THE FUNCTION OF THE POET AND OTHER ESSAYS
BY JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL
COLLECTED AND EDITED BY ALBERT MORDELL
KENNIKAT PRESS, INC./PORT WASHINGTON, N.Y.
THE FUNCTION OF THE POET
1920 by Houghton Mifflin Company
Reissued in 1967 by Kennikat Press
The Centenary Celebration of James Russell Lowell last year showed that he has become more esteemed as a critic and essayist than as a poet. Lowell himself felt that his true calling was in critical work rather than in poetry, and he wrote very little verse in the latter part of his life. He was somewhat chagrined that the poetic flame of his youth did not continue to glow, but he resigned himself to his fate; nevertheless, it should be remembered that "The Vision of Sir Launfal," "The Biglow Papers," and "The Commemoration Ode" are enough to make the reputation of any poet.
The present volume sustains Lowell's right to be considered one of the great American critics. The literary merit of some of the essays herein is in many respects nowise inferior to that in some of the volumes he collected himself. The articles are all exquisitely and carefully written, and the style of even the book reviews displays that quality found in his best writings which Ferris Greenslet has appropriately described as "savory." That such a quantity of good literature by so able a writer as Lowell should have been allowed to repose buried in the files of old magazines so long is rather unfortunate. The fact that Lowell did not collect them is a tribute to his modesty, a tribute all the more worthy in these days when some writers of ephemeral reviews on ephemeral books think it their duty to collect their opinions in book form.
The essays herein represent the matured author as they were written in the latter part of his life, between his thirty-sixth and fifty-seventh years. The only early essay is the one on Poe. It appeared in Graham's Magazine for February, 1845, and was reprinted by Griswold in his edition of Poe. It has also been reprinted in later editions of Poe, but has never been included in any of Lowell's works. This was no doubt due to the slight break in the relations between Poe and Lowell, due to Poe's usual accusations of plagiarism. The essay still remains one of the best on Poe ever written.
Though Lowell became in later life quite conservative and academic, it should not be thought that these essays show no sympathy with liberal ideas. He was also appreciative of the first works of new writers, and had good and prophetic insight. His favorable reviews of the first works of Howells and James, and the subsequent career of these two men, indicate the sureness of Lowell's critical mind. Many readers will enjoy, in these days of the ouija board and messages from the dead, the raps at spiritualism here and there. Moreover, there is a passage in the first essay showing that Lowell, before Freud, understood the psychoanalytic theory of genius in its connection with childhood memories. The passage follows Lowell's narration of the story of little Montague.
None of the essays in this volume has appeared in book form except a few fragments from some of the opening five essays which were reported from Lowell's lectures in the Boston Advertiser, in 1855, and were privately printed some years ago. Charles Eliot Norton performed a service to the world when he published in the Century Magazine in 1893 and 1894 some lectures from Lowell's manuscripts. These lectures are now collected and form the first five essays in this book. I have also retained Professor Norton's introductions and notes. Attention is called to his remark that "The Function of the Poet" is not unworthy to stand with Sidney's and Shelley's essays on poetry.
The rest of the essays in this volume appeared in Lowell's lifetime in the Atlantic Monthly, the North American Review, and the Nation. They were all anonymous, but are assigned to Lowell by George Willis Cooke in his "Bibliography of James Russell Lowell." Lowell was editor of the Atlantic from the time of its founding in 1857 to May, 1861. He was editor of the North American Review from January, 1864, to the time he left for Europe in 1872. With one exception (that on "Poetry and Nationalism" which formed the greater part of a review of the poems of Howells's friend Piatt), all the articles from these two magazines, reprinted in this volume, appeared during Lowell's editorship. These articles include reviews of poems by his friends Longfellow and Whittier. And in his review of "The Courtship of Miles Standish," Lowell makes effective use of his scholarship to introduce a lengthy and interesting discourse on the dactylic hexameter.
While we are on the subject of the New England poets a word about the present misunderstanding and tendency to underrate them may not be out of place. Because it is growing to be the consensus of opinion that the two greatest poets America has produced are Whitman and Poe, it does not follow that the New-Englanders must be relegated to the scrap-heap. Nor do I see any inconsistency in a man whose taste permits him to enjoy both the free verse and unpuritanic (if I may coin a word) poems of Masters and Sandburg, and also Whittier's "Snow-Bound" and Longfellow's "Courtship of Miles Standish." Though these poems are not profound, there is something of the universal in them. They have pleasant school-day memories for all of us and will no doubt have such for our children.
Lowell's cosmopolitan tastes may be seen in his essays on men so different as Thackeray, Swift, and Plutarch. Hardly any one knows that he even wrote about these authors. Lowell preferred Thackeray to Dickens, a judgment in which many people to-day no longer agree with him. As a young man he hated Swift, but he gives us a sane study of him. The review of Plutarch's "Essays" edited by Goodwin, with an introduction by Emerson, is also of interest.
The last essay in the volume on "A Plea for Freedom from Speech and Figures of Speech-Makers" shows Lowell's satirical powers at their best. Ferris Greenslet tells us, in his book on Lowell, that the Philip Vandal whose eloquence Lowell ridicules is Wendell Phillips. The essay gives Lowell's humorous comments on various matters, especially on contemporary types of orators, reformers, and heroes. It represents Lowell as he is most known to us, the Lowell who is always ready with fun and who set the world agog with his "Biglow Papers."
Lowell's work as a critic dates from the rare volume "Conversations on Some of the Old Poets," published in 1844 in his twenty-fifth year, includes his best-known volumes "Among My Books" and "My Study Windows," and most fitly concludes with the "Latest Literary Essays," published in the year of his death in 1891. My sincere hope is that this book will not be found to be an unworthy successor to these volumes.
Though some of Lowell's literary opinions are old-fashioned to us (one author even wrote an entire volume to demolish Lowell's reputation as a critic), there is much in his work that the world will not let die. He is highly regarded abroad, and he is one of the few men in our literature who produced creative criticism.
Thanks and acknowledgments are due the Century Magazine and the literary representatives of Lowell, for permission to reprint in this volume the first five essays, which are copyrighted and were published in the Century Magazine.
Philadelphia, January 13, 1920
ON POETRY AND BELLES-LETTRES
THE FUNCTION OF THE POET With note by Charles Eliot Norton. Century Magazine, January, 1894
HUMOR, WIT, FUN, AND SATIRE With note by Charles Eliot Norton. Century Magazine, November, 1893
THE FIVE INDISPENSABLE AUTHORS (HOMER, DANTE, CERVANTES, GOETHE, SHAKESPEARE) Century Magazine, December, 1893
THE IMAGINATION Century Magazine, March, 1894
CRITICAL FRAGMENTS Century Magazine, May, 1894 I. Life in Literature and Language II. Style and Manner III. Kalevala
REVIEWS OF CONTEMPORARIES
HENRY JAMES: JAMES'S TALES AND SKETCHES The Nation, June 24, 1875
LONGFELLOW: THE COURTSHIP OF MILES STANDISH Atlantic Monthly, January, 1859
TALES OF A WAYSIDE INN North American Review, January, 1864
WHITTIER: IN WAR TIME, AND OTHER POEMS North American Review, January, 1864
HOME BALLADS AND POEMS Atlantic Monthly, November, 1860
SNOW-BOUND: A WINTER IDYL North American Review, April, 1866
POETRY AND NATIONALITY North American Review, October, 1868
W.D. HOWELLS: VENETIAN LIFE North American Review, October, 1866
EDGAR A. POE Graham's Magazine, February, 1845; R.W. Griswold's edition of Poe's Works (1850)
THACKERAY: ROUNDABOUT PAPERS North American Review, April, 1864
TWO GREAT AUTHORS
SWIFT: FORSTER'S LIFE OF SWIFT The Nation, April 13 and 20, 1876
PLUTARCH'S MORALS North American Review, April, 1871
A PLEA FOR FREEDOM FROM SPEECH AND FIGURES OF SPEECH-MAKERS Atlantic Monthly, December, 1860
ON POETRY AND BELLES-LETTRES
THE FUNCTION OF THE POET
This was the concluding lecture in the course which Lowell read before the Lowell Institute in the winter of 1855. Doubtless Lowell never printed it because, as his genius matured, he felt that its assertions were too absolute, and that its style bore too many marks of haste in composition, and was too rhetorical for an essay to be read in print. How rapid was the growth of his intellectual judgment, and the broadening of his imaginative view, may be seen by comparing it with his essays on Swinburne, on Percival, and on Rousseau, published in 1866 and 1867—essays in which the topics of this lecture were touched upon anew, though not treated at large.
But the spirit of this lecture is so fine, its tone so full of the enthusiasm of youth, its conception of the poet so lofty, and the truths it contains so important, that it may well be prized as the expression of a genius which, if not yet mature, is already powerful, and aquiline alike in vision and in sweep of wing. It is not unworthy to stand with Sidney's and with Shelley's "Defence of Poesy," and it is fitted to warm and inspire the poetic heart of the youth of this generation, no less than of that to which it was first addressed. As a close to the lecture Lowell read his beautiful (then unpublished) poem "To the Muse."
