THE POET AT THE BREAKFAST TABLE
by Oliver Wendell Holmes
In this, the third series of Breakfast-Table conversations, a slight dramatic background shows off a few talkers and writers, aided by certain silent supernumeraries. The machinery is much like that of the two preceding series. Some of the characters must seem like old acquaintances to those who have read the former papers. As I read these over for the first time for a number of years, I notice one character; presenting a class of beings who have greatly multiplied during the interval which separates the earlier and later Breakfast-Table papers,—I mean the scientific specialists. The entomologist, who confines himself rigidly to the study of the coleoptera, is intended to typify this class. The subdivision of labor, which, as we used to be told, required fourteen different workmen to make a single pin, has reached all branches of knowledge. We find new terms in all the Professions, implying that special provinces have been marked off, each having its own school of students. In theology we have many curious subdivisions; among the rest eschatology, that is to say, the geography, geology, etc., of the "undiscovered country;" in medicine, if the surgeon who deals with dislocations of the right shoulder declines to meddle with a displacement on the other side, we are not surprised, but ring the bell of the practitioner who devotes himself to injuries of the left shoulder.
On the other hand, we have had or have the encyclopaedic intelligences like Cuvier, Buckle, and more emphatically Herbert Spencer, who take all knowledge, or large fields of it, to be their province. The author of "Thoughts on the Universe" has something in common with these, but he appears also to have a good deal about him of what we call the humorist; that is, an individual with a somewhat heterogeneous personality, in which various distinctly human elements are mixed together, so as to form a kind of coherent and sometimes pleasing whole, which is to a symmetrical character as a breccia is to a mosaic.
As for the Young Astronomer, his rhythmical discourse may be taken as expressing the reaction of what some would call "the natural man" against the unnatural beliefs which he found in that lower world to which he descended by day from his midnight home in the firmament.
I have endeavored to give fair play to the protest of gentle and reverential conservatism in the letter of the Lady, which was not copied from, but suggested by, one which I received long ago from a lady bearing an honored name, and which I read thoughtfully and with profound respect.
PREFACE TO THE NEW EDITION.
It is now nearly twenty years since this book was published. Being the third of the Breakfast-Table series, it could hardly be expected to attract so much attention as the earlier volumes. Still, I had no reason to be disappointed with its reception. It took its place with the others, and was in some points a clearer exposition of my views and feelings than either of the other books, its predecessors. The poems "Homesick in Heaven" and the longer group of passages coming from the midnight reveries of the Young Astronomer have thoughts in them not so fully expressed elsewhere in my writings.
The first of these two poems is at war with our common modes of thought. In looking forward to rejoining in a future state those whom we have loved on earth,—as most of us hope and many of us believe we shall,—we are apt to forget that the same individuality is remembered by one relative as a babe, by another as an adult in the strength of maturity, and by a third as a wreck with little left except its infirmities and its affections. The main thought of this poem is a painful one to some persons. They have so closely associated life with its accidents that they expect to see their departed friends in the costume of the time in which they best remember them, and feel as if they should meet the spirit of their grandfather with his wig and cane, as they habitually recall him to memory.
The process of scientific specialization referred to and illustrated in this record has been going on more actively than ever during these last twenty years. We have only to look over the lists of the Faculties and teachers of our Universities to see the subdivision of labor carried out as never before. The movement is irresistible; it brings with it exactness, exhaustive knowledge, a narrow but complete self-satisfaction, with such accompanying faults as pedantry, triviality, and the kind of partial blindness which belong to intellectual myopia. The specialist is idealized almost into sublimity in Browning's "Burial of the Grammarian." We never need fear that he will undervalue himself. To be the supreme authority on anything is a satisfaction to self-love next door to the precious delusions of dementia. I have never pictured a character more contented with himself than the "Scarabee" of this story.
BEVERLY FARMS, MASS., August 1, 1891. O. W. H.
The idea of a man's "interviewing" himself is rather odd, to be sure. But then that is what we are all of us doing every day. I talk half the time to find out my own thoughts, as a school-boy turns his pockets inside out to see what is in them. One brings to light all sorts of personal property he had forgotten in his inventory.
—You don't know what your thoughts are going to be beforehand? said the "Member of the Haouse," as he calls himself.
—Why, of course I don't. Bless your honest legislative soul, I suppose I have as many bound volumes of notions of one kind and another in my head as you have in your Representatives' library up there at the State House. I have to tumble them over and over, and open them in a hundred places, and sometimes cut the leaves here and there, to find what I think about this and that. And a good many people who flatter themselves they are talking wisdom to me, are only helping me to get at the shelf and the book and the page where I shall find my own opinion about the matter in question.
—The Member's eyes began to look heavy.
—It 's a very queer place, that receptacle a man fetches his talk out of. The library comparison does n't exactly hit it. You stow away some idea and don't want it, say for ten years. When it turns up at last it has got so jammed and crushed out of shape by the other ideas packed with it, that it is no more like what it was than a raisin is like a grape on the vine, or a fig from a drum like one hanging on the tree. Then, again, some kinds of thoughts breed in the dark of one's mind like the blind fishes in the Mammoth Cave. We can't see them and they can't see us; but sooner or later the daylight gets in and we find that some cold, fishy little negative has been spawning all over our beliefs, and the brood of blind questions it has given birth to are burrowing round and under and butting their blunt noses against the pillars of faith we thought the whole world might lean on. And then, again, some of our old beliefs are dying out every year, and others feed on them and grow fat, or get poisoned as the case may be. And so, you see, you can't tell what the thoughts are that you have got salted down, as one may say, till you run a streak of talk through them, as the market people run a butterscoop through a firkin.
Don't talk, thinking you are going to find out your neighbor, for you won't do it, but talk to find out yourself. There is more of you—and less of you, in spots, very likely—than you know.
—The Member gave a slight but unequivocal start just here. It does seem as if perpetual somnolence was the price of listening to other people's wisdom. This was one of those transient nightmares that one may have in a doze of twenty seconds. He thought a certain imaginary Committee of Safety of a certain imaginary Legislature was proceeding to burn down his haystack, in accordance with an Act, entitled an Act to make the Poor Richer by making the Rich Poorer. And the chairman of the committee was instituting a forcible exchange of hats with him, to his manifest disadvantage, for he had just bought him a new beaver. He told this dream afterwards to one of the boarders.
There was nothing very surprising, therefore, in his asking a question not very closely related to what had gone before.
—Do you think they mean business?
—I beg your pardon, but it would be of material assistance to me in answering your question if I knew who "they" might happen to be.
—Why, those chaps that are setting folks on to burn us all up in our beds. Political firebugs we call 'em up our way. Want to substitoot the match-box for the ballot-box. Scare all our old women half to death.
—Oh—ah—yes—to be sure. I don't believe they say what the papers put in their mouths any more than that a friend of mine wrote the letter about Worcester's and Webster's Dictionaries, that he had to disown the other day. These newspaper fellows are half asleep when they make up their reports at two or three o'clock in the morning, and fill out the speeches to suit themselves. I do remember some things that sounded pretty bad,—about as bad as nitro-glycerine, for that matter. But I don't believe they ever said 'em, when they spoke their pieces, or if they said 'em I know they did n't mean 'em. Something like this, wasn't it? If the majority didn't do something the minority wanted 'em to, then the people were to burn up our cities, and knock us down and jump on our stomachs. That was about the kind of talk, as the papers had it; I don't wonder it scared the old women.
—The Member was wide awake by this time.
—I don't seem to remember of them partickler phrases, he said.
—Dear me, no; only levelling everything smack, and trampling us under foot, as the reporters made it out. That means FIRE, I take it, and knocking you down and stamping on you, whichever side of your person happens to be uppermost. Sounded like a threat; meant, of course, for a warning. But I don't believe it was in the piece as they spoke it,—could n't have been. Then, again, Paris wasn't to blame,—as much as to say—so the old women thought—that New York or Boston would n't be to blame if it did the same thing. I've heard of political gatherings where they barbecued an ox, but I can't think there 's a party in this country that wants to barbecue a city. But it is n't quite fair to frighten the old women. I don't doubt there are a great many people wiser than I am that would n't be hurt by a hint I am going to give them. It's no matter what you say when you talk to yourself, but when you talk to other people, your business is to use words with reference to the way in which those other people are like to understand them. These pretended inflammatory speeches, so reported as to seem full of combustibles, even if they were as threatening as they have been represented, would do no harm if read or declaimed in a man's study to his books, or by the sea-shore to the waves. But they are not so wholesome moral entertainment for the dangerous classes. Boys must not touch off their squibs and crackers too near the powder-magazine. This kind of speech does n't help on the millennium much.
—It ain't jest the thing to grease your ex with ile o' vitrul, said the Member.
—No, the wheel of progress will soon stick fast if you do. You can't keep a dead level long, if you burn everything down flat to make it. Why, bless your soul, if all the cities of the world were reduced ashes, you'd have a new set of millionnaires in a couple of years or so, out of the trade in potash. In the mean time, what is the use of setting the man with the silver watch against the man with the gold watch, and the man without any watch against them both?
—You can't go agin human natur', said the Member
—You speak truly. Here we are travelling through desert together like the children of Israel. Some pick up more manna and catch more quails than others and ought to help their hungry neighbors more than they do; that will always be so until we come back to primitive Christianity, the road to which does not seem to be via Paris, just now; but we don't want the incendiary's pillar of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to lead us in the march to civilization, and we don't want a Moses who will smite rock, not to bring out water for our thirst, but petroleum to burn us all up with.
