By Agnes Repplier
COUNTER-CURRENTS. AMERICANS AND OTHERS. A HAPPY HALF-CENTURY AND OTHER ESSAYS. IN OUR CONVENT DAYS. COMPROMISES. THE FIRESIDE SPHINX. With 4 full-page and 17 text illustrations by Miss E. BONSALL. BOOKS AND MEN. POINTS OF VIEW. ESSAYS IN IDLENESS. IN THE DOZY HOURS, AND OTHER PAPERS. ESSAYS IN MINIATURE. A BOOK OF FAMOUS VERSE. Selected by Agnes Repplier. In Riverside Library for Young People. THE SAME. Holiday Edition. VARIA.
AMERICANS AND OTHERS
BY AGNES REPPLIER, LITT.D.
BOSTON AND NEW YORK HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY The Riverside Press Cambridge
COPYRIGHT, 1912, BY AGNES REPPLIER ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Published October 1912
The Riverside Press CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS PRINTED IN THE U.S.A.
Five of the essays in this volume appear in print for the first time. Others have been published in the Atlantic Monthly, the Century Magazine, Harper's Bazar, and the Catholic World.
A Question of Politeness
The Mission of Humour
Goodness and Gayety
The Nervous Strain
The Girl Graduate
The Estranging Sea
The Chill of Enthusiasm
The Temptation of Eve
"The Greatest of These is Charity"
The Customary Correspondent
The Condescension of Borrowers
The Grocer's Cat
AMERICANS AND OTHERS
A Question of Politeness
"La politesse de l'esprit consiste a penser des choses honnetes et delicates."
A great deal has been said and written during the past few years on the subject of American manners, and the consensus of opinion is, on the whole, unfavourable. We have been told, more in sorrow than in anger, that we are not a polite people; and our critics have cast about them for causes which may be held responsible for such a universal and lamentable result. Mr. Thomas Nelson Page, for example, is by way of thinking that the fault lies in the sudden expansion of wealth, in the intrusion into the social world of people who fail to understand its requirements, and in the universal "spoiling" of American children. He contrasts the South of his childhood, that wonderful "South before the war," which looms vaguely, but very grandly, through a half-century's haze, with the New York of to-day, which, alas! has nothing to soften its outlines. A more censorious critic in the "Atlantic Monthly" has also stated explicitly that for true consideration and courtliness we must hark back to certain old gentlewomen of ante-bellum days. "None of us born since the Civil War approach them in respect to some fine, nameless quality that gives them charm and atmosphere." It would seem, then, that the war, with its great emotions and its sustained heroism, imbued us with national life at the expense of our national manners.
I wonder if this kind of criticism does not err by comparing the many with the few, the general with the exceptional. I wonder if the deficiencies of an imperfect civilization can be accounted for along such obvious lines. The self-absorption of youth which Mrs. Comer deprecates, the self-absorption of a crowd which offends Mr. Page, are human, not American. The nature of youth and the nature of crowds have not changed essentially since the Civil War, nor since the Punic Wars. Granted that the tired and hungry citizens of New York, jostling one another in their efforts to board a homeward train, present an unlovely spectacle; but do they, as Mr. Page affirms, reveal "such sheer and primal brutality as can be found nowhere else in the world where men and women are together?" Crowds will jostle, and have always jostled, since men first clustered in communities. Read Theocritus. The hurrying Syracusans—third century B.C.—"rushed like a herd of swine," and rent in twain Praxinoe's muslin veil. Look at Hogarth. The whole fun of an eighteenth-century English crowd consisted in snatching off some unfortunate's wig, or toppling him over into the gutter. The truth is we sin against civilization when we consent to flatten ourselves against our neighbours. The experience of the world has shown conclusively that a few inches more or less of breathing space make all the difference between a self-respecting citizen and a savage.
As for youth,—ah, who shall be brave enough, who has ever been brave enough, to defend the rising generation? Who has ever looked with content upon the young, save only Plato, and he lived in an age of symmetry and order which we can hardly hope to reproduce. The shortcomings of youth are so pitilessly, so glaringly apparent. Not a rag to cover them from the discerning eye. And what a veil has fallen between us and the years of our offending. There is no illusion so permanent as that which enables us to look backward with complacency; there is no mental process so deceptive as the comparing of recollections with realities. How loud and shrill the voice of the girl at our elbow. How soft the voice which from the far past breathes its gentle echo in our ears. How bouncing the vigorous young creatures who surround us, treading us under foot in the certainty of their self-assurance. How sweet and reasonable the pale shadows who smile—we think appealingly—from some dim corner of our memories. There is a passage in the diary of Louisa Gurney, a carefully reared little Quaker girl of good family and estate, which is dated 1796, and which runs thus:—
"I was in a very playing mood to-day, and thoroughly enjoyed being foolish, and tried to be as rude to everybody as I could. We went on the highroad for the purpose of being rude to the folks that passed. I do think being rude is most pleasant sometimes."
Let us hope that the grown-up Louisa Gurney, whenever she felt disposed to cavil at the imperfections of the rising generation of 1840 or 1850, re-read these illuminating words, and softened her judgment accordingly.
New York has been called the most insolent city in the world. To make or to refute such a statement implies so wide a knowledge of contrasted civilizations that to most of us the words have no significance. It is true that certain communities have earned for themselves in the course of centuries an unenviable reputation for discourtesy. The Italians say "as rude as a Florentine"; and even the casual tourist (presuming his standard of manners to have been set by Italy) is disposed to echo the reproach. The Roman, with the civilization of the world at his back, is naturally, one might say inevitably, polite. His is that serious and simple dignity which befits his high inheritance. But the Venetian and the Sienese have also a grave courtesy of bearing, compared with which the manners of the Florentine seem needlessly abrupt. We can no more account for this than we can account for the churlishness of the Vaudois, who is always at some pains to be rude, and the gentleness of his neighbour, the Valaisan, to whom breeding is a birthright, born, it would seem, of generosity of heart, and a scorn of ignoble things.
But such generalizations, at all times perilous, become impossible in the changing currents of American life, which has as yet no quality of permanence. The delicate old tests fail to adjust themselves to our needs. Mr. Page is right theoretically when he says that the treatment of a servant or of a subordinate is an infallible criterion of manners, and when he rebukes the "arrogance" of wealthy women to "their hapless sisters of toil." But the truth is that our hapless sisters of toil have things pretty much their own way in a country which is still broadly prosperous and democratic, and our treatment of them is tempered by a selfish consideration for our own comfort and convenience. If they are toiling as domestic servants,—a field in which the demand exceeds the supply,—they hold the key to the situation; it is sheer foolhardiness to be arrogant to a cook. Dressmakers and milliners are not humbly seeking for patronage; theirs is the assured position of people who can give the world what the world asks; and as for saleswomen, a class upon whom much sentimental sympathy is lavished year by year, their heart-whole superciliousness to the poor shopper, especially if she chance to be a housewife striving nervously to make a few dollars cover her family needs, is wantonly and detestably unkind. It is not with us as it was in the England of Lamb's day, and the quality of breeding is shown in a well-practised restraint rather than in a sweet and somewhat lofty consideration.
Eliminating all the more obvious features of criticism, as throwing no light upon the subject, we come to the consideration of three points,—the domestic, the official, and the social manners of a nation which has been roundly accused of degenerating from the high standard of former years, of those gracious and beautiful years which few of us have the good fortune to remember. On the first count, I believe that a candid and careful observation will result in a verdict of acquittal. Foreigners, Englishmen and Englishwomen especially, who visit our shores, are impressed with the politeness of Americans in their own households. That fine old Saxon point of view, "What is the good of a family, if one cannot be disagreeable in the bosom of it?" has been modified by the simple circumstance that the family bosom is no longer a fixed and permanent asylum. The disintegration of the home may be a lamentable feature of modern life; but since it has dawned upon our minds that adult members of a family need not necessarily live together if they prefer to live apart, the strain of domesticity has been reduced to the limits of endurance. We have gained in serenity what we have lost in self-discipline by this easy achievement of an independence which, fifty years ago, would have been deemed pure licence. I can remember that, when I was a little girl, two of our neighbours, a widowed mother and a widowed daughter, scandalized all their friends by living in two large comfortable houses, a stone's throw apart, instead of under one roof as became their relationship; and the fact that they loved each other dearly and peacefully in no way lessened their transgression. Had they shared their home, and bickered day and night, that would have been considered unfortunate but "natural."
If the discipline of family life makes for law and order, for the subordination of parts to the whole, and for the prompt recognition of authority; if, in other words, it makes, as in the days of Rome, for citizenship, the rescue of the individual makes for social intercourse, for that temperate and reasoned attitude which begets courtesy. The modern mother may lack influence and authority; but she speaks more urbanely to her children than her mother spoke to her. The modern child is seldom respectful, but he is often polite, with a politeness which owes nothing to intimidation. The harsh and wearisome habit of contradiction, which used to be esteemed a family privilege, has been softened to a judicious dissent. In my youth I knew several old gentlemen who might, on their death-beds, have laid their hands upon their hearts, and have sworn that never in their whole lives had they permitted any statement, however insignificant, to pass uncontradicted in their presence. They were authoritative old gentlemen, kind husbands after their fashion, and careful fathers; but conversation at their dinner-tables was not for human delight.