Charles Eliot Norton
* * * * *
Whether, as some philosophers assume, we possess only the fragments of a great cycle of knowledge in whose centre stood the primeval man in friendly relation with the powers of the universe, and build our hovels out of the ruins of our ancestral palace; or whether, according to the development theory of others, we are rising gradually, and have come up out of an atom instead of descending from an Adam, so that the proudest pedigree might run up to a barnacle or a zoophyte at last, are questions that will keep for a good many centuries yet. Confining myself to what little we can learn from history, we find tribes rising slowly out of barbarism to a higher or lower point of culture and civility, and everywhere the poet also is found, under one name or other, changing in certain outward respects, but essentially the same.
And however far we go back, we shall find this also—that the poet and the priest were united originally in the same person; which means that the poet was he who was conscious of the world of spirit as well as that of sense, and was the ambassador of the gods to men. This was his highest function, and hence his name of "seer." He was the discoverer and declarer of the perennial beneath the deciduous. His were the epea pteroenta, the true "winged words" that could fly down the unexplored future and carry the names of ancestral heroes, of the brave and wise and good. It was thus that the poet could reward virtue, and, by and by, as society grew more complex, could burn in the brand of shame. This is Homer's character of Demodocus, in the eighth book of the "Odyssey," "whom the Muse loved and gave the good and ill"—the gift of conferring good or evil immortality. The first histories were in verse; and sung as they were at feasts and gatherings of the people, they awoke in men the desire of fame, which is the first promoter of courage and self-trust, because it teaches men by degrees to appeal from the present to the future. We may fancy what the influence of the early epics was when they were recited to men who claimed the heroes celebrated in them for their ancestors, by what Bouchardon, the sculptor, said, only two centuries ago: "When I read Homer, I feel as if I were twenty feet high." Nor have poets lost their power over the future in modern times. Dante lifts up by the hair the face of some petty traitor, the Smith or Brown of some provincial Italian town, lets the fire of his Inferno glare upon it for a moment, and it is printed forever on the memory of mankind. The historians may iron out the shoulders of Richard the Third as smooth as they can, they will never get over the wrench that Shakespeare gave them.
The peculiarity of almost all early literature is that it seems to have a double meaning, that, underneath its natural, we find ourselves continually seeing or suspecting a supernatural meaning. In the older epics the characters seem to be half typical and only half historical. Thus did the early poets endeavor to make realities out of appearances; for, except a few typical men in whom certain ideas get embodied, the generations of mankind are mere apparitions who come out of the dark for a purposeless moment, and reenter the dark again after they have performed the nothing they came for.
Gradually, however, the poet as the "seer" became secondary to the "maker." His office became that of entertainer rather than teacher. But always something of the old tradition was kept alive. And if he has now come to be looked upon merely as the best expresser, the gift of seeing is implied as necessarily antecedent to that, and of seeing very deep, too. If any man would seem to have written without any conscious moral, that man is Shakespeare. But that must be a dull sense, indeed, which does not see through his tragic—yes, and his comic—masks awful eyes that flame with something intenser and deeper than a mere scenic meaning—a meaning out of the great deep that is behind and beyond all human and merely personal character. Nor was Shakespeare himself unconscious of his place as a teacher and profound moralist: witness that sonnet in which he bewails his having neglected sometimes the errand that was laid upon him:
Alas, 't is true I have gone here and there, And made myself a motley to the view, Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear, Made old offences of affections new; Most true it is that I have look'd on truth Askance and strangely;
the application of which is made clear by the next sonnet, in which he distinctly alludes to his profession.
There is this unmistakable stamp on all the great poets—that, however in little things they may fall below themselves, whenever there comes a great and noble thing to say, they say it greatly and nobly, and bear themselves most easily in the royalties of thought and language. There is not a mature play of Shakespeare's in which great ideas do not jut up in mountainous permanence, marking forever the boundary of provinces of thought, and known afar to many kindreds of men.
And it is for this kind of sight, which we call insight, and not for any faculty of observation and description, that we value the poet. It is in proportion as he has this that he is an adequate expresser, and not a juggler with words. It is by means of this that for every generation of man he plays the part of "namer." Before him, as before Adam, the creation passes to be named anew: first the material world; then the world of passions and emotions; then the world of ideas. But whenever a great imagination comes, however it may delight itself with imaging the outward beauty of things, however it may seem to flow thoughtlessly away in music like a brook, yet the shadow of heaven lies also in its depth beneath the shadow of earth. Continually the visible universe suggests the invisible. We are forever feeling this in Shakespeare. His imagination went down to the very bases of things, and while his characters are the most natural that poet ever created, they are also perfectly ideal, and are more truly the personifications of abstract thoughts and passions than those of any allegorical writer whatever.
Even in what seems so purely a picturesque poem as the "Iliad," we feel something of this. Beholding as Homer did, from the tower of contemplation, the eternal mutability and nothing permanent but change, he must look underneath the show for the reality. Great captains and conquerors came forth out of the eternal silence, entered it again with their trampling hosts, and shoutings, and trumpet-blasts, and were as utterly gone as those echoes of their deeds which he sang, and which faded with the last sound of his voice and the last tremble of his lyre. History relating outward events alone was an unmeaning gossip, with the world for a village. This life could only become other than phantasmagoric, could only become real, as it stood related to something that was higher and permanent. Hence the idea of Fate, of a higher power unseen—that shadow, as of an eagle circling to its swoop, which flits stealthily and swiftly across the windy plains of Troy. In the "Odyssey" we find pure allegory.
Now, under all these names—praiser, seer, soothsayer—we find the same idea lurking. The poet is he who can best see and best say what is ideal—what belongs to the world of soul and of beauty. Whether he celebrate the brave and good man, or the gods, or the beautiful as it appears in man or nature, something of a religious character still clings to him; he is the revealer of Deity. He may be unconscious of his mission; he may be false to it; but in proportion as he is a great poet, he rises to the level of it the more often. He does not always directly rebuke what is bad and base, but indirectly by making us feel what delight there is in the good and fair. If he besiege evil, it is with such beautiful engines of war (as Plutarch tells us of Demetrius) that the besieged themselves are charmed with them. Whoever reads the great poets cannot but be made better by it, for they always introduce him to a higher society, to a greater style of manners and of thinking. Whoever learns to love what is beautiful is made incapable of the low and mean and bad. If Plato excludes the poets from his Republic, it is expressly on the ground that they speak unworthy things of the gods; that is, that they have lost the secret of their art, and use artificial types instead of speaking the true universal language of imagination. He who translates the divine into the vulgar, the spiritual into the sensual, is the reverse of a poet.
The poet, under whatever name, always stands for the same thing—imagination. And imagination in its highest form gives him the power, as it were, of assuming the consciousness of whatever he speaks about, whether man or beast, or rock or tree, fit is the ring of Canace, which whoso has on understands the language of all created things. And as regards expression, it seems to enable the poet to condense the whole of himself into a single word. Therefore, when a great poet has said a thing, it is finally and utterly expressed, and has as many meanings as there are men who read his verse. A great poet is something more than an interpreter between man and nature; he is also an interpreter between man and his own nature. It is he who gives us those key-words, the possession of which makes us masters of all the unsuspected treasure-caverns of thought, and feeling, and beauty which open under the dusty path of our daily life.
And it is not merely a dry lexicon that he compiles,—a thing which enables us to translate from one dead dialect into another as dead,—but all his verse is instinct with music, and his words open windows on every side to pictures of scenery and life. The difference between the dry fact and the poem is as great as that between reading the shipping news and seeing the actual coming and going of the crowd of stately ships,—"the city on the inconstant billows dancing,"—as there is between ten minutes of happiness and ten minutes by the clock. Everybody remembers the story of the little Montague who was stolen and sold to the chimney-sweep: how he could dimly remember lying in a beautiful chamber; how he carried with him in all his drudgery the vision of a fair, sad mother's face that sought him everywhere in vain; how he threw himself one day, all sooty as he was from his toil, on a rich bed and fell asleep, and how a kind person woke him, questioned him, pieced together his broken recollections for him, and so at last made the visions of the beautiful chamber and the fair, sad countenance real to him again. It seems to me that the offices that the poet does for us are typified in this nursery-tale. We all of us have our vague reminiscences of the stately home of our childhood,—for we are all of us poets and geniuses in our youth, while earth is all new to us, and the chalice of every buttercup is brimming with the wine of poesy,—and we all remember the beautiful, motherly countenance which nature bent over us there. But somehow we all get stolen away thence; life becomes to us a sooty taskmaster, and we crawl through dark passages without end—till suddenly the word of some poet redeems us, makes us know who we are, and of helpless orphans makes us the heir to a great estate. It is to our true relations with the two great worlds of outward and inward nature that the poet reintroduces us.
