The Voice of the Machines
An Introduction to the Twentieth Century
Gerald Stanley Lee
The Mount Tom Press Northampton, Massachusetts
COPYRIGHT, 1906 BY THE MOUNT TOM PRESS
TO JENNETTE LEE
... "Now and then my fancy caught A flying glimpse of a good life beyond— Something of ships and sunlight, streets and singing, Troy falling, and the ages coming back, And ages coming forward."...
THE MEN BEHIND THE MACHINES
I.—Machines as Seen from a Meadow II.—As Seen through a Hatchway III.—The Souls of Machines IV.—Poets V.—Gentlemen VI.—Prophets
THE LANGUAGE OF THE MACHINES
I.—As Good as Ours II.—On Being Busy and Still III.—On Not Showing Off IV.—On Making People Proud of the World V.—A Modest Universe
THE MACHINES AS POETS
I.—Plato and the General Electric Works II.—Hewing away on the Heavens and the Earth III.—The Grudge against the Infinite IV.—Symbolism in Modern Art V.—The Machines as Artists VI.—The Machines as Philosophers
THE IDEAS BEHIND THE MACHINES
I.—The Idea of Incarnation II.—The Idea of Size III.—The Idea of Liberty IV.—The Idea of Immortality V.—The Idea of God VI.—The Idea of the Unseen and the Intangible VII.—The Idea of Great Men VIII.—The Idea of Love and Comradeship
THE MEN BEHIND THE MACHINES
MACHINES. AS SEEN FROM A MEADOW
It would be difficult to find anything in the encyclopedia that would justify the claim that we are about to make, or anything in the dictionary. Even a poem—which is supposed to prove anything with a little of nothing—could hardly be found to prove it; but in this beginning hour of the twentieth century there are not a few of us—for the time at least allowed to exist upon the earth—who are obliged to say (with Luther), "Though every tile on the roundhouse be a devil, we cannot say otherwise—the locomotive is beautiful."
As seen when one is looking at it as it is, and is not merely using it.
As seen from a meadow.
We had never thought to fall so low as this, or that the time would come when we would feel moved—all but compelled, in fact—to betray to a cold and discriminating world our poor, pitiful, one-adjective state.
We do not know why a locomotive is beautiful. We are perfectly aware that it ought not to be. We have all but been ashamed of it for being beautiful—and of ourselves. We have attempted all possible words upon it—the most complimentary and worthy ones we know—words with the finer resonance in them, and the air of discrimination the soul loves. We cannot but say that several of these words from time to time have seemed almost satisfactory to our ears. They seem satisfactory also for general use in talking with people, and for introducing locomotives in conversation; but the next time we see a locomotive coming down the track, there is no help for us. We quail before the headlight of it. The thunder of its voice is as the voice of the hurrying people. Our little row of adjectives is vanished. All adjectives are vanished. They are as one.
Unless the word "beautiful" is big enough to make room for a glorious, imperious, world-possessing, world-commanding beauty like this, we are no longer its disciples. It is become a play word. It lags behind truth. Let it be shut in with its rim of hills—the word beautiful—its show of sunsets and its bouquets and its doilies and its songs of birds. We are seekers for a new word. It is the first hour of the twentieth century. If the hill be beautiful, so is the locomotive that conquers a hill. So is the telephone, piercing a thousand sunsets north to south, with the sound of a voice. The night is not more beautiful, hanging its shadow over the city, than the electric spark pushing the night one side, that the city may behold itself; and the hour is at hand—is even now upon us—when not the sun itself shall be more beautiful to men than the telegraph stopping the sun in the midst of its high heaven, and holding it there, while the will of a child to another child ticks round the earth. "Time shall be folded up as a scroll," saith the voice of Man, my Brother. "The spaces between the hills, to ME," saith the Voice, "shall be as though they were not."
The voice of man, my brother, is a new voice.
It is the voice of the machines.
AS SEEN THROUGH A HATCHWAY
In its present importance as a factor in life and a modifier of its conditions, the machine is in every sense a new and unprecedented fact. The machine has no traditions. The only way to take a traditional stand with regard to life or the representation of life to-day, is to leave the machine out. It has always been left out. Leaving it out has made little difference. Only a small portion of the people of the world have had to be left out with it.
Not to see poetry in the machinery of this present age, is not to see poetry in the life of the age. It is not to believe in the age.
