These dictates remind us in many ways of the cautions and the cunning of the "Havamal." The first thing enjoined upon a man both by the Norse writer and by the Spanish author is the art of silence. Probably this has been the result of social experience in all countries. "Cautious silence is the holy of holies of worldly wisdom," says Gracian. And he gives many elaborate reasons for this statement, not the least of which is the following: "If you do not declare yourself immediately, you arouse expectation, especially when the importance of your position makes you the object of general attention. Mix a little mystery with everything, and the very mystery arouses veneration." A little further on he gives us exactly the same advice as did the "Havamal" writer, in regard to being frank with enemies. "Do not," he says, "show your wounded finger, for everything will knock up against it; nor complain about it, for malice always aims where weakness can be injured.... Never disclose the source of mortification or of joy, if you wish the one to cease, the other to endure." About secrets the Spaniard is quite as cautious as the Norseman. He says, "Especially dangerous are secrets entrusted to friends. He that communicates his secret to another makes himself that other man's slave." But after a great many such cautions in regard to silence and secrecy, he tells us also that we must learn how to fight with the world. You remember the advice of the "Havamal" on this subject, how it condemns as a fool the man who can not answer a reproach. The Spaniard is, however, much more malicious in his suggestions. He tells as that we must "learn to know every man's thumbscrew." I suppose you know that a thumbscrew was an instrument of torture used in old times to force confessions from criminals. This advice means nothing less than that we should learn how to be be able to hurt other men's feelings, or to flatter other men's weaknesses. "First guess every man's ruling passion, appeal to it by a word, set it in motion by temptation, and you will infallibly give checkmate to his freedom of will." The term "give checkmate" is taken from the game of chess, and must here be understood as meaning to overcome, to conquer. A kindred piece of advice is "keep a store of sarcasms, and know how to use them." Indeed he tells us that this is the point of greatest tact in human intercourse. "Struck by the slightest word of this kind, many fall away from the closest intimacy with superiors or inferiors, which intimacy could not be in the slightest shaken by a whole conspiracy of popular insinuation or private malevolence." In other words, you can more quickly destroy a man's friendship by one word of sarcasm than by any amount of intrigue. Does not this read very much like sheer wickedness? Certainly it does; but the author would have told you that you must fight the wicked with their own weapons. In the "Havamal" you will not find anything quite so openly wicked as that; but we must suppose that the Norsemen knew the secret, though they might not have put it into words. As for the social teaching, you will find it very subtly expressed even in the modern English novels of George Meredith, who, by the way, has written a poem in praise of sarcasm and ridicule. But let us now see what the Spanish author has to tell us about friendship and unselfishness.
The shrewd man knows that others when they seek him do not seek "him," but "their advantage in him and by him." That is to say, a shrewd man does not believe in disinterested friendship. This is much worse than anything in the "Havamal." And it is diabolically elaborated. What are we to say about such teaching as the following: "A wise man would rather see men needing him than thanking him. To keep them on the threshold of hope is diplomatic; to trust to their gratitude is boorish; hope has a good memory, gratitude a bad one"? There is much more of this kind; but after the assurance that only a boorish person (that is to say, an ignorant and vulgar man) can believe in gratitude, the author's opinion of human nature needs no further elucidation. The old Norseman would have been shocked at such a statement. But he might have approved the following: "When you hear anything favourable, keep a tight rein upon your credulity; if unfavourable, give it the spur." That is to say, when you hear anything good about another man, do not be ready to believe it; but if you hear anything bad about him, believe as much of it as you can.
I notice also many other points of resemblance between the Northern and the Spanish teaching in regard to caution. The "Havamal" says that you must not pick a quarrel with a worse man than yourself; "because the better man often falls by the worse man's sword." The Spanish priest gives a still shrewder reason for the same policy. "Never contend," he says, "with a man who has nothing to lose; for thereby you enter into an unequal conflict. The other enters without anxiety; having lost everything, including shame, he has no further loss to fear." I think that this is an immoral teaching, though a very prudent one; but I need scarcely to tell you that it is still a principle in modern society not to contend with a man who has no reputation to lose. I think it is immoral, because it is purely selfish, and because a good man ought not to be afraid to denounce a wrong because of making enemies. Another point, however, on which the "Havamal" and the priest agree, is more commendable and interesting. "We do not think much of a man who never contradicts us; that is no sign he loves us, but rather a sign that he loves himself. Original and out-of-the-way views are signs of superior ability."
I should not like you to suppose, however, that the whole of the book from which I have been quoting is of the same character as the quotations. There is excellent advice in it; and much kindly teaching on the subject of generous acts. It is a book both good and bad, and never stupid. The same man who tells you that friendship is seldom unselfish, also declares that life would be a desert without friends, and that there is no magic like a good turn—that is, a kind act. He teaches the importance of getting good will by honest means, although he advises us also to learn how to injure. I am sure that nobody could read the book without benefit. And I may close these quotations from it with the following paragraph, which is the very best bit of counsel that could be given to a literary student:
Be slow and sure. Quickly done can be quickly undone. To last an eternity requires an eternity of preparation. Only excellence counts. Profound intelligence is the only foundation for immortality. Worth much costs much. The precious metals are the heaviest.
But so far as the question of human conduct is concerned, the book of Gracian is no more of a religious book than is the "Havamal" of the heathen North. You would find, were such a book published to-day and brought up to the present time by any shrewd writer, that Western morality has not improved in the least since the time before Christianity was established, so far as the rules of society go. Society is not, and can not be, religious, because it is a state of continual warfare. Every person in it has to fight, and the battle is not less cruel now because it is not fought with swords. Indeed, I should think that the time when every man carried his sword in society was a time when men were quite as kindly and much more honest than they are now. The object of this little lecture was to show you that the principles of the ancient Norse are really the principles ruling English society to-day; but I think you will be able to take from it a still larger meaning. It is that not only one form of society, but all forms of society, represent the warfare of man and man. That is why thinkers, poets, philosophers, in all ages, have tried to find solitude, to keep out of the contest, to devote themselves only to study of the beautiful and the true. But the prizes of life are not to be obtained in solitude, although the prizes of thought can only there be won. After all, whatever we may think about the cruelty and treachery of the social world, it does great things in the end. It quickens judgment, deepens intelligence, enforces the acquisition of self-control, creates forms of mental and moral strength that can not fail to be sometimes of vast importance to mankind. But if you should ask me whether it increases human happiness, I should certainly say "no." The "Havamal" said the same thing,—the truly wise man can not be happy.
It seems to me a lecturer's duty to speak to you about any remarkable thought at this moment engaging the attention of Western philosophers and men of science,—partly because any such new ideas are certain, sooner or later, to be reflected in literature, and partly because without a knowledge of them you might form incorrect ideas in relation to utterances of any important philosophic character. I am not going to discourse about Nietzsche, though the title of this lecture is taken from one of his books; the ideas about which I am going to tell you, you will not find in his books. It is most extraordinary, to my thinking, that these ideas never occurred to him, for he was an eminent man of science before writing his probably insane books. I have not the slightest sympathy with most of his ideas; they seem to me misinterpretations of evolutional teachings; and if not misinterpretations, they are simply undeveloped and ill-balanced thinking. But the title of one of his books, and the idea which he tries always unsuccessfully to explain,—that of a state above mankind, a moral condition "beyond man," as he calls it,—that is worth talking about. It is not nonsense at all, but fact, and I think that I can give you a correct idea of the realities in the case. Leaving Nietzsche entirely alone, then, let us ask if it is possible to suppose a condition of human existence above morality,—that is to say, more moral than the most moral ideal which a human brain can conceive? We may answer, it is quite possible, and it is not only possible, but it has actually been predicted by many great thinkers, including Herbert Spencer.
We have been brought up to think that there can be nothing better than virtue, than duty, than strictly following the precepts of a good religion. However, our ideas of goodness and of virtue necessarily imply the existence of the opposite qualities. To do a good thing because it is our duty to do it, implies a certain amount of resolve, a struggle against difficulty. The virtue of honesty is a term implying the difficulty of being perfectly honest. When we think of any virtuous or great deed, we can not help thinking of the pain and obstacles that have to be met with in performing that deed. All our active morality is a struggle against immorality. And I think that, as every religion teaches, it must be granted that no human being has a perfectly moral nature.