But the imagination has a deeper use than merely to give poets a power of expression. It is the everlasting preserver of the world from blank materialism. It forever puts matter in the wrong, and compels it to show its title to existence. Wordsworth tells us that in his youth he was sometimes obliged to touch the walls to find if they were visionary or no, and such experiences are not uncommon with persons who converse much with their own thoughts. Dr. Johnson said that to kick one's foot against a stone was a sufficient confutation of Berkeley, and poor old Pyrrho has passed into a proverb because, denying the objectivity of matter, he was run over by a cart and killed. But all that he affirmed was that to the soul the cart was no more real than its own imaginative reproduction of it, and perhaps the shade of the philosopher ran up to the first of his deriders who crossed the Styx with a triumphant "I told you so! The cart did not run over me, for here I am without a bone broken."
And, in another sense also, do those poets who deal with human character, as all the greater do, continually suggest to us the purely phantasmal nature of life except as it is related to the world of ideas. For are not their personages more real than most of those in history? Is not Lear more authentic and permanent than Lord Raglan? Their realm is a purely spiritual one in which space and time and costume are nothing. What matters it that Shakespeare puts a seaport in Bohemia, and knew less geography than Tommy who goes to the district school? He understood eternal boundaries, such as are laid down on no chart, and are not defined by such transitory affairs as mountain chains, rivers, and seas.
No great movement of the human mind takes place without the concurrent beat of those two wings, the imagination and the understanding. It is by the understanding that we are enabled to make the most of this world, and to use the collected material of experience in its condensed form of practical wisdom; and it is the imagination which forever beckons toward that other world which is always future, and makes us discontented with this. The one rests upon experience; the other leans forward and listens after the inexperienced, and shapes the features of that future with which it is forever in travail. The imagination might be defined as the common sense of the invisible world, as the understanding is of the visible; and as those are the finest individual characters in which the two moderate and rectify each other, so those are the finest eras where the same may be said of society. In the voyage of life, not only do we depend on the needle, true to its earthly instincts, but upon observation of the fixed stars, those beacons lighted upon the eternal promontories of heaven above the stirs and shiftings of our lower system.
But it seems to be thought that we have come upon the earth too late, that there has been a feast of imagination formerly, and all that is left for us is to steal the scraps. We hear that there is no poetry in railroads and steamboats and telegraphs, and especially none in Brother Jonathan. If this be true, so much the worse for him. But because he is a materialist, shall there be no more poets? When we have said that we live in a materialistic age we have said something which meant more than we intended. If we say it in the way of blame, we have said a foolish thing, for probably one age is as good as another, and, at any rate, the worst is good enough company for us. The age of Shakespeare was richer than our own, only because it was lucky enough to have such a pair of eyes as his to see it, and such a gift of speech as his to report it. And so there is always room and occasion for the poet, who continues to be, just as he was in the early time, nothing more nor less than a "seer." He is always the man who is willing to take the age he lives in on trust, as the very best that ever was. Shakespeare did not sit down and cry for the water of Helicon to turn the wheels of his little private mill at the Bankside. He appears to have gone more quietly about his business than any other playwright in London, to have drawn off what water-power he needed from the great prosy current of affairs that flows alike for all and in spite of all, to have ground for the public what grist they wanted, coarse or fine, and it seems a mere piece of luck that the smooth stream of his activity reflected with such ravishing clearness every changing mood of heaven and earth, every stick and stone, every dog and clown and courtier that stood upon its brink. It is a curious illustration of the friendly manner in which Shakespeare received everything that came along,—of what a present man he was,—that in the very same year that the mulberry-tree was brought into England, he got one and planted it in his garden at Stratford.
It is perfectly true that this is a materialistic age, and for that very reason we want our poets all the more. We find that every generation contrives to catch its singing larks without the sky's falling. When the poet comes, he always turns out to be the man who discovers that the passing moment is the inspired one, and that the secret of poetry is not to have lived in Homer's day, or Dante's, but to be alive now. To be alive now, that is the great art and mystery. They are dead men who live in the past, and men yet unborn that live in the future. We are like Hans in Luck, forever exchanging the burdensome good we have for something else, till at last we come home empty-handed.
That pale-faced drudge of Time opposite me there, that weariless sexton whose callous hands bury our rosy hours in the irrevocable past, is even now reaching forward to a moment as rich in life, in character, and thought, as full of opportunity, as any since Adam. This little isthmus that we are now standing on is the point to which martyrs in their triumphant pain, prophets in their fervor, and poets in their ecstasy, looked forward as the golden future, as the land too good for them to behold with mortal eyes; it is the point toward which the faint-hearted and desponding hereafter will look back as the priceless past when there was still some good and virtue and opportunity left in the world.
The people who feel their own age prosaic are those who see only its costume. And that is what makes it prosaic—that we have not faith enough in ourselves to think our own clothes good enough to be presented to posterity in. The artists fancy that the court dress of posterity is that of Van Dyck's time, or Caesar's. I have seen the model of a statue of Sir Robert Peel,—a statesman whose merit consisted in yielding gracefully to the present,—in which the sculptor had done his best to travesty the real man into a make-believe Roman. At the period when England produced its greatest poets, we find exactly the reverse of this, and we are thankful that the man who made the monument of Lord Bacon had genius to copy every button of his dress, everything down to the rosettes on his shoes, and then to write under his statue, "Thus sat Francis Bacon"—not "Cneius Pompeius"—"Viscount Verulam." Those men had faith even in their own shoe-strings.
After all, how is our poor scapegoat of a nineteenth century to blame? Why, for not being the seventeenth, to be sure! It is always raining opportunity, but it seems it was only the men two hundred years ago who were intelligent enough not to hold their cups bottom-up. We are like beggars who think if a piece of gold drop into their palm it must be counterfeit, and would rather change it for the smooth-worn piece of familiar copper. And so, as we stand in our mendicancy by the wayside, Time tosses carefully the great golden to-day into our hats, and we turn it over grumblingly and suspiciously, and are pleasantly surprised at finding that we can exchange it for beef and potatoes. Till Dante's time the Italian poets thought no language good enough to put their nothings into but Latin,—and indeed a dead tongue was the best for dead thoughts,—but Dante found the common speech of Florence, in which men bargained and scolded and made love, good enough for him, and out of the world around him made a poem such as no Roman ever sang.
In our day, it is said despairingly, the understanding reigns triumphant: it is the age of common sense. If this be so, the wisest way would be to accept it manfully. But, after all, what is the meaning of it? Looking at the matter superficially, one would say that a striking difference between our science and that of the world's gray fathers is that there is every day less and less of the element of wonder in it. What they saw written in light upon the great arch of heaven, and, by a magnificent reach of sympathy, of which we are incapable, associated with the fall of monarchs and the fate of man, is for us only a professor, a piece of chalk, and a blackboard. The solemn and unapproachable skies we have vulgarized; we have peeped and botanized among the flowers of light, pulled off every petal, fumbled in every calyx, and reduced them to the bare stem of order and class. The stars can no longer maintain their divine reserves, but whenever there is a conjunction and congress of planets, every enterprising newspaper sends thither its special reporter with his telescope. Over those arcana of life where once a mysterious presence brooded, we behold scientific explorers skipping like so many incarnate notes of interrogation. We pry into the counsels of the great powers of nature, we keep our ears at the keyhole, and know everything that is going to happen. There is no longer any sacred inaccessibility, no longer any enchanting unexpectedness, and life turns to prose the moment there is nothing unattainable. It needs no more a voice out of the unknown proclaiming "Great Pan is dead!" We have found his tombstone, deciphered the arrow-headed inscription upon it, know his age to a day, and that he died universally regretted.
Formerly science was poetry. A mythology which broods over us in our cradle, which mingles with the lullaby of the nurse, which peoples the day with the possibility of divine encounters, and night with intimation of demonic ambushes, is something quite other, as the material for thought and poetry, from one that we take down from our bookshelves, as sapless as the shelf it stood on, as remote from all present sympathy with man or nature as a town history with its genealogies of Mr. Nobody's great-grandparents.
We have utilized everything. The Egyptians found a hint of the solar system in the concentric circles of the onion, and revered it as a symbol, while we respect it as a condiment in cookery, and can pass through all Weathersfield without a thought of the stars. Our world is a museum of natural history; that of our forefathers was a museum of supernatural history. And the rapidity with which the change has been going on is almost startling, when we consider that so modern and historical a personage as Queen Elizabeth was reigning at the time of the death of Dr. John Faustus, out of whose story the Teutonic imagination built up a mythus that may be set beside that of Prometheus.