The first fact a man encounters in this modern world, after his mother's face, is the machine. The moment be begins to think outwards, he thinks toward a machine. The bed he lies in was sawed and planed by a machine, or cast in a foundry. The windows he looks out of were built in mills. His knife and fork were made by steam. His food has come through rollers and wheels. The water he drinks is pumped to him by engines. The ice in it was frozen by a factory and the cloth of the clothes he wears was flashed together by looms.
The machine does not end here. When he grows to years of discretion and looks about him to choose a place for himself in life, he finds that that place must come to him out of a machine. By the side of a machine of one sort or another, whether it be of steel rods and wheels or of human beings' souls, he must find his place in the great whirling system of the order of mortal lives, and somewhere in the system—that is, the Machine—be the ratchet, drive-wheel, belt, or spindle under infinite space, ordained for him to be from the beginning of the world.
The moment he begins to think, a human being finds himself facing a huge, silent, blue-and-gold something called the universe, the main fact of which must be to him that it seems to go without him very well, and that he must drop into the place that comes, whatever it may be, and hold on as he loves his soul, or forever be left behind. He learns before many years that this great machine shop of a globe, turning solemnly its days and nights, where he has wandered for a life, will hardly be inclined to stop—to wait perchance—to ask him what he wants to be, or how this life of his shall get itself said. He looks into the Face of Circumstance. (Sometimes it is the Fist of Circumstance.) The Face of Circumstance is a silent face. It points to the machine. He looks into the faces of his fellow-men, hurrying past him night and day,—miles of streets of them. They, too, have looked into the Face of Circumstance. It pointed to the Machine. They show it in their faces. Some of them show it in their gait. The Machine closes around him, with its vast insistent murmur, million-peopled and full of laughs and cries. He listens to it as to the roar of all Being.
He listens to the Machine's prophet. "All men," says Political Economy, "may be roughly divided as attaching themselves to one or the other of three great classes of activity—production, consumption or distribution."
The number of persons who are engaged in production outside of association with machinery, if they could be gathered together in one place, would be an exceedingly small and strange and uncanny band of human beings. They would be visited by all the world as curiosities.
The number of persons who are engaged in distribution outside of association with machinery is equally insignificant. Except for a few peddlers, distribution is hardly anything else but machinery.
The number of persons who are engaged in consumption outside of association with machinery is equally insignificant. So far as consumption is concerned, any passing freight train, if it could be stopped and examined on its way to New York, would be found to be loaded with commodities, the most important part of which, from the coal up, have been produced by one set of machines to be consumed by another set of machines.
So omnipresent and masterful and intimate with all existence have cogs and wheels and belts become, that not a civilized man could be found on the globe to-day, who, if all the machines that have helped him to live this single year of 1906 could be gathered or piled around him where he stands, would be able, for the machines piled high around his life, to see the sky—to be sure there was a sky. It is then his privilege, looking up at this horizon of steel and iron and running belts, to read in a paper book the literary definition of what this heaven is, that spreads itself above him, and above the world, walled in forever with its irrevocable roar of wheels.
"No inspiring emotions," says the literary definition, "ideas or conceptions can possibly be connected with machinery—or ever will be."
What is to become of a world roofed in with machines for the rest of its natural life, and of the people who will have to live under the roof of machines, the literary definition does not say. It is not the way of literary definitions. For a time at least we feel assured that we, who are the makers of definitions, are poetically and personally safe. Can we not live behind the ramparts of our books? We take comfort with the medallions of poets and the shelves that sing around us. We sit by our library fires, the last nook of poetry. Beside our gates the great crowding chimneys lift themselves. Beneath our windows herds of human beings, flocking through the din, in the dark of the morning and the dark of the night, go marching to their fate. We have done what we could. Have we not defined poetry? Is it nothing to have laid the boundary line of beauty?... The huge, hurrying, helpless world in its belts and spindles—the people who are going to be obliged to live in it when the present tense has spoiled it a little more—all this—the great strenuous problem—the defense of beauty, the saving of its past, the forging of its future, the welding of it with life-all these?... Pull down the blinds, Jeems. Shut out the noises of the street. A little longer ... the low singing to ourselves. Then darkness. The wheels and the din above our graves shall be as the passing of silence.
Is it true that, in a few years more, if a man wants the society of his kind, he will have to look down through a hatchway? Or that, if he wants to be happy, he will have to stand on it and look away? I do not know. I only know how it is now.