The manners of American officials have been discussed with more or less acrimony, and always from the standpoint of personal experience. The Custom-House is the centre of attack, and critics for the most part agree that the men whose business it is to "hold up" returning citizens perform their ungracious task ungraciously. Theirs is rather the attitude of the detective dealing with suspected criminals than the attitude of the public servant impersonally obeying orders. It is true that even on the New York docks one may encounter civility and kindness. There are people who assure us that they have never encountered anything else; but then there are people who would have us believe that always and under all circumstances they meet with the most distinguished consideration. They intimate that there is that in their own demeanour which makes rudeness to them an impossibility.
More candid souls find it hard to account for the crudity of our intercourse, not with officials only, but with the vast world which lies outside our narrow circle of associates. We have no human relations where we have no social relations; we are awkward and constrained in our recognition of the unfamiliar; and this awkwardness encumbers us in the ordinary routine of life. A policeman who has been long on one beat, and who has learned to know either the householders or the business men of his locality, is wont to be the most friendly of mortals. There is something almost pathetic in the value he places upon human relationship, even of a very casual order. A conductor on a local train who has grown familiar with scores of passengers is no longer a ticket-punching, station-shouting automaton. He bears himself in friendly fashion towards all travellers, because he has established with some of them a rational foothold of communication. But the official who sells tickets to a hurrying crowd, or who snaps out a few tart words at a bureau of information, or who guards a gate through which men and women are pushing with senseless haste, is clad in an armour of incivility. He is wantonly rude to foreigners, whose helplessness should make some appeal to his humanity. I have seen a gatekeeper at Jersey City take by the shoulders a poor German, whose ticket called for another train, and shove him roughly out of the way, without a word of explanation. The man, too bewildered for resentment, rejoined his wife to whom he had said good-bye, and the two anxious, puzzled creatures stood whispering together as the throng swept callously past them. It was a painful spectacle, a lapse from the well-ordered decencies of civilization.
For to be civilized is to be incapable of giving unnecessary offence, it is to have some quality of consideration for all who cross our path. An Englishwoman once said to Mr. Whistler that the politeness of the French was "all on the surface," to which the artist made reply: "And a very good place for it to be." It is this sweet surface politeness, costing so little, counting for so much, which smooths the roughness out of life. "The classic quality of the French nation," says Mr. Henry James, "is sociability; a sociability which operates in France, as it never does in England, from below upward. Your waiter utters a greeting because, after all, something human within him prompts him. His instinct bids him say something, and his taste recommends that it should be agreeable."
This combination of instinct and taste—which happily is not confined to the French, nor to waiters—produces some admirable results, results out of all proportion to the slightness of the means employed. It often takes but a word, a gesture, to indicate the delicate process of adjustment. A few summers ago I was drinking tea with friends in the gardens of the Hotel Faloria, at Cortina. At a table near us sat two Englishmen, three Englishwomen, and an Austrian, the wife of a Viennese councillor. They talked with animation and in engaging accents. After a little while they arose and strolled back to the hotel. The Englishmen, as they passed our table, stared hard at two young girls who were of our party, stared as deliberately and with as much freedom as if the children had been on a London music-hall stage. The Englishwomen passed us as though we had been invisible. They had so completely the air of seeing nothing in our chairs that I felt myself a phantom, a ghost like Banquo's, with no guilty eye to discern my presence at the table. Lastly came the Austrian, who had paused to speak to a servant, and, as she passed, she gave us a fleeting smile and a slight bow, the mere shadow of a curtsey, acknowledging our presence as human beings, to whom some measure of recognition was due.
It was such a little thing, so lightly done, so eloquent of perfect self-possession, and the impression it made upon six admiring Americans was a permanent one. We fell to asking ourselves—being honestly conscious of constraint—how each one of us would have behaved in the Austrian lady's place, whether or not that act of simple and sincere politeness would have been just as easy for us. Then I called to mind one summer morning in New England, when I sat on a friend's piazza, waiting idly for the arrival of the Sunday papers. A decent-looking man, with a pretty and over-dressed girl by his side, drove up the avenue, tossed the packet of papers at our feet, and drove away again. He had not said even a bare "Good morning." My kind and courteous host had offered no word of greeting. The girl had turned her head to stare at me, but had not spoken. Struck by the ungraciousness of the whole episode, I asked, "Is he a stranger in these parts?"
"No," said my friend. "He has brought the Sunday papers all summer. That is his daughter with him."
All summer, and no human relations, not enough to prompt a friendly word, had been established between the man who served and the man who was served. None of the obvious criticisms passed upon American manners can explain the crudity of such a situation. It was certainly not a case of arrogance towards a hapless brother of toil. My friend probably toiled much harder than the paperman, and was the least arrogant of mortals. Indeed, all arrogance of bearing lay conspicuously on the paperman's part. Why, after all, should not his instinct, like the instinct of the French waiter, have bidden him say something; why should not his taste have recommended that the something be agreeable? And then, again, why should not my friend, in whom social constraint was unpardonable, have placed his finer instincts at the service of a fellow creature? We must probe to the depths of our civilization before we can understand and deplore the limitations which make it difficult for us to approach one another with mental ease and security. We have yet to learn that the amenities of life stand for its responsibilities, and translate them into action. They express externally the fundamental relations which ought to exist between men. "All the distinctions, so delicate and sometimes so complicated, which belong to good breeding," says M. Rondalet in "La Reforme Sociale," "answer to a profound unconscious analysis of the duties we owe to one another."
There are people who balk at small civilities on account of their manifest insincerity. They cannot be brought to believe that the expressions of unfelt pleasure or regret with which we accept or decline invitations, the little affectionate phrases which begin and end our letters, the agreeable formalities which have accumulated around the simplest actions of life, are beneficent influences upon character, promoting gentleness of spirit. The Quakers, as we know, made a mighty stand against verbal insincerities, with one striking exception,—the use of the word "Friend." They said and believed that this word represented their attitude towards humanity, their spirit of universal tolerance and brotherhood. But if to call oneself a "Friend" is to emphasize one's amicable relations towards one's neighbour, to call one's neighbour "Friend" is to imply that he returns this affectionate regard, which is often an unwarranted assumption. It is better and more logical to accept all the polite phraseology which facilitates intercourse, and contributes to the sweetness of life. If we discarded the formal falsehoods which are the currency of conversation, we should not be one step nearer the vital things of truth.
For to be sincere with ourselves is better and harder than to be painstakingly accurate with others. A man may be cruelly candid to his associates, and a cowardly hypocrite to himself. He may handle his friend harshly, and himself with velvet gloves. He may never tell the fragment of a lie, and never think the whole truth. He may wound the pride and hurt the feelings of all with whom he comes in contact, and never give his own soul the benefit of one good knockdown blow. The connection which has been established between rudeness and probity on the one hand, and politeness and insincerity on the other, is based upon an imperfect knowledge of human nature.
"So rugged was he that we thought him just, So churlish was he that we deemed him true."
"It is better to hold back a truth," said Saint Francis de Sales, "than to speak it ungraciously."
There are times doubtless when candour goes straight to its goal, and courtesy misses the mark. Mr. John Stuart Mill was once asked upon the hustings whether or not he had ever said that the English working-classes were mostly liars. He answered shortly, "I did!"—and the unexpected reply was greeted with loud applause. Mr. Mill was wont to quote this incident as proof of the value which Englishmen set upon plain speaking. They do prize it, and they prize the courage which defies their bullying. But then the remark was, after all, a generalization. We can bear hearing disagreeable truths spoken to a crowd or to a congregation—causticity has always been popular in preachers—because there are other heads than our own upon which to fit the cap.
The brutalities of candour, the pestilent wit which blights whatever it touches, are not distinctively American. It is because we are a humorous rather than a witty people that we laugh for the most part with, and not at, our fellow creatures. Indeed, judged by the unpleasant things we might say and do not say, we should be esteemed polite. English memoirs teem with anecdotes which appear to us unpardonable. Why should Lady Holland have been permitted to wound the susceptibilities of all with whom she came in contact? When Moore tells us that she said to him, "This book of yours" (the "Life of Sheridan") "will be dull, I fear;" and to Lord Porchester, "I am sorry to hear you are going to publish a poem. Can't you suppress it?" we do not find these remarks to be any more clever than considerate. They belong to the category of the monumentally uncouth.
Why should Mr. Abraham Hayward have felt it his duty (he put it that way) to tell Mr. Frederick Locker that the "London Lyrics" were "overrated"? "I have suspected this," comments the poet, whose least noticeable characteristic was vanity; "but I was none the less sorry to hear him say so." Landor's reply to a lady who accused him of speaking of her with unkindness, "Madame, I have wasted my life in defending you!" was pardonable as a repartee. It was the exasperated utterance of self-defence; and there is a distinction to be drawn between the word which is flung without provocation, and the word which is the speaker's last resource. When "Bobus" Smith told Talleyrand that his mother had been a beautiful woman, and Talleyrand replied, "C'etait donc Monsieur votre pere qui n'etait pas bien," we hold the witticism to have been cruel because unjustifiable. A man should be privileged to say his mother was beautiful, without inviting such a very obvious sarcasm. But when Madame de Stael pestered Talleyrand to say what he would do if he saw her and Madame Recamier drowning, the immortal answer, "Madame de Stael sait tant de choses, que sans doute elle peut nager," seems as kind as the circumstances warranted. "Corinne's" vanity was of the hungry type, which, crying perpetually for bread, was often fed with stones.