Could a world exist in which the nature of all the inhabitants would be so moral that the mere idea of what is immoral could not exist? Let me explain my question more in detail. Imagine a society in which the idea of dishonesty would not exist, because no person could be dishonest, a society in which the idea of unchastity could not exist, because no person could possibly be unchaste, a world in which no one could have any idea of envy, ambition or anger, because such passions could not exist, a world in which there would be no idea of duty, filial or parental, because not to be filial, not to be loving, not to do everything which we human beings now call duty, would be impossible. In such a world ideas of duty would be quite useless; for every action of existence would represent the constant and faultless performance of what we term duty. Moreover, there would be no difficulty, no pain in such performance; it would be the constant and unfailing pleasure of life. With us, unfortunately, what is wrong often gives pleasure; and what is good to do, commonly causes pain. But in the world which I am asking you to imagine there could not be any wrong, nor any pleasure in wrong-doing; all the pleasure would be in right-doing. To give a very simple illustration—one of the commonest and most pardonable faults of young people is eating, drinking, or sleeping too much. But in our imaginary world to eat or to drink or to sleep in even the least degree more than is necessary could not be done; the constitution of the race would not permit it. One more illustration. Our children have to be educated carefully in regard to what is right or wrong; in the world of which I am speaking, no time would be wasted in any such education, for every child would be born with full knowledge of what is right and wrong. Or to state the case in psychological language—I mean the language of scientific, not of metaphysical, psychology—we should have a world in which morality would have been transmuted into inherited instinct. Now again let me put the question: can we imagine such a world? Perhaps you will answer, Yes, in heaven—nowhere else. But I answer you that such a world actually exists, and that it can be studied in almost any part of the East or of Europe by a person of scientific training. The world of insects actually furnishes examples of such a moral transformation. It is for this reason that such writers as Sir John Lubbock and Herbert Spencer have not hesitated to say that certain kinds of social insects have immensely surpassed men, both in social and in ethical progress.
But that is not all that it is necessary to say here. You might think that I am only repeating a kind of parable. The important thing is the opinion of scientific men that humanity will at last, in the course of millions of years, reach the ethical conditions of the ants. It is only five or six years ago that some of these conditions were established by scientific evidence, and I want to speak of them. They have a direct bearing upon important ethical questions; and they have startled the whole moral world, and set men thinking in entirely new directions.
In order to explain how the study of social insects has set moralists of recent years thinking in a new direction, it will be necessary to generalize a great deal in the course of so short a lecture. It is especially the social conditions of the ants which has inspired these new ideas; but you must not think that any one species of ants furnishes us with all the facts. The facts have been arrived at only through the study of hundreds of different kinds of ants by hundreds of scientific men; and it is only by the consensus of their evidence that we get the ethical picture which I shall try to outline for you. Altogether there are probably about five thousand different species of ants, and these different species represent many different stages of social evolution, from the most primitive and savage up to the most highly civilized and moral. The details of the following picture are furnished by a number of the highest species only; that must not be forgotten. Also, I must remind you that the morality of the ant, by the necessity of circumstance, does not extend beyond the limits of its own species. Impeccably ethical within the community, ants carry on war outside their own borders; were it not for this, we might call them morally perfect creatures.
Although the mind of an ant can not be at all like to the mind of the human being, it is so intelligent that we are justified in trying to describe its existence by a kind of allegorical comparison with human life. Imagine, then, a world full of women, working night and day,—building, tunnelling, bridging,—also engaged in agriculture, in horticulture, and in taking care of many kinds of domestic animals. (I may remark that ants have domesticated no fewer than five hundred and eighty-four different kinds of creatures.) This world of women is scrupulously clean; busy as they are, all of them carry combs and brushes about them, and arrange themselves several times a day. In addition to this constant work, these women have to take care of myriads of children,—children so delicate that the slightest change in the weather may kill them. So the children have to be carried constantly from one place to another in order to keep them warm.
Though this multitude of workers are always gathering food, no one of them would eat or drink a single atom more than is necessary; and none of them would sleep for one second longer than is necessary. Now comes a surprising fact, about which a great deal must be said later on. These women have no sex. They are women, for they sometimes actually give birth, as virgins, to children; but they are incapable of wedlock. They are more than vestals. Sex is practically suppressed.
This world of workers is protected by an army of soldiers. The soldiers are very large, very strong, and shaped so differently from the working females that they do not seem at first to belong to the same race. They help in the work, though they are not able to help in some delicate kinds of work—they are too clumsy and strong. Now comes the second astonishing fact: these soldiers are all women—amazons, we might call them; but they are sexless women. In these also sex has been suppressed.
You ask, where do the children come from? Most of the children are born of special mothers—females chosen for the purpose of bearing offspring, and not allowed to do anything else. They are treated almost like empresses, being constantly fed and attended and served, and being lodged in the best way possible. Only these can eat and drink at all times—they must do so for the sake of their offspring. They are not suffered to go out, unless strongly attended, and they are not allowed to run any risk of danger or of injury The life of the whole race circles about them and about their children, but they are very few.
Last of all are the males, the men. One naturally asks why females should have been specialized into soldiers instead of men. It appears that the females have more reserve force, and all the force that might have been utilized in the giving of life has been diverted to the making of aggressive powers. The real males are very small and weak. They appear to be treated with indifference and contempt. They are suffered to become the bridegrooms of one night, after which they die very quickly. By contrast, the lives of the rest are very long. Ants live for at least three or four years, but the males live only long enough to perform their solitary function.
In the foregoing little fantasy, the one thing that should have most impressed you is the fact of the suppression of sex. But now comes the last and most astonishing fact of all: this suppression of sex is not natural, but artificial—I mean that it is voluntary. It has been discovered that ants are able, by a systematic method of nourishment, to suppress or develop sex as they please. The race has decided that sex shall not be allowed to exist except in just so far as it is absolutely necessary to the existence of the race. Individuals with sex are tolerated only as necessary evils. Here is an instance of the most powerful of all passions voluntarily suppressed for the benefit of the community at large. It vanishes whenever unnecessary; when necessary after a war or a calamity of some kind, it is called into existence again. Certainly it is not wonderful that such a fact should have set moralists thinking. Of course if a human community could discover some secret way of effecting the same object, and could have the courage to do it, or rather the unselfishness to do it, the result would simply be that sexual immorality of any kind would become practically impossible The very idea of such immorality would cease to exist.
But that is only one fact of self-suppression and the ant-world furnishes hundreds. To state the whole thing in the simplest possible way, let me say the race has entirely got rid of everything that we call a selfish impulse. Even hunger and thirst allow of no selfish gratification. The entire life of the community is devoted to the common good and to mutual help and to the care of the young. Spencer says it is impossible to imagine that an ant has a sense of duty like our own,—a religion, if you like. But it does not need a sense of duty, it does not need religion. Its life is religion in the practical sense. Probably millions of years ago the ant had feelings much more like our own than it has now. At that time, to perform altruistic actions may have been painful to the ant; to perform them now has become the one pleasure of its existence. In order to bring up children and serve the state more efficiently these insects have sacrificed their sex and every appetite that we call by the name of animal passion. Moreover they have a perfect community, a society in which nobody could think of property, except as a state affair, a public thing, or as the Romans would say a res publica. In a human community so organized, there could not be ambition, any jealousy, any selfish conduct of any sort—indeed, no selfishness at all. The individual is said to be practically sacrificed for the sake of the race; but such a supposition means the highest moral altruism. Therefore thinkers have to ask, "Will man ever rise to something like the condition of ants?"
Herbert Spencer says that such is the evident tendency. He does not say, nor is it at all probable, that there will be in future humanity such physiological specialization as would correspond to the suppression of sex among ants, or to the bringing of women to the dominant place in the human world, and the masculine sex to an inferior position. That is not likely ever to happen, for reasons which it would take very much too long to speak of now. But there is evidence that the most selfish of all human passions will eventually be brought under control—under such control that the present cause of wellnigh all human suffering, the pressure of population, will be practically removed. And there is psychological evidence that the human mind will undergo such changes that wrong-doing, in the sense of unkindly action, will become almost impossible, and that the highest pleasure will be found not in selfishness but in unselfishness. Of course there are thousands of things to think about, suggested by this discovery of the life of ants. I am only telling the more important ones. What I have told you ought at least to suggest that the idea of a moral condition much higher than all our moral conditions of today is quite possible,—that it is not an idea to be laughed at. But it was not Nietzsche who ever conceived this possibility. His "Beyond Man" and the real and much to be hoped for "beyond man," are absolutely antagonistic conceptions. When the ancient Hebrew writer said, thousands of years ago, "Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways," he could not have imagined how good his advice would prove in the light of twentieth century science.