—It is n't quite fair to run an opposition to the other funny speaker, Rev. Petroleum V. What 's-his-name,—spoke up an anonymous boarder.
—You may have been thinking, perhaps, that it was I,—I, the Poet, who was the chief talker in the one-sided dialogue to which you have been listening. If so, you were mistaken. It was the old man in the spectacles with large round glasses and the iron-gray hair. He does a good deal of the talking at our table, and, to tell the truth, I rather like to hear him. He stirs me up, and finds me occupation in various ways, and especially, because he has good solid prejudices, that one can rub against, and so get up and let off a superficial intellectual irritation, just as the cattle rub their backs against a rail (you remember Sydney Smith's contrivance in his pasture) or their sides against an apple-tree (I don't know why they take to these so particularly, but you will often find the trunk of an apple-tree as brown and smooth as an old saddle at the height of a cow's ribs). I think they begin rubbing in cold blood, and then, you know, l'appetit vient en mangeant, the more they rub the more they want to. That is the way to use your friend's prejudices. This is a sturdy-looking personage of a good deal more than middle age, his face marked with strong manly furrows, records of hard thinking and square stand-up fights with life and all its devils. There is a slight touch of satire in his discourse now and then, and an odd way of answering one that makes it hard to guess how much more or less he means than he seems to say. But he is honest, and always has a twinkle in his eye to put you on your guard when he does not mean to be taken quite literally. I think old Ben Franklin had just that look. I know his great-grandson (in pace!) had it, and I don't doubt he took it in the straight line of descent, as he did his grand intellect.
The Member of the Haouse evidently comes from one of the lesser inland centres of civilization, where the flora is rich in checkerberries and similar bounties of nature, and the fauna lively with squirrels, wood-chucks, and the like; where the leading sportsmen snare patridges, as they are called, and "hunt" foxes with guns; where rabbits are entrapped in "figgery fours," and trout captured with the unpretentious earth-worm, instead of the gorgeous fly; where they bet prizes for butter and cheese, and rag-carpets executed by ladies more than seventy years of age; where whey wear dress-coats before dinner, and cock their hats on one side when they feel conspicuous and distinshed; where they say—Sir to you in their common talk and have other Arcadian and bucolic ways which are highly unobjectionable, but are not so much admired in cities, where the people are said to be not half so virtuous.
There is with us a boy of modest dimensions, not otherwise especially entitled to the epithet, who ought be six or seven years old, to judge by the gap left by his front milk teeth, these having resigned in favor of their successors, who have not yet presented their credentials. He is rather old for an enfant terrible, and quite too young to have grown into the bashfulness of adolescence; but he has some of the qualities of both these engaging periods of development, The member of the Haouse calls him "Bub," invariably, such term I take to be an abbreviation of "Beelzeb," as "bus" is the short form of "omnibus." Many eminently genteel persons, whose manners make them at home anywhere, being evidently unaware of true derivation of this word, are in the habit of addressing all unknown children by one of the two terms, "bub" and "sis," which they consider endears them greatly to the young people, and recommends them to the acquaintance of their honored parents, if these happen to accompany them. The other boarders commonly call our diminutive companion That Boy. He is a sort of expletive at the table, serving to stop gaps, taking the same place a washer does that makes a loose screw fit, and contriving to get driven in like a wedge between any two chairs where there is a crevice. I shall not call that boy by the monosyllable referred to, because, though he has many impish traits at present, he may become civilized and humanized by being in good company. Besides, it is a term which I understand is considered vulgar by the nobility and gentry of the Mother Country, and it is not to be found in Mr. Worcester's Dictionary, on which, as is well known, the literary men of this metropolis are by special statute allowed to be sworn in place of the Bible. I know one, certainly, who never takes his oath on any other dictionary, any advertising fiction to the contrary, notwithstanding.
I wanted to write out my account of some of the other boarders, but a domestic occurrence—a somewhat prolonged visit from the landlady, who is rather too anxious that I should be comfortable broke in upon the continuity of my thoughts, and occasioned—in short, I gave up writing for that day.
—I wonder if anything like this ever happened. Author writing, jacks?"
"To be, or not to be: that is the question Whether 't is nobl—"
—"William, shall we have pudding to-day, or flapjacks?"
—"Flapjacks, an' it please thee, Anne, or a pudding, for that matter; or what thou wilt, good woman, so thou come not betwixt me and my thought."
—Exit Mistress Anne, with strongly accented closing of the door and murmurs to the effect: "Ay, marry, 't is well for thee to talk as if thou hadst no stomach to fill. We poor wives must swink for our masters, while they sit in their arm-chairs growing as great in the girth through laziness as that ill-mannered fat man William hath writ of in his books of players' stuff. One had as well meddle with a porkpen, which hath thorns all over him, as try to deal with William when his eyes be rolling in that mad way."
William—writing once more—after an exclamation in strong English of the older pattern,—
"Whether 't is nobler—nobler—nobler—"
To do what? O these women! these women! to have puddings or flapjacks! Oh!—
"Whether 't is nobler—in the mind—to suffer The slings—and arrows—of—"
Oh! Oh! these women! I will e'en step over to the parson's and have a cup of sack with His Reverence for methinks Master Hamlet hath forgot that which was just now on his lips to speak.
So I shall have to put off making my friends acquainted with the other boarders, some of whom seem to me worth studying and describing. I have something else of a graver character for my readers. I am talking, you know, as a poet; I do not say I deserve the name, but I have taken it, and if you consider me at all it must be in that aspect. You will, therefore, be willing to run your eyes over a few pages read, of course by request, to a select party of the boarders.
THE GAMBREL-ROOFED HOUSE AND ITS OUTLOOK.
A PANORAMA, WITH SIDE-SHOWS.
My birthplace, the home of my childhood and earlier and later boyhood, has within a few months passed out of the ownership of my family into the hands of that venerable Alma Mater who seems to have renewed her youth, and has certainly repainted her dormitories. In truth, when I last revisited that familiar scene and looked upon the flammantia mania of the old halls, "Massachusetts" with the dummy clock-dial, "Harvard" with the garrulous belfry, little "Holden" with the sculptured unpunishable cherub over its portal, and the rest of my early brick-and-mortar acquaintances, I could not help saying to myself that I had lived to see the peaceable establishment of the Red Republic of Letters.
Many of the things I shall put down I have no doubt told before in a fragmentary way, how many I cannot be quite sure, as I do not very often read my own prose works. But when a man dies a great deal is said of him which has often been said in other forms, and now this dear old house is dead to me in one sense, and I want to gather up my recollections and wind a string of narrative round them, tying them up like a nosegay for the last tribute: the same blossoms in it I have often laid on its threshold while it was still living for me.
We Americans are all cuckoos,—we make our homes in the nests of other birds. I have read somewhere that the lineal descendants of the man who carted off the body of William Rufus, with Walter Tyrrel's arrow sticking in it, have driven a cart (not absolutely the same one, I suppose) in the New Forest, from that day to this. I don't quite understand Mr. Ruskin's saying (if he said it) that he couldn't get along in a country where there were no castles, but I do think we lose a great deal in living where there are so few permanent homes. You will see how much I parted with which was not reckoned in the price paid for the old homestead.
I shall say many things which an uncharitable reader might find fault with as personal. I should not dare to call myself a poet if I did not; for if there is anything that gives one a title to that name, it is that his inner nature is naked and is not ashamed. But there are many such things I shall put in words, not because they are personal, but because they are human, and are born of just such experiences as those who hear or read what I say are like to have had in greater or less measure. I find myself so much like other people that I often wonder at the coincidence. It was only the other day that I sent out a copy of verses about my great-grandmother's picture, and I was surprised to find how many other people had portraits of their great-grandmothers or other progenitors, about which they felt as I did about mine, and for whom I had spoken, thinking I was speaking for myself only. And so I am not afraid to talk very freely with you, my precious reader or listener. You too, Beloved, were born somewhere and remember your birthplace or your early home; for you some house is haunted by recollections; to some roof you have bid farewell. Your hand is upon mine, then, as I guide my pen. Your heart frames the responses to the litany of my remembrance. For myself it is a tribute of affection I am rendering, and I should put it on record for my own satisfaction, were there none to read or to listen.
I hope you will not say that I have built a pillared portico of introduction to a humble structure of narrative. For when you look at the old gambrel-roofed house, you will see an unpretending mansion, such as very possibly you were born in yourself, or at any rate such a place of residence as your minister or some of your well-to-do country cousins find good enough, but not at all too grand for them. We have stately old Colonial palaces in our ancient village, now a city, and a thriving one,—square-fronted edifices that stand back from the vulgar highway, with folded arms, as it were; social fortresses of the time when the twilight lustre of the throne reached as far as our half-cleared settlement, with a glacis before them in the shape of a long broad gravel-walk, so that in King George's time they looked as formidably to any but the silk-stocking gentry as Gibraltar or Ehrenbreitstein to a visitor without the password. We forget all this in the kindly welcome they give us to-day; for some of them are still standing and doubly famous, as we all know. But the gambrel-roofed house, though stately enough for college dignitaries and scholarly clergymen, was not one of those old Tory, Episcopal-church-goer's strongholds. One of its doors opens directly upon the green, always called the Common; the other, facing the south, a few steps from it, over a paved foot-walk, on the other side of which is the miniature front yard, bordered with lilacs and syringas. The honest mansion makes no pretensions. Accessible, companionable, holding its hand out to all, comfortable, respectable, and even in its way dignified, but not imposing, not a house for his Majesty's Counsellor, or the Right Reverend successor of Him who had not where to lay his head, for something like a hundred and fifty years it has stood in its lot, and seen the generations of men come and go like the leaves of the forest. I passed some pleasant hours, a few years since, in the Registry of Deeds and the Town Records, looking up the history of the old house. How those dear friends of mine, the antiquarians, for whose grave councils I compose my features on the too rare Thursdays when I am at liberty to meet them, in whose human herbarium the leaves and blossoms of past generations are so carefully spread out and pressed and laid away, would listen to an expansion of the following brief details into an Historical Memoir!