It has been well said that the difference between a man's habitual rudeness and habitual politeness is probably as great a difference as he will ever be able to make in the sum of human happiness; and the arithmetic of life consists in adding to, or subtracting from, the pleasurable moments of mortality. Neither is it worth while to draw fine distinctions between pleasure and happiness. If we are indifferent to the pleasures of our fellow creatures, it will not take us long to be indifferent to their happiness. We do not grow generous by ceasing to be considerate.
As a matter of fact, the perpetual surrender which politeness dictates cuts down to a reasonable figure the sum total of our selfishness. To listen when we are bored, to talk when we are listless, to stand when we are tired, to praise when we are indifferent, to accept the companionship of a stupid acquaintance when we might, at the expense of politeness, escape to a clever friend, to endure with smiling composure the near presence of people who are distasteful to us,—these things, and many like them, brace the sinews of our souls. They set a fine and delicate standard for common intercourse. They discipline us for the good of the community.
We cannot ring the bells backward, blot out the Civil War, and exchange the speed of modern life for the slumberous dignity of the Golden Age,—an age whose gilding brightens as we leave it shimmering in the distance. But even under conditions which have the disadvantage of existing, the American is not without gentleness of speech and spirit. He is not always in a hurry. He is not always elbowing his way, or quivering with ill-bred impatience. Turn to him for help in a crowd, and feel the bright sureness of his response. Watch him under ordinary conditions, and observe his large measure of forbearance with the social deficiencies of his neighbour. Like Steele, he deems it humanity to laugh at an indifferent jest, and he has thereby earned for himself the reputation of being readily diverted. If he lacks the urbanities which embellish conversation, he is correspondingly free from the brutalities which degrade it. If his instinct does not prompt him to say something agreeable, it saves him from being wantonly unkind. Plain truths may be salutary; but unworthy truths are those which are destitute of any spiritual quality, which are not noble in themselves, and which are not nobly spoken; which may be trusted to offend, and which have never been known to illuminate. It is not for such asperities that we have perfected through the ages the priceless gift of language, that we seek to meet one another in the pleasant comradeship of life.
The Mission of Humour
"Laughter is my object: 'tis a property In man, essential to his reason." THOMAS RANDOLPH, The Muses' Looking-Glass.
American humour is the pride of American hearts. It is held to be our splendid national characteristic, which we flaunt in the faces of other nations, conceiving them to have been less favoured by Providence. Just as the most effective way to disparage an author or an acquaintance—and we have often occasion to disparage both—is to say that he lacks a sense of humour, so the most effective criticism we can pass upon a nation is to deny it this valuable quality. American critics have written the most charming things about the keenness of American speech, the breadth and insight of American drollery, the electric current in American veins; and we, reading these pleasant felicitations, are wont to thank God with greater fervour than the occasion demands that we are more merry and wise than our neighbours. Mr. Brander Matthews, for example, has told us that there are newspaper writers in New York who have cultivated a wit, "not unlike Voltaire's." He mistrusts this wit because he finds it "corroding and disintegrating"; but he makes the comparison with that casual assurance which is a feature of American criticism.
Indeed, our delight in our own humour has tempted us to overrate both its literary value and its corrective qualities. We are never so apt to lose our sense of proportion as when we consider those beloved writers whom we hold to be humourists because they have made us laugh. It may be conceded that, as a people, we have an abiding and somewhat disquieting sense of fun. We are nimble of speech, we are more prone to levity than to seriousness, we are able to recognize a vital truth when it is presented to us under the familiar aspect of a jest, and we habitually allow ourselves certain forms of exaggeration, accepting, perhaps unconsciously, Hazlitt's verdict: "Lying is a species of wit, and shows spirit and invention." It is true also that no adequate provision is made in this country for the defective but valuable class without humour, which in England is exceedingly well cared for. American letters, American journalism, and American speech are so coloured by pleasantries, so accentuated by ridicule, that the silent and stodgy men, who are apt to represent a nation's real strength, hardly know where to turn for a little saving dulness. A deep vein of irony runs through every grade of society, making it possible for us to laugh at our own bitter discomfiture, and to scoff with startling distinctness at the evils which we passively permit. Just as the French monarchy under Louis the Fourteenth was wittily defined as despotism tempered by epigram, so the United States have been described as a free republic fettered by jokes, and the taunt conveys a half-truth which it is worth our while to consider.
Now there are many who affirm that the humourist's point of view is, on the whole, the fairest from which the world can be judged. It is equally remote from the misleading side-lights of the pessimist and from the wilful blindness of the optimist. It sees things with uncompromising clearness, but it judges of them with tolerance and good temper. Moreover, a sense of the ridiculous is a sound preservative of social virtues. It places a proper emphasis on the judgments of our associates, it saves us from pitfalls of vanity and self-assurance, it lays the basis of that propriety and decorum of conduct upon which is founded the charm of intercourse among equals. And what it does for us individually, it does for us collectively. Our national apprehension of a jest fosters whatever grace of modesty we have to show. We dare not inflate ourselves as superbly as we should like to do, because our genial countrymen stand ever ready to prick us into sudden collapse. "It is the laugh we enjoy at our own expense which betrays us to the rest of the world."
Perhaps we laugh too readily. Perhaps we are sometimes amused when we ought to be angry. Perhaps we jest when it is our plain duty to reform. Here lies the danger of our national light-mindedness,—for it is seldom light-heartedness; we are no whit more light-hearted than our neighbours. A carping English critic has declared that American humour consists in speaking of hideous things with levity; and while so harsh a charge is necessarily unjust, it makes clear one abiding difference between the nations. An Englishman never laughs—except officially in "Punch"—over any form of political degradation. He is not in the least amused by jobbery, by bad service, by broken pledges. The seamy side of civilized life is not to him a subject for sympathetic mirth. He can pity the stupidity which does not perceive that it is cheated and betrayed; but penetration allied to indifference awakens his wondering contempt. "If you think it amusing to be imposed on," an Englishwoman once said to me, "you need never be at a loss for a joke."
In good truth, we know what a man is like by the things he finds laughable, we gauge both his understanding and his culture by his sense of the becoming and of the absurd. If the capacity for laughter be one of the things which separates men from brutes, the quality of laughter draws a sharp dividing-line between the trained intelligence and the vacant mind. The humour of a race interprets the character of a race, and the mental condition of which laughter is the expression is something which it behooves the student of human nature and the student of national traits to understand very clearly.
Now our American humour is, on the whole, good-tempered and decent. It is scandalously irreverent (reverence is a quality which seems to have been left out of our composition); but it has neither the pitilessness of the Latin, nor the grossness of the Teuton jest. As Mr. Gilbert said of Sir Beerbohm Tree's "Hamlet," it is funny without being coarse. We have at our best the art of being amusing in an agreeable, almost an amiable, fashion; but then we have also the rare good fortune to be very easily amused. Think of the current jokes provided for our entertainment week by week, and day by day. Think of the comic supplement of our Sunday newspapers, designed for the refreshment of the feeble-minded, and calculated to blight the spirits of any ordinarily intelligent household. Think of the debilitated jests and stories which a time-honoured custom inserts at the back of some of our magazines. It seems to be the custom of happy American parents to report to editors the infantile prattle of their engaging little children, and the editors print it for the benefit of those who escape the infliction firsthand. There is a story, pleasant but piteous, of Voltaire's listening with what patience he could muster to a comedy which was being interpreted by its author. At a certain point the dramatist read, "At this the Chevalier laughed"; whereupon Voltaire murmured enviously, "How fortunate the Chevalier was!" I think of that story whenever I am struck afresh by the ease with which we are moved to mirth.
A painstaking German student, who has traced the history of humour back to its earliest foundations, is of the opinion that there are eleven original jokes known to the world, or rather that there are eleven original and basic situations which have given birth to the world's jokes; and that all the pleasantries with which we are daily entertained are variations of these eleven originals, traceable directly or indirectly to the same sources. There are times when we are disposed to think eleven too generous a computation, and there are less weary moments in which the inexhaustible supply of situations still suggests fresh possibilities of laughter. Granted that the ever fertile mother-in-law jest and the one about the talkative barber were venerable in the days of Plutarch; there are others more securely and more deservedly rooted in public esteem which are, by comparison, new. Christianity, for example, must be held responsible for the missionary and cannibal joke, of which we have grown weary unto death; but which nevertheless possesses astonishing vitality, and exhibits remarkable breadth of treatment. Sydney Smith did not disdain to honour it with a joyous and unclerical quatrain; and the agreeable author of "Rab and his Friends" has told us the story of his fragile little schoolmate whose mother had destined him for a missionary, "though goodness knows there wasn't enough of him to go around among many heathen."