THE NEW ETHICS
Before leaving the subject of these latter-day intellectual changes, a word must be said concerning the ethical questions involved. Of course when a religious faith has been shaken to its foundation, it is natural to suppose that morals must have been simultaneously affected. The relation of morals to literature is very intimate; and we must expect that any change of ideas in the direction of ethics would show themselves in literature. The drama, poetry, romance, the novel, all these are reflections of moral emotion in especial, of the eternal struggle between good and evil, as well as of the temporary sentiments concerning right and wrong. And every period of transition is necessarily accompanied by certain tendencies to disintegration. Contemporary literature in the West has shown some signs of ethical change. These caused many thinkers to predict a coming period of demoralization in literature. But the alarm was really quite needless. These vagaries of literature, such as books questioning the morality of the marriage relation, for example, were only repetitions of older vagaries, and represented nothing more than the temporary agitation of thought upon all questions. The fact seems to be that in spite of everything, moral feeling was never higher at any time in Western social history than it is at present. The changes of thought have indeed been very great, but the moral experience of mankind remains exactly as valuable as it was before, and new perceptions of that value have been given to us by the new philosophy.
It has been wisely observed by the greatest of modern thinkers that mankind has progressed more rapidly in every other respect than in morality. Moral progress has not been rapid simply because the moral ideal has always been kept a little in advance of the humanly possible. Thousands of years ago the principles of morality were exactly the same as those which rule our lives to-day. We can not improve upon them; we can not even improve upon the language which expressed them. The most learned of our poets could not make a more beautiful prayer than the prayer which Egyptian mothers taught to their little children in ages when all Europe was still a land of savages. The best of the moral philosophy of the nineteenth century is very little of improvement upon the moral philosophy of ancient India or China. If there is any improvement at all, it is simply in the direction of knowledge of causes and effects. And that is why in all countries the common sense of mankind universally condemns any attempt to interfere with moral ideas. These represent the social experience of man for thousands and thousands of years; and it is not likely that the wisdom of any one individual can ever better them. If bettered at all it can not be through theory. The amelioration must be effected by future experience of a universal kind. We may improve every branch of science, every branch of art, everything else relating to the work of human heads and hands; but we can not improve morals by invention or by hypothesis. Morals are not made, but grow.
Yet, as I have said, there is what may be called a new system of ethics. But this new system of ethics means nothing more than a new way of understanding the old system of ethics. By the application of evolutional science to the study of morals, we have been enabled to trace back the whole history of moral ideas to the time of their earliest inception,—to understand the reasons of them, and to explain them without the help of any supernatural theory. And the result, so far from diminishing our respect for the wisdom of our ancestors, has immensely increased that respect. There is no single moral teaching common to different civilizations and different religions of an advanced stage of development which we do not find to be eternally true. Let us try to study this view of the case by the help of a few examples.
In early times, of course, men obeyed moral instruction through religious motives. If asked why they thought it was wrong to perform certain actions and right to perform others, they could have answered only that such was ancestral custom and that the gods will it so. Not until we could understand the laws governing the evolution of society could we understand the reason of many ethical regulations. But now we can understand very plainly that the will of the gods, as our ancestors might have termed it, represents divine laws indeed, for the laws of ethical evolution are certainly the unknown laws shaping all things—suns, worlds, and human societies. All that opposes itself to the operation of those universal laws is what we have been accustomed to call bad, and everything which aids the operation of those laws is what we have been accustomed to think of as good. The common crimes condemned by all religions, such as theft, murder, adultery, bearing false witness, disloyalty, all these are practices which directly interfere with the natural process of evolution; and without understanding why, men have from the earliest times of real civilisation united all their power to suppress them. I think that we need not dwell upon the simple facts; they will at once suggest to you all that is necessary to know. I shall select for illustration only one less familiar topic, that of the ascetic ideal.
A great many things which in times of lesser knowledge we imagined to be superstitious or useless, prove to-day on examination to have been of immense value to mankind. Probably no superstition ever existed which did not have some social value; and the most seemingly repulsive or cruel sometimes turn out to have been the most precious. To choose one of these for illustration, we must take one not confined to any particular civilization or religion, but common to all human societies at a certain period of their existence; and the ascetic ideal best fits our purpose. From very early times, even from a time long preceding any civilization, we find men acting under the idea that by depriving themselves of certain pleasures and by subjecting themselves to certain pains they could please the divine powers and thereby obtain strength. Probably there is no people in the world among whom this belief has not had at some one time or another a very great influence. At a later time, in the early civilizations, this idea would seem to have obtained much larger sway, and to have affected national life more and more extensively. In the age of the great religions the idea reaches its acme, an acme often represented by extravagances of the most painful kind and sacrifices which strike modern imagination as ferocious and terrible. In Europe asceticism reached its great extremes as you know during the Middle Ages, and especially took the direction of antagonism to the natural sex-relation. Looking back to-day to the centuries in which celibacy was considered the most moral condition, and marriage was counted as little better than weakness, when Europe was covered with thousands of monasteries, and when the best intellects of the age deemed it the highest duty to sacrifice everything pleasurable for the sake of an imaginary reward after death, we can not but recognize that we are contemplating a period of religious insanity. Even in the architecture of the time, the architecture that Ruskin devoted his splendid talent to praise, there is a grim and terrible something that suggests madness. Again, the cruelties of the age have an insane character, the burning alive of myriads of people who refused to believe or could not believe in the faith of their time; the tortures used to extort confessions from the innocent; the immolation of thousands charged with being wizards or witches; the extinction of little centres of civilization in the South of France and elsewhere by brutal crusades—contemplating all this, we seem to be contemplating not only madness but furious madness. I need not speak to you of the Crusades, which also belonged to this period. Compared with the Roman and Greek civilizations before it, what a horrible Europe it was! And yet the thinker must recognize that it had a strength of its own, a strength of a larger kind than that of the preceding civilizations. It may seem monstrous to assert that all this cruelty and superstition and contempt of learning were absolutely necessary for the progress of mankind; and yet we must so accept them in the light of modern knowledge. The checking of intellectual development for hundreds of years is certainly a fact that must shock us; but the true question is whether such a checking had not become necessary. Intellectual strength, unless supported by moral strength, leads a people into the ways of destruction. Compared with the men of the Middle Ages, the Greeks and Romans were incomparably superior intellectually; compared with them morally they were very weak. They had conquered the world and developed all the arts, these Greeks and Romans; they had achieved things such as mankind has never since been able to accomplish, and then, losing their moral ideal, losing their simplicity, losing their faith, they were utterly crushed by inferior races in whom the principles of self-denial had been intensely developed. And the old instinctive hatred of the Church for the arts and the letters and the sciences of the Greek and Roman civilizations was not quite so much of a folly as we might be apt to suppose. The priests recognized in a vague way that anything like a revival of the older civilizations would signify moral ruin. The Renaissance proves that the priests were not wrong. Had the movement occurred a few hundred years earlier, the result would probably have been a universal corruption I do not mean to say that the Church at any time was exactly conscious of what she was doing; she acted blindly under the influence of an instinctive fear. But the result of all that she did has now proved unfortunate. What the Roman and Greek civilizations had lost in moral power was given back to the world by the frightful discipline of the Middle Ages. For a long series of generations the ascetic idea was triumphant; and it became feeble only in proportion as men became strong enough to do without it. Especially it remodelled that of which it first seemed the enemy, the family relation. It created a new basis for society, founded upon a new sense of the importance to society of family morals. Because this idea, this morality, came through superstition, its value is not thereby in the least diminished. Superstitions often represent correct guesses at eternal truth. To-day we know that all social progress, all national strength, all national vigour, intellectual as well as physical, depend essentially upon the family, upon the morality of the household, upon the relation of parents to children. It was this fact which the Greeks and Romans forgot, and lost themselves by forgetting. It was this fact which the superstitious tyranny of the Middle Ages had to teach the West over again, and after such a fashion that it is not likely ever to become forgotten. So much for the mental history of the question. Let us say a word about the physical aspects of it.