The estate was the third lot of the eighth "Squadron" (whatever that might be), and in the year 1707 was allotted in the distribution of undivided lands to "Mr. ffox," the Reverend Jabez Fox of Woburn, it may be supposed, as it passed from his heirs to the first Jonathan Hastings; from him to his son, the long remembered College Steward; from him in the year 1792 to the Reverend Eliphalet Pearson, Professor of Hebrew and other Oriental languages in Harvard College, whose large personality swam into my ken when I was looking forward to my teens; from him the progenitors of my unborn self.
I wonder if there are any such beings nowadays as the great Eliphalet, with his large features and conversational basso profundo, seemed to me. His very name had something elephantine about it, and it seemed to me that the house shook from cellar to garret at his footfall. Some have pretended that he had Olympian aspirations, and wanted to sit in the seat of Jove and bear the academic thunderbolt and the aegis inscribed Christo et Ecclesiae. It is a common weakness enough to wish to find one's self in an empty saddle; Cotton Mather was miserable all his days, I am afraid, after that entry in his Diary: "This Day Dr. Sewall was chosen President, for his Piety."
There is no doubt that the men of the older generation look bigger and more formidable to the boys whose eyes are turned up at their venerable countenances than the race which succeeds them, to the same boys grown older. Everything is twice as large, measured on a three-year-olds three-foot scale as on a thirty-year-olds six-foot scale; but age magnifies and aggravates persons out of due proportion. Old people are a kind of monsters to little folks; mild manifestations of the terrible, it may be, but still, with their white locks and ridged and grooved features, which those horrid little eyes exhaust of their details, like so many microscopes not exactly what human beings ought to be. The middle-aged and young men have left comparatively faint impressions in my memory, but how grandly the procession of the old clergymen who filled our pulpit from time to time, and passed the day under our roof, marches before my closed eyes! At their head the most venerable David Osgood, the majestic minister of Medford, with massive front and shaggy over-shadowing eyebrows; following in the train, mild-eyed John Foster of Brighton, with the lambent aurora of a smile about his pleasant mouth, which not even the "Sabbath" could subdue to the true Levitical aspect; and bulky Charles Steams of Lincoln, author of "The Ladies' Philosophy of Love. A Poem. 1797" (how I stared at him! he was the first living person ever pointed out to me as a poet); and Thaddeus Mason Harris of Dorchester (the same who, a poor youth, trudging along, staff in hand, being then in a stress of sore need, found all at once that somewhat was adhering to the end of his stick, which somewhat proved to be a gold ring of price, bearing the words, "God speed thee, Friend!"), already in decadence as I remember him, with head slanting forward and downward as if looking for a place to rest in after his learned labors; and that other Thaddeus, the old man of West Cambridge, who outwatched the rest so long after they had gone to sleep in their own churchyards, that it almost seemed as if he meant to sit up until the morning of the resurrection; and bringing up the rear, attenuated but vivacious little Jonathan Homer of Newton, who was, to look upon, a kind of expurgated, reduced and Americanized copy of Voltaire, but very unlike him in wickedness or wit. The good-humored junior member of our family always loved to make him happy by setting him chirruping about Miles Coverdale's Version, and the Bishop's Bible, and how he wrote to his friend Sir Isaac (Coffin) about something or other, and how Sir Isaac wrote back that he was very much pleased with the contents of his letter, and so on about Sir Isaac, ad libitum,—for the admiral was his old friend, and he was proud of him. The kindly little old gentleman was a collector of Bibles, and made himself believe he thought he should publish a learned Commentary some day or other; but his friends looked for it only in the Greek Calends,—say on the 31st of April, when that should come round, if you would modernize the phrase. I recall also one or two exceptional and infrequent visitors with perfect distinctness: cheerful Elijah Kellogg, a lively missionary from the region of the Quoddy Indians, with much hopeful talk about Sock Bason and his tribe; also poor old Poor-house-Parson Isaac Smith, his head going like a China mandarin, as he discussed the possibilities of the escape of that distinguished captive whom he spoke of under the name, if I can reproduce phonetically its vibrating nasalities of "General Mmbongaparty,"—a name suggestive to my young imagination of a dangerous, loose-jointed skeleton, threatening us all like the armed figure of Death in my little New England Primer.
I have mentioned only the names of those whose images come up pleasantly before me, and I do not mean to say anything which any descendant might not read smilingly. But there were some of the black-coated gentry whose aspect was not so agreeable to me. It is very curious to me to look back on my early likes and dislikes, and see how as a child I was attracted or repelled by such and such ministers, a good deal, as I found out long afterwards, according to their theological beliefs. On the whole, I think the old-fashioned New England divine softening down into Arminianism was about as agreeable as any of them. And here I may remark, that a mellowing rigorist is always a much pleasanter object to contemplate than a tightening liberal, as a cold day warming up to 32 Fahrenheit is much more agreeable than a warm one chilling down to the same temperature. The least pleasing change is that kind of mental hemiplegia which now and then attacks the rational side of a man at about the same period of life when one side of the body is liable to be palsied, and in fact is, very probably, the same thing as palsy, in another form. The worst of it is that the subjects of it never seem to suspect that they are intellectual invalids, stammerers and cripples at best, but are all the time hitting out at their old friends with the well arm, and calling them hard names out of their twisted mouths.
It was a real delight to have one of those good, hearty, happy, benignant old clergymen pass the Sunday, with us, and I can remember some whose advent made the day feel almost like "Thanksgiving." But now and then would come along a clerical visitor with a sad face and a wailing voice, which sounded exactly as if somebody must be lying dead up stairs, who took no interest in us children, except a painful one, as being in a bad way with our cheery looks, and did more to unchristianize us with his woebegone ways than all his sermons were like to accomplish in the other direction. I remember one in particular, who twitted me so with my blessings as a Christian child, and whined so to me about the naked black children who, like the "Little Vulgar Boy," "had n't got no supper and hadn't got no ma," and hadn't got no Catechism, (how I wished for the moment I was a little black boy!) that he did more in that one day to make me a heathen than he had ever done in a month to make a Christian out of an infant Hottentot. What a debt we owe to our friends of the left centre, the Brooklyn and the Park Street and the Summer street ministers; good, wholesome, sound-bodied, one-minded, cheerful-spirited men, who have taken the place of those wailing poitrinaires with the bandanna handkerchiefs round their meagre throats and a funeral service in their forlorn physiognomies! I might have been a minister myself, for aught I know, if this clergyman had not looked and talked so like an undertaker.
All this belongs to one of the side-shows, to which I promised those who would take tickets to the main exhibition should have entrance gratis. If I were writing a poem you would expect, as a matter of course, that there would be a digression now and then.
To come back to the old house and its former tenant, the Professor of Hebrew and other Oriental languages. Fifteen years he lived with his family under its roof. I never found the slightest trace of him until a few years ago, when I cleaned and brightened with pious hands the brass lock of "the study," which had for many years been covered with a thick coat of paint. On that I found scratched; as with a nail or fork, the following inscription: E PE
Only that and nothing more, but the story told itself. Master Edward Pearson, then about as high as the lock, was disposed to immortalize himself in monumental brass, and had got so far towards it, when a sudden interruption, probably a smart box on the ear, cheated him of his fame, except so far as this poor record may rescue it. Dead long ago. I remember him well, a grown man, as a visitor at a later period; and, for some reason, I recall him in the attitude of the Colossus of Rhodes, standing full before a generous wood-fire, not facing it, but quite the contrary, a perfect picture of the content afforded by a blazing hearth contemplated from that point of view, and, as the heat stole through his person and kindled his emphatic features, seeming to me a pattern of manly beauty. What a statue gallery of posturing friends we all have in our memory! The old Professor himself sometimes visited the house after it had changed hands. Of course, my recollections are not to be wholly trusted, but I always think I see his likeness in a profile face to be found among the illustrations of Rees's Cyclopaedia. (See Plates, Vol. IV., Plate 2, Painting, Diversities of the Human Face, Fig. 4.)
And now let us return to our chief picture. In the days of my earliest remembrance, a row of tall Lombardy poplars mounted guard on the western side of the old mansion. Whether, like the cypress, these trees suggest the idea of the funeral torch or the monumental spire, whether their tremulous leaves make wits afraid by sympathy with their nervous thrills, whether the faint balsamic smell of their foliage and their closely swathed limbs have in them vague hints of dead Pharaohs stiffened in their cerements, I will guess; but they always seemed to me to give an of sepulchral sadness to the house before which stood sentries. Not so with the row of elms which you may see leading up towards the western entrance. I think the patriarch of them all went over in the great gale of 1815; I know I used to shake the youngest of them with my hands, stout as it is now, with a trunk that would defy the bully of Crotona, or the strong man whose liaison with the Lady Delilah proved so disastrous.