To Christianity is due also the somewhat ribald mirth which has clung for centuries about Saint Peter as gatekeeper of Heaven. We can trace this mirth back to the rude jests of the earliest miracle plays. We see these jests repeated over and over again in the folklore of Latin and Germanic nations. And if we open a comic journal to-day, there is more than a chance that we shall find Saint Peter, key in hand, uttering his time-honoured witticisms. This well-worn situation depends, as a rule, upon that common element of fun-making, the incongruous. Saint Peter invaded by air-ships. Saint Peter outwitting a squad of banner-flying suffragettes. Saint Peter losing his saintly temper over the expansive philanthropy of millionaires. Now and then a bit of true satire, like Mr. Kipling's "Tomlinson," conveys its deeper lesson to humanity. A recently told French story describes a lady of good reputation, family, and estate, presenting herself fearlessly at the gates of Heaven. Saint Peter receives her politely, and leads her through a street filled with lofty and beautiful mansions, any one of which she thinks will satisfy her requirements; but, to her amazement, they pass them by. Next they come to more modest but still charming houses with which she feels she could be reasonably content; but again they pass them by. Finally they reach a small and mean dwelling in a small and mean thoroughfare. "This," says Saint Peter, "is your habitation." "This!" cries the indignant lady; "I could not possibly live in any place so shabby and inadequate." "I am sorry, madame," replies the saint urbanely; "but we have done the best we could with the materials you furnished us."
There are no bounds to the loyalty with which mankind clings to a well-established jest, there is no limit to the number of times a tale will bear retelling. Occasionally we give it a fresh setting, adorn it with fresh accessories, and present it as new-born to the world; but this is only another indication of our affectionate tenacity. I have heard that caustic gibe of Queen Elizabeth's anent the bishop's lady and the bishop's wife (the Tudors had a biting wit of their own) retold at the expense of an excellent lady, the wife of a living American bishop; and the story of the girl who, professing religion, gave her ear-rings to a sister, because she knew they were taking her to Hell,—a story which dates from the early Wesleyan revivals in England,—I have heard located in Philadelphia, and assigned to one of Mr. Torrey's evangelistic services. We still resort, as in the days of Sheridan, to our memories for our jokes, and to our imaginations for our facts.
Moreover, we Americans have jests of our own,—poor things for the most part, but our own. They are current from the Atlantic to the Pacific, they appear with commendable regularity in our newspapers and comic journals, and they have become endeared to us by a lifetime of intimacy. The salient characteristics of our great cities, the accepted traditions of our mining-camps, the contrast between East and West, the still more familiar contrast between the torpor of Philadelphia and Brooklyn ("In the midst of life," says Mr. Oliver Herford, "we are—in Brooklyn") and the uneasy speed of New York,—these things furnish abundant material for everyday American humour. There is, for example, the encounter between the Boston girl and the Chicago girl, who, in real life, might often be taken for each other; but who, in the American joke, are as sharply differentiated as the Esquimo and the Hottentot. And there is the little Boston boy who always wears spectacles, who is always named Waldo, and who makes some innocent remark about "Literary Ethics," or the "Conduct of Life." We have known this little boy too long to bear a parting from him. Indeed, the mere suggestion that all Bostonians are forever immersed in Emerson is one which gives unfailing delight to the receptive American mind. It is a poor community which cannot furnish its archaic jest for the diversion of its neighbours.
The finest example of our bulldog resoluteness in holding on to a comic situation, or what we conceive to be a comic situation, may be seen every year when the twenty-second of February draws near, and the shops of our great and grateful Republic break out into an irruption of little hatchets, by which curious insignia we have chosen to commemorate our first President. These toys, occasionally combined with sprigs of artificial cherries, are hailed with unflagging delight, and purchased with what appears to be patriotic fervour. I have seen letter-carriers and post-office clerks wearing little hatchets in their button-holes, as though they were party buttons, or temperance badges. It is our great national joke, which I presume gains point from the dignified and reticent character of General Washington, and from the fact that he would have been sincerely unhappy could he have foreseen the senile character of a jest, destined, through our love of absurdity, our careful cultivation of the inappropriate, to be linked forever with his name.
The easy exaggeration which is a distinctive feature of American humour, and about which so much has been said and written, has its counterpart in sober and truth-telling England, though we are always amazed when we find it there, and fall to wondering, as we never wonder at home, in what spirit it was received. There are two kinds of exaggeration; exaggeration of statement, which is a somewhat primitive form of humour, and exaggeration of phrase, which implies a dexterous misuse of language, a skilful juggling with words. Sir John Robinson gives, as an admirable instance of exaggeration of statement, the remark of an American in London that his dining-room ceiling was so low that he could not have anything for dinner but soles. Sir John thought this could have been said only by an American, only by one accustomed to have a joke swiftly catalogued as a joke, and suffered to pass. An English jester must always take into account the mental attitude which finds "Gulliver's Travels" "incredible." When Mr. Edward FitzGerald said that the church at Woodbridge was so damp that fungi grew about the communion rail, Woodbridge ladies offered an indignant denial. When Dr. Thompson, the witty master of Trinity, observed of an undergraduate that "all the time he could spare from the neglect of his duties he gave to the adornment of his person," the sarcasm made its slow way into print; whereupon an intelligent British reader wrote to the periodical which had printed it, and explained painstakingly that, inasmuch as it was not possible to spare time from the neglect of anything, the criticism was inaccurate.
Exaggeration of phrase, as well as the studied understatement which is an even more effective form of ridicule, seem natural products of American humour. They sound, wherever we hear them, familiar to our ears. It is hard to believe that an English barrister, and not a Texas ranch-man, described Boston as a town where respectability stalked unchecked. Mazarin's plaintive reflection, "Nothing is so disagreeable as to be obscurely hanged," carries with it an echo of Wyoming or Arizona. Mr. Gilbert's analysis of Hamlet's mental disorder,—
"Hamlet is idiotically sane, With lucid intervals of lunacy,"—
has the pure flavour of American wit,—a wit which finds its most audacious expression in burlesquing bitter things, and which misfits its words with diabolic ingenuity. To match these alien jests, which sound so like our own, we have the whispered warning of an American usher (also quoted by Sir John Robinson) who opened the door to a late comer at one of Mr. Matthew Arnold's lectures: "Will you please make as little noise as you can, sir. The audience is asleep"; and the comprehensive remark of a New England scholar and wit that he never wanted to do anything in his life, that he did not find it was expensive, unwholesome, or immoral. This last observation embraces the wisdom of the centuries. Solomon would have endorsed it, and it is supremely quotable as expressing a common experience with very uncommon felicity.
When we leave the open field of exaggeration, that broad area which is our chosen territory, and seek for subtler qualities in American humour, we find here and there a witticism which, while admittedly our own, has in it an Old-World quality. The epigrammatic remark of a Boston woman that men get and forget, and women give and forgive, shows the fine, sharp finish of Sydney Smith or Sheridan. A Philadelphia woman's observation, that she knew there could be no marriages in Heaven, because—"Well, women were there no doubt in plenty, and some men; but not a man whom any woman would have," is strikingly French. The word of a New York broker, when Mr. Roosevelt sailed for Africa, "Wall Street expects every lion to do its duty!" equals in brevity and malice the keen-edged satire of Italy. No sharper thrust was ever made at prince or potentate.
The truth is that our love of a jest knows no limit and respects no law. The incongruities of an unequal civilization (we live in the land of contrasts) have accustomed us to absurdities, and reconciled us to ridicule. We rather like being satirized by our own countrymen. We are very kind and a little cruel to our humourists. We crown them with praise, we hold them to our hearts, we pay them any price they ask for their wares; but we insist upon their being funny all the time. Once a humourist, always a humourist, is our way of thinking; and we resent even a saving lapse into seriousness on the part of those who have had the good or the ill fortune to make us laugh.
England is equally obdurate in this regard. Her love of laughter has been consecrated by Oxford,—Oxford, the dignified refuge of English scholarship, which passed by a score of American scholars to bestow her honours on our great American joker. And because of this love of laughter, so desperate in a serious nation, English jesters have enjoyed the uneasy privileges of a court fool. Look at poor Hood. What he really loved was to wallow in the pathetic,—to write such harrowing verses as the "Bridge of Sighs," and the "Song of the Shirt" (which achieved the rare distinction of being printed—like the "Beggar's Petition"—on cotton handkerchiefs), and the "Lady's Dream." Every time he broke from his traces, he plunged into these morasses of melancholy; but he was always pulled out again, and reharnessed to his jokes. He would have liked to be funny occasionally and spontaneously, and it was the will of his master, the public, that he should be funny all the time, or starve. Lord Chesterfield wisely said that a man should live within his wit as well as within his income; but if Hood had lived within his wit—which might then have possessed a vital and lasting quality—he would have had no income. His role in life was like that of a dancing bear, which is held to commit a solecism every time it settles wearily down on the four legs nature gave it.
The same tyrannous demand hounded Mr. Eugene Field along his joke-strewn path. Chicago, struggling with vast and difficult problems, felt the need of laughter, and required of Mr. Field that he should make her laugh. He accepted the responsibility, and, as a reward, his memory is hallowed in the city he loved and derided. New York echoes this sentiment (New York echoes more than she proclaims; she confirms rather than initiates); and when Mr. Francis Wilson wrote some years ago a charming and enthusiastic paper for the "Century Magazine," he claimed that Mr. Field was so great a humourist as to be—what all great humourists are,—a moralist as well. But he had little to quote which could be received as evidence in a court of criticism; and many of the paragraphs which he deemed it worth while to reprint were melancholy instances of that jaded wit, that exhausted vitality, which in no wise represented Mr. Field's mirth-loving spirit, but only the things which were ground out of him when he was not in a mirthful mood.