No doubt you have read that the result of macerating the body, of depriving oneself of all comfort, and even of nourishing food, is not an increase of intellectual vigour or moral power of any kind. And in one sense this is true. The individual who passes his life in self-mortification is not apt to improve under that regime. For this reason the founder of the greatest of Oriental religions condemned asceticism on the part of his followers, except within certain fixed limits. But the history of the changes produced by a universal idea is not a history of changes in the individual, but of changes brought about by the successive efforts of millions of individuals in the course of many generations. Not in one lifetime can we perceive the measure of ethical force obtained by self-control; but in the course of several hundreds of years we find that the result obtained is so large as to astonish us. This result, imperceptibly obtained, signifies a great increase of that nervous power upon which moral power depends; it means an augmentation in strength of every kind; and this augmentation again represents what we might call economy. Just as there is a science of political economy, there is a science of ethical economy; and it is in relation to such a science that we should rationally consider the influence of all religions teaching self-suppression. So studying, we find that self-suppression does not mean the destruction of any power, but only the economical storage of that power for the benefit of the race As a result, the highly civilized man can endure incomparably more than the savage, whether of moral or physical strain. Being better able to control himself under all circumstances, he has a great advantage over the savage.
That which is going on in the new teaching of ethics is really the substitution of a rational for an emotional morality. But this does not mean that the value of the emotional element in morality is not recognized. Not only is it recognized, but it is even being enlarged—enlarged, however, in a rational way. For example, let us take the very emotional virtue of loyalty. Loyalty, in a rational form, could not exist among an uneducated people; it could only exist as a feeling, a sentiment. In the primitive state of society this sentiment takes the force and the depth of a religion. And the ruler, regarded as divine, really has in relation to his people the power of a god. Once that people becomes educated in the modern sense, their ideas regarding their ruler and their duties to their ruler necessarily undergo modification. But does this mean that the sentiment is weakened in the educated class? I should say that this depends very much upon the quality of the individual mind. In a mind of small capacity, incapable of receiving the higher forms of thought, it is very likely that the sentiment may be weakened and almost destroyed. But in the mind of a real thinker, a man of true culture, the sense of loyalty, although changed, is at the same time immensely expanded. In order to give a strong example, I should take the example not from a monarchical country but from a republican one. What does the President of the United States of America, for example, represent to the American of the highest culture? He appears to him in two entirely different capacities. First he appears to him merely as a man, an ordinary man, with faults and weaknesses like other ordinary men. His private life is apt to be discussed in the newspapers. He is expected to shake hands with anybody and with everybody whom he meets at Washington; and when he ceases to hold office, he has no longer any particular distinction from other Americans. But as the President of the United States, he is also much more than a man. He represents one hundred millions of people; he represents the American Constitution; he represents the great principles of human freedom laid down by that Constitution; he represents also the idea of America, of everything American, of all the hopes, interests, and glories of the nation. Officially he is quite as sacred as a divinity could be. Millions would give their lives for him at an instant's notice; and thousands capable of making vulgar jokes about the man would hotly resent the least word spoken about the President as the representative of America. The very same thing exists in other Western countries, notwithstanding the fact that the lives of rulers are sometimes attempted. England is a striking example. The Queen has really scarcely any power; her rule is little more than nominal. Every Englishman knows that England is a monarchy only in name. But the Queen represents to every Englishman more than a woman and more than a queen: she represents England, English race feeling, English love of country, English power, English dignity; she is a symbol, and as a symbol sacred. The soldier jokingly calls her "the Widow"; he makes songs about her; all this is well and good. But a soldier who cursed her a few years ago was promptly sent to prison for twenty years. To sing a merry song about the sovereign as a woman is a right which English freedom claims; but to speak disrespectfully of the Queen, as England, as the government, is properly regarded as a crime; because it proves the man capable of it indifferent to all his duties as an Englishman, as a citizen, as a soldier. The spirit of loyalty is far from being lost in Western countries; it has only changed in character, and it is likely to strengthen as time goes on.
Broad tolerance in the matter of beliefs is necessarily a part of the new ethics. It is quite impossible in the present state of mankind that all persons should be well educated, or that the great masses of a nation should attain to the higher forms of culture. For the uneducated a rational system of ethics must long remain out of the question and it is proper that they should cling to the old emotional forms of moral teaching. The observation of Huxley that he would like to see every unbeliever who could not get a reason for his unbelief publicly put to shame, was an observation of sound common sense. It is only those whose knowledge obliges them to see things from another standpoint than that of the masses who can safely claim to base their rule of life upon philosophical morality. The value of the philosophical morality happens to be only in those directions where it recognizes and supports the truth taught by common morality, which, after all, is the safest guide. Therefore the philosophical moralist will never mock or oppose a belief which he knows to exercise a good influence upon human conduct. He will recognize even the value of many superstitions as being very great; and he will understand that any attempt to suddenly change the beliefs of man in any ethical direction must be mischievous. Such changes as he might desire will come; but they should come gradually and gently, in exact proportion to the expanding capacity of the national mind. Recognizing this probability, several Western countries, notably America, have attempted to introduce into education an entirely new system of ethical teaching—ethical teaching in the broadest sense, and in harmony with the new philosophy. But the result there and elsewhere can only be that which I have said at the beginning of this lecture,—namely, the enlargement of the old moral ideas, and the deeper comprehension of their value in all relations of life.
SOME POEMS ABOUT INSECTS
One of the great defects of English books printed in the last century is the want of an index. The importance of being able to refer at once to any subject treated of in a book was not recognized until the days when exact scholarship necessitated indexing of the most elaborate kind. But even now we constantly find good books severely criticized because of this deficiency. All that I have said tends to show that even to-day in Western countries the immense importance of systematic arrangement in literary collections is not sufficiently recognized. We have, of course, a great many English anthologies,—that is to say, collections of the best typical compositions of a certain epoch in poetry or in prose. But you must have observed that, in Western countries, nearly all such anthologies are compiled chronologically—not according to the subject of the poems. To this general rule there are indeed a few exceptions. There is a collection of love poetry by Watson, which is famous; a collection of child poetry by Patmore; a collection of "society verse" by Locker-Lampson; and several things of that sort. But even here the arrangement is not of a special kind; nor is it ever divided according to the subject of each particular poem. I know that some books have been published of late years with such titles as "Poems of the Sea," "Poems of Nature"—but these are of no literary importance at all and they are not compiled by competent critics. Besides, the subject-heads are always of much too general a kind. The French are far in advance of the English in the art of making anthologies; but even in such splendid anthologies as those of Crepet and of Lemerre the arrangement is of the most general kind,—chronological, and little more.
I was reminded to tell you this, because of several questions recently asked me, which I found it impossible to answer. Many a Japanese student might suppose that Western poetry has its classified arrangements corresponding in some sort to those of Japanese poetry. Perhaps the Germans have something of the kind, but the English and French have not. Any authority upon the subject of Japanese literature can, I have been told, inform himself almost immediately as to all that has been written in poetry upon a particular subject. Japanese poetry has been classified and sub-classified and double-indexed or even quadruple-indexed after a manner incomparably more exact than anything English anthologies can show. I am aware that this fact is chiefly owing to the ancient rules about subjects, seasons, contrasts, and harmonies, after which the old poets used to write. But whatever be said about such rules, there can be no doubt at all of the excellence of the arrangements which the rules produced. It is greatly to be regretted that we have not in English a system of arrangement enabling the student to discover quickly all that has been written upon a particular subject—such as roses, for example, or pine trees, or doves, or the beauties of the autumn season. There is nobody to tell you where to find such things; and as the whole range of English poetry is so great that it takes a great many years even to glance through it, a memorized knowledge of the subjects is impossible for the average man. I believe that Macaulay would have been able to remember almost any reference in the poetry then accessible to scholars,—just as the wonderful Greek scholar Porson could remember the exact place of any text in the whole of Greek literature, and even all the variations of that text. But such men are born only once in hundreds of years; the common memory can not attempt to emulate their feats. And it is very difficult at the present time for the ordinary student of poetry to tell you just how much has been written upon any particular subject by the best English poets.
Now you will recognize some difficulties in the way of a lecturer in attempting to make classifications of English poetry after the same manner that Japanese classification can be made of Japanese poetry. One must read enormously merely to obtain one's materials, and even then the result is not to be thought of as exhaustive. I am going to try to give you a few lectures upon English poetry thus classified, but we must not expect that the lectures will be authoritatively complete. Indeed, we have no time for lectures of so thorough a sort. All that I can attempt will be to give you an idea of the best things that English poets have thought and expressed upon certain subjects.