Science, looked at scientifically, is bare and bleak enough. On those sublime heights the air is too thin for the lungs, and blinds the eyes. It is much better living down in the valleys, where one cannot see farther than the next farmhouse. Faith was never found in the bottom of a crucible, nor peace arrived at by analysis or synthesis. But all this is because science has become too grimly intellectual, has divorced itself from the moral and imaginative part of man. Our results are not arrived at in that spirit which led Kepler (who had his theory-traps set all along the tracks of the stars to catch a discovery) to say, "In my opinion the occasions of new discoveries have been no less wonderful than the discoveries themselves."
But we are led back continually to the fact that science cannot, if it would, disengage itself from human nature and from imagination. No two men have ever argued together without at least agreeing in this, that something more than proof is required to produce conviction, and that a logic which is capable of grinding the stubbornest facts to powder (as every man's own logic always is) is powerless against so delicate a structure as the brain. Do what we will, we cannot contrive to bring together the yawning edges of proof and belief, to weld them into one. When Thor strikes Skrymir with his terrible hammer, the giant asks if a leaf has fallen. I need not appeal to the Thors of argument in the pulpit, the senate, and the mass-meeting, if they have not sometimes found the popular giant as provokingly insensible. The [sqrt of -x] is nothing in comparison with the chance-caught smell of a single flower which by the magic of association recreates for us the unquestioning day of childhood. Demonstration may lead to the very gate of heaven, but there she makes us a civil bow, and leaves us to make our way back again to Faith, who has the key. That science which is of the intellect alone steps with indifferent foot upon the dead body of Belief, if only she may reach higher or see farther.
But we cannot get rid of our wonder—we who have brought down the wild lightning, from writing fiery doom upon the walls of heaven, to be our errand-boy and penny-postman. Wonder is crude imagination; and it is necessary to us, for man shall not live by bread alone, and exact knowledge is not enough. Do we get nearer the truth or farther from it that we have got a gas or an imponderable fluid instead of a spirit? We go on exorcising one thing after another, but what boots it? The evasive genius flits into something else, and defies us. The powers of the outer and inner world form hand in hand a magnetic circle for whose connection man is necessary. It is the imagination that takes his hand and clasps it with that other stretched to him in the dark, and for which he was vainly groping. It is that which renews the mystery in nature, makes it wonderful and beautiful again, and out of the gases of the man of science remakes the old spirit. But we seem to have created too many wonders to be capable of wondering any longer; as Coleridge said, when asked if he believed in ghosts, that he had seen too many of them. But nature all the more imperatively demands it, and science can at best but scotch it, not kill it. In this day of newspapers and electric telegraphs, in which common sense and ridicule can magnetize a whole continent between dinner and tea, we say that such a phenomenon as Mahomet were impossible, and behold Joe Smith and the State of Deseret! Turning over the yellow leaves of the same copy of "Webster on Witchcraft" which Cotton Mather studied, I thought, "Well, that goblin is laid at last!"—and while I mused the tables were turning, and the chairs beating the devil's tattoo all over Christendom. I have a neighbor who dug down through tough strata of clay to a spring pointed out by a witch-hazel rod in the hands of a seventh son's seventh son, and the water is the sweeter to him for the wonder that is mixed with it. After all, it seems that our scientific gas, be it never so brilliant, is not equal to the dingy old Aladdin's lamp.
It is impossible for men to live in the world without poetry of some sort or other. If they cannot get the best they will get some substitute for it, and thus seem to verify Saint Augustine's slur that it is wine of devils. The mind bound down too closely to what is practical either becomes inert, or revenges itself by rushing into the savage wilderness of "isms." The insincerity of our civilization has disgusted some persons so much that they have sought refuge in Indian wigwams and found refreshment in taking a scalp now and then. Nature insists above all things upon balance. She contrives to maintain a harmony between the material and spiritual, nor allows the cerebrum an expansion at the cost of the cerebellum. If the character, for example, run on one side into religious enthusiasm, it is not unlikely to develop on the other a counterpoise of worldly prudence. Thus the Shaker and the Moravian are noted for thrift, and mystics are not always the worst managers. Through all changes of condition and experience man continues to be a citizen of the world of idea as well as the world of fact, and the tax-gatherers of both are punctual.
And these antitheses which we meet with in individual character we cannot help seeing on the larger stage of the world also, a moral accompanying a material development. History, the great satirist, brings together Alexander and the blower of peas to hint to us that the tube of the one and the sword of the other were equally transitory; but meanwhile Aristotle was conquering kingdoms out of the unknown, and establishing a dynasty of thought from whose hand the sceptre has not yet passed. So there are Charles V, and Luther; the expansion of trade resulting from the Spanish and Portuguese discoveries, and the Elizabethan literature; the Puritans seeking spiritual El Dorados while so much valor and thought were spent in finding mineral ones. It seems to be the purpose of God that a certain amount of genius shall go to each generation, particular quantities being represented by individuals, and while no one is complete in himself, all collectively make up a whole ideal figure of a man. Nature is not like certain varieties of the apple that cannot bear two years in succession. It is only that her expansions are uniform in all directions, that in every age she completes her circle, and like a tree adds a ring to her growth be it thinner or thicker.
Every man is conscious that he leads two lives, the one trivial and ordinary, the other sacred and recluse; the one which he carries to the dinner-table and to his daily work, which grows old with his body and dies with it, the other that which is made up of the few inspiring moments of his higher aspiration and attainment, and in which his youth survives for him, his dreams, his unquenchable longings for something nobler than success. It is this life which the poets nourish for him, and sustain with their immortalizing nectar. Through them he feels once more the white innocence of his youth. His faith in something nobler than gold and iron and cotton comes back to him, not as an upbraiding ghost that wrings its pale hands and is gone, but beautiful and inspiring as a first love that recognizes nothing in him that is not high and noble. The poets are nature's perpetual pleaders, and protest with us against what is worldly. Out of their own undying youth they speak to ours. "Wretched is the man," says Goethe, "who has learned to despise the dreams of his youth!" It is from this misery that the imagination and the poets, who are its spokesmen, rescue us. The world goes to church, kneels to the eternal Purity, and then contrives to sneer at innocence and ignorance of evil by calling it green. Let every man thank God for what little there may be left in him of his vernal sweetness. Let him thank God if he have still the capacity for feeling an unmarketable enthusiasm, for that will make him worthy of the society of the noble dead, of the companionship of the poets. And let him love the poets for keeping youth young, woman womanly, and beauty beautiful.
There is as much poetry as ever in the world if we only knew how to find it out; and as much imagination, perhaps, only that it takes a more prosaic direction. Every man who meets with misfortune, who is stripped of material prosperity, finds that he has a little outlying mountain-farm of imagination, which did not appear in the schedule of his effects, on which his spirit is able to keep itself alive, though he never thought of it while he was fortunate. Job turns out to be a great poet as soon as his flocks and herds are taken away from him.
There is no reason why our continent should not sing as well as the rest. We have had the practical forced upon us by our position. We have had a whole hemisphere to clear up and put to rights. And we are descended from men who were hardened and stiffened by a downright wrestle with necessity. There was no chance for poetry among the Puritans. And yet if any people have a right to imagination, it should be the descendants of these very Puritans. They had enough of it, or they could never have conceived the great epic they did, whose books are States, and which is written on this continent from Maine to California.
But there seems to be another reason why we should not become a poetical people. Formerly the poet embodied the hopes and desires of men in visible types. He gave them the shoes of swiftness, the cap of invisibility and the purse of Fortunatus. These were once stories for grown men, and not for the nursery as now. We are apt ignorantly to wonder how our forefathers could find satisfaction in fiction the absurdity of which any of our primary-school children could demonstrate. But we forget that the world's gray fathers were children themselves, and that in their little world, with its circle of the black unknown all about it, the imagination was as active as it is with people in the dark. Look at a child's toys, and we shall understand the matter well enough. Imagination is the fairy godmother (every child has one still), at the wave of whose wand sticks become heroes, the closet in which she has been shut fifty times for being naughty is turned into a palace, and a bit of lath acquires all the potency of Excalibur.
But nowadays it is the understanding itself that has turned poet. In her railroads she has given us the shoes of swiftness. Fine-Ear herself could not hear so far as she, who in her magnetic telegraph can listen in Boston and hear what is going on in New Orleans. And what need of Aladdin's lamp when a man can build a palace with a patent pill? The office of the poet seems to be reversed, and he must give back these miracles of the understanding to poetry again, and find out what there is imaginative in steam and iron and telegraph-wires. After all, there is as much poetry in the iron horses that eat fire as in those of Diomed that fed on men. If you cut an apple across you may trace in it the lines of the blossom that the bee hummed around in May, and so the soul of poetry survives in things prosaic. Borrowing money on a bond does not seem the most promising subject in the world, but Shakespeare found the "Merchant of Venice" in it. Themes of song are waiting everywhere for the right man to sing them, like those enchanted swords which no one can pull out of the rock till the hero comes, and he finds no more trouble than in plucking a violet.