The truth is that humour as a lucrative profession is a purely modern device, and one which is much to be deplored. The older humourists knew the value of light and shade. Their fun was precious in proportion to its parsimony. The essence of humour is that it should be unexpected, that it should embody an element of surprise, that it should startle us out of that reasonable gravity which, after all, must be our habitual frame of mind. But the professional humourist cannot afford to be unexpected. The exigencies of his vocation compel him to be relentlessly droll from his first page to his last, and this accumulated drollery weighs like lead. Compared to it, sermons are as thistle-down, and political economy is gay.
It is hard to estimate the value of humour as a national trait. Life has its appropriate levities, its comedy side. We cannot "see it clearly and see it whole," without recognizing a great many absurdities which ought to be laughed at, a great deal of nonsense which is a fair target for ridicule. The heaviest charge brought against American humour is that it never keeps its target well in view. We laugh, but we are not purged by laughter of our follies; we jest, but our jests are apt to have a kitten's sportive irresponsibility. The lawyer offers a witticism in place of an argument, the diner-out tells an amusing story in lieu of conversation. Even the clergyman does not disdain a joke, heedless of Dr. Johnson's warning which should save him from that pitfall. Smartness furnishes sufficient excuse for the impertinence of children, and with purposeless satire the daily papers deride the highest dignitaries of the land.
Yet while always to be reckoned with in life and letters, American humour is not a powerful and consistent factor either for destruction or for reform. It lacks, for the most part, a logical basis, and the dignity of a supreme aim. Moliere's humour amounted to a philosophy of life. He was wont to say that it was a difficult task to make gentlefolk laugh; but he succeeded in making them laugh at that which was laughable in themselves. He aimed his shafts at the fallacies and the duplicities which his countrymen ardently cherished, and he scorned the cheaper wit which contents itself with mocking at idols already discredited. As a result, he purged society, not of the follies that consumed it, but of the illusion that these follies were noble, graceful, and wise. "We do not plough or sow for fools," says a Russian proverb, "they grow of themselves"; but humour has accomplished a mighty work if it helps us to see that a fool is a fool, and not a prophet in the market-place. And if the man in the market-place chances to be a prophet, his message is safe from assault. No laughter can silence him, no ridicule weaken his words.
Carlyle's grim humour was also drilled into efficacy. He used it in orderly fashion; he gave it force by a stern principle of repression. He had (what wise man has not?) an honest respect for dulness, knowing that a strong and free people argues best—as Mr. Bagehot puts it—"in platoons." He had some measure of mercy for folly. But against the whole complicated business of pretence, against the pious, and respectable, and patriotic hypocrisies of a successful civilization, he hurled his taunts with such true aim that it is not too much to say there has been less real comfort and safety in lying ever since.
These are victories worth recording, and there is a big battlefield for American humour when it finds itself ready for the fray, when it leaves off firing squibs, and settles down to a compelling cannonade, when it aims less at the superficial incongruities of life, and more at the deep-rooted delusions which rob us of fair fame. It has done its best work in the field of political satire, where the "Biglow Papers" hit hard in their day, where Nast's cartoons helped to overthrow the Tweed dynasty, and where the indolent and luminous genius of Mr. Dooley has widened our mental horizon. Mr. Dooley is a philosopher, but his is the philosophy of the looker-on, of that genuine unconcern which finds Saint George and the dragon to be both a trifle ridiculous. He is always undisturbed, always illuminating, and not infrequently amusing; but he anticipates the smiling indifference with which those who come after us will look back upon our enthusiasms and absurdities. Humour, as he sees it, is that thrice blessed quality which enables us to laugh, when otherwise we should be in danger of weeping. "We are ridiculous animals," observes Horace Walpole unsympathetically, "and if angels have any fun in their hearts, how we must divert them."
It is this clear-sighted, non-combative humour which Americans love and prize, and the absence of which they reckon a heavy loss. Nor do they always ask, "a loss to whom?" Charles Lamb said it was no misfortune for a man to have a sulky temper. It was his friends who were unfortunate. And so with the man who has no sense of humour. He gets along very well without it. He is not aware that anything is lacking. He is not mourning his lot. What loss there is, his friends and neighbours bear. A man destitute of humour is apt to be a formidable person, not subject to sudden deviations from his chosen path, and incapable of frittering away his elementary forces by pottering over both sides of a question. He is often to be respected, sometimes to be feared, and always—if possible—to be avoided. His are the qualities which distance enables us to recognize and value at their worth. He fills his place in the scheme of creation; but it is for us to see that his place is not next to ours at table, where his unresponsiveness narrows the conversational area, and dulls the contagious ardour of speech. He may add to the wisdom of the ages, but he lessens the gayety of life.
Goodness and Gayety
"Can surly Virtue hope to find a friend?"—DR. JOHNSON.
Sir Leslie Stephen has recorded his conviction that a sense of humour, being irreconcilable with some of the cardinal virtues, is lacking in most good men. Father Faber asserted, on the contrary, that a sense of humour is a great help in the religious life, and emphasized this somewhat unusual point of view with the decisive statement: "Perhaps nature does not contribute a greater help to grace than this."
Here are conflicting verdicts to be well considered. Sir Leslie Stephen knew more about humour than did Father Faber; Father Faber knew more about "grace" than did Sir Leslie Stephen; and both disputants were widely acquainted with their fellow men. Sir Leslie Stephen had a pretty wit of his own, but it may have lacked the qualities which make for holiness. There was in it the element of denial. He seldom entered the shrine where we worship our ideals in secret. He stood outside, remarks Mr. Birrell cheerily, "with a pail of cold water." Father Faber also possessed a vein of irony which was the outcome of a priestly experience with the cherished foibles of the world. He entered unbidden into the shrine where we worship our illusions in secret, and chilled us with unwelcome truths. I know of no harder experience than this. It takes time and trouble to persuade ourselves that the things we want to do are the things we ought to do. We balance our spiritual accounts with care. We insert glib phrases about duty into all our reckonings. There is nothing, or next to nothing, which cannot, if adroitly catalogued, be considered a duty; and it is this delicate mental adjustment which is disturbed by Father Faber's ridicule. "Self-deceit," he caustically observes, "seems to thrive on prayer, and to grow fat on contemplation."
If a sense of humour forces us to be candid with ourselves, then it can be reconciled, not only with the cardinal virtues—which are but a chilly quartette—but with the flaming charities which have consumed the souls of saints. The true humourist, objects Sir Leslie Stephen, sees the world as a tragi-comedy, a Vanity Fair, in which enthusiasm is out of place. But if the true humourist also sees himself presiding, in the sacred name of duty, over a booth in Vanity Fair, he may yet reach perfection. What Father Faber opposed so strenuously were, not the vanities of the profane, of the openly and cheerfully unregenerate; but the vanities of a devout and fashionable congregation, making especial terms—by virtue of its exalted station—with Providence. These were the people whom he regarded all his priestly life with whimsical dismay. "Their voluntary social arrangements," he wrote in "Spiritual Conferences," "are the tyranny of circumstance, claiming our tenderest pity, and to be managed like the work of a Xavier, or a Vincent of Paul, which hardly left the saints time to pray. Their sheer worldliness is to be considered as an interior trial, with all manner of cloudy grand things to be said about it. They must avoid uneasiness, for such great graces as theirs can grow only in calmness and tranquillity."
This is irony rather than humour, but it implies a capacity to see the tragi-comedy of the world, without necessarily losing the power of enthusiasm. It also explains why Father Faber regarded an honest sense of the ridiculous as a help to goodness. The man or woman who is impervious to the absurd cannot well be stripped of self-delusion. For him, for her, there is no shaft which wounds. The admirable advice of Thomas a Kempis to keep away from people whom we desire to please, and the quiet perfection of his warning to the censorious, "In judging others, a man toileth in vain; for the most part he is mistaken, and he easily sinneth; but in judging and scrutinizing himself, he always laboureth with profit," can make their just appeal only to the humorous sense. So, too, the counsel of Saint Francis de Sales to the nuns who wanted to go barefooted, "Keep your shoes and change your brains"; the cautious query of Pope Gregory the First, concerning John the Faster, "Does he abstain even from the truth?" Cardinal Newman's axiom, "It is never worth while to call whity-brown white, for the sake of avoiding scandal"; and Father Faber's own felicitous comment on religious "hedgers," "A moderation which consists in taking immoderate liberties with God is hardly what the Fathers of the Desert meant when they preached their crusade in favour of discretion";—are all spoken to those hardy and humorous souls who can bear to be honest with themselves.
The ardent reformer, intolerant of the ordinary processes of life, the ardent philanthropist, intolerant of an imperfect civilization, the ardent zealot, intolerant of man's unspiritual nature, are seldom disposed to gayety. A noble impatience of spirit inclines them to anger or to sadness. John Wesley, reformer, philanthropist, zealot, and surpassingly great in all three characters, strangled within his own breast the simple desire to be gay. He was a young man when he formed the resolution, "to labour after continual seriousness, not willingly indulging myself in the least levity of behaviour, or in laughter,—no, not for a moment"; and for more than fifty years he kept—probably with no great difficulty—this stern resolve. The mediaeval saying, that laughter has sin for a father and folly for a mother, would have meant to Wesley more than a figure of speech. Nothing could rob him of a dry and bitter humour ("They won't let me go to Bedlam," he wrote, "because they say I make the inmates mad, nor into Newgate, because I make them wicked"); but there was little in his creed or in the scenes of his labours to promote cheerfulness of spirit.