The College plain would be nothing without its elms. As the long hair of a woman is a glory to her, are these green tresses that bank themselves against sky in thick clustered masses the ornament and the pride of the classic green. You know the "Washington elm," or if you do not, you had better rekindle our patriotism by reading the inscription, which tells you that under its shadow the great leader first drew his sword at the head of an American army. In a line with that you may see two others: the coral fan, as I always called it from its resemblance in form to that beautiful marine growth, and a third a little farther along. I have heard it said that all three were planted at the same time, and that the difference of their growth is due to the slope of the ground,—the Washington elm being lower than either of the others. There is a row of elms just in front of the old house on the south. When I was a child the one at the southwest corner was struck by lightning, and one of its limbs and a long ribbon of bark torn away. The tree never fully recovered its symmetry and vigor, and forty years and more afterwards a second thunderbolt crashed upon it and set its heart on fire, like those of the lost souls in the Hall of Eblis. Heaven had twice blasted it, and the axe finished what the lightning had begun.
The soil of the University town is divided into patches of sandy and of clayey ground. The Common and the College green, near which the old house stands, are on one of the sandy patches. Four curses are the local inheritance: droughts, dust, mud, and canker-worms. I cannot but think that all the characters of a region help to modify the children born in it. I am fond of making apologies for human nature, and I think I could find an excuse for myself if I, too, were dry and barren and muddy-witted and "cantankerous,"—disposed to get my back up, like those other natives of the soil.
I know this, that the way Mother Earth treats a boy shapes out a kind of natural theology for him. I fell into Manichean ways of thinking from the teaching of my garden experiences. Like other boys in the country, I had my patch of ground, to which, in the spring-time, I entrusted the seeds furnished me, with a confident trust in their resurrection and glorification in the better world of summer. But I soon found that my lines had fallen in a place where a vegetable growth had to run the gauntlet of as many foes and dials as a Christian pilgrim. Flowers would not Blow; daffodils perished like criminals in their cone demned caps, without their petals ever seeing daylight; roses were disfigured with monstrous protrusions through their very centres,—something that looked like a second bud pushing through the middle of the corolla; lettuces and cabbages would not head; radishes knotted themselves until they looked like centenerians' fingers; and on every stem, on every leaf, and both sides of it, and at the root of everything that dew, was a professional specialist in the shape of grub, caterpillar, aphis, or other expert, whose business it was to devour that particular part, and help order the whole attempt at vegetation. Such experiences must influence a child born to them. A sandy soil, where nothing flourishes but weeds and evil beasts of small dimensions, must breed different qualities in its human offspring from one of those fat and fertile spots which the wit whom I have once before noted described so happily that, if I quoted the passage, its brilliancy would spoil one of my pages, as a diamond breastpin sometimes kills the social effect of the wearer, who might have passed for a gentleman without it. Your arid patch of earth should seem to the natural birthplace of the leaner virtues and the abler vices,—of temperance and the domestic proprieties on the one hand, with a tendency to light weights in groceries and provisions, and to clandestine abstraction from the person on the other, as opposed to the free hospitality, the broadly planned burglaries, and the largely conceived homicides of our rich Western alluvial regions. Yet Nature is never wholly unkind. Economical as she was in my unparadised Eden, hard as it was to make some of my floral houris unveil, still the damask roses sweetened the June breezes, the bladed and plumed flower-de-luces unfolded their close-wrapped cones, and larkspurs and lupins, lady's delights,—plebeian manifestations of the pansy,—self-sowing marigolds, hollyhocks, the forest flowers of two seasons, and the perennial lilacs and syringas,—all whispered to' the winds blowing over them that some caressing presence was around me.
Beyond the garden was "the field," a vast domain of four acres or thereabout, by the measurement of after years, bordered to the north by a fathomless chasm,—the ditch the base-ball players of the present era jump over; on the east by unexplored territory; on the south by a barren enclosure, where the red sorrel proclaimed liberty and equality under its drapeau rouge, and succeeded in establishing a vegetable commune where all were alike, poor, mean, sour, and uninteresting; and on the west by the Common, not then disgraced by jealous enclosures, which make it look like a cattle-market. Beyond, as I looked round, were the Colleges, the meeting-house, the little square market-house, long vanished; the burial-ground where the dead Presidents stretched their weary bones under epitaphs stretched out at as full length as their subjects; the pretty church where the gouty Tories used to kneel on their hassocks; the district schoolhouse, and hard by it Ma'am Hancock's cottage, never so called in those days, but rather "tenfooter"; then houses scattered near and far, open spaces, the shadowy elms, round hilltops in the distance, and over all the great bowl of the sky. Mind you, this was the WORLD, as I first knew it; terra veteribus cognita, as Mr. Arrowsmith would have called it, if he had mapped the universe of my infancy:
But I am forgetting the old house again in the landscape. The worst of a modern stylish mansion is, that it has no place for ghosts. I watched one building not long since. It had no proper garret, to begin with, only a sealed interval between the roof and attics, where a spirit could not be accommodated, unless it were flattened out like Ravel, Brother, after the millstone had fallen on him. There was not a nook or a corner in the whole horse fit to lodge any respectable ghost, for every part was as open to observation as a literary man's character and condition, his figure and estate, his coat and his countenance, are to his (or her) Bohemian Majesty on a tour of inspection through his (or her) subjects' keyholes.
Now the old house had wainscots, behind which the mice were always scampering and squeaking and rattling down the plaster, and enacting family scenes and parlor theatricals. It had a cellar where the cold slug clung to the walls, and the misanthropic spider withdrew from the garish day; where the green mould loved to grow, and the long white potato-shoots went feeling along the floor, if haply they might find the daylight; it had great brick pillars, always in a cold sweat with holding up the burden they had been aching under day and night far a century and more; it had sepulchral arches closed by rough doors that hung on hinges rotten with rust, behind which doors, if there was not a heap of bones connected with a mysterious disappearance of long ago, there well might have been, for it was just the place to look for them. It had a garret; very nearly such a one as it seems to me one of us has described in one of his books; but let us look at this one as I can reproduce it from memory. It has a flooring of laths with ridges of mortar squeezed up between them, which if you tread on you will go to—the Lord have mercy on you! where will you go to?—the same being crossed by narrow bridges of boards, on which you may put your feet, but with fear and trembling. Above you and around you are beams and joists, on some of which you may see, when the light is let in, the marks of the conchoidal clippings of the broadaxe, showing the rude way in which the timber was shaped as it came, full of sap, from the neighboring forest. It is a realm of darkness and thick dust, and shroud-like cobwebs and dead things they wrap in their gray folds. For a garret is like a seashore, where wrecks are thrown up and slowly go to pieces. There is the cradle which the old man you just remember was rocked in; there is the ruin of the bedstead he died on; that ugly slanting contrivance used to be put under his pillow in the days when his breath came hard; there is his old chair with both arms gone, symbol of the desolate time when he had nothing earthly left to lean on; there is the large wooden reel which the blear-eyed old deacon sent the minister's lady, who thanked him graciously, and twirled it smilingly, and in fitting season bowed it out decently to the limbo of troublesome conveniences. And there are old leather portmanteaus, like stranded porpoises, their mouths gaping in gaunt hunger for the food with which they used to be gorged to bulging repletion; and old brass andirons, waiting until time shall revenge them on their paltry substitutes, and they shall have their own again, and bring with them the fore-stick and the back-log of ancient days; and the empty churn, with its idle dasher, which the Nancys and Phoebes, who have left their comfortable places to the Bridgets and Norahs, used to handle to good purpose; and the brown, shaky old spinning-wheel, which was running, it may be, in the days when they were hinging the Salem witches.
Under the dark and haunted garret were attic chambers which themselves had histories. On a pane in the northeastern chamber may be read these names:
"John Tracy," "Robert Roberts," "Thomas Prince;" "Stultus" another hand had added. When I found these names a few years ago (wrong side up, for the window had been reversed), I looked at once in the Triennial to find them, for the epithet showed that they were probably students. I found them all under the years 1771 and 1773. Does it please their thin ghosts thus to be dragged to the light of day? Has "Stultus" forgiven the indignity of being thus characterized?
The southeast chamber was the Library Hospital. Every scholar should have a book infirmary attached his library. There should find a peaceable refuge the many books, invalids from their birth, which are sent "with the best regards of the Author"; the respected, but unpresentable cripples which have lost cover; the odd volumes of honored sets which go mourning all their days for their lost brother; the school-books which have been so often the subjects of assault and battery, that they look as if the police must know them by heart; these and still more the pictured story-books, beginning with Mother Goose (which a dear old friend of mine has just been amusing his philosophic leisure with turning most ingeniously and happily into the tongues of Virgil and Homer), will be precious mementos by and by, when children and grandchildren come along. What would I not give for that dear little paper-bound quarto, in large and most legible type, on certain pages of which the tender hand that was the shield of my infancy had crossed out with deep black marks something awful, probably about BEARS, such as once tare two-and-forty of us little folks for making faces, and the very name of which made us hide our heads under the bedclothes.