They stay not in their hold These stokers, Stooping to hell To feed a ship. Below the ocean floors, Before their awful doors Bathed in flame, I hear their human lives Drip—drip.
Through the lolling aisles of comrades In and out of sleep, Troops of faces To and fro of happy feet, They haunt my eyes. Their murky faces beckon me From the spaces of the coolness of the sea Their fitful bodies away against the skies.
SOULS OF MACHINES
It does not make very much difference to the machines whether there is poetry in them or not. It is a mere abstract question to the machines.
It is not an abstract question to the people who are under the machines. Men who are under things want to know what the things are for, and they want to know what they are under them for. It is a very live, concrete, practical question whether there is, or can be, poetry in machinery or not. The fate of society turns upon it.
There seems to be nothing that men can care for, whether in this world or the next, or that they can do, or have, or hope to have, which is not bound up, in our modern age, with machinery. With the fate of machinery it stands or falls. Modern religion is a machine. If the characteristic vital power and spirit of the modern age is organization, and it cannot organize in its religion, there is little to be hoped for in religion. Modern education is a machine. If the principle of machinery is a wrong and inherently uninspired principle—if because a machine is a machine no great meaning can be expressed by it, and no great result accomplished by it—there is little to be hoped for in modern education.
Modern government is a machine. The more modern a government is, the more the machine in it is emphasized. Modern trade is a machine. It is made up of (1) corporations—huge machines employing machines, and (2) of trusts—huge machines that control machines that employ machines. Modern charity is a machine for getting people to help each other. Modern society is a machine for getting them to enjoy each other. Modern literature is a machine for supplying ideas. Modern journalism is a machine for distributing them; and modern art is a machine for supplying the few, very few, things that are left that other machines cannot supply.
Both in its best and worst features the characteristic, inevitable thing that looms up in modern life over us and around us, for better or worse, is the machine. We may whine poetry at it, or not. It makes little difference to the machine. We may not see what it is for. It has come to stay. It is going to stay until we do see what it is for. We cannot move it. We cannot go around it. We cannot destroy it. We are born in the machine. A man cannot move the place he is born in. We breathe the machine. A man cannot go around what he breathes, any more than he can go around himself. He cannot destroy what he breathes, even by destroying himself. If there cannot be poetry in machinery—that is if there is no beautiful and glorious interpretation of machinery for our modern life—there cannot be poetry in anything in modern life. Either the machine is the door of the future, or it stands and mocks at us where the door ought to be. If we who have made machines cannot make our machines mean something, we ourselves are meaningless, the great blue-and-gold machine above our lives is meaningless, the winds that blow down upon us from it are empty winds, and the lights that lure us in it are pictures of darkness. There is one question that confronts and undergirds our whole modern civilization. All other questions are a part of it. Can a Machine Age have a soul?
If we can find a great hope and a great meaning for the machine-idea in its simplest form, for machinery itself—that is, the machines of steel and flame that minister to us—it will be possible to find a great hope for our other machines. If we cannot use the machines we have already mastered to hope with, the less we hope from our other machines—our spirit-machines, the machines we have not mastered—the better. In taking the stand that there is poetry in machinery, that inspiring ideas and emotions can be and will be connected with machinery, we are taking a stand for the continued existence of modern religion—(in all reverence) the God-machine; for modern education—the man-machine; for modern government—the crowd-machine; for modern art—the machine in which the crowd lives.
If inspiring ideas cannot be connected with a machine simply because it is a machine, there is not going to be anything left in this modern world to connect inspiring ideas with.
Johnstown haunts me—the very memory of it. Flame and vapor and shadow—like some huge, dim face of Labor, it lifts itself dumbly and looks at me. I suppose, to some it is but a wraith of rusty vapor, a mist of old iron, sparks floating from a chimney, while a train sweeps past. But to me, with its spires of smoke and its towers of fire, it is as if a great door had been opened and I had watched a god, down in the wonder of real things—in the act of making an earth. I am filled with childhood—and a kind of strange, happy terror. I struggle to wonder my way out. Thousands of railways—after this—bind Johnstown to me; miles of high, narrow, steel-built streets—the whole world lifting itself mightily up, rolling itself along, turning itself over on a great steel pivot, down in Pennsylvania—for its days and nights. I am whirled away from it as from a vision. I am as one who has seen men lifting their souls up in a great flame and laying down floors on a star. I have stood and watched, in the melting-down place, the making and the welding place of the bones of the world.
