquainted with the astonishing beauty of thought and feeling which Indian scholars enshrined in scriptures much more voluminous than the Hebrew Bible; and it is not impossible that this far-off literature will some day influence European thought quite as much as the Jewish Bible. Everywhere to-day in Europe and America the study of Buddhist and Sanskrit literature is being pursued not only with eagerness but with enthusiasm—an enthusiasm which sometimes reaches to curious extremes. I might mention, in example, the case of a rich man who recently visited Japan on his way from India. He had in New Zealand a valuable property; he was a man of high culture, and of considerable social influence. One day he happened to read an English translation of the "Bhagavad-Gita." Almost immediately he resolved to devote the rest of his life to religious study in India, in a monastery among the mountains; and he gave up wealth, friends, society, everything that Western civilization could offer him, in order to seek truth in a strange country. Certainly this is not the only instance of the kind; and while such incidents can happen, we may feel sure that the influence of religious literature is not likely to die for centuries to come.
But every great scripture, whether Hebrew, Indian, Persian, or Chinese, apart from its religious value will be found to have some rare and special beauty of its own; and in this respect the original Bible stands very high as a monument of sublime poetry and of artistic prose. If it is not the greatest of religious books as a literary creation, it is at all events one of the greatest; and the proof is to be found in the inspiration which millions and hundreds of millions, dead and living, have obtained from its utterances. The Semitic races have always possessed in a very high degree the genius of poetry, especially poetry in which imagination plays a great part; and the Bible is the monument of Semitic genius in this regard. Something in the serious, stern, and reverential spirit of the genius referred to made a particular appeal to Western races having certain characteristics of the same kind. Themselves uncultivated in the time that the Bible was first made known to them, they found in it almost everything that they thought and felt, expressed in a much better way than they could have expressed it. Accordingly the Northern races of Europe found their inspiration in the Bible; and the enthusiasm for it has not yet quite faded away.
But the value of the original, be it observed, did not make the value of the English Bible. Certainly it was an inspiring force; but it was nothing more. The English Bible is perhaps a much greater piece of fine literature, altogether considered, than the Hebrew Bible. It was so for a particular reason which it is very necessary for the student to understand. The English Bible is a product of literary evolution.
In studying English criticisms upon different authors, I think that you must have sometimes felt impatient with the critics who told you, for example, that Tennyson was partly inspired by Wordsworth and partly by Keats and partly by Coleridge; and that Coleridge was partly inspired by Blake and Blake by the Elizabethans, and so on. You may have been tempted to say, as I used very often myself to say, "What does it matter where the man got his ideas from? I care only for the beauty that is in his work, not for a history of his literary education." But to-day the value of the study of such relations appears in quite a new light. Evolutional philosophy, applied to the study of literature as to everything else, has shown us conclusively that man is not a god who can make something out of nothing, and that every great work of genius must depend even less upon the man of genius himself than upon the labours of those who lived before him. Every great author must draw his thoughts and his knowledge in part from other great authors, and these again from previous authors, and so on back, till we come to that far time in which there was no written literature, but only verses learned by heart and memorized by all the people of some one tribe or place, and taught by them to their children and to their grandchildren. It is only in Greek mythology that the divinity of Wisdom leaps out of a god's head, in full armour. In the world of reality the more beautiful a work of art, the longer, we may be sure, was the time required to make it, and the greater the number of different minds which assisted in its development.
So with the English Bible. No one man could have made the translation of 1611. No one generation of men could have done it. It was not the labour of a single century. It represented the work of hundreds of translators working through hundreds of years, each succeeding generation improving a little upon the work of the previous generation, until in the seventeenth century the best had been done of which the English brain and the English language was capable. In no other way can the surprising beauties of style and expression be explained. No subsequent effort could improve the Bible of King James. Every attempt made since the seventeenth century has only resulted in spoiling and deforming the strength and the beauty of the authorized text.
Now you will understand why, from the purely literary point of view, the English Bible is of the utmost importance for study. Suppose we glance for a moment at the principal events in the history of this evolution.