You know that the old Greeks wrote a great deal of beautiful poetry about insects,—especially about musical insects, crickets, cicadas, and other insects such as those the Japanese poets have been writing about for so many hundreds of years. But in modern Western poetry there is very little, comparatively speaking, about insects. The English poets have all written a great deal about birds, and especially about singing birds; but very little has been written upon the subject of insects—singing insects. One reason is probably that the number of musical insects in England is very small, perhaps owing to the climate. American poets have written more about insects than English poets have done, though their work is of a much less finished kind. But this is because musical insects in America are very numerous. On the whole, we may say that neither in English nor in French poetry will you find much about the Voices of rickets, locusts, or cicadae. I could not even give you a special lecture upon that subject. We must take the subject "insect" in a rather general signification; and if we do that we can edit together a nice little collection of poetical examples.
The butterfly was regarded by the Greeks especially as the emblem of the soul and therefore of immortality. We have several Greek remains, picturing the butterfly as perched upon a skull, thus symbolizing life beyond death. And the metamorphosis of the insect is, you know, very often referred to in Greek philosophy. We might expect that English poets would have considered the butterfly especially from this point of view; and we do have a few examples. Perhaps the best known is that of Coleridge.
The butterfly the ancient Grecians made The soul's fair emblem, and its only name— But of the soul, escaped the slavish trade Of earthly life! For in this mortal frame Ours is the reptile's lot, much toil, much blame, Manifold motions making little speed, And to deform and kill the things whereon we feed.
The allusion to the "name" is of course to the Greek word, psyche, which signifies both soul and butterfly. Psyche, as the soul, was pictured by the Greeks as a beautiful girl, with a somewhat sad face, and butterfly wings springing from her shoulders. Coleridge tells us here that although the Greeks likened the soul to the butterfly, we must remember what the butterfly really is,—the last and highest state of insect-being—"escaped the slavish trade of earthly life." What is this so-called slavish trade? It is the necessity of working and struggling in order to live—in order to obtain food. The butterfly is not much of an eater; some varieties, indeed, do not eat at all. All the necessity for eating ended with the life of the larva. In the same manner religion teaches that the soul represents the changed state of man. In this life a man is only like a caterpillar; death changes him into a chrysalis, and out of the chrysalis issues the winged soul which does not have to trouble itself about such matters as eating and drinking. By the word "reptile" in this verse, you must understand caterpillar. Therefore the poet speaks of all our human work as manifold motions making little speed; you have seen how many motions a caterpillar must make in order to go even a little distance, and you must have noticed the manner in which it spoils the appearance of the plant upon which it feeds. There is here an allusion to the strange and terrible fact, that all life—and particularly the life of man—is maintained only by the destruction of other life. In order to live we must kill—perhaps only plants, but in any case we must kill.
Wordsworth has several poems on butterflies, but only one of them is really fine. It is fine, not because it suggests any deep problem, but because with absolute simplicity it pictures the charming difference of character in a little boy and a little girl playing together in the fields. The poem is addressed to the butterfly.
Stay near me—do not take thy flight! A little longer stay in sight! Much converse do I find in thee, Historian of my infancy! Float near me; do not yet depart! Dead times revive in thee: Thou bring'st, gay creature as thou art! A solemn image to my heart, My father's family.
Oh! pleasant, pleasant were the days, The time, when, in our childish plays, My sister Emmeline and I Together chased the butterfly! A very hunter did I rush Upon the prey: with leaps and springs I followed on from brake to bush; But she, God love her, feared to brush The dust from off its wings.
What we call and what looks like dust on the wings of a butterfly, English children are now taught to know as really beautiful scales or featherlets, but in Wordsworth's time the real structure of the insect was not so well known as now to little people. Therefore to the boy the coloured matter brushed from the wings would only have seemed so much dust. But the little girl, with the instinctive tenderness of the future mother-soul in her, dreads to touch those strangely delicate wings; she fears, not only to spoil, but also to hurt.
Deeper thoughts than memory may still be suggested to English poets by the sight of a butterfly, and probably will be for hundreds of years to come. Perhaps the best poem of a half-metaphorical, half-philosophical thought about butterflies is the beautiful prologue to Browning's "Fifine at the Fair," which prologue is curiously entitled "Amphibian"—implying that we are about to have a reference to creatures capable of living in two distinctive elements, yet absolutely belonging neither to the one nor to the other. The poet swims out far into the sea on a beautiful day; and, suddenly, looking up, perceives a beautiful butterfly flying over his head, as if watching him. The sight of the insect at once suggests to him its relation to Greek fancy as a name for the soul; then he begins to wonder whether it might not really be the soul, or be the symbol of the soul, of a dead woman who loved him. From that point of the poem begins a little metaphysical fantasy about the possible condition of souls.
The fancy I had to-day, Fancy which turned a fear! I swam far out in the bay, Since waves laughed warm and clear.
I lay and looked at the sun, The noon-sun looked at me: Between us two, no one Live creature, that I could see.
Yes! There came floating by Me, who lay floating too, Such a strange butterfly! Creature as dear as new:
Because the membraned wings So wonderful, so wide, So sun-suffused, were things Like soul and nought beside.
So much for the conditions of the poet's revery. He is swimming in the sea; above his face, only a few inches away, the beautiful butterfly is hovering. Its apparition makes him think of many things—perhaps first about the dangerous position of the butterfly, for if it should only touch the water, it is certain to be drowned. But it does not touch the water; and he begins to think how clumsy is the man who moves in water compared with the insect that moves in air, and how ugly a man is by comparison with the exquisite creature which the Greeks likened to the soul or ghost of the man. Thinking about ghosts leads him at once to the memory of a certain very dear ghost about which he forthwith begins to dream.
What if a certain soul Which early slipped its sheath, And has for its home the whole Of heaven, thus look beneath,
Thus watch one who, in the world, Both lives and likes life's way, Nor wishes the wings unfurled That sleep in the worm, they say?
But sometimes when the weather Is blue, and warm waves tempt To free oneself of tether, And try a life exempt
From worldly noise and dust, In the sphere which overbrims With passion and thought,—why, just Unable to fly, one swims!
This is better understood by paraphrase: "I wonder if the soul of a certain person, who lately died, slipped so gently out of the hard sheath of the perishable body—I wonder if she does not look down from her home in the sky upon me, just as that little butterfly is doing at this moment. And I wonder if she laughs at the clumsiness of this poor swimmer, who finds it so much labour even to move through the water, while she can move through whatever she pleases by the simple act of wishing. And this man, strangely enough, does not want to die, and to become a ghost. He likes to live very much; he does not yet desire those soul-wings which are supposed to be growing within the shell of his body, just as the wings of the butterfly begin to grow in the chrysalis. He does not want to die at all. But sometimes he wants to get away from the struggle and the dust of the city, and to be alone with nature; and then, in order to be perfectly alone, he swims. He would like to fly much better; but he can not. However, swimming is very much like flying, only the element of water is thicker than air."
However, more than the poet's words is suggested here. We are really told that what a fine mind desires is spiritual life, pure intellectual life—free from all the trammels of bodily necessity. Is not the swimmer really a symbol of the superior mind in its present condition? Your best swimmer can not live under the water, neither can he rise into the beautiful blue air. He can only keep his head in the air; his body must remain in the grosser element. Well, a great thinker and poet is ever thus—floating between the universe of spirit and the universe of matter. By his mind he belongs to the region of pure mind,—the ethereal state; but the hard necessity of living keeps him down in the world of sense and grossness and struggle. On the other hand the butterfly, freely moving in a finer element, better represents the state of spirit or soul.
What is the use of being dissatisfied with nature? The best we can do is to enjoy in the imagination those things which it is not possible for us to enjoy in fact.
Emancipate through passion And thought, with sea for sky, We substitute, in a fashion, For heaven—poetry:
Which sea, to all intent, Gives flesh such noon-disport, As a finer element Affords the spirit-sort.