John Quincy Adams, making a speech at New Bedford, many years ago, reckoned the number of whale-ships (if I remember rightly) that sailed out of that port, and, comparing it with some former period, took it as a type of American success. But, alas! it is with quite other oil that those far-shining lamps of a nation's true glory which burn forever must be filled. It is not by any amount of material splendor or prosperity, but only by moral greatness, by ideas, by works of imagination, that a race can conquer the future. No voice comes to us from the once mighty Assyria but the hoot of the owl that nests amid her crumbling palaces. Of Carthage, whose merchant-fleets once furled their sails in every port of the known world, nothing is left but the deeds of Hannibal. She lies dead on the shore of her once subject sea, and the wind of the desert only flings its handfuls of burial-sand upon her corpse. A fog can blot Holland or Switzerland out of existence. But how large is the space occupied in the maps of the soul by little Athens and powerless Italy! They were great by the soul, and their vital force is as indestructible as the soul.
Till America has learned to love art, not as an amusement, not as the mere ornament of her cities, not as a superstition of what is comme il faut for a great nation, but for its humanizing and ennobling energy, for its power of making men better by arousing in them a perception of their own instincts for what is beautiful, and therefore sacred and religious, and an eternal rebuke of the base and worldly, she will not have succeeded in that high sense which alone makes a nation out of a people, and raises it from a dead name to a living power. Were our little mother-island sunk beneath the sea, or, worse, were she conquered by Scythian barbarians, yet Shakespeare would be an immortal England, and would conquer countries, when the bones of her last sailor had kept their ghastly watch for ages in unhallowed ooze beside the quenched thunders of her navy.
Old Purchas in his "Pilgrims" tells of a sacred caste in India who, when they go out into the street, cry out, "Poo! Poo!" to warn all the world out of their way lest they should be defiled by something unclean. And it is just so that the understanding in its pride of success thinks to pooh-pooh all that it considers impractical and visionary. But whatever of life there is in man, except what comes of beef and pudding, is in the visionary and unpractical, and if it be not encouraged to find its activity or its solace in the production or enjoyment of art and beauty, if it be bewildered or thwarted by an outward profession of faith covering up a practical unbelief in anything higher and holier than the world of sense, it will find vent in such wretched holes and corners as table-tippings and mediums who sell news from heaven at a quarter of a dollar the item. Imagination cannot be banished out of the world. She may be made a kitchen-drudge, a Cinderella, but there are powers that watch over her. When her two proud sisters, the intellect and understanding, think her crouching over her ashes, she startles and charms by her splendid apparition, and Prince Soul will put up with no other bride.
The practical is a very good thing in its way—if it only be not another name for the worldly. To be absorbed in it is to eat of that insane root which the soldiers of Antonius found in their retreat from Parthia—which whoso tasted kept gathering sticks and stones as if they were some great matter till he died.
One is forced to listen, now and then, to a kind of talk which makes him feel as if this were the after-dinner time of the world, and mankind were doomed hereafter forever to that kind of contented materialism which comes to good stomachs with the nuts and raisins. The dozy old world has nothing to do now but stretch its legs under the mahogany, talk about stocks, and get rid of the hours as well as it can till bedtime. The centuries before us have drained the goblet of wisdom and beauty, and all we have left is to cast horoscopes in the dregs. But divine beauty, and the love of it, will never be without apostles and messengers on earth, till Time flings his hour-glass into the abyss as having no need to turn it longer to number the indistinguishable ages of Annihilation. It was a favorite speculation with the learned men of the sixteenth century that they had come upon the old age and decrepit second childhood of creation, and while they maundered, the soul of Shakespeare was just coming out of the eternal freshness of Deity, "trailing" such "clouds of glory" as would beggar a Platonic year of sunsets.
No; morning and the dewy prime are born into the earth again with every child. It is our fault if drought and dust usurp the noon. Every age says to her poets, like the mistress to her lover, "Tell me what I am like"; and, in proportion as it brings forth anything worth seeing, has need of seers and will have them. Our time is not an unpoetical one. We are in our heroic age, still face to face with the shaggy forces of unsubdued Nature, and we have our Theseuses and Perseuses, though they may be named Israel Putnam and Daniel Boone. It is nothing against us that we are a commercial people. Athens was a trading community; Dante and Titian were the growth of great marts, and England was already commercial when she produced Shakespeare.
This lesson I learn from the past: that grace and goodness, the fair, the noble, and the true, will never cease out of the world till the God from whom they emanate ceases out of it; that they manifest themselves in an eternal continuity of change to every generation of men, as new duties and occasions arise; that the sacred duty and noble office of the poet is to reveal and justify them to men; that so long as the soul endures, endures also the theme of new and unexampled song; that while there is grace in grace, love in love, and beauty in beauty, God will still send poets to find them and bear witness of them, and to hang their ideal portraitures in the gallery of memory. God with us is forever the mystical name of the hour that is passing. The lives of the great poets teach us that they were the men of their generation who felt most deeply the meaning of the present.
HUMOR, WIT, FUN, AND SATIRE
In the winter of 1855, when Lowell was thirty-six years old, he gave a course of twelve lectures before the Lowell Institute in Boston. His subject was the English Poets, and the special topics of the successive lectures were: 1, "Poetry, and the Poetic Sentiment," illustrating the imaginative faculty; 2, "Piers Ploughman's Vision," as the first characteristically English poem; 3, "The Metrical Romances," marking the advent into our poetry of the sense of Beauty; 4, "The Ballads," especially as models of narrative diction; 5, Chaucer, as the poet of real life—the poet outside of nature; 6, Spenser, as the representative of the purely poetical; 7, Milton, as representing the imaginative; 8, Butler, as the wit; 9, Pope, as the poet of artificial life; 10, "On Poetic Diction"; 11, Wordsworth, as representing the egotistic imaginative, or the poet feeling himself in nature; 12, "On the Function and Prospects of Poetry."
These lectures were written rapidly, many of them during the period of delivery of the course; they bore marks of hastiness of composition, but they came from a full and rich mind, and they were the issues of familiar studies and long reflection. No such criticism, at once abundant in knowledge and in sympathetic insight, and distinguished by breadth of view, as well as by fluency, grace, and power of style, had been heard in America. They were listened to by large and enthusiastic audiences, and they did much to establish Lowell's position as the ablest of living critics of poetry, and, in many respects, as the foremost of American men of letters.
In the same year he was made Professor of Belles-Lettres in Harvard University, and after spending somewhat more than a year in Europe, in special preparation, he entered in the autumn of 1856 upon the duties of the chair, which he continued to occupy till 1877, when he was appointed Minister of the United States to Spain.
During the years of his professorship he delivered numerous courses of lectures to his classes. Few of them were written out, but they were given more or less extemporaneously from full notes. The subject of these courses was in general the "Study of Literature," treating in different years of different special topics, from the literature of Northern to that of Southern Europe, from the Kalevala and the Niebelungen Lied to the Provencal poets; from Wolfram von Eschenbach to Rousseau; from the cycle of romances of Charlemagne and his peers to Dante and Shakespeare. Some of these lectures, or parts of them, were afterward prepared for publication, with such changes as were required to give them proper literary form; and the readers of Lowell's prose works know what gifts of native power, what large and solid acquisitions of learning, what wide and delightful survey of the field of life and of letters, are to be found in his essays on Shakespeare, on Dante, on Dryden, and on many another poet or prose writer. The abundance of his resources as critic in the highest sense have never been surpassed, at least in English literature.
But considerable portions of the earlier as well as of the later lectures remain unprinted, partly, no doubt, because his points of view changed with the growth of his learning, and the increasing depth as well as breadth of his vision. There is but little in manuscript which he would himself, I believe, have been inclined to print without substantial change. Yet these unprinted remains contain so much that seems to me to possess permanent value that, after some question and hesitation, I have come to the conclusion that selections from them should be published. The fragments must be read with the fact constantly held in mind that they do not always represent Lowell's mature opinions; that, in some instances, they give but the first form of thoughts developed in other connections in one or other of his later essays; that they have not received his last revision; that they have the form of discourse addressed to the ear, rather than that of literary work finished for the eye.
If so read, I trust that the reader, while he may find little in them to increase Lowell's well-established reputation, may find much in them to confirm a high estimate of his position as one of the rare masters of English prose as well as one of the most capable of critics; much to interest him alike in their intrinsic character, and in their illustration of the life and thought of the writer; and much to make him feel a keen regret that they are the final contributions of their author to the treasures of English literature.
Charles Eliot Norton
* * * * *
Hippel, the German satirist, divides the life of man into five periods, according to the ruling desires which successively displace each other in the human soul. Our first longing, he says, is for trousers, the second for a watch, the third for an angel in pink muslin, the fourth for money, and the fifth for a "place" in the country. I think he has overlooked one, which I should be inclined to place second in point of time—the ambition to escape the gregarious nursery, and to be master of a chamber to one's self.