The first translation of the Bible into a Western tongue was that made by Jerome (commonly called Saint Jerome) in the fourth century; he translated directly from the Hebrew and other Arabic languages into Latin, then the language of the Empire. This translation into Latin was called the Vulgate,—from vulgare, "to make generally known." The Vulgate is still used in the Roman church. The first English translations which have been preserved to us were made from the Vulgate, not from the original tongues. First of all, John Wycliffe's Bible may be called the foundation of the seventeenth century Bible. Wycliffe's translation, in which he was helped by many others, was published between 1380 and 1388. So we may say that the foundation of the English Bible dates from the fourteenth century, one thousand years after Jerome's Latin translation. But Wycliffe's version, excellent as it was, could not serve very long: the English language was changing too quickly. Accordingly, in the time of Henry VIII Tyndale and Coverdale, with many others, made a new translation, this time not from the Vulgate, but from the Greek text of the great scholar Erasmus. This was the most important literary event of the time, for "it coloured the entire complexion of subsequent English prose,"—to use the words of Professor Gosse. This means that all prose in English written since Henry VIII has been influenced, directly or indirectly, by the prose of Tyndale's Bible, which was completed about 1535. Almost at the same time a number of English divines, under the superintendence of Archbishop Cramner, gave to the English language a literary treasure scarcely inferior to the Bible itself, and containing wonderful translations from the Scriptures,—the "Book of Common Prayer." No English surpasses the English of this book, still used by the Church; and many translators have since found new inspiration from it.
A revision of this famous Bible was made in 1565, entitled "The Bishops' Bible." The cause of the revision was largely doctrinal, and we need not trouble ourselves about this translation farther than to remark that Protestantism was reshaping the Scriptures to suit the new state religion. Perhaps this edition may have had something to do with the determination of the Roman Catholics to make an English Bible of their own. The Jesuits began the work in 1582 at Rheims, and by 1610 the Roman Catholic version known as the Douay (or Douai) version—because of its having been made chiefly at the Catholic College of Douai in France—was completed. This version has many merits; next to the wonderful King James version, it is certainly the most poetical; and it has the further advantage of including a number of books which Protestantism has thrown out of the authorized version, but which have been used in the Roman church since its foundation. But I am speaking of the book only as a literary English production. It was not made with the help of original sources; its merits are simply those of a melodious translation from the Latin Vulgate.
At last, in 1611, was made, under the auspices of King James, the famous King James version; and this is the great literary monument of the English language. It was the work of many learned men; but the chief worker and supervisor was the Bishop of Winchester, Lancelot Andrews, perhaps the most eloquent English preacher that ever lived. He was a natural-born orator, with an exquisite ear for the cadences of language. To this natural faculty of the Bishop's can be attributed much of the musical charm of the English in which the Bible was written. Still, it must not be supposed that he himself did all the work, or even more than a small proportion of it. What he did was to tone it; he overlooked and corrected all the text submitted to him, and suffered only the best forms to survive. Yet what magnificent material he had to choose from! All the translations of the Bible that had been made before his time were carefully studied with a view to the conservation of the best phrases, both for sound and for form. We must consider the result not merely as a study of literature in itself, but also as a study of eloquence; for every attention was given to those effects to be expected from an oratorical recitation of the text in public.
This marks the end of the literary evolution of the Bible. Everything that has since been done has only been in the direction of retrogression, of injury to the text. We have now a great many later versions, much more scholarly, so far as correct scholarship is concerned, than the King James version, but none having any claim to literary importance. Unfortunately, exact scholars are very seldom men of literary ability; the two faculties are rarely united. The Bible of 1870, known as the Oxford Bible, and now used in the Anglican state-church, evoked a great protest from the true men of letters, the poets and critics who had found their inspirations in the useful study of the old version. The new version was the work of fourteen years; it was made by the united labour of the greatest scholars in the English-speaking world; and it is far the most exact translation that we have. Nevertheless the literary quality has been injured to such an extent that no one will ever turn to the new revision for poetical study. Even among the churches there was a decided condemnation of this scholarly treatment of the old text; and many of the churches refused to use the book. In this case, conservatism is doing the literary world a service, keeping the old King James version in circulation, and insisting especially upon its use in Sunday schools.
We may now take a few examples of the differences between the revised version and the Bible of King James. Professor Saintsbury, in an essay upon English prose, published some years ago, said that the most perfect piece of English prose in the language was that comprised in the sixth and seventh verses of the eighth chapter of the Song of Songs:
Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave; the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.
Many waters can not quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be condemned.
I should not like to say that the Professor is certainly right in calling this the finest prose in the English language; but he is a very great critic, whose opinion must be respected and considered, and the passage is certainly very fine. But in the revised version, how tame the same text has become in the hands of the scholarly translators!