It is the object of this present writing to search out a world—a world a man can live in. If he cannot live in this one, let him know it and make one. If he can, let him face it. If the word YES cannot be written across the world once more—written across this year of the world in the roar of its vast machines—we want to know it. We cannot quite see the word YES—sometimes, huddled behind our machines. But we hear it sometimes. We know we hear it. It is stammered to us by the machines themselves.
When, standing in the midst of the huge machine-shop of our modern life, we are informed by the Professor of Poetics that machinery—the thing we do our living with—is inevitably connected with ideas practical and utilitarian—at best intellectual—that "it will always be practically impossible to make poetry out of it, to make it appeal to the imagination," we refer the question to the real world, to the real spirit we know exists in the real world.
Expectancy is the creed of the twentieth century.
Expectancy, which was the property of poets in the centuries that are now gone by, is the property to-day of all who are born upon the earth.
The man who is not able to draw a distinction between the works of John Milton and the plays of Shakespeare, but who expects something of the age he lives in, comes nearer to being a true poet than any writer of verses can ever expect to be who does not expect anything of this same age he lives in—not even verses. Expectancy is the practice of poetry. It is poetry caught in the act. Though the whole world be lifting its voice, and saying in the same breath that poetry is dead, this same world is living in the presence of more poetry, and more kinds of poetry, than men have known on the earth before, even in the daring of their dreams.
Pessimism has always been either literary—the result of not being in the real world enough—or genuine and provincial—the result of not being in enough of the real world.
If we look about in this present day for a suitable and worthy expectancy to make an age out of, or even a poem out of, where shall we look for it? In the literary definition? the historical argument? the minor poet?
The poet of the new movement shall not be discovered talking with the doctors, or defining art in the schools, nor shall he be seen at first by peerers in books. The passer-by shall see him, perhaps, through the door of a foundry at night, a lurid figure there, bent with labor, and humbled with labor, but with the fire from the heart of the earth playing upon his face. His hands—innocent of the ink of poets, of the mere outsides of things—shall be beautiful with the grasp of the thing called life—with the grim, silent, patient creating of life. He shall be seen living with retorts around him, loomed over by machines—shadowed by weariness—to the men about him half comrade, half monk—going in and out among them silently, with some secret glory in his heart.
If literary men—so called—knew the men who live with machines, who are putting their lives into them—inventors, engineers and brakemen—as well as they know Shakespeare and Milton and the Club, there would be no difficulty about finding a great meaning—i. e., a great hope or great poetry—in machinery. The real problem that stands in the way of poetry in machinery is not literary, nor aesthetic. It is sociological. It is in getting people to notice that an engineer is a gentleman and a poet.
The truest definition of a gentleman is that he is a man who loves his work. This is also the truest definition of a poet. The man who loves his work is a poet because he expresses delight in that work. He is a gentleman because his delight in that work makes him his own employer. No matter how many men are over him, or how many men pay him, or fail to pay him, he stands under the wide heaven the one man who is master of the earth. He is the one infallibly overpaid man on it. The man who loves his work has the single thing the world affords that can make a man free, that can make him his own employer, that admits him to the ranks of gentlemen, that pays him, or is rich enough to pay him, what a gentleman's work is worth.
The poets of the world are the men who pour their passions into it, the men who make the world over with their passions. Everything that these men touch, as with some strange and immortal joy from out of them, has the thrill of beauty in it, and exultation and wonder. They cannot have it otherwise even if they would. A true man is the autobiography of some great delight mastering his heart for him, possessing his brain, making his hands beautiful.
Looking at the matter in this way, in proportion to the number employed there are more gentlemen running locomotives to-day than there are teaching in colleges. In proportion as we are more creative in creating machines at present than we are in creating anything else there are more poets in the mechanical arts than there are in the fine arts; and while many of the men who are engaged in the machine-shops can hardly be said to be gentlemen (that is, they would rather be preachers or lawyers), these can be more than offset by the much larger proportion of men in the fine arts, who, if they were gentlemen in the truest sense, would turn mechanics at once; that is, they would do the thing they were born to do, and they would respect that thing, and make every one else respect it.
While the definition of a poet and a gentleman—that he is a man who loves his work—might appear to make a new division of society, it is a division that already exists in the actual life of the world, and constitutes the only literal aristocracy the world has ever had.