I made strange acquaintances in that book infirmary up in the southeast attic. The "Negro Plot" at New York helped to implant a feeling in me which it took Mr. Garrison a good many years to root out. "Thinks I to Myself," an old novel, which has been attributed to a famous statesman, introduced me to a world of fiction which was not represented on the shelves of the library proper, unless perhaps by Coelebs in Search of a Wife, or allegories of the bitter tonic class, as the young doctor that sits on the other side of the table would probably call them. I always, from an early age, had a keen eye for a story with a moral sticking out of it, and gave it a wide berth, though in my later years I have myself written a couple of "medicated novels," as one of my dearest and pleasantest old friends wickedly called them, when somebody asked her if she had read the last of my printed performances. I forgave the satire for the charming esprit of the epithet. Besides the works I have mentioned, there was an old, old Latin alchemy book, with the manuscript annotations of some ancient Rosicrucian, in the pages of which I had a vague notion that I might find the mighty secret of the Lapis Philosophorum, otherwise called Chaos, the Dragon, the Green Lion, the Quinta Essentia, the Soap of Sages, the Vinegar of Philosophers, the Dew of Heavenly Grace, the Egg, the Old Man, the Sun, the Moon, and by all manner of odd aliases, as I am assured by the plethoric little book before me, in parchment covers browned like a meerschaum with the smoke of furnaces and the thumbing of dead gold seekers, and the fingering of bony-handed book-misers, and the long intervals of dusty slumber on the shelves of the bouquiniste; for next year it will be three centuries old, and it had already seen nine generations of men when I caught its eye (Alchemiae Doctrina) and recognized it at pistol-shot distance as a prize, among the breviaries and Heures and trumpery volumes of the old open-air dealer who exposed his treasures under the shadow of St. Sulpice. I have never lost my taste for alchemy since I first got hold of the Palladium Spagyricum of Peter John Faber, and sought—in vain, it is true—through its pages for a clear, intelligible, and practical statement of how I could turn my lead sinkers and the weights of tall kitchen clock into good yellow gold, specific gravity 19.2, and exchangeable for whatever I then wanted, and for many more things than I was then aware of. One of the greatest pleasures of childhood found in the mysteries which it hides from the skepticism of the elders, and works up into small mythologies of its own. I have seen all this played over again in adult life,—the same delightful bewilderment semi-emotional belief in listening to the gaseous praises of this or that fantastic system, that I found in the pleasing mirages conjured up for me by the ragged old volume I used to pore over in the southeast attic-chamber.
The rooms of the second story, the chambers of birth and death, are sacred to silent memories.
Let us go down to the ground-floor. I should have begun with this, but that the historical reminiscences of the old house have been recently told in a most interesting memoir by a distinguished student of our local history. I retain my doubts about those "dents" on the floor of the right-hand room, "the study" of successive occupants, said to have been made by the butts of the Continental militia's firelocks, but this was the cause to which the story told me in childhood laid them. That military consultations were held in that room when the house was General Ward's headquarters, that the Provincial generals and colonels and other men of war there planned the movement which ended in the fortifying of Bunker's Hill, that Warren slept in the house the night before the battle, that President Langdon went forth from the western door and prayed for God's blessing on the men just setting forth on their bloody expedition,—all these things have been told, and perhaps none of them need be doubted.
But now for fifty years and more that room has been a meeting-ground for the platoons and companies which range themselves at the scholar's word of command. Pleasant it is to think that the retreating host of books is to give place to a still larger army of volumes, which have seen service under the eye of a great commander. For here the noble collection of him so freshly remembered as our silver-tongued orator, our erudite scholar, our honored College President, our accomplished statesman, our courtly ambassador, are to be reverently gathered by the heir of his name, himself not unworthy to be surrounded by that august assembly of the wise of all ages and of various lands and languages.
Could such a many-chambered edifice have stood a century and a half and not have had its passages of romance to bequeath their lingering legends to the after-time? There are other names on some of the small window-panes, which must have had young flesh-and-blood owners, and there is one of early date which elderly persons have whispered was borne by a fair woman, whose graces made the house beautiful in the eyes of the youth of that time. One especially—you will find the name of Fortescue Vernon, of the class of 1780, in the Triennial Catalogue—was a favored visitor to the old mansion; but he went over seas, I think they told me, and died still young, and the name of the maiden which is scratched on the windowpane was never changed. I am telling the story honestly, as I remember it, but I may have colored it unconsciously, and the legendary pane may be broken before this for aught I know. At least, I have named no names except the beautiful one of the supposed hero of the romantic story.
It was a great happiness to have been born in an old house haunted by such recollections, with harmless ghosts walking its corridors, with fields of waving grass and trees and singing birds, and that vast territory of four or five acres around it to give a child the sense that he was born to a noble principality. It has been a great pleasure to retain a certain hold upon it for so many years; and since in the natural course of things it must at length pass into other hands, it is a gratification to see the old place making itself tidy for a new tenant, like some venerable dame who is getting ready to entertain a neighbor of condition. Not long since a new cap of shingles adorned this ancient mother among the village—now city—mansions. She has dressed herself in brighter colors than she has hitherto worn, so they tell me, within the last few days. She has modernized her aspects in several ways; she has rubbed bright the glasses through which she looks at the Common and the Colleges; and as the sunsets shine upon her through the flickering leaves or the wiry spray of the elms I remember from my childhood, they will glorify her into the aspect she wore when President Holyoke, father of our long since dead centenarian, looked upon her in her youthful comeliness.
The quiet corner formed by this and the neighboring residences has changed less than any place I can remember. Our kindly, polite, shrewd, and humorous old neighbor, who in former days has served the town as constable and auctioneer, and who bids fair to become the oldest inhabitant of the city, was there when I was born, and is living there to-day. By and by the stony foot of the great University will plant itself on this whole territory, and the private recollections which clung so tenaciously and fondly to the place and its habitations will have died with those who cherished them.
Shall they ever live again in the memory of those who loved them here below? What is this life without the poor accidents which made it our own, and by which we identify ourselves? Ah me! I might like to be a winged chorister, but still it seems to me I should hardly be quite happy if I could not recall at will the Old House with the Long Entry, and the White Chamber (where I wrote the first verses that made me known, with a pencil, stans pede in uno, pretty, nearly), and the Little Parlor, and the Study, and the old books in uniforms as varied as those of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company used to be, if my memory serves me right, and the front yard with the Star-of-Bethlehems growing, flowerless, among the grass, and the dear faces to be seen no more there or anywhere on this earthly place of farewells.
I have told my story. I do not know what special gifts have been granted or denied me; but this I know, that I am like so many others of my fellow-creatures, that when I smile, I feel as if they must; when I cry, I think their eyes fill; and it always seems to me that when I am most truly myself I come nearest to them and am surest of being listened to by the brothers and sisters of the larger family into which I was born so long ago. I have often feared they might be tired of me and what I tell them. But then, perhaps, would come a letter from some quiet body in some out-of-the-way place, which showed me that I had said something which another had often felt but never said, or told the secret of another's heart in unburdening my own. Such evidences that one is in the highway of human experience and feeling lighten the footsteps wonderfully. So it is that one is encouraged to go on writing as long as the world has anything that interests him, for he never knows how many of his fellow-beings he may please or profit, and in how many places his name will be spoken as that of a friend.
In the mood suggested by my story I have ventured on the poem that follows. Most people love this world more than they are willing to confess, and it is hard to conceive ourselves weaned from it so as to feel no emotion at the thought of its most sacred recollections, even after a sojourn of years, as we should count the lapse of earthly time,—in the realm where, sooner or later, all tears shall be wiped away. I hope, therefore, the title of my lines will not frighten those who are little accustomed to think of men and women as human beings in any state but the present.
HOMESICK IN HEAVEN.
THE DIVINE VOICE.
Go seek thine earth-born sisters,—thus the Voice That all obey,—the sad and silent three; These only, while the hosts of heaven rejoice, Smile never: ask them what their sorrows be:
And when the secret of their griefs they tell, Look on them with thy mild, half-human eyes; Say what thou wast on earth; thou knowest well; So shall they cease from unavailing sighs.
—Why thus, apart,—the swift-winged herald spake, —Sit ye with silent lips and unstrung lyres While the trisagion's blending chords awake In shouts of joy from all the heavenly choirs?
THE FIRST SPIRIT.
—Chide not thy sisters,—thus the answer came; —Children of earth, our half-weaned nature clings To earth's fond memories, and her whispered name Untunes our quivering lips, our saddened strings;
For there we loved, and where we love is home, Home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts, Though o'er us shine the jasper-lighted dome:—
The chain may lengthen, but it never parts!
Sometimes a sunlit sphere comes rolling by, And then we softly whisper,—can it be? And leaning toward the silvery orb, we try To hear the music of its murmuring sea;
To catch, perchance, some flashing glimpse of green, Or breathe some wild-wood fragrance, wafted through The opening gates of pearl, that fold between The blinding splendors and the changeless blue.
—Nay, sister, nay! a single healing leaf Plucked from the bough of yon twelve-fruited tree, Would soothe such anguish,—deeper stabbing grief Has pierced thy throbbing heart—
THE FIRST SPIRIT.
—-Ah, woe is me! I from my clinging babe was rudely torn; His tender lips a loveless bosom pressed Can I forget him in my life new born? O that my darling lay upon my breast!
THE SECOND SPIRIT.
I was a fair and youthful bride,
The kiss of love still burns upon my cheek, He whom I worshipped, ever at my side, —Him through the spirit realm in vain I seek.