The flashes thereof are flashes of fire, a very flame of the Lord.
Now as a description of jealousy, not to speak of the literary execution at all, which is the best? What, we may ask, has been gained by calling jealousy "a flame of the Lord" or by substituting the word "flashes" for "coals of fire"? All through the new version are things of this kind. For example, in the same Song of Songs there is a beautiful description of eyes, like "doves by the rivers of waters, washed with milk, and fitly set." By substituting "rivers" only for "rivers of waters" the text may have gained in exactness, but it has lost immeasurably, both in poetry and in sound. Far more poetical is the verse as given in the Douai version: "His eyes are as doves upon brooks of waters, which are washed with milk, and sit beside the beautiful streams."
It may even be said without any question that the mistakes of the old translators were often much more beautiful than the original. A splendid example is given in the verse of Job, chapter twenty-six, verse thirteen: "By his spirit he hath garnished the heavens; his hand hath formed the crooked serpent." By the crooked serpent was supposed to be signified the grand constellation called Draco, or the Dragon. And the figure is sublime. It is still more sublime in the Douai translation. "His obstetric hand hath brought forth the Winding Serpent." This is certainly a grand imagination—the hand of God, like the hand of a midwife, bringing forth a constellation out of the womb of the eternal night. But in the revised version, which is exact, we have only "His hand hath pierced the Swift Serpent!" All the poetry is dead.
There are two methods for the literary study of any book—the first being the study of its thought and emotion; the second only that of its workmanship. A student of literature should study some of the Bible from both points of view. In attempting the former method he will do well to consider many works of criticism, but for the study of the text as literature, his duty is very plain—the King James version is the only one that ought to form the basis of his study, though he should look at the Douai version occasionally. Also he should have a book of references, such as Cruden's Concordance, by help of which he can collect together in a few moments all the texts upon any particular subject, such as the sea, the wind, the sky, human life, the shadows of evening. The study of the Bible is not one which I should recommend to very young Japanese students, because of the quaintness of the English. Before a good knowledge of English forms is obtained, the archaisms are apt to affect the students' mode of expression. But for the advanced student of literature, I should say that some knowledge of the finest books in the Bible is simply indispensable. The important books to read are not many. But one should read at least the books of Genesis, Exodus, Ruth, Esther, the Song of Songs, Proverbs,—and, above all, Job. Job is certainly the grandest book in the Bible; but all of those which I have named are books that have inspired poets and writers in all departments of English literature to such an extent that you can scarcely read a masterpiece in which there is not some conscious or unconscious reference to them. Another book of philosophical importance is Ecclesiastes, where, in addition to much proverbial wisdom, you will find some admirable world-poetry—that is, poetry which contains universal truth about human life in all times and all ages. Of the historical books and the law books I do not think that it is important to read much; the literary element in these is not so pronounced. It is otherwise with the prophetic books, but here in order to obtain a few jewels of expression, you have to read a great deal that is of little value. Of the New Testament there is very little equal to the Old in literary value; indeed, I should recommend the reading only of the closing book—the book called the Revelation, or the Apocalypse, from which we have derived a literary adjective "apocalyptic," to describe something at once very terrible and very grand. Whether one understands the meaning of this mysterious text makes very little difference; the sonority and the beauty of its sentences, together with the tremendous character of its imagery, can not but powerfully influence mind and ear, and thus stimulate literary taste. At least two of the great prose writers of the nineteenth century, Carlyle and Ruskin, have been vividly influenced by the book of the Revelation. Every period of English literature shows some influence of Bible study, even from the old Anglo-Saxon days; and during the present year, the study has so little slackened that one constantly sees announcements of new works upon the literary elements of the Bible. Perhaps one of the best is Professor Moulton's "Modern Reader's Bible," in which the literary side of the subject receives better consideration than in any other work of the kind published for general use.
OLD NORTHERN ETHICS OF LIFE
Then from his lips in music rolled The Havamal of Odin old, With sounds mysterious as the roar Of billows on a distant shore.