It may be set down as a fundamental principle that, no matter how prosaic a man may be, or how proud he is of having been born upon this planet with poetry all left out of him, it is the very essence of the most hard and practical man that, as regards the one uppermost thing in his life, the thing that reveals the power in him, he is a poet in spite of himself, and whether he knows it or not.
So long as the thing a man works with is a part of an inner ideal to him, so long as he makes the thing he works with express that ideal, the heat and the glow and the lustre and the beauty and the unconquerableness of that man, and of that man's delight, shall be upon all that he does. It shall sing to heaven. It shall sing to all on earth who overhear heaven.
Every man who loves his work, who gets his work and his ideal connected, who makes his work speak out the heart of him, is a poet. It makes little difference what he says about it. In proportion as he has power with a thing; in proportion as he makes the thing—be it a bit of color, or a fragment of flying sound, or a word, or a wheel, or a throttle—in proportion as he makes the thing fulfill or express what he wants it to fulfill or express, he is a poet. All heaven and earth cannot make him otherwise.
That the inventor is in all essential respects a poet toward the machine that he has made, it would be hard to deny. That, with all the apparent prose that piles itself about his machine, the machine is in all essential respects a poem to him, who can question? Who has ever known an inventor, a man with a passion in his hands, without feeling toward him as he feels toward a poet? Is it nothing to us to know that men are living now under the same sky with us, hundreds of them (their faces haunt us on the street), who would all but die, who are all but dying now, this very moment, to make a machine live,—martyrs of valves and wheels and of rivets and retorts, sleepless, tireless, unconquerable men?
To know an inventor the moment of his triumph,—the moment when, working his will before him, the machine at last, resistless, silent, massive pantomime of a life, offers itself to the gaze of men's souls and the needs of their bodies,—to know an inventor at all is to know that at a moment like this a chord is touched in him strange and deep, soft as from out of all eternity. The melody that Homer knew, and that Dante knew, is his also, with the grime upon his hands, standing and watching it there. It is the same song that from pride to pride and joy to joy has been singing through the hearts of The Men Who Make, from the beginning of the world. The thing that was not, that now is, after all the praying with his hands ... iron and wood and rivet and cog and wheel—is it not more than these to him standing before it there? It is the face of matter—who does not know it?—answering the face of the man, whispering to him out of the dust of the earth.
What is true of the men who make the machines is equally true of the men who live with them. The brakeman and the locomotive engineer and the mechanical engineer and the sailor all have the same spirit. Their days are invested with the same dignity and aspiration, the same unwonted enthusiasm, and self-forgetfulness in the work itself. They begin their lives as boys dreaming of the track, or of cogs and wheels, or of great waters.
As I stood by the track the other night, Michael the switchman was holding the road for the nine o'clock freight, with his faded flag, and his grim brown pipe, and his wooden leg. As it rumbled by him, headlight, clatter, and smoke, and whirl, and halo of the steam, every brakeman backing to the wind, lying on the air, at the jolt of the switch, started, as at some greeting out of the dark, and turned and gave the sign to Michael. All of the brakemen gave it. Then we watched them, Michael and I, out of the roar and the hiss of their splendid cloud, their flickering, swaying bodies against the sky, flying out to the Night, until there was nothing but a dull red murmur and the falling of smoke.
Michael hobbled back to his mansion by the rails. He put up the foot that was left from the wreck, and puffed and puffed. He had been a brakeman himself.
Brakemen are prosaic men enough, no doubt, in the ordinary sense, but they love a railroad as Shakespeare loved a sonnet. It is not given to brakemen, as it is to poets, to show to the world as it passes by that their ideals are beautiful. They give their lives for them,—hundreds of lives a year. These lives may be sordid lives looked at from the outside, but mystery, danger, surprise, dark cities, and glistening lights, roar, dust, and water, and death, and life,—these play their endless spell upon them. They love the shining of the track. It is wrought into the very fibre of their being.
Years pass and years, and still more years. Who shall persuade the brakemen to leave the track? They never leave it. I shall always see them—on their flying footboards beneath the sky—swaying and rocking—still swaying and rocking—to Eternity.
They are men who live down through to the spirit and the poetry of their calling. It is the poetry of the calling that keeps them there.
Most of us in this mortal life are allowed but our one peephole in the universe, that we may see IT withal; but if we love it enough and stand close to it enough, we breathe the secret and touch in our lives the secret that throbs through it all.