Sweet faces turn their beaming eyes on mine; Ah! not in these the wished-for look I read; Still for that one dear human smile I pine; Thou and none other!—is the lover's creed.
—And whence thy sadness in a world of bliss Where never parting comes, nor mourner's tear? Art thou, too, dreaming of a mortal's kiss Amid the seraphs of the heavenly sphere?
THE THIRD SPIRIT.
—Nay, tax not me with passion's wasting fire; When the swift message set my spirit free, Blind, helpless, lone, I left my gray-haired sire; My friends were many, he had none save me.
I left him, orphaned, in the starless night; Alas, for him no cheerful morning's dawn! I wear the ransomed spirit's robe of white, Yet still I hear him moaning, She is gone!
—Ye know me not, sweet sisters?—All in vain Ye seek your lost ones in the shapes they wore; The flower once opened may not bud again, The fruit once fallen finds the stem no more.
Child, lover, sire,—yea, all things loved below, Fair pictures damasked on a vapor's fold, Fade like the roseate flush, the golden glow, When the bright curtain of the day is rolled.
I was the babe that slumbered on thy breast. —And, sister, mine the lips that called thee bride. —Mine were the silvered locks thy hand caressed, That faithful hand, my faltering footstep's guide!
Each changing form, frail vesture of decay, The soul unclad forgets it once hath worn, Stained with the travel of the weary day, And shamed with rents from every wayside thorn.
To lie, an infant, in thy fond embrace, To come with love's warm kisses back to thee, To show thine eyes thy gray-haired father's face, Not Heaven itself could grant; this may not be!
Then spread your folded wings, and leave to earth The dust once breathing ye have mourned so long, Till Love, new risen, owns his heavenly birth, And sorrow's discords sweeten into song!
I am going to take it for granted now and henceforth, in my report of what was said and what was to be seen at our table, that I have secured one good, faithful, loving reader, who never finds fault, who never gets sleepy over my pages, whom no critic can bully out of a liking for me, and to whom I am always safe in addressing myself. My one elect may be man or woman, old or young, gentle or simple, living in the next block or on a slope of Nevada, my fellow-countryman or an alien; but one such reader I shall assume to exist and have always in my thought when I am writing.
A writer is so like a lover! And a talk with the right listener is so like an arm-in-arm walk in the moonlight with the soft heartbeat just felt through the folds of muslin and broadcloth! But it takes very little to spoil everything for writer, talker, lover. There are a great many cruel things besides poverty that freeze the genial current of the soul, as the poet of the Elegy calls it. Fire can stand any wind, but is easily blown out, and then come smouldering and smoke, and profitless, slow combustion without the cheerful blaze which sheds light all round it. The one Reader's hand may shelter the flame; the one blessed ministering spirit with the vessel of oil may keep it bright in spite of the stream of cold water on the other side doing its best to put it out.
I suppose, if any writer, of any distinguishable individuality, could look into the hearts of all his readers, he might very probably find one in his parish of a thousand or a million who honestly preferred him to any other of his kind. I have no doubt we have each one of us, somewhere, our exact facsimile, so like us in all things except the accidents of condition, that we should love each other like a pair of twins, if our natures could once fairly meet. I know I have my counterpart in some State of this Union. I feel sure that there is an Englishman somewhere precisely like myself. (I hope he does not drop his h's, for it does not seem to me possible that the Royal Dane could have remained faithful to his love for Ophelia, if she had addressed him as 'Amlet.) There is also a certain Monsieur, to me at this moment unknown, and likewise a Herr Von Something, each of whom is essentially my double. An Arab is at this moment eating dates, a mandarin is just sipping his tea, and a South-Sea-Islander (with undeveloped possibilities) drinking the milk of a cocoa-nut, each one of whom, if he had been born in the gambrel-roofed house, and cultivated my little sand-patch, and grown up in "the study" from the height of Walton's Polyglot Bible to that of the shelf which held the Elzevir Tacitus and Casaubon's Polybius, with all the complex influences about him that surrounded me, would have been so nearly what I am that I should have loved him like a brother,—always provided that I did not hate him for his resemblance to me, on the same principle as that which makes bodies in the same electric condition repel each other.
For, perhaps after all, my One Reader is quite as likely to be not the person most resembling myself, but the one to whom my nature is complementary. Just as a particular soil wants some one element to fertilize it, just as the body in some conditions has a kind of famine—for one special food, so the mind has its wants, which do not always call for what is best, but which know themselves and are as peremptory as the salt-sick sailor's call for a lemon or a raw potato, or, if you will, as those capricious "longings," which have a certain meaning, we may suppose, and which at any rate we think it reasonable to satisfy if we can.
I was going to say something about our boarders the other day when I got run away with by my local reminiscences. I wish you to understand that we have a rather select company at the table of our boarding-house.
Our Landlady is a most respectable person, who has seen better days, of course,—all landladies have,—but has also, I feel sure, seen a good deal worse ones. For she wears a very handsome silk dress on state occasions, with a breastpin set, as I honestly believe, with genuine pearls, and appears habitually with a very smart cap, from under which her gray curls come out with an unmistakable expression, conveyed in the hieratic language of the feminine priesthood, to the effect that while there is life there is hope. And when I come to reflect on the many circumstances which go to the making of matrimonial happiness, I cannot help thinking that a personage of her present able exterior, thoroughly experienced in all the domestic arts which render life comfortable, might make the later years of some hitherto companionless bachelor very endurable, not to say pleasant.
The condition of the Landlady's family is, from what I learn, such as to make the connection I have alluded to, I hope with delicacy, desirable for incidental as well as direct reasons, provided a fitting match could be found. I was startled at hearing her address by the familiar name of Benjamin the young physician I have referred to, until I found on inquiry, what I might have guessed by the size of his slices of pie and other little marks of favoritism, that he was her son. He has recently come back from Europe, where he has topped off his home training with a first-class foreign finish. As the Landlady could never have educated him in this way out of the profits of keeping boarders, I was not surprised when I was told that she had received a pretty little property in the form of a bequest from a former boarder, a very kind-hearted, worthy old gentleman who had been long with her and seen how hard she worked for food and clothes for herself and this son of hers, Benjamin Franklin by his baptismal name. Her daughter had also married well, to a member of what we may call the post-medical profession, that, namely, which deals with the mortal frame after the practitioners of the healing art have done with it and taken their leave. So thriving had this son-in-law of hers been in his business, that his wife drove about in her own carriage, drawn by a pair of jet-black horses of most dignified demeanor, whose only fault was a tendency to relapse at once into a walk after every application of a stimulus that quickened their pace to a trot; which application always caused them to look round upon the driver with a surprised and offended air, as if he had been guilty of a grave indecorum.
The Landlady's daughter had been blessed with a number of children, of great sobriety of outward aspect, but remarkably cheerful in their inward habit of mind, more especially on the occasion of the death of a doll, which was an almost daily occurrence, and gave them immense delight in getting up a funeral, for which they had a complete miniature outfit. How happy they were under their solemn aspect! For the head mourner, a child of remarkable gifts, could actually make the tears run down her cheeks,—as real ones as if she had been a grown person following a rich relative, who had not forgotten his connections, to his last unfurnished lodgings.
So this was a most desirable family connection for the right man to step into,—a thriving, thrifty mother-in-law, who knew what was good for the sustenance of the body, and had no doubt taught it to her daughter; a medical artist at hand in case the luxuries of the table should happen to disturb the physiological harmonies; and in the worst event, a sweet consciousness that the last sad offices would be attended to with affectionate zeal, and probably a large discount from the usual charges.
It seems as if I could hardly be at this table for a year, if I should stay so long, without seeing some romance or other work itself out under my eyes; and I cannot help thinking that the Landlady is to be the heroine of the love-history like to unfold itself. I think I see the little cloud in the horizon, with a silvery lining to it, which may end in a rain of cards tied round with white ribbons. Extremes meet, and who so like to be the other party as the elderly gentleman at the other end of the table, as far from her now as the length of the board permits? I may be mistaken, but I think this is to be the romantic episode of the year before me. Only it seems so natural it is improbable, for you never find your dropped money just where you look for it, and so it is with these a priori matches.
This gentleman is a tight, tidy, wiry little man, with a small, brisk head, close-cropped white hair, a good wholesome complexion, a quiet, rather kindly face, quick in his movements, neat in his dress, but fond of wearing a short jacket over his coat, which gives him the look of a pickled or preserved schoolboy. He has retired, they say, from a thriving business, with a snug property, suspected by some to be rather more than snug, and entitling him to be called a capitalist, except that this word seems to be equivalent to highway robber in the new gospel of Saint Petroleum. That he is economical in his habits cannot be denied, for he saws and splits his own wood, for exercise, he says,—and makes his own fires, brushes his own shoes, and, it is whispered, darns a hole in a stocking now and then,—all for exercise, I suppose. Every summer he goes out of town for a few weeks. On a given day of the month a wagon stops at the door and takes up, not his trunks, for he does not indulge in any such extravagance, but the stout brown linen bags in which he packs the few conveniences he carries with him.
I do not think this worthy and economical personage will have much to do or to say, unless he marries the Landlady. If he does that, he will play a part of some importance,—but I don't feel sure at all. His talk is little in amount, and generally ends in some compact formula condensing much wisdom in few words, as that a man, should not put all his eggs in one basket; that there are as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it; and one in particular, which he surprised me by saying in pretty good French one day, to the effect that the inheritance of the world belongs to the phlegmatic people, which seems to me to have a good deal of truth in it.