Perhaps many of you who read this little verse in Longfellow's "Saga of King Olaf" have wished to know what was this wonderful song that the ghost of the god sang to the king. I am afraid that you would be very disappointed in some respects by the "Havamal." There is indeed a magical song in it; and it is this magical song especially that Longfellow refers to, a song of charms. But most of the "Havamal" is a collection of ethical teaching. All that has been preserved by it has been published and translated by Professors Vigfusson and Powell. It is very old—perhaps the oldest Northern literature that we have. I am going to attempt a short lecture upon it, because it is very closely related to the subject of Northern character, and will help us, perhaps better than almost anything else, to understand how the ancestors of the English felt and thought before they became Christians. Nor is this all. I venture to say that the character of the modern English people still retains much more of the quality indicated by the "Havamal" than of the quality implied by Christianity. The old Northern gods are not dead; they rule a very great part of the world to-day.
The proverbial philosophy of a people helps us to understand more about them than any other kind of literature. And this sort of literature is certainly among the oldest. It represents only the result of human experience in society, the wisdom that men get by contact with each other, the results of familiarity with right and wrong. By studying the proverbs of a people, you can always make a very good guess as to whether you could live comfortably among them or not.
Froude, in one of his sketches of travel in Norway, made the excellent observation that if we could suddenly go back to the time of the terrible sea-kings, if we could revisit to-day the homes of the old Northern pirates, and find them exactly as they were one thousand or fifteen hundred years ago, we should find them very much like the modern Englishmen—big, simple, silent men, concealing a great deal of shrewdness under an aspect of simplicity. The teachings of the "Havamal" give great force to this supposition. The book must have been known in some form to the early English—or at least the verses composing it (it is all written in verse); and as I have already said, the morals of the old English, as well as their character, differed very little from those of the men of the still further North, with whom they mingled and intermarried freely, both before and after the Danish conquest, when for one moment England and Sweden were one kingdom.
Of course you must remember that Northern society was a very terrible thing in some ways. Every man carried his life in his hands; every farmer kept sword and spear at his side even in his own fields; and every man expected to die fighting. In fact, among the men of the more savage North—the men of Norway in especial—it was considered a great disgrace to die of sickness, to die on one's bed. That was not to die like a man. Men would go out and get themselves killed, when they felt old age or sickness coming on. But these facts must not blind us to the other fact that there was even in that society a great force of moral cohesion, and sound principles of morality. If there had not been, it could not have existed; much less could the people who lived under it have become the masters of a great part of the world, which they are at the present day. There was, in spite of all that fierceness, much kindness and good nature among them; there were rules of conduct such as no man could find fault with—rules which still govern English society to some extent. And there was opportunity enough for social amusement, social enjoyment, and the winning of public esteem by a noble life.
Still, even in the "Havamal," one is occasionally startled by teachings which show the darker side of Northern life, a life of perpetual vendetta. As in old Japan, no man could live under the same heaven with the murderer of his brother or father; vengeance was a duty even in the case of a friend. On the subject of enemies the "Havamal" gives not a little curious advice:
A man should never step a foot beyond his weapons; for he can never tell where, on his path without, he may need his spear.
A man, before he goes into a house, should look to and espy all the doorways (so that he can find his way out quickly again), for he can never know where foes may be sitting in another man's house.
Does not this remind us of the Japanese proverb that everybody has three enemies outside of his own door? But the meaning of the "Havamal" teaching is much more sinister. And when the man goes into the house, he is still told to be extremely watchful—to keep his ears and eyes open so that he may not be taken by surprise:
The wary guest keeps watchful silence; he listens with his ears and peers about with his eyes; thus does every wise man look about him.
One would think that men must have had very strong nerves to take comfort under such circumstances, but the poet tells us that the man who can enjoy nothing must be both a coward and a fool. Although a man was to keep watch to protect his life, that was not a reason why he should be afraid of losing it. There were but three things of which a man should be particularly afraid. The first was drink—because drink often caused a man to lose control of his temper; the second was another man's wife—repeatedly the reader is warned never to make love to another man's wife; and the third was thieves—men who would pretend friendship for the purpose of killing and stealing, The man who could keep constant watch over himself and his surroundings was, of course, likely to have the longest life.
Now in all countries there is a great deal of ethical teaching, and always has been, on the subject of speech. The "Havamal" is full of teaching on this subject—the necessity of silence, the danger and the folly of reckless talk. You all know the Japanese proverb that "the mouth is the front gate of all misfortune." The Norse poet puts the same truth into a grimmer shape: "The tongue works death to the head." Here are a number of sayings on this subject:
He that is never silent talks much folly; a glib tongue, unless it be bridled, will often talk a man into trouble.