For a man to have an ideal in this world, for a man to know what an ideal is, even though nothing but a wooden leg shall come of it, and a life in a switch-house, and the signal of comrades whirling by, this also is to have lived.
The fact that the railroad has the same fascination for the railroad man that the sea has for the sailor is not a mere item of interest pertaining to human nature. It is a fact that pertains to the art of the present day, and to the future of its literature. It is as much a symbol of the art of a machine age as the man Ulysses is a symbol of the art of an heroic age.
That it is next to impossible to get a sailor, with all his hardships, to turn his back upon the sea is a fact a great many thousand years old. We find it accounted for not only in the observation and experience of men, but in their art. It was rather hard for them to do it at first (as with many other things), but even the minor poets have admitted the sea into poetry. The sea was allowed in poetry before mountains were allowed in it. It has long been an old story. When the sailor has grown too stiff to climb the masts he mends sails on the decks. Everybody understands—even the commonest people and the minor poets understand—why it is that a sailor, when he is old and bent and obliged to be a landsman to die, does something that holds him close to the sea. If he has a garden, he hoes where he can see the sails. If he must tend flowers, he plants them in an old yawl, and when he selects a place for his grave, it is where surges shall be heard at night singing to his bones. Every one appreciates a fact like this. There is not a passenger on the Empire State Express, this moment, being whirled to the West, who could not write a sonnet on it,—not a man of them who could not sit down in his seat, flying through space behind the set and splendid hundred-guarding eyes of the engineer, and write a poem on a dead sailor buried by the sea. A crowd on the street could write a poem on a dead sailor (that is, if they were sure he was dead), and now that sailors enough have died in the course of time to bring the feeling of the sea over into poetry, sailors who are still alive are allowed in it. It remains to be seen how many wrecks it is going to take, lists of killed and wounded, fatally injured, columns of engineers dying at their posts, to penetrate the spiritual safe where poets are keeping their souls to-day, untouched of the world, and bring home to them some sense of the adventure and quiet splendor and unparalleled expressiveness of the engineer's life. He is a man who would rather be without a life (so long as he has his nerve) than to have to live one without an engine, and when he climbs down from the old girl at last, to continue to live at all, to him, is to linger where she is. He watches the track as a sailor watches the sea. He spends his old age in the roundhouse. With the engines coming in and out, one always sees him sitting in the sun there until he dies, and talking with them. Nothing can take him away.
Does any one know an engineer who has not all but a personal affection for his engine, who has not an ideal for his engine, who holding her breath with his will does not put his hand upon the throttle of that ideal and make that ideal say something? Woe to the poet who shall seek to define down or to sing away that ideal. In its glory, in darkness or in day, we are hid from death. It is the protection of life. The engineer who is not expressing his whole soul in his engine, and in the aisles of souls behind him, is not worthy to place his hand upon an engine's throttle. Indeed, who is he—this man—that this awful privilege should be allowed to him, that he should dare to touch the motor nerve of her, that her mighty forty-mile-an-hour muscles should be the slaves of the fingers of a man like this, climbing the hills for him, circling the globe for him? It is impossible to believe that an engineer—a man who with a single touch sends a thousand tons of steel across the earth as an empty wind can go, or as a pigeon swings her wings, or as a cloud sets sail in the west—does not mean something by it, does not love to do it because he means something by it. If ever there was a poet, the engineer is a poet. In his dumb and mighty, thousand-horizoned brotherhood, hastener of men from the ends of the earth that they may be as one, I always see him,—ceaseless—tireless—flying past sleep—out through the Night—thundering down the edge of the world, into the Dawn.
Who am I that it should be given to me to make a word on my lips to speak, or to make a thing that shall be beautiful with my hands—that I should stand by my brother's life and gaze on his trembling track—and not feel what the engine says as it plunges past, about the man in the cab? What matters it that he is a wordless man, that he wears not his heart in a book? Are not the bell and the whistle and the cloud of steam, and the rush, and the peering in his eyes words enough? They are the signals of this man's life beckoning to my life. Standing in his engine there, making every wheel of that engine thrill to his will, he is the priest of wonder to me, and of the terror of the splendor of the beauty of power. The train is the voice of his life. The sound of its coming is a psalm of strength. It is as the singing a man would sing who felt his hand on the throttle of things. The engine is a soul to me—soul of the quiet face thundering past—leading its troop of glories echoing along the hills, telling it to the flocks in the fields and the birds in the air, telling it to the trees and the buds and the little, trembling growing things, that the might of the spirit of man has passed that way.