Now you see where the poet's vision of a beautiful butterfly has been leading his imagination. The nearest approach which we can make to the act of flying, in the body, is the act of swimming. The nearest approach that we can make to the heavenly condition, mentally, is in poetry. Poetry, imagination, the pleasure of emotional expression—these represent our nearest approach to paradise. Poetry is the sea in which the soul of man can swim even as butterflies can swim in the air, or happy ghosts swim in the finer element of the infinite ether. The last three stanzas of the poem are very suggestive:
And meantime, yonder streak Meets the horizon's verge; That is the land, to seek If we tire or dread the surge:
Land the solid and safe— To welcome again (confess!) When, high and dry, we chafe The body, and don the dress.
Does she look, pity, wonder At one who mimics flight, Swims—heaven above, sea under, Yet always earth in sight?
"Streak," meaning an indistinct line, here refers to the coast far away, as it appears to the swimmer. It is just such a word as a good Japanese painter ought to appreciate in such a relation. In suggesting that the swimmer is glad to return to shore again and get warm, the poet is telling us that however much we may talk about the happiness of spirits in heaven—however much we may praise heaven in poetry—the truth is that we are very fond of this world, we like comfort, we like company, we like human love and human pleasures. There is a good deal of nonsense in pretending that we think heaven is a better place than the world to which we belong. Perhaps it is a better place, but, as a matter of fact, we do not know anything about it; and we should be frightened if we could go beyond a certain distance from the real world which we do know. As he tells us this, the poet begins again to think about the spirit of the dead woman. Is she happy? Is she looking at him—and pitying him as he swims, taking good care not to go too far away from the land? Or is she laughing at him, because in his secret thoughts he confesses that he likes to live—that he does not want to become a pure ghost at the present time?
Evidently a butterfly was quite enough, not only to make Browning's mind think very seriously, but to make that mind teach us the truth and seriousness which may attach to very small things—incidents, happenings of daily life, in any hour and place. I believe that is the greatest English poem we have on the subject of the butterfly.
The idea that a butterfly might be, not merely the symbol of the soul, but in very fact the spirit of a dead person, is somewhat foreign to English thought; and whatever exists in poetry on the subject must necessarily be quite new. The idea of a relation between insects, birds, or other living creatures, and the spirits of the dead, is enormously old in Oriental literature;—we find it in Sanskrit texts thousands of years ago. But the Western mind has not been accustomed to think of spiritual life as outside of man; and much of natural poetry has consequently remained undeveloped in Western countries. A strange little poem, "The White Moth," is an exception to the general rule that I have indicated; but I am almost certain that its author, A.T. Quiller-Couch, must have read Oriental books, or obtained his fancy from some Eastern source. As the knowledge of Indian literature becomes more general in England, we may expect to find poetry much influenced by Oriental ideas. At the present time, such a composition as this is quite a strange anomaly.
If a leaf rustled, she would start: And yet she died, a year ago. How had so frail a thing the heart To journey where she trembled so? And do they turn and turn in fright, Those little feet, in so much night?
The light above the poet's head Streamed on the page and on the cloth, And twice and thrice there buffeted On the black pane a white-winged moth: 'Twas Annie's soul that beat outside, And "Open, open, open!" cried:
"I could not find the way to God; There were too many flaming suns For signposts, and the fearful road Led over wastes where millions Of tangled comets hissed and burned— I was bewildered and I turned.
"Oh, it was easy then! I knew Your window and no star beside. Look up and take me back to you!" —He rose and thrust the window wide. 'Twas but because his brain was hot With rhyming; for he heard her not.
But poets polishing a phrase Show anger over trivial things; And as she blundered in the blaze Towards him, on ecstatic wings, He raised a hand and smote her dead; Then wrote "That I had died instead!"
The lover, or bereaved husband, is writing a poem of which a part is given in the first stanza—which is therefore put in italics. The action proper begins with the second stanza. The soul of the dead woman taps at the window in the shape of a night-butterfly or moth—imagining, perhaps, that she has still a voice and can make herself heard by the man that she loves. She tells the story of her wandering in space—privileged to pass to heaven, yet afraid of the journey. Now the subject of the poem which the lover happens to be writing inside the room is a memory of the dead woman—mourning for her, describing her in exquisite ways. He can not hear her at all; he does not hear even the beating of the little wings at the window, but he stands up and opens the window—because he happens to feel hot and tired. The moth thinks that he has heard her, that he knows; and she flies toward him in great delight. But he, thinking that it is only a troublesome insect, kills her with a blow of his hand; and then sits down to continue his poem with the words, "Oh, how I wish I could have died instead of that dear woman!" Altogether this is a queer poem in English literature, and I believe almost alone of its kind. But it is queer only because of its rarity of subject. As for construction, it is very good indeed.
I do not know that it is necessary to quote any more poems upon butterflies or moths. There are several others; but the workmanship and the thought are not good enough or original enough to justify their use here as class texts. So I shall now turn to the subject of dragon-flies. Here we must again be very brief. References to dragon-flies are common throughout English poetry, but the references signify little more than a mere colourless mention of the passing of the insect. However, it so happens that the finest modern lines of pure description written about any insect, are about dragon-flies. And they also happen to be by Tennyson. Naturalists and men of science have greatly praised these lines, because of their truth to nature and the accuracy of observation which they show. You will find them in the poem entitled "The Two Voices."
To-day I saw the dragon-fly Come from the wells where he did lie.
An inner impulse rent the veil Of his old husk; from head to tail Came out clear plates of sapphire mail.
He dried his wings; like gauze they grew; Thro' crofts and pastures wet with dew A living rush of light he flew.
There are very few real poems, however, upon the dragon-fly in English, and considering the extraordinary beauty and grace of the insect, this may appear strange to you. But I think that you can explain the strangeness at a later time. The silence of English poets on the subject of insects as compared with Japanese poets is due to general causes that we shall consider at the close of the lecture.
Common flies could scarcely seem to be a subject for poetry—disgusting and annoying creatures as they are. But there are more poems about the house-fly than about the dragon-fly. Last year I quoted for you a remarkable and rather mystical composition by the poet Blake about accidentally killing a fly. Blake represents his own thoughts about the brevity of human life which had been aroused by the incident. It is charming little poem; but it does not describe the fly at all. I shall not quote it here again, because we shall have many other things to talk about; but I shall give you the text of a famous little composition by Oldys on the same topic. It has almost the simplicity of Blake,—and certainly something of the same kind of philosophy.
Busy, curious, thirsty fly, Drink with me and drink as I; Freely welcome to my cup, Couldst thou sip and sip it up: Make the most of life you may, Life is short and wears away.
Both alike are mine and thine Hastening quick to their decline: Thine's a summer, mine's no more, Though repeated to threescore. Threescore summers, when they're gone, Will appear as short as one!
The suggestion is that, after all, time is only a very relative affair in the cosmic order of things. The life of the man of sixty years is not much longer than the life of the insect which lives but a few hours, days, or months. Had Oldys, who belongs to the eighteenth century, lived in our own time, he might have been able to write something very much more curious on this subject. It is now known that time, to the mind of an insect, must appear immensely longer than it appears to the mind of a man. It has been calculated that a mosquito or a gnat moves its wings between four and five hundred times a second. Now the scientific dissection of such an insect, under the microscope, justifies the opinion that the insect must be conscious of each beat of the wings—just as a man feels that he lifts his arm or bends his head every time that the action is performed. A man can not even imagine the consciousness of so short an interval of time as the five-hundredth part of one second. But insect consciousness can be aware of such intervals; and a single day of life might well appear to the gnat as long as the period of a month to a man. Indeed, we have reason to suppose that to even the shortest-lived insect life does not appear short at all; and that the ephemeral may actually, so far as felling is concerned, live as long as a man—although its birth and death does occur between the rising and the setting of the sun.
We might suppose that bees would form a favourite subject of poetry, especially in countries where agriculture is practised upon such a scale as in England. But such is not really the case. Nearly every English poet makes some reference to bees, as Tennyson does in the famous couplet—
The moan of doves in immemorial elms, And murmuring of innumerable bees.
But the only really remarkable poem addressed to a bee is by the American philosopher Emerson. The poem in question can not be compared as to mere workmanship with some others which I have cited; but as to thinking, it is very interesting, and you must remember that the philosopher who writes poetry should be judged for his thought rather than for the measure of his verse. The whole is not equally good, nor is it short enough to quote entire; I shall only give the best parts.
Burly, dozing humble-bee, Where thou art is clime for me.
* * * * *
Zigzag steerer, desert cheerer, Let me chase thy waving lines; Keep me nearer, me thy hearer, Singing over shrubs and vines.