Do not speak three angry words with a worse man; for often the better man falls by the worse man's sword.
Smile thou in the face of the man thou trusteth not, and speak against thy mind.
This is of course a teaching of cunning; but it is the teaching, however immoral, that rules in English society to-day. In the old Norse, however, there were many reasons for avoiding a quarrel whenever possible—reasons which must have existed also in feudal Japan. A man might not care about losing his own life; but he had to be careful not to stir up a feud that might go on for a hundred years. Although there was a great deal of killing, killing always remained a serious matter, because for every killing there had to be a vengeance. It is true that the law exonerated the man who killed another, if he paid a certain blood-price; murder was not legally considered an unpardonable crime. But the family of the dead man would very seldom be satisfied with a payment; they would want blood for blood. Accordingly men had to be very cautious about quarreling, however brave they might personally be.
But all this caution about silence and about watchfulness did not mean that a man should be unable to speak to the purpose when speech was required. "A wise man," says the "Havamal," "should be able both to ask and to answer." There is a proverb which you know, to the effect that you can not shut the door upon another man's mouth. So says the Norse poet: "The sons of men can keep silence about nothing that passes among men; therefore a man should be able to take his own part, prudently and strongly." Says the "Havamal": "A fool thinks he knows everything if he sits snug in his little corner; but he is at a loss for words if the people put to him a question." Elsewhere it is said: "Arch dunce is he who can speak nought, for that is the mark of a fool." And the sum of all this teaching about the tongue is that men should never speak without good reason, and then should speak to the point strongly and wisely.
On the subject of fools there is a great deal in the "Havamal"; but you must understand always by the word fool, in the Northern sense, a man of weak character who knows not what to do in time of difficulty. That was a fool among those men, and a dangerous fool; for in such a state of society mistakes in act or in speech might reach to terrible consequences. See these little observations about fools:
Open-handed, bold-hearted men live most happily, they never feel care; but a fool troubles himself about everything. The niggard pines for gifts.
A fool is awake all night, worrying about everything; when the morning comes he is worn out, and all his troubles are just the same as before.
A fool thinks that all who smile upon him are his friends, not knowing, when he is with wise men, who there may be plotting against him.
If a fool gets a drink, all his mind is immediately displayed.
But it was not considered right for a man not to drink, although drink was a dangerous thing. On the contrary, not to drink would have been thought a mark of cowardice and of incapacity for self-control. A man was expected even to get drunk if necessary, and to keep his tongue and his temper no matter how much he drank. The strong character would only become more cautious and more silent under the influence of drink; the weak man would immediately show his weakness. I am told the curious fact that in the English army at the present day officers are expected to act very much after the teaching of the old Norse poet; a man is expected to be able on occasion to drink a considerable amount of wine or spirits without showing the effects of it, either in his conduct or in his speech. "Drink thy share of mead; speak fair or not at all"—that was the old text, and a very sensible one in its way.
Laughter was also condemned, if indulged in without very good cause. "The miserable man whose mind is warped laughs at everything, not knowing what he ought to know, that he himself has no lack of faults." I need scarcely tell you that the English are still a very serious people, not disposed to laugh nearly so much as are the men of the more sympathetic Latin races. You will remember perhaps Lord Chesterfield's saying that since he became a man no man had ever seen him laugh. I remember about twenty years ago that there was published by some Englishman a very learned and very interesting little book, called "The Philosophy of Laughter," in which it was gravely asserted that all laughter was foolish. I must acknowledge, however, that no book ever made me laugh more than the volume in question.
The great virtue of the men of the North, according to the "Havamal," was indeed the virtue which has given to the English race its present great position among nations,—the simplest of all virtues, common sense. But common sense means much more than the words might imply to the Japanese students, or to any one unfamiliar with English idioms. Common sense, or mother-wit, means natural intelligence, as opposed to, and independent of, cultivated or educated intelligence. It means inherited knowledge; and inherited knowledge may take even the form of genius. It means foresight. It means intuitive knowledge of other people's character. It means cunning as well as broad comprehension. And the modern Englishman, in all times and in all countries, trusts especially to this faculty, which is very largely developed in the race to which he belongs. No Englishman believes in working from book learning. He suspects all theories, philosophical or other. He suspects everything new, and dislikes it, unless he can be compelled by the force of circumstances to see that this new thing has advantages over the old. Race-experience is what he invariably depends upon, whenever he can, whether in India, in Egypt, or in Australia. His statesmen do not consult historical precedents in order to decide what to do: they first learn the facts as they are; then they depend upon their own common sense, not at all upon their university learning or upon philosophical theories. And in the case of the English nation, it must be acknowledged that this instinctive method has been eminently successful. When the "Havamal" speaks of wisdom it means mother-wit, and nothing else; indeed, there was no reading or writing to speak of in those times:
No man can carry better baggage on his journey than wisdom.