How charming is the memory of that cloistered freedom, of that independence, wide as desire, though, perhaps, only ten feet by twelve! How much of future tastes and powers lay in embryo there in that small chamber! It is the egg of the coming life. There the young sailor pores over the "Narratives of Remarkable Shipwrecks," his longing heightened as the storm roars on the roof, or blows its trumpet in the chimney. There the unfledged naturalist gathers his menagerie, and empties his pockets of bugs and turtles that awaken the ignorant animosity of the housemaid. There the commencing chemist rehearses the experiment of Schwarz, and singes off those eyebrows which shall some day feel the cool shadow of the discoverer's laurel. There the antiquary begins his collections with a bullet from Bunker Hill, as genuine as the epistles of Phalaris, or a button from the coat-tail of Columbus, late the property of a neighboring scarecrow, and sold to him by a schoolmate, who thus lays the foundation of that colossal fortune which is to make his children the ornaments of society. There the potential Dibdin or Dowse gathers his library on a single pendulous shelf—more fair to him than the hanging gardens of Babylon. There stand "Robinson Crusoe," and "Gulliver," perhaps "Gil Blas," Goldsmith's Histories of Greece and Rome, "Original Poems for Infant Minds," the "Parent's Assistant," and (for Sundays) the "Shepherd of Salisbury Plain," with other narratives of the excellent Mrs. Hannah More too much neglected in maturer life. With these are admitted also "Viri Romae," Nepos, Florus, Phaedrus, and even the Latin grammar, because they count, playing here upon these mimic boards the silent but awful part of second and third conspirators, a role in after years assumed by statelier and more celebrated volumes—the "books without which no gentleman's library can be complete."
I remember (for I must call my memory back from this garrulous rookery of the past to some perch nearer the matter in hand) that when I was first installed lord of such a manor, and found myself the Crusoe of that remote attic-island, which for near thirty years was to be my unmolested hermitage, I cast about for works of art with which to adorn it. The garret, that El Dorado of boys, supplied me with some prints which had once been the chief ornament of my great-grandfather's study, but which the growth of taste or luxury had banished from story to story till they had arrived where malice could pursue them no farther. These were heads of ancient worthies—Plato, Pythagoras, Socrates, Seneca, and Cicero, whom, from a prejudice acquired at school, I shortly banished again with a quousque tandem! Besides those I have mentioned, there were Democritus and Heraclitus, which last, in those days less the slave of tradition, I called Heraclitus—an error which my excellent schoolmaster (I thank him for it) would have expelled from my head by the judicious application of a counter-irritant; for he regarded the birth as a kind of usher to the laurel, as indeed the true tree of knowledge, whose advantages could Adam have enjoyed during early life, he had known better than to have yielded to the temptation of any other.
[Footnote 1: Some readers may recall the reference to these "heads of ancient wise men" in "An Interview with Miles Standish."—C.E.N.]
Well, over my chimney hung those two antithetical philosophers—the one showing his teeth in an eternal laugh, while the tears on the cheek of the other forever ran, and yet, like the leaves on Keats's Grecian urn, could never be shed. I used to wonder at them sometimes, believing, as I did firmly, that to weep and laugh had been respectively the sole business of their lives. I was puzzled to think which had the harder time of it, and whether it were more painful to be under contract for the delivery of so many tears per diem, or to compel that [Greek: anerithmon gelasma] I confess, I pitied them both; for if it be difficult to produce on demand what Laura Matilda would call the "tender dew of sympathy," he is also deserving of compassion who is expected to be funny whether he will or no. As I grew older, and learned to look on the two heads as types, they gave rise to many reflections, raising a question perhaps impossible to solve: whether the vices and follies of men were to be washed away, or exploded by a broadside of honest laughter. I believe it is Southwell who says that Mary Magdalene went to Heaven by water, and it is certain that the tears that people shed for themselves are apt to be sincere; but I doubt whether we are to be saved by any amount of vicarious salt water, and, though the philosophers should weep us into another Noah's flood, yet commonly men have lumber enough of self-conceit to build a raft of, and can subsist a good while on that beautiful charity for their own weaknesses in which the nerves of conscience are embedded and cushioned, as in similar physical straits they can upon their fat.
[Footnote 1: Countless—i.e., perpetual—smile.]
On the other hand, man has a wholesome dread of laughter, as he is the only animal capable of that phenomenon—for the laugh of the hyena is pronounced by those who have heard it to be no joke, and to be classed with those [Greek: gelasmata agelasta] which are said to come from the other side of the mouth. Whether, as Shaftesbury will have it, ridicule be absolutely the test of truth or no, we may admit it to be relatively so, inasmuch as by the reductio ad absurdum it often shows that abstract truth may become falsehood, if applied to the practical affairs of life, because its relation to other truths equally important, or to human nature, has been overlooked. For men approach truth from the circumference, and, acquiring a knowledge at most of one or two points of that circle of which God is the centre, are apt to assume that the fixed point from which it is described is that where they stand. Moreover, "Ridentem dicere verum, quid vetat?"
I side rather with your merry fellow than with Dr. Young when he says:
Laughter, though never censured yet as sin, * * * * * Is half immoral, be it much indulged; By venting spleen, or dissipating thought, It shows a scorner, or it makes a fool; And sins, as hurting others or ourselves. * * * * * Yet would'st thou laugh (but at thine own expense), This counsel strange should I presume to give— "Retire, and read thy Bible, to be gay."
With shame I confess it, Dr. Young's "Night Thoughts" have given me as many hearty laughs as any humorous book I ever read.
Men of one idea,—that is, who have one idea at a time,—men who accomplish great results, men of action, reformers, saints, martyrs, are inevitably destitute of humor; and if the idea that inspires them be great and noble, they are impervious to it. But through the perversity of human affairs it not infrequently happens that men are possessed by a single idea, and that a small and rickety one—some seven months' child of thought—that maintains a querulous struggle for life, sometimes to the disquieting of a whole neighborhood. These last commonly need no satirist, but, to use a common phrase, make themselves absurd, as if Nature intended them for parodies on some of her graver productions. For example, how could the attempt to make application of mystical prophecy to current events be rendered more ridiculous than when we read that two hundred years ago it was a leading point in the teaching of Lodowick Muggleton, a noted heresiarch, "that one John Robins was the last great antichrist and son of perdition spoken of by the Apostle in Thessalonians"? I remember also an eloquent and distinguished person who, beginning with the axiom that all the disorders of this microcosm, the body, had their origin in diseases of the soul, carried his doctrine to the extent of affirming that all derangements of the macrocosm likewise were due to the same cause. Hearing him discourse, you would have been well-nigh persuaded that you had a kind of complicity in the spots upon the sun, had he not one day condensed his doctrine into an epigram which made it instantly ludicrous. "I consider myself," exclaimed he, "personally responsible for the obliquity of the earth's axis." A prominent Come-outer once told me, with a look of indescribable satisfaction, that he had just been kicked out of a Quaker meeting. "I have had," he said, "Calvinistic kicks and Unitarian kicks, Congregational, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian kicks, but I never succeeded in getting a Quaker kick before." Could the fanaticism of the collectors of worthless rarities be more admirably caricatured than thus unconsciously by our passive enthusiast?
I think no one can go through a museum of natural curiosities, or see certain animals, without a feeling that Nature herself has a sense of the comic. There are some donkeys that one can scarce look at without laughing (perhaps on Cicero's principle of the haruspex haruspicem) and feeling inclined to say, "My good fellow, if you will keep my secret I will keep yours." In human nature, the sense of the comic seems to be implanted to keep man sane, and preserve a healthy balance between body and soul. But for this, the sorcerer Imagination or the witch Enthusiasm would lead us an endless dance.
The advantage of the humorist is that he cannot be a man of one idea—for the essence of humor lies in the contrast of two. He is the universal disenchanter. He makes himself quite as much the subject of ironical study as his neighbor. Is he inclined to fancy himself a great poet, or an original thinker, he remembers the man who dared not sit down because a certain part of him was made of glass, and muses smilingly, "There are many forms of hypochondria." This duality in his mind which constitutes his intellectual advantage is the defect of his character. He is futile in action because in every path he is confronted by the horns of an eternal dilemma, and is apt to come to the conclusion that nothing is very much worth the while. If he be independent of exertion, his life commonly runs to waste. If he turn author, it is commonly from necessity; Fielding wrote for money, and "Don Quixote" was the fruit of a debtors' prison.
It seems to be an instinct of human nature to analyze, to define, and to classify. We like to have things conveniently labelled and laid away in the mind, and feel as if we knew them better when we have named them. And so to a certain extent we do. The mere naming of things by their appearance is science; the knowing them by their qualities is wisdom; and the being able to express them by some intense phrase which combines appearance and quality as they affect the imagination through the senses by impression, is poetry. A great part of criticism is scientific, but as the laws of art are only echoes of the laws of nature, it is possible in this direction also to arrive at real knowledge, or, if not so far as that, at some kind of classification that may help us toward that excellent property—compactness of mind.