The other elderly personage, the old man with iron-gray hair and large round spectacles, sits at my right at table. He is a retired college officer, a man of books and observation, and himself an author. Magister Artium is one of his titles on the College Catalogue, and I like best to speak of him as the Master, because he has a certain air of authority which none of us feel inclined to dispute. He has given me a copy of a work of his which seems to me not wanting in suggestiveness, and which I hope I shall be able to make some use of in my records by and by. I said the other day that he had good solid prejudices, which is true, and I like him none the worse for it; but he has also opinions more or less original, valuable, probable, fanciful; fantastic, or whimsical, perhaps, now and then; which he promulgates at table somewhat in the tone of imperial edicts. Another thing I like about him is, that he takes a certain intelligent interest in pretty much everything that interests other people. I asked him the other day what he thought most about in his wide range of studies.
—Sir,—said he,—I take stock in everything that concerns anybody. Humani nihil,—you know the rest. But if you ask me what is my specialty, I should say, I applied myself more particularly to the contemplation of the Order of Things.
—A pretty wide subject,—I ventured to suggest.
—Not wide enough, sir,—not wide enough to satisfy the desire of a mind which wants to get at absolute truth, without reference to the empirical arrangements of our particular planet and its environments. I want to subject the formal conditions of space and time to a new analysis, and project a possible universe outside of the Order of Things. But I have narrowed myself by studying the actual facts of being. By and by—by and by—perhaps—perhaps. I hope to do some sound thinking in heaven—if I ever get there,—he said seriously, and it seemed to me not irreverently.
—I rather like that,—I said. I think your telescopic people are, on the whole, more satisfactory than your microscopic ones.
—My left-hand neighbor fidgeted about a little in his chair as I said this. But the young man sitting not far from the Landlady, to whom my attention had been attracted by the expression of his eyes, which seemed as if they saw nothing before him, but looked beyond everything, smiled a sort of faint starlight smile, that touched me strangely; for until that moment he had appeared as if his thoughts were far away, and I had been questioning whether he had lost friends lately, or perhaps had never had them, he seemed so remote from our boarding-house life. I will inquire about him, for he interests me, and I thought he seemed interested as I went on talking.
—No,—I continued,—I don't want to have the territory of a man's mind fenced in. I don't want to shut out the mystery of the stars and the awful hollow that holds them. We have done with those hypaethral temples, that were open above to the heavens, but we can have attics and skylights to them. Minds with skylights,—yes,—stop, let us see if we can't get something out of that.
One-story intellects, two—story intellects, three story intellects with skylights. All fact—collectors, who have no aim beyond their facts, are one-story men. Two-story men compare, reason, generalize, using the labors of the fact-collectors as well as their own. Three-story men idealize, imagine, predict; their best illumination comes from above, through the skylight. There are minds with large ground floors, that can store an infinite amount of knowledge; some librarians, for instance, who know enough of books to help other people, without being able to make much other use of their knowledge, have intellects of this class. Your great working lawyer has two spacious stories; his mind is clear, because his mental floors are large, and he has room to arrange his thoughts so that he can get at them,—facts below, principles above, and all in ordered series; poets are often narrow below, incapable of clear statement, and with small power of consecutive reasoning, but full of light, if sometimes rather bare of furniture, in the attics.
—The old Master smiled. I think he suspects himself of a three-story intellect, and I don't feel sure that he is n't right.
—Is it dark meat or white meat you will be helped to?—said the Landlady, addressing the Master.
—Dark meat for me, always,—he answered. Then turning to me, he began one of those monologues of his, such as that which put the Member of the Haouse asleep the other day.
—It 's pretty much the same in men and women and in books and everything, that it is in turkeys and chickens. Why, take your poets, now, say Browning and Tennyson. Don't you think you can say which is the dark-meat and which is the white-meat poet? And so of the people you know; can't you pick out the full-flavored, coarse-fibred characters from the delicate, fine-fibred ones? And in the same person, don't you know the same two shades in different parts of the character that you find in the wing and thigh of a partridge? I suppose you poets may like white meat best, very probably; you had rather have a wing than a drumstick, I dare say.
—Why, yes,—said I,—I suppose some of us do. Perhaps it is because a bird flies with his white-fleshed limbs and walks with the dark-fleshed ones. Besides, the wing-muscles are nearer the heart than the leg-muscles.
I thought that sounded mighty pretty, and paused a moment to pat myself on the back, as is my wont when I say something that I think of superior quality. So I lost my innings; for the Master is apt to strike in at the end of a bar, instead of waiting for a rest, if I may borrow a musical phrase. No matter, just at this moment, what he said; but he talked the Member of the Haouse asleep again.
They have a new term nowadays (I am speaking to you, the Reader) for people that do a good deal of talking; they call them "conversationists," or "conversationalists "; talkists, I suppose, would do just as well. It is rather dangerous to get the name of being one of these phenomenal manifestations, as one is expected to say something remarkable every time one opens one's mouth in company. It seems hard not to be able to ask for a piece of bread or a tumbler of water, without a sensation running round the table, as if one were an electric eel or a torpedo, and couldn't be touched without giving a shock. A fellow is n't all battery, is he? The idea that a Gymnotus can't swallow his worm without a coruscation of animal lightning is hard on that brilliant but sensational being. Good talk is not a matter of will at all; it depends—you know we are all half-materialists nowadays—on a certain amount of active congestion of the brain, and that comes when it is ready, and not before. I saw a man get up the other day in a pleasant company, and talk away for about five minutes, evidently by a pure effort of will. His person was good, his voice was pleasant, but anybody could see that it was all mechanical labor; he was sparring for wind, as the Hon. John Morrissey, M. C., would express himself. Presently,—
Do you,—Beloved, I am afraid you are not old enough,—but do you remember the days of the tin tinder-box, the flint, and steel? Click! click! click!—Al-h-h! knuckles that time! click! click! CLICK! a spark has taken, and is eating into the black tinder, as a six-year-old eats into a sheet of gingerbread.
Presently, after hammering away for his five minutes with mere words, the spark of a happy expression took somewhere among the mental combustibles, and then for ten minutes we had a pretty, wandering, scintillating play of eloquent thought, that enlivened, if it did not kindle, all around it. If you want the real philosophy of it, I will give it to you. The chance thought or expression struck the nervous centre of consciousness, as the rowel of a spur stings the flank of a racer. Away through all the telegraphic radiations of the nervous cords flashed the intelligence that the brain was kindling, and must be fed with something or other, or it would burn itself to ashes.
And all the great hydraulic engines poured in their scarlet blood, and the fire kindled, and the flame rose; for the blood is a stream that, like burning rock-oil, at once kindles, and is itself the fuel. You can't order these organic processes, any more than a milliner can make a rose. She can make something that looks like a rose, more or less, but it takes all the forces of the universe to finish and sweeten that blossom in your button-hole; and you may be sure that when the orator's brain is in a flame, when the poet's heart is in a tumult, it is something mightier than he and his will that is dealing with him! As I have looked from one of the northern windows of the street which commands our noble estuary,—the view through which is a picture on an illimitable canvas and a poem in innumerable cantos,—I have sometimes seen a pleasure-boat drifting along, her sail flapping, and she seeming as if she had neither will nor aim. At her stern a man was laboring to bring her head round with an oar, to little purpose, as it seemed to those who watched him pulling and tugging. But all at once the wind of heaven, which had wandered all the way from Florida or from Labrador, it may be, struck full upon the sail, and it swelled and rounded itself, like a white bosom that had burst its bodice, and—
—You are right; it is too true! but how I love these pretty phrases! I am afraid I am becoming an epicure in words, which is a bad thing to be, unless it is dominated by something infinitely better than itself. But there is a fascination in the mere sound of articulated breath; of consonants that resist with the firmness of a maid of honor, or half or wholly yield to the wooing lips; of vowels that flow and murmur, each after its kind; the peremptory b and p, the brittle k, the vibrating r, the insinuating s, the feathery f, the velvety v, the bell-voiced m, the tranquil broad a, the penetrating e, the cooing u, the emotional o, and the beautiful combinations of alternate rock and stream, as it were, that they give to the rippling flow of speech,—there is a fascination in the skilful handling of these, which the great poets and even prose-writers have not disdained to acknowledge and use to recommend their thought. What do you say to this line of Homer as a piece of poetical full-band music? I know you read the Greek characters with perfect ease, but permit me, just for my own satisfaction, to put it into English letters:—
Aigle pamphanoosa di' aitheros ouranon ike!
as if he should have spoken in our poorer phrase of
Splendor far shining through ether to heaven ascending.
That Greek line, which I do not remember having heard mention of as remarkable, has nearly every consonantal and vowel sound in the language. Try it by the Greek and by the English alphabet; it is a curiosity. Tell me that old Homer did not roll his sightless eyeballs about with delight, as he thundered out these ringing syllables! It seems hard to think of his going round like a hand-organ man, with such music and such thought as his to earn his bread with. One can't help wishing that Mr. Pugh could have got at him for a single lecture, at least, of the "Star Course," or that he could have appeared in the Music Hall, "for this night only."
—I know I have rambled, but I hope you see that this is a delicate way of letting you into the nature of the individual who is, officially, the principal personage at our table. It would hardly do to describe him directly, you know. But you must not think, because the lightning zigzags, it does not know where to strike.