This disciplining of nature, honest, erring human nature, which could, if permitted, make out a fair case for itself, is not an essential element of the evangelist's code. In the hands of men less great than Wesley, it has been known to nullify the work of a lifetime. The Lincolnshire farmer who, after listening to a sermon on Hell, said to his wife, "Noa, Sally, it woant do. Noa constitootion could stand it," expressed in his own fashion the healthy limit of endurance. Our spiritual constitutions break under a pitiless strain. When we read in the diary of Henry Alline, quoted by Dr. William James in his "Varieties of Religious Experience," "On Wednesday the twelfth I preached at a wedding, and had the happiness thereby to be the means of excluding carnal mirth," we are not merely sorry for the wedding guests, but beset by doubts as to their moral gain.
Why should Henry Martyn, that fervent young missionary who gave his life for his cause with the straight-forward simplicity of a soldier, have regretted so bitterly an occasional lapse into good spirits? He was inhumanly serious, and he prayed by night and day to be saved from his "besetting sin" of levity. He was consumed by the flame of religious zeal, and he bewailed at grievous length, in his diary, his "light, worldly spirit." He toiled unrestingly, taking no heed of his own physical weakness, and he asked himself (when he had a minute to spare) what would become of his soul, should he be struck dead in a "careless mood." We have Mr. Birrell's word for it that once, in an old book about India, he came across an after-dinner jest of Henry Martyn's; but the idea was so incongruous that the startled essayist was disposed to doubt the evidence of his senses. "There must have been a mistake somewhere."
To such a man the world is not, and never can be, a tragi-comedy, and laughter seems forever out of place. When a Madeira negress, a good Christian after her benighted fashion, asked Martyn if the English were ever baptized, he did not think the innocent question funny, he thought it horrible. He found Saint Basil's writings unsatisfactory, as lacking "evangelical truth"; and, could he have heard this great doctor of the Church fling back a witticism in the court of an angry magistrate, he would probably have felt more doubtful than ever concerning the status of the early Fathers. It is a relief to turn from the letters of Martyn, with their aloofness from the cheerful currents of earth, to the letters of Bishop Heber, who, albeit a missionary and a keen one, had always a laugh for the absurdities which beset his wandering life. He could even tell with relish the story of the drunken pedlar whom he met in Wales, and who confided to him that, having sold all his wares, he was trying to drink up the proceeds before he got home, lest his wife should take the money away from him. Heber, using the argument which he felt would be of most avail, tried to frighten the man into soberness by picturing his wife's wrath; whereupon the adroit scamp replied that he knew what that would be, and had taken the precaution to have his hair cut short, so that she could not get a grip on it. Martyn could no more have chuckled over this depravity than he could have chuckled over the fallen angels; but Saint Teresa could have laughed outright, her wonderful, merry, infectious laugh; and have then proceeded to plead, to scold, to threaten, to persuade, until a chastened and repentant pedlar, money in hand, and some dim promptings to goodness tugging at his heart, would have tramped bravely and soberly home.
It is so much the custom to obliterate from religious memoirs all vigorous human traits, all incidents which do not tend to edification, and all contemporary criticism which cannot be smoothed into praise, that what is left seems to the disheartened reader only a pale shadow of life. It is hard to make any biography illustrate a theme, or prove an argument; and the process by which such results are obtained is so artificial as to be open to the charge of untruth. Because General Havelock was a good Baptist as well as a good soldier, because he expressed a belief in the efficacy of prayer (like Cromwell's "Trust in God, and keep your powder dry "), and because he wrote to his wife, when sent to the relief of Lucknow, "May God give me wisdom and strength for the work!"—which, after all, was a natural enough thing for any man to say,—he was made the subject of a memoir determinedly and depressingly devout, in which his family letters were annotated as though they were the epistles of Saint Paul. Yet this was the man who, when Lucknow was relieved, behaved as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened to besiegers or besieged. "He shook hands with me," wrote Lady Inglis in her journal, "and observed that he feared we had suffered a great deal." That was all. He might have said as much had the little garrison been incommoded by a spell of unusual heat, or by an epidemic of measles.
As a matter of fact, piety is a by no means uncommon attribute of soldiers, and there was no need on the part of the Reverend Mr. Brock, who compiled these shadowy pages, to write as though General Havelock had been a rare species of the genius military. We know that what the English Puritans especially resented in Prince Rupert was his insistence on regimental prayers. They could pardon his raids, his breathless charges, his bewildering habit of appearing where he was least expected or desired; but that he should usurp their own especial prerogative of piety was more than they could bear. It is probable that Rupert's own private petitions resembled the memorable prayer offered by Sir Jacob Astley (a hardy old Cavalier who was both devout and humorous) before the battle of Edgehill: "Oh, Lord, Thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget Thee, do not Thou forget me. March on, boys!"
If it were not for a few illuminating anecdotes, and the thrice blessed custom of letter writing, we should never know what manner of thing human goodness, exalted human goodness, is; and so acquiesce ignorantly in Sir Leslie Stephen's judgment. The sinners of the world stand out clear and distinct, full of vitality, and of an engaging candour. The saints of Heaven shine dimly through a nebulous haze of hagiology. They are embodiments of inaccessible virtues, as remote from us and from our neighbours as if they had lived on another planet. There is no more use in asking us to imitate these incomprehensible creatures than there would be in asking us to climb by easy stages to the moon. Without some common denominator, sinner and saint are as aloof from each other as sinner and archangel. Without some clue to the saint's spiritual identity, the record of his labours and hardships, fasts, visions, and miracles, offers nothing more helpful than bewilderment. We may be edified or we may be sceptical, according to our temperament and training; but a profound unconcern devitalizes both scepticism and edification. What have we mortals in common with these perfected prodigies of grace?
It was Cardinal Newman who first entered a protest against "minced" saints, against the pious and popular custom of chopping up human records into lessons for the devout. He took exception to the hagiological licence which assigns lofty motives to trivial actions. "The saint from humility made no reply." "The saint was silent out of compassion for the ignorance of the speaker." He invited us to approach the Fathers of the Church in their unguarded moments, in their ordinary avocations, in their moods of gayety and depression; and, when we accepted the invitation, these figures, lofty and remote, became imbued with life. It is one thing to know that Saint Chrysostom retired at twenty-three to a monastery near Antioch, and there spent six years in seclusion and study. It is another and more enlightening thing to be made aware, through the medium of his own letters, that he took this step with reasonable doubts and misgivings,—doubts which extended to the freshness of the monastery bread, misgivings which concerned themselves with the sweetness of the monastery oil. And when we read these candid expressions of anxiety, Saint Chrysostom, by virtue of his healthy young appetite, and his distaste (which any poor sinner can share) for rancid oil, becomes a man and a brother. It is yet more consoling to know that when well advanced in sainthood, when old, austere, exiled, and suffering many privations for conscience' sake, Chrysostom was still disposed to be a trifle fastidious about his bread. He writes from Caesarea to Theodora that he has at last found clean water to drink, and bread which can be chewed. "Moreover, I no longer wash myself in broken crockery, but have contrived some sort of bath; also I have a bed to which I can confine myself."
If Saint Chrysostom possessed, according to Newman, a cheerful temper, and "a sunniness of mind all his own," Saint Gregory of Nazianzus was a fair humourist, and Saint Basil was a wit. "Pensive playfulness" is Newman's phrase for Basil, but there was a speed about his retorts which did not always savour of pensiveness. When the furious governor of Pontus threatened to tear out his liver, Basil, a confirmed invalid, replied suavely, "It is a kind intention. My liver, as at present located, has given me nothing but uneasiness."
To Gregory, Basil was not only guide, philosopher, and friend; but also a cherished target for his jests. It has been wisely said that we cannot really love anybody at whom we never laugh. Gregory loved Basil, revered him, and laughed at him. Does Basil complain, not unnaturally, that Tiberina is cold, damp, and muddy, Gregory writes to him unsympathetically that he is a "clean-footed, tip-toeing, capering man." Does Basil promise a visit, Gregory sends word to Amphilochus that he must have some fine pot-herbs, "lest Basil should be hungry and cross." Does Gregory visit Basil in his solitude at Pontus, he expresses in no measured terms his sense of the discomfort he endures. It would be hard to find, in all the annals of correspondence, a letter written with a more laudable and well-defined intention of teasing its recipient, than the one dispatched to Basil by Gregory after he has made good his escape from the austerities of his friend's housekeeping.
"I have remembrance of the bread and of the broth,—so they were named,—and shall remember them; how my teeth stuck in your hunches, and lifted and heaved themselves as out of paste. You, indeed, will set it out in tragic style, taking a sublime tone from your own sufferings; but for me, unless that true Lady Bountiful, your mother, had rescued me quickly, showing herself in my need like a haven to the tempest-tossed, I had been dead long ago, getting myself little honour, though much pity, from Pontic hospitality."