If an engine is to be looked at from the point of view of the man who makes it and who knows it best; if it is to be taken, as it has a right to be taken, in the nature of things, as being an expression of the human spirit, as being that man's way of expressing the human spirit, there shall be no escape for the children of this present world, from the wonder and beauty in it, and the strong delight in it that shall hem life in, and bound it round on every side. The idealism and passion and devotion and poetry in an engineer, in the feeling he has about his machine, the power with which that machine expresses that feeling, is one of the great typical living inspirations of this modern age, a fragment of the new apocalypse, vast and inarticulate and far and faint to us, but striving to reach us still, now from above, and now from below, and on every side of life. It is as though the very ground itself should speak,—speak to our poor, pitiful, unspiritual, matter-despising souls,—should command them to come forth, to live, to gaze into the heart of matter for the heart of God. It is so that the very dullest of us, standing among our machines, can hardly otherwise than guess the coming of some vast surprise,—the coming of the day when, in the very rumble of the world, our sons and daughters shall prophesy, and our young men shall see visions, and our old men shall dream dreams. It cannot be uttered. I do not dare to say it. What it means to our religion and to our life and to our art, this great athletic uplift of the world, I do not know. I only know that so long as the fine arts, in an age like this, look down on the mechanical arts there shall be no fine arts. I only know that so long as the church worships the laborer's God, but does not reverence labor, there shall be no religion in it for men to-day, and none for women and children to-morrow. I only know that so long as there is no poet amongst us, who can put himself into a word, as this man, my brother the engineer, is putting himself into his engine, the engine shall remove mountains, and the word of the poet shall not; it shall be buried beneath the mountains. I only know that so long as we have more preachers who can be hired to stop preaching or to go into life insurance than we have engineers who can be hired to leave their engines, inspiration shall be looked for more in engine cabs than in pulpits,—the vestibule trains shall say deeper things than sermons say. In the rhythm of the anthem of them singing along the rails, we shall find again the worship we have lost in church, the worship we fain would find in the simpered prayers and paid praises of a thousand choirs,—the worship of the creative spirit, the beholding of a fragment of creation morning, the watching of the delight of a man in the delight of God,—in the first and last delight of God. I have made a vow in my heart. I shall not enter a pulpit to speak, unless every word have the joy of God and of fathers and mothers in it. And so long as men are more creative and godlike in engines than they are in sermons, I listen to engines.
Would to God it were otherwise. But so it shall be with all of us. So it cannot but be. Not until the day shall come when this wistful, blundering church of ours, loved with exceeding great and bitter love, with all her proud and solitary towers, shall turn to the voices of life sounding beneath her belfries in the street, shall she be worshipful; not until the love of all life and the love of all love is her love, not until all faces are her faces, not until the face of the engineer peering from his cab, sentry of a thousand souls, is beautiful to her, as an altar cloth is beautiful or a stained glass window is beautiful, shall the church be beautiful. That day is bound to come. If the church will not do it with herself, the great rough hand of the world shall do it with the church. That day of the new church shall be known by men because it will be a day in which all worship shall be gathered into her worship, in which her holy house shall be the comradeship of all delights and of all masteries under the sun, and all the masteries and all the delights shall be laid at her feet.
The world follows the creative spirit. Where the spirit is creating, the strong and the beautiful flock. If the creative spirit is not in poetry, poetry will call itself something else. If it is not in the church, religion will call itself something else. It is the business of a living religion, not to wish that the age it lives in were some other age, but to tell what the age is for, and what every man born in it is for. A church that can see only what a few of the men born in an age are for, can help only a few. If a church does not believe in a particular man more than he believes in himself, the less it tries to do for him the better. If a church does not believe in a man's work as he believes in it, does not see some divine meaning and spirit in it and give him honor and standing and dignity for the divine meaning in it; if it is a church in which labor is secretly despised and in which it is openly patronized, in which a man has more honor for working feebly with his brain than for working passionately and perfectly with his hands, it is a church that stands outside of life. It is excommunicated by the will of Heaven and the nature of things, from the only Communion that is large enough for a man to belong to or for a God to bless.