There is no better friend than great common sense.
But the wise man should not show himself to be wise without occasion. He should remember that the majority of men are not wise, and he should be careful not to show his superiority over them unnecessarily. Neither should be despise men who do not happen to be as wise as himself:
No man is so good but there is a flaw in him, nor so bad as to be good for nothing.
Middling wise should every man be; never overwise. Those who know many things rarely lead the happiest life.
Middling wise should every man be; never overwise. No man should know his fate beforehand; so shall he live freest from care.
Middling wise should every man be, never too wise. A wise man's heart is seldom glad, if its owner be a true sage.
This is the ancient wisdom also of Solomon "He that increases wisdom increases sorrow." But how very true as worldly wisdom these little Northern sentences are. That a man who knows a little of many things, and no one thing perfectly, is the happiest man—this certainly is even more true to-day than it was a thousand years ago. Spencer has well observed that the man who can influence his generation, is never the man greatly in advance of his time, but only the man who is very slightly better than his fellows. The man who is very superior is likely to be ignored or disliked. Mediocrity can not help disliking superiority; and as the old Northern sage declared, "the average of men is but moiety." Moiety does not mean necessarily mediocrity, but also that which is below mediocrity. What we call in England to-day, as Matthew Arnold called it, the Philistine element, continues to prove in our own time, to almost every superior man, the danger of being too wise.
Interesting in another way, and altogether more agreeable, are the old sayings about friendship: "Know this, if thou hast a trusty friend, go and see him often; because a road which is seldom trod gets choked with brambles and high grass."
Be not thou the first to break off from thy friend. Sorrow will eat thy heart if thou lackest the friend to open thy heart to.
Anything is better than to be false; he is no friend who only speaks to please.
Which means, of course, that a true friend is not afraid to find fault with his friend's course; indeed, that is his solemn duty. But these teachings about friendship are accompanied with many cautions; for one must be very careful in the making friends. The ancient Greeks had a terrible proverb: "Treat your friend as if he should become some day your enemy; and treat your enemy as if he might some day become your friend." This proverb seems to me to indicate a certain amount of doubt in human nature. We do not find this doubt in the Norse teaching, but on the contrary, some very excellent advice. The first thing to remember is that friendship is sacred: "He that opens his heart to another mixes blood with him." Therefore one should be very careful either about forming or about breaking a friendship.
A man should be a friend to his friend's friend. But no man should be a friend of his friend's foe, nor of his foe's friend.
A man should be a friend with his friend, and pay back gift with gift; give back laughter for laughter (to his enemies), and lesing for lies.
Give and give back makes the longest friend. Give not overmuch at one time. Gift always looks for return.
The poet also tells us how trifling gifts are quite sufficient to make friends and to keep them, if wisely given. A costly gift may seem like a bribe; a little gift is only the sign of kindly feeling. And as a mere matter of justice, a costly gift may be unkind, for it puts the friend under an obligation which he may not be rich enough to repay. Repeatedly we are told also that too much should not be expected of friendship. The value of a friend is his affection, his sympathy; but favours that cost must always be returned.
I never met a man so open-hearted and free with his food, but that boon was boon to him—nor so generous as not to look for return if he had a chance.
Emerson says almost precisely the same thing in his essay on friendship—showing how little human wisdom has changed in all the centuries. Here is another good bit of advice concerning visits:
It is far away to an ill friend, even though he live on one's road; but to a good friend there is a short cut, even though he live far out.
Go on, be not a guest ever in the same house. The welcome becomes wearisome if he sits too long at another's table.
This means that we must not impose on our friends; but there is a further caution on the subject of eating at a friend's house. You must not go to your friend's house hungry, when you can help it.
A man should take his meal betimes, before he goes to his neighbour—or he will sit and seem hungered like one starving, and have no power to talk.