Insect lover of the sun, Joy of thy dominion! Sailor of the atmosphere; Swimmer through the waves of air; Voyager of light and noon; Epicurean of June; Wait, I prithee, till I come Within earshot of thy hum,— All without is martyrdom.
* * * * *
Thou, in sunny solitudes, Rover of the underwoods, The green silence dost displace With thy mellow, breezy bass.
* * * * *
Aught unsavory or unclean Hath my insect never seen;
* * * * *
Wiser far than human seer, Yellow-breeched philosopher! Seeing only what is fair, Sipping only what is sweet, Thou dost mock at fate and care, Leave the chaff, and take the wheat.
This is really the poetry of the bee—visiting only beautiful flowers, and sucking from them their perfumed juices—always healthy, happy, and surrounded by beautiful things. A great rover, a constant wanderer is the bee—visiting many different places, seeing many different things, but stopping only to enjoy what is beautiful to the sight and sweet to the taste. Now Emerson tells us that a wise man should act like the bee—never stopping to look at what is bad, or what is morally ugly, but seeking only what is beautiful and nourishing for the mind. It is a very fine thought; and the manner of expressing it is greatly helped by Emerson's use of curious and forcible words—such as "burly," "zigzag," and the famous expression "yellow-breeched philosopher"—which has passed almost into an American household phrase. The allusion of course is to the thighs of the bee, covered with the yellow pollen of flowers so as to make them seem covered with yellow breeches, or trousers reaching only to the knees.
I do not of course include in the lecture such child songs about insects as that famous one beginning with the words, "How doth the little busy bee improve each shining hour." This is no doubt didactically very good; but I wish to offer you only examples of really fine poetry on the topic. Therefore leaving the subject of bees for the time, let us turn to the subject of musical insects—the singers of the fields and woods—grasshoppers and crickets.
In Japanese poetry there are thousands of verses upon such insects. Therefore it seems very strange that we have scarcely anything on the subject in English. And the little that we do have is best represented by the poem of Keats on the night cricket. The reference is probably to what we call in England the hearth cricket, an insect which hides in houses, making itself at home in some chink of the brickwork or stonework about a fireplace, for it loves the warmth. I suppose that the small number of poems in English about crickets can be partly explained by the scarcity of night singers. Only the house cricket seems to be very well known. But on the other hand, we can not so well explain the rarity of composition in regard to the day-singers—the grasshoppers and locusts which can be heard, though somewhat faintly, in any English country place after sunset during the warm season. Another queer thing is that the example set by Keats has not been imitated or at least followed even up to the present time.
The poetry of earth is never dead: When all the birds are faint with the hot sun, etc.
In this charming composition you will have noticed the word "stove"; but you must remember that this is not a stove as we understand the term now, and signifies only an old-fashioned fireplace of brick or tile. In Keats's day there were no iron stoves. Another word which I want to notice is the word "poetry" in the first line. By the poetry of nature the poet means the voices of nature—the musical sounds made by its idle life in woods and fields. So the word "poetry" here has especially the meaning of song, and corresponds very closely to the Japanese word which signifies either poem or song, but perhaps more especially the latter. The general meaning of the sonnet is that at no time, either in winter or in summer, is nature silent. When the birds do not sing, the grasshoppers make music for us; and when the cold has killed or banished all other life, then the house cricket begins with its thin sweet song to make us think of the dead voices of the summer.
There is not much else of note about the grasshopper and the cricket in the works of the great English poets. But perhaps you do not know that Tennyson in his youth took up the subject and made a long poem upon the grasshopper, but suppressed it after the edition of 1842. He did not think it good enough to rank with his other work. But a few months ago the poems which Tennyson suppressed in the final edition of his works have been published and carefully edited by an eminent scholar, and among these poems we find "The Grasshopper." I will quote some of this poem, because it is beautiful, and because the fact of its suppression will serve to show you how very exact and careful Tennyson was to preserve only the very best things that he wrote.
Voice of the summer wind, Joy of the summer plain, Life of the summer hours, Carol clearly, bound along, No Tithon thou as poets feign (Shame fall 'em, they are deaf and blind), But an insect lithe and strong Bowing the seeded summer flowers. Prove their falsehood and thy quarrel, Vaulting on thine airy feet Clap thy shielded sides and carol, Carol clearly, chirrups sweet. Thou art a mailed warrior in youth and strength complete; Armed cap-a-pie, Full fair to see; Unknowing fear, Undreading loss, A gallant cavalier, Sans peur et sans reproche. In sunlight and in shadow, The Bayard of the meadow.
The reference to Tithonus is a reference of course to a subject afterwards beautifully elaborated in another poem by Tennyson, the great poem of "Tithonus." The Bayard here referred to was the great French model of perfect chivalry, and is sometimes called the last of the feudal knights. He was said to be without fear and without blame. You may remember that he was killed by a ball from a gun—it was soon after the use of artillery in war had been introduced; and his dying words were to the effect that he feared there was now an end of great deeds, because men had begun to fight from a distance with machines instead of fighting in the old knightly and noble way with sword and spear. The grasshopper, covered with green plates and bearing so many little sharp spines upon its long limbs, seems to have suggested to Tennyson the idea of a fairy knight in green armour.
As I said before, England is poor in singing insects, while America is rich in them—almost, perhaps, as rich as Japan, although you will not find as many different kinds of singing insects in any one state or district. The singing insects of America are peculiar to particular localities. But the Eastern states have perhaps the most curious insect of this kind. It is called the Katydid. This name is spelt either Katydid, or Catydid—though the former spelling is preferable. Katy, or Katie, is the abbreviation of the name Catherine; very few girls are called by the full name Catherine, also spelt Katherine; because the name is long and unmusical, their friends address them usually as Katy, and their acquaintances, as Kate. Well, the insect of which I am speaking, a kind of semi, makes a sound resembling the sound of the words "Katie did!" Hence the name—one of the few corresponding to the names given to the Japanese semi, such as tsuku-tsuku-boshi, or minmin-semi. The most interesting composition upon this cicada is by Oliver Wendell Holmes, but it is of the lighter sort of verse, with a touch of humour in it. I shall quote a few verses only, as the piece contains some allusions that would require explanation at considerable length.
I love to hear thine earnest voice, Wherever thou art hid, Thou testy little dogmatist, Thou pretty Katydid! Thou mindest me of gentlefolks,— Old gentlefolks are they,— Thou say'st an undisputed thing In such a solemn way.
* * * * *
Oh tell me where did Katy live, And what did Katy do? And was she very fair and young, And yet so wicked, too? Did Katy love a naughty man, Or kiss more cheeks than one? I warrant Katy did no more Than many a Kate has done.
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Ah, no! The living oak shall crash, That stood for ages still, The rock shall rend its mossy base And thunder down the hill, Before the little Katydid Shall add one word, to tell The mystic story of the maid Whose name she knows so well.
The word "testy" may be a little unfamiliar to some of you; it is a good old-fashioned English term for "cross," "irritable." The reference to the "old gentlefolks" implies the well-known fact that in argument old persons are inclined to be much more obstinate than young people. And there is also a hint in the poem of the tendency among old ladies to blame the conduct of young girls even more severely than may be necessary. There is nothing else to recommend the poem except its wit and the curiousness of the subject. There are several other verses about the same creature, by different American poets; but none of them is quite so good as the composition of Holmes. However, I may cite a few verses from one of the earlier American poets, Philip Freneau, who flourished in the eighteenth century and the early part of the nineteenth. He long anticipated the fancy of Holmes; but he spells the word Catydid.
In a branch of willow hid Sings the evening Catydid: From the lofty locust bough Feeding on a drop of dew, In her suit of green arrayed Hear her singing in the shade— Catydid, Catydid, Catydid!
While upon a leaf you tread, Or repose your little head On your sheet of shadows laid, All the day you nothing said; Half the night your cheery tongue Revelled out its little song,— Nothing else but Catydid.
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Tell me, what did Caty do? Did she mean to trouble you? Why was Caty not forbid To trouble little Catydid? Wrong, indeed, at you to fling, Hurting no one while you sing,— Catydid! Catydid! Catydid!
To Dr. Holmes the voice of the cicada seemed like the voice of an old obstinate woman, an old prude, accusing a young girl of some fault,—but to Freneau the cry of the little creature seemed rather to be like the cry of a little child complaining—a little girl, perhaps, complaining that somebody had been throwing stones at her, or had hurt her in some way. And, of course, the unfinished character of the phrase allows equally well either supposition.