Addison has given the pedigree of humor: the union of truth and goodness produces wit; that of wit with wrath produces humor. We should say that this was rather a pedigree of satire. For what trace of wrath is there in the humor of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Rabelais, Cervantes, Sterne, Fielding, or Thackeray? The absence of wrath is the characteristic of all of them. Ben Jonson says that
When some one peculiar quality Doth so possess a man that it doth draw All his affects, his spirits, and his powers In their constructions all to run one way, This may be truly said to be a humor.
But this, again, is the definition of a humorous character,—of a good subject for the humorist,—such as Don Quixote, for example.
Humor—taken in the sense of the faculty to perceive what is humorous, and to give it expression—seems to be greatly a matter of temperament. Hence, probably, its name. It is something quite indefinable, diffused through the whole nature of the man; so that it is related of the great comic actors that the audience begin to laugh as soon as they show their faces, or before they have spoken a word.
The sense of the humorous is certainly closely allied with the understanding, and no race has shown so much of it on the whole as the English, and next to them the Spanish—both inclined to gravity. Let us not be ashamed to confess that, if we find the tragedy a bore, we take the profoundest satisfaction in the farce. It is a mark of sanity. Humor, in its highest level, is the sense of comic contradiction which arises from the perpetual comment which the understanding makes upon the impressions received through the imagination. Richter, himself, a great humorist, defines it thus:
Humor is the sublime reversed; it brings down the great in order to set the little beside it, and elevates the little in order to set it beside the great—that it may annihilate both, because in the presence of the infinite all are alike nothing. Only the universal, only totality, moves its deepest spring, and from this universality, the leading component of Humor, arise the mildness and forbearance of the humorist toward the individual, who is lost in the mass of little consequence; this also distinguishes the Humorist from the Scoffer.
We find it very natural accordingly to speak of the breadth of humor, while wit is, by the necessity of its being, as narrow as a flash of lightning, and as sudden. Humor may pervade a whole page without our being able to put our finger on any passage, and say, "It is here." Wit must sparkle and snap in every line, or it is nothing. When the wise deacon shook his head, and said that "there was a good deal of human natur' in man," he might have added that there was a good deal more in some men than in others. Those who have the largest share of it may be humorists, but wit demands only a clear and nimble intellect, presence of mind, and a happy faculty of expression. This perfection of phrase, this neatness, is an essential of wit, because its effect must be instantaneous; whereas humor is often diffuse and roundabout, and its impression cumulative, like the poison of arsenic. As Galiani said of Nature that her dice were always loaded, so the wit must throw sixes every time. And what the same Galiani gave as a definition of sublime oratory may be applied to its dexterity of phrase: "It is the art of saying everything without being clapt in the Bastile, in a country where it is forbidden to say anything." Wit must also have the quality of unexpectedness. "Sometimes," says Barrow, "an affected simplicity, sometimes a presumptuous bluntness, gives it being. Sometimes it rises only from a lucky hitting upon what is strange, sometimes from a crafty wresting of obvious matter to the purpose. Often it consisteth in one knows not what, and springeth up one can hardly tell how. Its ways are unaccountable and inexplicable, being answerable to the numberless rovings of fancy and windings of language."
That wit does not consist in the discovery of a merely unexpected likeness or even contrast in word or thought, is plain if we look at what is called a conceit, which has all the qualities of wit—except wit. For example, Warner, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote a long poem called "Albion's England," which had an immense contemporary popularity, and is not without a certain value still to the student of language. In this I find a perfect specimen of what is called a conceit. Queen Eleanor strikes Fair Rosamond, and Warner says,
Hard was the heart that gave the blow, Soft were those lips that bled.
[Footnote 1: This, and one or two of the following illustrations, were used again by Mr. Lowell in his "Shakespeare Once More": Works (Riverside edition), III, 53.]
This is bad as fancy for precisely the same reason that it would be good as a pun. The comparison is unintentionally wanting in logic, just as a pun is intentionally so. To make the contrast what it should have been,—to make it coherent, if I may use that term of a contrast,—it should read:
Hard was the hand that gave the blow, Soft were those lips that bled,
for otherwise there is no identity of meaning in the word "hard" as applied to the two nouns it qualifies, and accordingly the proper logical copula is wanting. Of the same kind is the conceit which belongs, I believe, to our countryman General Morris:
Her heart and morning broke together In tears,
which is so preposterous that had it been intended for fun we might almost have laughed at it. Here again the logic is unintentionally violated in the word broke, and the sentence becomes absurd, though not funny. Had it been applied to a merchant ruined by the failure of the United States Bank, we should at once see the ludicrousness of it, though here, again, there would be no true wit:
His heart and Biddle broke together On 'change.
Now let me give an instance of true fancy from Butler, the author of "Hudibras," certainly the greatest wit who ever wrote English, and whose wit is so profound, so purely the wit of thought, that we might almost rank him with the humorists, but that his genius was cramped with a contemporary, and therefore transitory, subject. Butler says of loyalty that it is
True as the dial to the sun Although it be not shined upon.
Now what is the difference between this and the examples from Warner and Morris which I have just quoted? Simply that the comparison turning upon the word true, the mind is satisfied, because the analogy between the word as used morally and as used physically is so perfect as to leave no gap for the reasoning faculty to jolt over. But it is precisely this jolt, not so violent as to be displeasing, violent enough to discompose our thoughts with an agreeable sense of surprise, which it is the object of a pun to give us. Wit of this kind treats logic with every possible outward demonstration of respect—"keeps the word of promise to the ear, and breaks it to the sense." Dean Swift's famous question to the man carrying the hare, "Pray, sir, is that your own hare or a wig?" is perfect in its way. Here there is an absolute identity of sound with an equally absolute and therefore ludicrous disparity of meaning. Hood abounds in examples of this sort of fun—only that his analogies are of a more subtle and perplexing kind. In his elegy on the old sailor he says,
His head was turned, and so he chewed His pigtail till he died.
This is inimitable, like all the best of Hood's puns. To the ear it is perfect, but so soon as you attempt to realize it to yourself, the mind is involved in an inextricable confusion of comical non sequiturs. And yet observe the gravity with which the forms of reason are kept up in the "and so." Like this is the peddler's recommendation of his ear-trumpet:
I don't pretend with horns of mine, Like some in the advertising line, To magnify sounds on such marvellous scales That the sounds of a cod seem as large as a whale's.
There was Mrs. F. so very deaf That she might have worn a percussion cap And been knocked on the head without hearing it snap. Well, I sold her a horn, and the very next day She heard from her husband in Botany Bay.
Again, his definition of deafness:
Deaf as the dog's ears in Enfield's "Speaker."
So, in his description of the hardships of the wild beasts in the menagerie,
Who could not even prey In their own way,
and the monkey-reformer who resolved to set them all free, beginning with the lion; but
Pug had only half unbolted Nero, When Nero bolted him.
In Hood there is almost always a combination of wit and fun, the wit always suggesting the remote association of ideas, and the fun jostling together the most obvious concords of sound and discords of sense. Hood's use of words reminds one of the kaleidoscope. Throw them down in a heap, and they are the most confused jumble of unrelated bits; but once in the magical tube of his fancy, and, with a shake and a turn, they assume figures that have the absolute perfection of geometry. In the droll complaint of the lover,
Perhaps it was right to dissemble your love, But why did you kick me down-stairs?
the self-sparing charity of phrase that could stretch the meaning of the word "dissemble" so as to make it cover so violent a process as kicking downstairs has the true zest, the tang, of contradiction and surprise. Hood, not content with such a play upon ideas, would bewitch the whole sentence with plays upon words also. His fancy has the enchantment of Huon's horn, and sets the gravest conceptions a-capering in a way that makes us laugh in spite of ourselves.
Andrew Marvell's satire upon the Dutch is a capital instance of wit as distinguished from fun. It rather exercises than tickles the mind, so full is it of quaint fancy:
Holland, that scarce deserves the name of land, As but the offscouring of the British sand, And so much earth as was contributed By English pilots when they heaved the lead, Or what by ocean's slow alluvium fell Of shipwrecked cockle and the muscle-shell; This indigestful vomit of the sea Fell to the Dutch by just propriety.
Glad, then, as miners who have found the ore They, with mad labor, fished their land to shore, And dived as desperately for each piece Of earth as if 't had been of ambergreese Collecting anxiously small loads of clay, Less than what building swallows bear away, Or than those pills which sordid beetles roll. Transfusing into them their sordid soul.
How did they rivet with gigantic piles Thorough the centre their new-catched miles, And to the stake a struggling country bound, Where barking waves still bait the forced ground!