This is not precisely the tone in which the lives of the saints (of any saints of any creeds) are written. Therefore is it better to read what the saints say for themselves than what has been said about them. This is not precisely the point of view which is presented unctuously for our consideration, yet it makes all other points of view intelligible. It is contrary to human nature to court privations. We know that the saints did court them, and valued them as avenues to grace. It is in accord with human nature to meet privations cheerfully, and with a whimsical sense of discomfiture. When we hear the echo of a saint's laughter ringing down the centuries, we have a clue to his identity; not to his whole and heroic self, but to that portion of him which we can best understand, and with which we claim some humble brotherhood. We ourselves are not hunting assiduously for hardships; but which one of us has not summoned up courage enough to laugh in the face of disaster?
There is no reading less conducive to good spirits than the recitals of missionaries, or than such pitiless records as those compiled by Dr. Thomas William Marshall in his two portly volumes on "Christian Missions." The heathen, as portrayed by Dr. Marshall, do not in the least resemble the heathen made familiar to us by the hymns and tracts of our infancy. So far from calling on us to deliver their land "from error's chain," they mete out prompt and cruel death to their deliverers. So far from thirsting for Gospel truths, they thirst for the blood of the intruders. This is frankly discouraging, and we could never read so many pages of disagreeable happenings, were it not for the gayety of the letters which Dr. Marshall quotes, and which deal less in heroics than in pleasantries. Such men as Bishop Berneux, the Abbe Retord, and Father Feron, missionaries in Cochin-China and Corea, all possessed that protective sense of humour which kept up their spirits and their enthusiasms. Father Feron, for example, hidden away in the "Valley of the Pines," six hundred miles from safety, writes to his sister in the autumn of 1858:—
"I am lodged in one of the finest houses in the village, that of the catechist, an opulent man. It is considered to be worth a pound sterling. Do not laugh; there are some of the value of eightpence. My room has a sheet of paper for a door, the rain filters through my grass-covered roof as fast as it falls outside, and two large kettles barely suffice to receive it. ... The Prophet Elisha, at the house of the Shunamite, had for furniture a bed, a table, a chair, and a candlestick,—four pieces in all. No superfluity there. Now if I search well, I can also find four articles in my room; a wooden candlestick, a trunk, a pair of shoes, and a pipe. Bed none, chairs none, table none. Am I, then, richer or poorer than the Prophet? It is not an easy question to answer, for, granting that his quarters were more comfortable than mine, yet none of the things belonged to him; while in my case, although the candlestick is borrowed from the chapel, and the trunk from Monseigneur Berneux, the shoes (worn only when I say Mass) and the pipe are my very own."
Surely if one chanced to be the sister of a missionary in Corea, and apprehensive, with good cause, of his personal safety, this is the kind of a letter one would be glad to receive. The comfort of finding one's brother disinclined to take what Saint Gregory calls "a sublime tone" would tend—illogically, I own,—to ease the burden of anxiety. Even the remote reader, sick of discouraging details, experiences a renewal of confidence, and all because Father Feron's good humour is of the common kind which we can best understand, and with which it befits every one of us to meet the vicissitudes of life.
I have said that the ardent reformer is seldom gay. Small wonder, when his eyes are turned upon the dark places of earth, and his whole strength is consumed in combat. Yet Saint Teresa, the most redoubtable reformer of her day, was gay. No other word expresses the quality of her gladness. She was not only spiritually serene, she was humanly gay, and this in the face of acute ill-health, and many profound discouragements. We have the evidence of all her contemporaries,—friends, nuns, patrons, and confessors; and we have the far more enduring testimony of her letters, in proof of this mirthfulness of spirit, which won its way into hearts, and lightened the austerities of her rule. "A very cheerful and gentle disposition, an excellent temper, and absolutely void of melancholy," wrote Ribera. "So merry that when she laughed, every one laughed with her, but very grave when she was serious."
There is a strain of humour, a delicate and somewhat biting wit in the correspondence of Saint Teresa, and in her admonitions to her nuns. There is also an inspired common sense which we hardly expect to find in the writings of a religious and a mystic. But Teresa was not withdrawn from the world. She travelled incessantly from one end of Spain to the other, establishing new foundations, visiting her convents, and dealing with all classes of men, from the soldier to the priest, from the prince to the peasant. The severity of her discipline was tempered by a tolerant and half-amused insight into the pardonable foibles of humanity. She held back her nuns with one hand from "the frenzy of self-mortification," which is the mainstay of spiritual vanity, and with the other hand from a too solicitous regard for their own comfort and convenience. They were not to consider that the fear of a headache,—a non-existent headache threatening the future—was sufficient excuse for absenting themselves from choir; and, if they were too ailing to practise any other austerities, the rule of silence, she reminded them, could do the feeblest no harm. "Do not contend wordily over matters of no consequence," was her counsel of perfection. "Fly a thousand leagues from such observations as 'You see I was right,' or 'They did me an injustice.'"
Small wonder that peace reigned among the discalced Carmelites so long as Teresa ruled. Practical and fearless (save when a lizard ran up her sleeve, on which occasion she confesses she nearly "died of fright,") her much-sought advice was always on the side of reason. Asceticism she prized; dirt she abhorred. "For the love of Heaven," she wrote to the Provincial, Gratian, then occupied with his first foundation of discalced friars, "let your fraternity be careful that they have clean beds and tablecloths, even though it be more expensive, for it is a terrible thing not to be cleanly." No persuasion could induce her to retain a novice whom she believed to be unfitted for her rule:—"We women are not so easy to know," was her scornful reply to the Jesuit, Olea, who held his judgment in such matters to be infallible; but nevertheless her practical soul yearned over a well-dowered nun. When an "excellent novice" with a fortune of six thousand ducats presented herself at the gates of the poverty-stricken convent in Seville, Teresa, then in Avila, was consumed with anxiety lest such an acquisition should, through some blunder, be lost. "For the love of God," wrote the wise old saint to the prioress in Seville, "if she enters, bear with a few defects, for well does she deserve it."
This is not the type of anecdote which looms large in the volumes of "minced saints" prepared for pious readers, and its absence has accustomed us to dissever humour from sanctity. But a candid soul is, as a rule, a humorous soul, awake to the tragi-comic aspect of life, and immaculately free from self-deception. And to such souls, cast like Teresa's in heroic mould, comes the perception of great moral truths, together with the sturdy strength which supports enthusiasm in the face of human disabilities. They are the lantern-bearers of every age, of every race, of every creed, les ames bien nees whom it behooves us to approach fearlessly out of the darkness, for so only can we hope to understand.
The Nervous Strain
"Which fiddle-strings is weakness to expredge my nerves this night."—MRS. GAMP.
Anna Robeson Burr, in her scholarly analysis of the world's great autobiographies, has found occasion to compare the sufferings of the American woman under the average conditions of life with the endurance of the woman who, three hundred years ago, confronted dire vicissitudes with something closely akin to insensibility. "To-day," says Mrs. Burr, "a child's illness, an over-gay season, the loss of an investment, a family jar,—these are accepted as sufficient cause for over-strained nerves and temporary retirement to a sanitarium. Then, war, rapine, fire, sword, prolonged and mortal peril, were considered as furnishing no excuse to men or women for altering the habits, or slackening the energies, of their daily existence."
As a matter of fact, Isabella d' Este witnessed the sacking of Rome without so much as thinking of nervous prostration. This was nearly four hundred years ago, but it is the high-water mark of feminine fortitude. To live through such days and nights of horror, and emerge therefrom with unimpaired vitality, and unquenched love for a beautiful and dangerous world, is to rob the words "shock" and "strain" of all dignity and meaning. To resume at once the interrupted duties and pleasures of life was, for the Marchioness of Mantua, obligatory; but none the less we marvel that she could play her role so well.
A hundred and thirty years later, Sir Ralph Verney, an exiled royalist, sent his young wife back to England to petition Parliament for the restoration of his sequestrated estates. Lady Verney's path was beset by difficulties and dangers. She had few friends and many enemies, little money and cruel cares. She was, it is needless to state, pregnant when she left France, and paused in her work long enough to bear her husband "a lusty boy"; after which Sir Ralph writes that he fears she is neglecting her guitar, and urges her to practise some new music before she returns to the Continent.
Such pages of history make tonic reading for comfortable ladies who, in their comfortable homes, are bidden by their comfortable doctors to avoid the strain of anything and everything which makes the game of life worth living. It is our wont to think of our great-great-great-grandmothers as spending their days in undisturbed tranquillity. We take imaginary naps in their quiet rooms, envying the serenity of an existence unvexed by telegrams, telephones, clubs, lectures, committee-meetings, suffrage demonstrations, and societies for harrying our neighbours. How sweet and still those spacious rooms must have been! What was the remote tinkling of a harp, compared to pianolas, and phonographs, and all the infernal contrivances of science for producing and perpetuating noise? What was a fear of ghosts compared to a knowledge of germs? What was repeated child-bearing, or occasional smallpox, compared to the "over-pressure" upon "delicate organisms," which is making the fortunes of doctors to-day?