I shall try to go through the rest of my description of our boarders with as little of digression as is consistent with my nature. I think we have a somewhat exceptional company. Since our Landlady has got up in the world, her board has been decidedly a favorite with persons a little above the average in point of intelligence and education. In fact, ever since a boarder of hers, not wholly unknown to the reading public, brought her establishment into notice, it has attracted a considerable number of literary and scientific people, and now and then a politician, like the Member of the House of Representatives, otherwise called the Great and General Court of the State of Massachusetts. The consequence is, that there is more individuality of character than in a good many similar boardinghouses, where all are business-men, engrossed in the same pursuit of money-making, or all are engaged in politics, and so deeply occupied with the welfare of the community that they can think and talk of little else.
At my left hand sits as singular-looking a human being as I remember seeing outside of a regular museum or tent-show. His black coat shines as if it had been polished; and it has been polished on the wearer's back, no doubt, for the arms and other points of maximum attrition are particularly smooth and bright. Round shoulders,—stooping over some minute labor, I suppose. Very slender limbs, with bends like a grasshopper's; sits a great deal, I presume; looks as if he might straighten them out all of a sudden, and jump instead of walking. Wears goggles very commonly; says it rests his eyes, which he strains in looking at very small objects. Voice has a dry creak, as if made by some small piece of mechanism that wanted oiling. I don't think he is a botanist, for he does not smell of dried herbs, but carries a camphorated atmosphere about with him, as if to keep the moths from attacking him. I must find out what is his particular interest. One ought to know something about his immediate neighbors at the table. This is what I said to myself, before opening a conversation with him. Everybody in our ward of the city was in a great stir about a certain election, and I thought I might as well begin with that as anything.
—How do you think the vote is likely to go tomorrow?—I said.
—It isn't to-morrow,—he answered,—it 's next month.
—Next month!—said I.—-Why, what election do you mean?
—I mean the election to the Presidency of the Entomological Society, sir,—he creaked, with an air of surprise, as if nobody could by any possibility have been thinking of any other. Great competition, sir, between the dipterists and the lepidopterists as to which shall get in their candidate. Several close ballotings already; adjourned for a fortnight. Poor concerns, both of 'em. Wait till our turn comes.
—I suppose you are an entomologist?—I said with a note of interrogation.
-Not quite so ambitious as that, sir. I should like to put my eyes on the individual entitled to that name! A society may call itself an Entomological Society, but the man who arrogates such a broad title as that to himself, in the present state of science, is a pretender, sir, a dilettante, an impostor! No man can be truly called an entomologist, sir; the subject is too vast for any single human intelligence to grasp.
—May I venture to ask,—I said, a little awed by his statement and manner,—what is your special province of study?
I am often spoken of as a Coleopterist,—he said,—but I have no right to so comprehensive a name. The genus Scarabaeus is what I have chiefly confined myself to, and ought to have studied exclusively. The beetles proper are quite enough for the labor of one man's life. Call me a Scarabaeist if you will; if I can prove myself worthy of that name, my highest ambition will be more than satisfied.
I think, by way of compromise and convenience, I shall call him the Scarabee. He has come to look wonderfully like those creatures,—the beetles, I mean,—-by being so much among them. His room is hung round with cases of them, each impaled on a pin driven through him, something as they used to bury suicides. These cases take the place for him of pictures and all other ornaments. That Boy steals into his room sometimes, and stares at them with great admiration, and has himself undertaken to form a rival cabinet, chiefly consisting of flies, so far, arranged in ranks superintended by an occasional spider.
The old Master, who is a bachelor, has a kindly feeling for this little monkey, and those of his kind.
—I like children,—he said to me one day at table,—I like 'em, and I respect 'em. Pretty much all the honest truth-telling there is in the world is done by them. Do you know they play the part in the household which the king's jester, who very often had a mighty long head under his cap and bells, used to play for a monarch? There 's no radical club like a nest of little folks in a nursery. Did you ever watch a baby's fingers? I have, often enough, though I never knew what it was to own one.—-The Master paused half a minute or so,—sighed,—perhaps at thinking what he had missed in life,—looked up at me a little vacantly. I saw what was the matter; he had lost the thread of his talk.
—Baby's fingers,—I intercalated.
-Yes, yes; did you ever see how they will poke those wonderful little fingers of theirs into every fold and crack and crevice they can get at? That is their first education, feeling their way into the solid facts of the material world. When they begin to talk it is the same thing over again in another shape. If there is a crack or a flaw in your answer to their confounded shoulder-hitting questions, they will poke and poke until they have got it gaping just as the baby's fingers have made a rent out of that atom of a hole in his pinafore that your old eyes never took notice of. Then they make such fools of us by copying on a small scale what we do in the grand manner. I wonder if it ever occurs to our dried-up neighbor there to ask himself whether That Boy's collection of flies is n't about as significant in the Order of Things as his own Museum of Beetles?
—I couldn't help thinking that perhaps That Boy's questions about the simpler mysteries of life might have a good deal of the same kind of significance as the Master's inquiries into the Order of Things.
—On my left, beyond my next neighbor the Scarabee, at the end of the table, sits a person of whom we know little, except that he carries about him more palpable reminiscences of tobacco and the allied sources of comfort than a very sensitive organization might find acceptable. The Master does not seem to like him much, for some reason or other,—perhaps he has a special aversion to the odor of tobacco. As his forefinger shows a little too distinctly that he uses a pen, I shall compliment him by calling him the Man of Letters, until I find out more about him.
—The Young Girl who sits on my right, next beyond the Master, can hardly be more than nineteen or twenty years old. I wish I could paint her so as to interest others as much as she does me. But she has not a profusion of sunny tresses wreathing a neck of alabaster, and a cheek where the rose and the lily are trying to settle their old quarrel with alternating victory. Her hair is brown, her cheek is delicately pallid, her forehead is too ample for a ball-room beauty's. A single faint line between the eyebrows is the record of long—continued anxious efforts to please in the task she has chosen, or rather which has been forced upon her. It is the same line of anxious and conscientious effort which I saw not long since on the forehead of one of the sweetest and truest singers who has visited us; the same which is so striking on the masks of singing women painted upon the facade of our Great Organ,—that Himalayan home of harmony which you are to see and then die, if you don't live where you can see and hear it often. Many deaths have happened in a neighboring large city from that well-known complaint, Icterus Invidiosorum, after returning from a visit to the Music Hall. The invariable symptom of a fatal attack is the Risus Sardonicus.—But the Young Girl. She gets her living by writing stories for a newspaper. Every week she furnishes a new story. If her head aches or her heart is heavy, so that she does not come to time with her story, she falls behindhand and has to live on credit. It sounds well enough to say that "she supports herself by her pen," but her lot is a trying one; it repeats the doom of the Danaides. The "Weekly Bucket" has no bottom, and it is her business to help fill it. Imagine for one moment what it is to tell a tale that must flow on, flow ever, without pausing; the lover miserable and happy this week, to begin miserable again next week and end as before; the villain scowling, plotting, punished; to scowl, plot, and get punished again in our next; an endless series of woes and busses, into each paragraph of which the forlorn artist has to throw all the liveliness, all the emotion, all the graces of style she is mistress of, for the wages of a maid of all work, and no more recognition or thanks from anybody than the apprentice who sets the types for the paper that prints her ever-ending and ever-beginning stories. And yet she has a pretty talent, sensibility, a natural way of writing, an ear for the music of verse, in which she sometimes indulges to vary the dead monotony of everlasting narrative, and a sufficient amount of invention to make her stories readable. I have found my eyes dimmed over them oftener than once, more with thinking about her, perhaps, than about her heroes and heroines. Poor little body! Poor little mind! Poor little soul! She is one of that great company of delicate, intelligent, emotional young creatures, who are waiting, like that sail I spoke of, for some breath of heaven to fill their white bosoms,—love, the right of every woman; religious emotion, sister of love, with the same passionate eyes, but cold, thin, bloodless hands,—some enthusiasm of humanity or divinity; and find that life offers them, instead, a seat on a wooden bench, a chain to fasten them to it, and a heavy oar to pull day and night. We read the Arabian tales and pity the doomed lady who must amuse her lord and master from day to day or have her head cut off; how much better is a mouth without bread to fill it than no mouth at all to fill, because no head? We have all round us a weary-eyed company of Scheherezades! This is one of them, and I may call her by that name when it pleases me to do so.
The next boarder I have to mention is the one who sits between the Young Girl and the Landlady. In a little chamber into which a small thread of sunshine finds its way for half an hour or so every day during a month or six weeks of the spring or autumn, at all other times obliged to content itself with ungilded daylight, lives this boarder, whom, without wronging any others of our company, I may call, as she is very generally called in the household, The Lady. In giving her this name it is not meant that there are no other ladies at our table, or that the handmaids who serve us are not ladies, or to deny the general proposition that everybody who wears the unbifurcated garment is entitled to that appellation. Only this lady has a look and manner which there is no mistaking as belonging to a person always accustomed to refined and elegant society. Her style is perhaps a little more courtly and gracious than some would like. The language and manner which betray the habitual desire of pleasing, and which add a charm to intercourse in the higher social circles, are liable to be construed by sensitive beings unused to such amenities as an odious condescension when addressed to persons of less consideration than the accused, and as a still more odious—you know the word—when directed to those who are esteemed by the world as considerable person ages. But of all this the accused are fortunately wholly unconscious, for there is nothing so entirely natural and unaffected as the highest breeding.