That is the main point to remember in dining at another's house, that you are not there only for your own pleasure, but for that of other people. You are expected to talk; and you can not talk if you are very hungry. At this very day a gentleman makes it the rule to do the same thing. Accordingly we see that these rough men of the North must have had a good deal of social refinement—refinement not of dress or of speech, but of feeling. Still, says the poet, one's own home is the best, though it be but a cottage. "A man is a man in his own house."
Now we come to some sentences teaching caution, which are noteworthy in a certain way:
Tell one man thy secret, but not two. What three men know, all the world knows.
Never let a bad man know thy mishaps; for from a bad man thou shalt never get reward for thy sincerity.
I shall presently give you some modern examples in regard to the advice concerning bad men. Another thing to be cautious about is praise. If you have to be careful about blame, you must be very cautious also about praise.
Praise the day at even-tide; a woman at her burying; a sword when it has been tried; a maid when she is married; ice when you have crossed over it; ale when it is drunk.
If there is anything noteworthy in English character to-day it is the exemplification of this very kind of teaching. This is essentially Northern. The last people from whom praise can be expected, even for what is worthy of all praise, are the English. A new friendship, a new ideal, a reform, a noble action, a wonderful poet, an exquisite painting—any of these things will be admired and praised by every other people in Europe long before you can get Englishmen to praise. The Englishman all this time is studying, considering, trying to find fault. Why should he try to find fault? So that he will not make any mistakes at a later day. He has inherited the terrible caution of his ancestors in regard to mistakes. It must be granted that his caution has saved him from a number of very serious mistakes that other nations have made. It must also be acknowledged that he exercises a fair amount of moderation in the opposite direction—this modern Englishman; he has learned caution of another kind, which his ancestors taught him. "Power," says the "Havamal," "should be used with moderation; for whoever finds himself among valiant men will discover that no man is peerless." And this is a very important thing for the strong man to know—that however strong, he can not be the strongest; his match will be found when occasion demands it. Not only Scandinavian but English rulers have often discovered this fact to their cost. Another matter to be very anxious about is public opinion.
Chattels die; kinsmen pass away; one dies oneself; but I know something that never dies—the name of the man, for good or bad.
Do not think that this means anything religious. It means only that the reputation of a man goes to influence the good or ill fortune of his descendants. It is something to be proud of, to be the son of a good man; it helps to success in life. On the other hand, to have had a father of ill reputation is a very serious obstacle to success of any kind in countries where the influence of heredity is strongly recognized.
I have nearly exhausted the examples of this Northern wisdom which I selected for you; but there are two subjects which remain to be considered. One is the law of conduct in regard to misfortune; and the other is the rule of conduct in regard to women. A man was expected to keep up a brave heart under any circumstances. These old Northmen seldom committed suicide; and I must tell you that all the talk about Christianity having checked the practice of suicide to some extent, can not be fairly accepted as truth. In modern England to-day the suicides average nearly three thousand a year; but making allowance for extraordinary circumstances, it is certainly true that the Northern races consider suicide in an entirely different way from what the Latin races do. There was very little suicide among the men of the North, because every man considered it his duty to get killed, not to kill himself; and to kill himself would have seemed cowardly, as implying fear of being killed by others. In modern ethical training, quite apart from religious considerations a man is taught that suicide is only excusable in case of shame, or under such exceptional circumstances as have occurred in the history of the Indian mutiny. At all events, we have the feeling still strongly manifested in England that suicide is not quite manly; and this is certainly due much more to ancestral habits of thinking, which date back to pagan days, than to Christian doctrine. As I have said, the pagan English would not commit suicide to escape mere pain. But the Northern people knew how to die to escape shame. There is an awful story in Roman history about the wives and daughters of the conquered German tribes, thousands in number, asking to be promised that their virtue should be respected, and all killing themselves when the Roman general refused the request. No Southern people of Europe in that time would have shown such heroism upon such a matter. Leaving honour aside, however, the old book tells us that a man should never despair.
Fire, the sight of the sun, good health, and a blameless life these are the goodliest things in this world.
Yet a man is not utterly wretched, though he have bad health, or be maimed.
The halt may ride a horse; the handless may drive a herd; the deaf can fight and do well; better be blind than buried. A corpse is good for naught.
On the subject of women there is not very much in the book beyond the usual caution in regard to wicked women; but there is this little observation:
Never blame a woman for what is all man's weakness. Hues charming and fair may move the wise and not the dullard. Mighty love turns the son of men from wise to fool.