Before going back to more serious poetry, I want—while we are speaking of American poets—to make one reference to the ironical or satirical poetry which insects have inspired in some minds, taking for example the poem by Charlotte Perkins Stetson about a butterfly. This author is rather a person of note, being a prominent figure in educational reforms and the author of a volume of poems of a remarkably strong kind in the didactic sense. In other words, she is especially a moral poet; and unless moral poetry be really very well executed, it is scarcely worth while classing it as literature. I think, however, that the symbolism in the following verses will interest you—especially when we comment upon them. The composition from which they are taken is entitled "A Conservative."
The poet, walking in the garden one morning, sees a butterfly, very unhappy, and gifted with power to express the reason of its unhappiness. The butterfly says, complaining of its wings,
"My legs are thin and few Where once I had a swarm! Soft fuzzy fur—a joy to view— Once kept my body warm, Before these flapping wing-things grew, To hamper and deform!"
At that outrageous bug I shot The fury of mine eye; Said I, in scorn all burning hot, In rage and anger high, "You ignominious idiot! Those wings are made to fly!"
"I do not want to fly," said he, "I only want to squirm!" And he drooped his wings dejectedly, But still his voice was firm: "I do not want to be a fly! I want to be a worm!"
O yesterday of unknown lack! To-day of unknown bliss! I left my fool in red and black, The last I saw was this,— The creature madly climbing back Into his chrysalis.
Of course the wings here represent the powers of the mind—knowledge, reason, will. Men ought to use these in order to reach still nobler and higher states of life. But there are men who refuse to use their best faculties for this end. Such men are like butterflies who do not want to take the trouble to fly, but prefer the former condition of the caterpillar which does nothing but eat and sleep. As applied to certain forms of conservatism the satire is strong.
Something may now be said as to poems about spiders. But let me remind you that a spider is not an insect. Scientifically it has no relation to the great family of true insects; it belongs to the very distinct family of the arthropoda or "joint-footed" animals. But as it is still popularly called an insect in most European countries, we may be excused for including it in the subject of the present lecture. I suppose you know that one of the scientific names for this whole class of creatures is Arachnida,—a name derived from the Greek name Arachne. The story of Arachne is interesting, and everybody studying natural history ought to know it. Arachne was a young girl, according to the Greek story, who was very skilful at weaving. She wove cloths of many different colours and beautiful patterns, and everybody admired her work. This made her vain—so vain that at last she said that even the goddess of weaving could not weave better than she. Immediately after she had said that, the terrible goddess herself—Pallas Athena—entered the room. Pallas Athena was not only the goddess of wisdom, you know, but especially the goddess of young girls, presiding over the chastity, the filial piety, and the domestic occupations of virgins; and she was very angry at the conceit of this girl. So she said to her, "You have boasted that you can weave as well as I can; now let me see you weave!" So Arachne was obliged to sit down at her loom and weave in the presence of the goddess; and the goddess also wove, far surpassing the weaving of Arachne. When the weaving was done, the goddess asked the girl, "Now see! which is the better, my work or yours?" And Arachne was obliged to confess that she had been defeated and put to shame. But the goddess was not thoroughly satisfied; to punish Arachne, she touched her lightly with the distaff, saying, "Spin forever!" and thereupon Arachne was changed into a spider, which forever spins and weaves perishable films of perishable shiny thread. Poetically we still may call a spider Arachne.
I have here a little poem of a touching character entitled "Arachne," by Rose Terry Cooke,—one of the symbolic poems which are becoming so numerous in these days of newer and deeper philosophy. I think that you will like it: a spinster, that is, a maiden passed the age of girlhood, is the speaker.
I watch her in the corner there, As, restless, bold, and unafraid, She slips and floats along the air Till all her subtile house is made.
Her home, her bed, her daily food, All from that hidden store she draws; She fashions it and knows it good, By instinct's strong and sacred laws.
No tenuous threads to weave her nest, She seeks and gathers there or here; But spins it from her faithful breast, Renewing still, till leaves are sere.
Then, worn with toil, and tired of life, In vain her shining traps are set. Her frost hath hushed the insect strife And gilded flies her charm forget.
But swinging in the snares she spun, She sways to every wintry wind: Her joy, her toil, her errand done, Her corse the sport of storms unkind.
The symbolism of these verses will appear to you more significant when I tell you that it refers especially to conditions in New England in the present period. The finest American population—perhaps the finest Anglo-Saxons ever produced—were the New Englanders of the early part of the century. But with the growth of the new century, the men found themselves attracted elsewhere, especially westward; their shrewdness, their energies, their inventiveness, were needed in newer regions. And they wandered away by thousands and thousands, never to come back again, and leaving the women behind them. Gradually the place of these men was taken by immigrants of inferior development—but the New England women had nothing to hope for from these strangers. The bravest of them also went away to other states; but myriads who could not go were condemned by circumstances to stay and earn their living by hard work without any prospect of happy marriage. The difficulty which a girl of culture may experience in trying to live by the work of her hands in New England is something not easily imagined. But it is getting to be the same in most Western countries. Such a girl is watching a spider weaving in the corner of the same room where she herself is weaving; and she thinks, "Am I not like that spider, obliged to supply my every need by the work of my own hands, without sympathy, without friends? The spider will spin and catch flies until the autumn comes; then she will die. Perhaps I too must continue to spin until the autumn of my own life—until I become too old to work hard, and die of cold and of exhaustion."
Poor sister of the spinster clan! I too from out my store within My daily life and living plan, My home, my rest, my pleasure spin.
I know thy heart when heartless hands Sweep all that hard-earned web away; Destroy its pearled and glittering bands, And leave thee homeless by the way.
I know thy peace when all is done. Each anchored thread, each tiny knot, Soft shining in the autumn sun; A sheltered, silent, tranquil lot.
I know what thou hast never known,— Sad presage to a soul allowed— That not for life I spin, alone, But day by day I spin my shroud.
The reference to the sweeping away of the spider's web, of course, implies the pain often caused to such hardworking girls by the meanness of men who employ them only to cheat them—shopkeepers or manufacturers who take their work without justly paying for it, and who criticize it as bad in order to force the owner to accept less money than it is worth. Again a reference may be intended to the destruction of the home by some legal trick—some unscrupulous method of cheating the daughter out of the property bequeathed to her by her parents.
Notice a few pretty words here. The "pearled" as applied to the spider's thread gives an intimation of the effect produced by dew on the thread, but there is also the suggestion of tears upon the thread work woven by the hands of the girl. The participle "anchored" is very pretty in its use here as an adjective, because this word is now especially used for rope-fastening, whether the rope be steel or hemp; and particularly for the fastening of the cables of a bridge. The last stanza might be paraphrased thus: "Sister Spider, I know more than you—and that knowledge makes me unhappy. You do not know, when you are spinning your little web, that you are really weaving your own shroud. But I know this, my work is slowly but surely killing me. And I know it because I have a soul—at least a mind made otherwise than yours."
The use of the word "soul" in the last stanza of this poem, brings me back to the question put forth in an earlier part of the lecture—why European poets, during the last two thousand years, have written so little upon the subject of insects? Three thousand, four thousand years ago, the most beautiful Greek poetry—poetry more perfect than anything of English poetry—was written upon insects. In old Japanese literature poems upon insects are to be found by thousands. What is the signification of the great modern silence in Western countries upon this delightful topic? I believe that Christianity, as dogma, accounts for the long silence. The opinions of the early Church refused soul, ghost, intelligence of any sort to other creatures than man. All animals were considered as automata—that is, as self-acting machines, moved by a something called instinct, for want of a better name. To talk about the souls of animals or the spirits of animals would have been very dangerous in the Middle Ages, when the Church had supreme power; it would indeed have been to risk or to invite an accusation of witchcraft, for demons were then thought to take the shape of animals at certain times. To discuss the mind of an animal would have been for the Christian faith to throw doubt upon the existence of human souls as taught by the Church; for if you grant that animals are able to think, then you must acknowledge that man is able to think without a soul, or you must acknowledge that the soul is not the essential principle of thought and action. Until after the time of Descartes, who later argued philosophically that animals were only machines, it was scarcely possible to argue rationally about the matter in Europe.