So we argue. Yet in good truth our ancestors had their share of pressure, and more than their share of ill-health. The stomach was the same ungrateful and rebellious organ then that it is now. Nature was the same strict accountant then that she is now, and balanced her debit and credit columns with the same relentless accuracy. The "liver" of the last century has become, we are told, the "nerves" of to-day; which transmigration should be a bond of sympathy between the new woman and that unchangeable article, man. We have warmer spirits and a higher vitality than our home-keeping great-grandmothers ever had. We are seldom hysterical, and we never faint. If we are gay, our gayeties involve less exposure and fatigue. If we are serious-minded, our attitude towards our own errors is one of unaffected leniency. That active, lively, all-embracing assurance of eternal damnation, which was part of John Wesley's vigorous creed, might have broken down the nervous system of a mollusk. The modern nurse, jealously guarding her patient from all but the neutralities of life, may be pleased to know that when Wesley made his memorable voyage to Savannah, a young woman on board the ship gave birth to her first child; and Wesley's journal is full of deep concern, because the other women about her failed to improve the occasion by exhorting the poor tormented creature "to fear Him who is able to inflict sharper pains than these."
As for the industrious idleness which is held to blame for the wrecking of our nervous systems, it was not unknown to an earlier generation. Madame Le Brun assures us that, in her youth, pleasure-loving people would leave Brussels early in the morning, travel all day to Paris, to hear the opera, and travel all night home. "That," she observes,—as well she may,—"was considered being fond of the opera." A paragraph in one of Horace Walpole's letters gives us the record of a day and a night in the life of an English lady,—sixteen hours of "strain" which would put New York to the blush. "I heard the Duchess of Gordon's journal of last Monday," he writes to Miss Berry in the spring of 1791. "She first went to hear Handel's music in the Abbey; she then clambered over the benches, and went to Hastings's trial in the Hall; after dinner, to the play; then to Lady Lucan's assembly; after that to Ranelagh, and returned to Mrs. Hobart's faro-table; gave a ball herself in the evening of that morning, into which she must have got a good way; and set out for Scotland the next day. Hercules could not have accomplished a quarter of her labours in the same space of time."
Human happiness was not to this gay Gordon a "painless languor"; and if she failed to have nervous prostration—under another name—she was cheated of her dues. Wear-and-tear plus luxury is said to break down the human system more rapidly than wear-and-tear plus want; but perhaps wear-and-tear plus pensive self-consideration is the most destructive agent of all. "Apres tout, c'est un monde passable"; and the Duchess of Gordon was too busy acquainting herself with this fact to count the costs, or even pay the penalty.
One thing is sure,—we cannot live in the world without vexation and without fatigue. We are bidden to avoid both, just as we are bidden to avoid an injudicious meal, a restless night, a close and crowded room, an uncomfortable sensation of any kind,—as if these things were not the small coin of existence. An American doctor who was delicately swathing his nervous patient in cotton wool, explained that, as part of the process, she must be secluded from everything unpleasant. No disturbing news must be told her. No needless contradiction must be offered her. No disagreeable word must be spoken to her. "But doctor," said the lady, who had long before retired with her nerves from all lively contact with realities, "who is there that would dream of saying anything disagreeable to me?" "Madam," retorted the physician, irritated for once into unprofessional candour, "have you then no family?"
There is a bracing quality about family criticism, if we are strong enough to bear its veracities. What makes it so useful is that it recognizes existing conditions. All the well-meant wisdom of the "Don't Worry" books is based upon immunity from common sensations and from everyday experience. We must—unless we are insensate—take our share of worry along with our share of mishaps. All the kindly counsellors who, in scientific journals, entreat us to keep on tap "a vivid hope, a cheerful resolve, an absorbing interest," by way of nerve-tonic, forget that these remedies do not grow under glass. They are hardy plants, springing naturally in eager and animated natures. Artificial remedies might be efficacious in an artificial world. In a real world, the best we can do is to meet the plagues of life as Dick Turpin met the hangman's noose, "with manly resignation, though with considerable disgust." Moreover, disagreeable things are often very stimulating. A visit to some beautiful little rural almshouses in England convinced me that what kept the old inmates alert and in love with life was, not the charm of their bright-coloured gardens, nor the comfort of their cottage hearths, but the vital jealousies and animosities which pricked their sluggish blood to tingling.
There are prophets who predict the downfall of the human race through undue mental development, who foresee us (flatteringly, I must say) winding up the world's history in a kind of intellectual apotheosis. They write distressing pages about the strain of study in schools, the strain of examinations, the strain of competition, the strain of night-work, when children ought to be in bed, the strain of day-work, when they ought to be at play. An article on "Nerves and Over-Pressure" in the "Dublin Review" conveys the impression that little boys and girls are dangerously absorbed in their lessons, and draws a fearful picture of these poor innocents literally "grinding from babyhood." It is over-study (an evil from which our remote ancestors were wholly and happily exempt) which lays, so we are told, the foundation of all our nervous disorders. It is this wasting ambition which exhausts the spring of childhood and the vitality of youth.
There must be some foundation for fears so often expressed; though when we look at the blooming boys and girls of our acquaintance, with their placid ignorance and their love of fun, their glory in athletics and their transparent contempt for learning, it is hard to believe that they are breaking down their constitutions by study. Nor is it possible to acquire even the most modest substitute for education without some effort. The carefully fostered theory that school-work can be made easy and enjoyable breaks down as soon as anything, however trivial, has to be learned.
Life is a real thing in the school-room and in the nursery; and children—left to their own devices—accept it with wonderful courage and sagacity. If we allow to their souls some noble and free expansion, they may be trusted to divert themselves from that fretful self-consciousness which the nurse calls naughtiness, and the doctor, nerves. A little wholesome neglect, a little discipline, plenty of play, and a fair chance to be glad and sorry as the hours swing by,—these things are not too much to grant to childhood. That careful coddling which deprives a child of all delicate and strong emotions lest it be saddened, or excited, or alarmed, leaves it dangerously soft of fibre. Coleridge, an unhappy little lad at school, was lifted out of his own troubles by an acquaintance with the heroic sorrows of the world. There is no page of history, however dark, there is no beautiful old tale, however tragic, which does not impart some strength and some distinction to the awakening mind. It is possible to overrate the superlative merits of insipidity as a mental and moral force in the development of youth.
There are people who surrender themselves without reserve to needless activities, who have a real affection for telephones, and district messengers, and the importunities of their daily mail. If they are women, they put special delivery stamps on letters which would lose nothing by a month's delay. If they are men, they exult in the thought that they can be reached by wireless telegraphy on mid-ocean. We are apt to think of these men and women as painful products of our own time and of our own land; but they have probably existed since the building of the Tower of Babel,—a nerve-racking piece of work which gave peculiar scope to strenuous and impotent energies.
A woman whose every action is hurried, whose every hour is open to disturbance, whose every breath is drawn with superfluous emphasis, will talk about the nervous strain under which she is living, as though dining out and paying the cook's wages were the things which are breaking her down. The remedy proposed for such "strain" is withdrawal from the healthy buffetings of life,—not for three days, as Burke withdrew in order that he might read "Evelina," and be rested and refreshed thereby; but long enough to permit of the notion that immunity from buffetings is a possible condition of existence,—of all errors, the most irretrievable.
It has been many centuries since Marcus Aurelius observed the fretful disquiet of Rome, which must have been strikingly like our fretful disquiet to-day, and proffered counsel, unheeded then as now: "Take pleasure in one thing and rest in it, passing from one social act to another, thinking of God."
The Girl Graduate
"When I find learning and wisdom united in one person, I do not wait to consider the sex; I bend in admiration."—LA BRUYERE.
We shall never know, though we shall always wonder, why certain phrases, carelessly flung to us by poet or by orator, should be endowed with regrettable vitality. When Tennnyson wrote that mocking line about "sweet girl graduates in their golden hair," he could hardly have surmised that it would be quoted exuberantly year after weary year, or that with each successive June it would reappear as the inspiration of flowery editorials, and of pictures, monotonously amorous, in our illustrated journals. Perhaps in view of the serious statistics which have for some time past girdled the woman student, statistics dealing exhaustively with her honours, her illnesses, her somewhat nebulous achievements, and the size of her infant families, it is as well to realize that the big, unlettered, easy-going world regards her still from the standpoint of golden hair, and of the undying charm of immaturity.
In justice to the girl graduate, it must be said that she takes herself simply and sanely. It is not her fault that statisticians note down every breath she draws; and many of their most heartrending allegations have passed into college jokes, traditional jokes, fated to descend from senior to freshman for happy years to come. The student learns in the give-and-take of communal life to laugh at many things, partly from sheer high spirits, partly from youthful cynicism, and the habit of sharpening her wit against her neighbour's. It is commonly believed that she is an unduly serious young person with an insatiable craving for knowledge; in reality she is often as healthily unresponsive as is her Yale or Harvard brother. If she cannot yet weave her modest acquirements into the tissue of her life as unconcernedly as her brother does, it is not because she has been educated beyond her mental capacity: it is because social conditions are not for her as inevitable as they are for him.
Things were simpler in the old days, when college meant for a woman the special training needed for a career; when, battling often with poverty, she made every sacrifice for the education which would give her work a market value; and when all she asked in return was the dignity of self-support. Now many girls, unspurred by necessity or by ambition, enter college because they are keen for personal and intellectual freedom, because they desire the activities and the pleasures which college generously gives. They bring with them some traditions of scholarship, and some knowledge of the world, with a corresponding elasticity of judgment. They may or may not be good students, but their influence makes for serenity and balance. Their four years' course lacks, however, a definite goal. It is a training for life, as is the four years' course of their Yale or Harvard brothers, but with this difference,—the college woman's life is still open to adjustment.