This is shrewd, and it contains a very remarkable bit of esthetic truth, that it requires a wise man to see certain kinds of beauty, which a stupid man could never be made to understand. And, leaving aside the subject of love, what very good advice it is never to laugh at a person for what can be considered a common failure. In the same way an intelligent man should learn to be patient with the unintelligent, as the same poem elsewhere insists.
Now what is the general result of this little study, the general impression that it leaves upon the mind? Certainly we feel that the life reflected in these sentences was a life in which caution was above all things necessary—caution in thought and speech and act, never ceasing, by night or day, during the whole of a man's life. Caution implies moderation. Moderation inevitably develops a certain habit of justice—a justice that might not extend outside of the race, but a justice that would be exercised between man and man of the same blood. Very much of English character and of English history is explained by the life that the "Havamal" portrays. Very much that is good; also very much that is bad—not bad in one sense, so far as the future of the race is concerned, but in a social way certainly not good. The judgment of the Englishman by all other European peoples is that he is the most suspicious, the most reserved, the most unreceptive, the most unfriendly, the coldest hearted, and the most domineering of all Western peoples. Ask a Frenchman, an Italian, a German, a Spaniard, even an American, what he thinks about Englishmen; and every one of them will tell you the very same thing. This is precisely what the character of men would become who had lived for thousands of years in the conditions of Northern society. But you would find upon the other hand that nearly all nations would speak highly of certain other English qualities—energy, courage, honour, justice (between themselves). They would say that although no man is so difficult to make friends with, the friendship of an Englishman once gained is more strong and true than any other. And as the battle of life still continues, and must continue for thousands of years to come, it must be acknowledged that the English character is especially well fitted for the struggle. Its reserves, its cautions, its doubts, its suspicions, its brutality—these have been for it in the past, and are still in the present, the best social armour and panoply of war. It is not a lovable nor an amiable character; it is not even kindly. The Englishman of the best type is much more inclined to be just than he is to be kind, for kindness is an emotional impulse, and the Englishman is on his guard against every kind of emotional impulse. But with all this, the character is a grand one, and its success has been the best proof of its value.
Now you will have observed in the reading of this ancient code of social morals that, while none of the teaching is religious, some of it is absolutely immoral from any religious standpoint. No great religion permits us to speak what is not true, and to smile in the face of an enemy while pretending to be his friend. No religion teaches that we should "pay back lesing for lies." Neither does a religion tell us that we should expect a return for every kindness done; that we should regard friendship as being actuated by selfish motives; that we should never praise when praise seems to be deserved. In fact, when Sir Walter Scott long ago made a partial translation of the "Havamal," he thought himself obliged to leave out a number of sentences which seemed to him highly immoral, and to apologize for others. He thought that they would shock English readers too much.
We are not quite so squeamish to-day; and a thinker of our own time would scarcely deny that English society is very largely governed at this moment by the same kind of rules that Sir Walter Scott thought to be so bad. But here we need not condemn English society in particular. All European society has been for hundreds of years conducting itself upon very much the same principles; for the reason that human social experience has been the same in all Western countries. I should say that the only difference between English society and other societies is that the hardness of character is very much greater. Let us go back even to the most Christian times of Western societies in the most Christian country of Europe, and observe whether the social code was then and there so very different from the social code of the old "Havamal." Mr. Spencer observes in his "Ethics" that, so far as the conduct of life is concerned, religion is almost nothing and practice is everything. We find this wonderfully exemplified in a most remarkable book of social precepts written in the seventeenth century, in Spain, under the title of the "Oraculo Manual." It was composed by a Spanish priest, named Baltasar Gracian, who was born in the year 1601 and died in 1658; and it has been translated into nearly all languages. The best English translation, published by Macmillan, is called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." It is even more admired to-day than in the seventeenth century; and what it teaches as to social conduct holds as good to-day of modern society as it did of society two hundred years ago. It is one of the most unpleasant and yet interesting books ever published—unpleasant because of the malicious cunning which it often displays—interesting because of the frightful perspicacity of the author. The man who wrote that book understood the hearts of men, especially the bad side. He was a gentleman of high rank before he became a priest, and his instinctive shrewdness must have been hereditary. Religion, this man would have said, teaches the best possible morals; but the world is not governed by religion altogether, and to mix with it, we must act according to its dictates.