Yet still his claim the injured ocean laid. And oft at leap-frog o'er their steeples played, As if on purpose it on land had come To show them what's their mare liberum; The fish ofttimes the burgher dispossessed, And sate, not as a meat, but as a guest; And oft the Tritons and the sea-nymphs tan Whole shoals of Dutch served up as Caliban, And, as they over the new level ranged, For pickled herring pickled Heeren changed. Therefore necessity, that first made kings, Something like government among them brings; And as among the blind the blinkard reigns So rules among the drowned he that drains; Who best could know to pump on earth a leak, Him they their lord and Country's Father speak. To make a bank was a great plot of state, Invent a shovel and be a magistrate; Hence some small dykegrave, unperceived, invades The power, and grows, as 't were, a king of spades.
I have cited this long passage not only because Marvell (both in his serious and comic verse) is a great favorite of mine, but because it is as good an illustration as I know how to find of that fancy flying off into extravagance, and that nice compactness of expression, that constitute genuine wit. On the other hand, Smollett is only funny, hardly witty, where he condenses all his wrath against the Dutch into an epigram of two lines:
Amphibious creatures, sudden be your fall, May man undam you and God damn you all.
Of satirists I have hitherto said nothing, because some, perhaps the most eminent of them, do not come under the head either of wit or humor. With them, as Juvenal said of himself, "facit indignatio versus," and wrath is the element, as a general rule, neither of wit nor humor. Swift, in the epitaph he wrote for himself, speaks of the grave as a place "ubi saeva indignatio cor ulterius lacerare nequeat," and this hints at the sadness which makes the ground of all humor. There is certainly humor in "Gulliver," especially in the chapters about the Yahoos, where the horses are represented as the superior beings, and disgusted at the filthiness of the creatures in human shape. But commonly Swift, too, must be ranked with the wits, if we measure him rather by what he wrote than by what he was. Take this for an example from the "Day of Judgment":
With a whirl of thought oppressed I sank from reverie to rest, A horrid vision seized my head, I saw the graves give up their dead! Jove, armed with terrors, burst the skies, And thunder roars, and lightning flies! Amazed, confused, its fate unknown, The world stands trembling at his throne! While each pale sinner hung his head, Jove, nodding, shook the heavens, and said: "Offending race of human kind; By nature, reason, learning, blind, You who through frailty stepped aside. And you who never fell through pride, You who in different sects were shammed, And come to see each other damned (So some folks told you—but they knew No more of Jove's designs than you)— The world's mad business now is o'er, And I resent these pranks no more— I to such blockheads set my wit! I damn such fools! Go, go! you're bit!"
The unexpectedness of the conclusion here, after the somewhat solemn preface, is entirely of the essence of wit. So, too, is the sudden flirt of the scorpion's tail to sting you. It is almost the opposite of humor in one respect—namely, that it would make us think the solemnest things in life were sham, whereas it is the sham-solemn ones which humor delights in exposing. This further difference is also true: that wit makes you laugh once, and loses some of its comicality (though none of its point) with every new reading, while humor grows droller and droller the oftener we read it. If we cannot safely deny that Swift was a humorist, we may at least say that he was one in whom humor had gone through the stage of acetous fermentation and become rancid. We should never forget that he died mad. Satirists of this kind, while they have this quality of true humor, that they contrast a higher with a lower, differ from their nobler brethren inasmuch as their comparison is always to the disadvantage of the higher. They purposely disenchant us—while the others rather show us how sad a thing it is to be disenchanted at all.
Ben Jonson, who had in respect of sturdy good sense very much the same sort of mind as his name-sake Samuel, and whose "Discoveries," as he calls them, are well worth reading for the sound criticism they contain, says:
The parts of a comedy are the same with [those of] a tragedy, and the end is partly the same; for they both delight and teach: the comics are called didaskaloi of the Greeks, no less than the tragics. Nor is the moving of laughter always the end of comedy; that is rather a fowling for the people's delight, or their fooling. For, as Aristotle says rightly, the moving of laughter is a fault in comedy, a kind of turpitude that depraves some part of a man's nature without a disease. As a wry face moves laughter, or a deformed vizard, or a rude clown dressed in a lady's habit and using her actions; we dislike and scorn such representations, which made the ancient philosophers ever think laughter unfitting in a wise man. So that what either in the words or sense of an author, or in the language and actions of men, is awry or depraved, does strongly stir mean affections, and provoke for the most part to laughter. And therefore it was clear that all insolent and obscene speeches, jests upon the best men, injuries to particular persons, perverse and sinister sayings (and the rather, unexpected) in the old comedy did move laughter, especially where it did imitate any dishonesty, and scurrility came forth in the place of wit; which, who understands the nature and genius of laughter cannot but perfectly know.
[Footnote 1: Teachers.]
He then goes on to say of Aristophanes that
he expressed all the moods and figures of what was ridiculous, oddly. In short, as vinegar is not accounted good till the wine be corrupted, so jests that are true and natural seldom raise laughter with that beast the multitude. They love nothing that is right and proper. The farther it runs from reason or possibility, with them the better it is.
In the latter part of this it is evident that Ben is speaking with a little bitterness. His own comedies are too rigidly constructed according to Aristotle's dictum, that the moving of laughter was a fault in comedy. I like the passage as an illustration of a fact undeniably true, that Shakespeare's humor was altogether a new thing upon the stage, and also as showing that satirists (for such were also the writers of comedy) were looked upon rather as censors and moralists than as movers of laughter. Dante, accordingly, himself in this sense the greatest of satirists, in putting Horace among the five great poets in limbo, qualifies him with the title of satiro.
But if we exclude the satirists, what are we to do with Aristophanes? Was he not a satirist, and in some sort also a censor? Yes; but, as it appears to me, of a different kind, as well as in a different degree, from any other ancient. I think it is plain that he wrote his comedies not only to produce certain political, moral, and even literary ends, but for the fun of the thing. I am so poor a Grecian that I have no doubt I miss three quarters of what is most characteristic of him. But even through the fog of the Latin on the opposite page I can make out more or less of the true lineaments of the man. I can see that he was a master of language, for it becomes alive under his hands—puts forth buds and blossoms like the staff of Joseph, as it does always when it feels the hand and recognizes the touch of its legitimate sovereigns. Those prodigious combinations of his are like some of the strange polyps we hear of that seem a single organism; but cut them into as many parts as you please, each has a life of its own and stirs with independent being. There is nothing that words will not do for him; no service seems too mean or too high. And then his abundance! He puts one in mind of the definition of a competence by the only man I ever saw who had the true flavor of Falstaff in him—"a million a minute and your expenses paid." As Burns said of himself, "The rhymes come skelpin, rank and file." Now they are as graceful and sinuous as water-nymphs, and now they come tumbling head over heels, throwing somersaults, like clowns in the circus, with a "Here we are!" I can think of nothing like it but Rabelais, who had the same extraordinary gift of getting all the go out of words. They do not merely play with words; they romp with them, tickle them, tease them, and somehow the words seem to like it.
I dare say there may be as much fancy and fun in "The Clouds" or "The Birds," but neither of them seems so rich to me as "The Frogs," nor does the fun anywhere else climb so high or dwell so long in the region of humor as here. Lucian makes Greek mythology comic, to be sure, but he has nothing like the scene in "The Frogs," where Bacchus is terrified with the strange outcries of a procession celebrating his own mysteries, and of whose dithyrambic songs it is plain he can make neither head nor tail. Here is humor of the truest metal, and, so far as we can guess, the first example of it. Here is the true humorous contrast between the ideal god and the god with human weaknesses and follies as he had been degraded in the popular conception. And is it too absurd to be within the limits even of comic probability? Is it even so absurd as those hand-mills for grinding out so many prayers a minute which Huc and Gabet saw in Tartary?
Cervantes was born on October 9, 1547, and died on April 23, 1616, on the same day as Shakespeare. He is, I think, beyond all question, the greatest of humorists. Whether he intended it or not,—and I am inclined to believe he did,—he has typified in Don Quixote, and Sancho Panza his esquire, the two component parts of the human mind and shapers of human character—the imagination and understanding. There is a great deal more than this; for what is positive and intentional in a truly great book is often little in comparison with what is accidental and suggested. The plot is of the meagrest. A country gentleman of La Mancha, living very much by himself, and continually feeding his fancy with the romances of chivalry, becomes at last the victim of a monomania on this one subject, and resolves to revive the order of chivalry in his own proper person. He persuades a somewhat prosaic neighbor of his to accompany him as squire. They sally forth, and meet with various adventures, from which they reap no benefit but the sad experience of plentiful rib-roasting. Now if this were all of "Don Quixote," it would be simply broad farce, as it becomes in Butler's parody of it in Sir Hudibras and Ralpho so far as mere external characteristics are concerned. The latter knight and his squire are the most glaring absurdities, without any sufficient reason for their being at all, or for their adventures, except that they furnished Butler with mouthpieces for his own wit and wisdom. They represent nothing, and are intended to represent nothing.