If there is one sign rather than another of religious possibility and spiritual worth in the men who do the world's work with machines to-day, it is that these men are never persuaded to attend a church that despises that work.
Symposiums on how to reach the masses are pitiless irony. There is no need for symposiums. It is an open secret. It cries upon the house-tops. It calls above the world in the Sabbath bells. A church that believes less than the world believes shall lose its leadership in the world. "Why should I pay pew rent," says the man who sings with his hands, "to men who do not believe in me, to worship, with men who do not believe in me, a God that does not believe in me?" If heaven itself (represented as a rich and idle place,—seats free in the evening) were opened to the true laboring man on the condition that he should despise his hands by holding palms in them, he would find some excuse for staying away. He feels in no wise different with regard to his present life. "Unless your God," says the man who sings with his hands, to those who pity him and do him good,—"unless your God is a God I can worship in a factory, He is not a God I care to worship in a church."
Behold it is written: The church that does not delight in these men and in what these men are for, as much as the street delights in them, shall give way to the street. The street is more beautiful. If the street is not let into the church, it shall sweep over the church and sweep around it, shall pile the floors of its strength upon it, above it. From the roofs of labor—radiant and beautiful labor—shall men look down upon its towers. Only a church that believes more than the world believes shall lead the world. It always leads the world. It cannot help leading it. The religion that lives in a machine age, and that cannot see and feel, and make others see and feel, the meaning of that machine age, is a religion which is not worthy of us. It is not worthy of our machines. One of the machines we have made could make a better religion than this. Even now, almost everywhere in almost every town or city where one goes, if one will stop or look up or listen, one hears the chimneys teaching the steeples. It would be blind for more than a few years more to be discouraged about modern religion. The telephone, the wireless telegraph, the X-rays, and all the other great believers are singing up around it. The very railroads are surrounding it and taking care of it. A few years more and the steeples will stop hesitating and tottering in the sight of all the people. They will no longer stand in fear before what the crowds of chimneys and railways and the miles of smokestacks sweeping past are saying to the people.
They will listen to what the smokestacks are saying to the people.
They will say it better.
In the meantime they are not listening.
Religion and art at the present moment, both blindfolded and both with their ears stopped, are being swept to the same irrevocable issue. By all poets and prophets the same danger signal shall be seen spreading before them both jogging along their old highways. It is the arm that reaches across the age.
RAILROAD CROSSING LOOK OUT FOR THE ENGINE!
THE LANGUAGE OF THE MACHINES
AS GOOD AS OURS
One is always hearing it said that if a thing is to be called poetic it must have great ideas in it, and must successfully express them. The idea that there is poetry in machinery, has to meet the objection that, while a machine may have great ideas in it, "it does not look it." The average machine not only fails to express the idea that it stands for, but it generally expresses something else. The language of the average machine, when one considers what it is for, what it is actually doing, is not merely irrelevant or feeble. It is often absurd. It is a rare machine which, when one looks for poetry in it, does not make itself ridiculous.
The only answer that can be made to this objection is that a steam-engine (when one thinks of it) really expresses itself as well as the rest of us. All language is irrelevant, feeble, and absurd. We live in an organically inexpressible world. The language of everything in it is absurd. Judged merely by its outer signs, the universe over our heads—with its cunning little stars in it—is the height of absurdity, as a self-expression. The sky laughs at us. We know it when we look in a telescope. Time and space are God's jokes. Looked at strictly in its outer language, the whole visible world is a joke. To suppose that God has ever expressed Himself to us in it, or to suppose that He could express Himself in it, or that any one can express anything in it, is not to see the point of the joke.
We cannot even express ourselves to one another. The language of everything we use or touch is absurd. Nearly all of the tools we do our living with—even the things that human beings amuse themselves with—are inexpressive and foolish-looking. Golf and tennis and football have all been accused in turn, by people who do not know them from the inside, of being meaningless. A golf-stick does not convey anything to the uninitiated, but the bare sight of a golf-stick lying on a seat is a feeling to the one to whom it belongs, a play of sense and spirit to him, a subtle thrill in his arms. The same is true of a new fiery-red baby, which, considering the fuss that is made about it, to a comparative outsider like a small boy, has always been from the beginning of the world a ridiculous and inadequate object. A man could not possibly conceive, even if he gave all his time to it, of a more futile, reckless, hapless expression of or pointer to an immortal soul than a week-old baby wailing at time and space. The idea of a baby may be all right, but in its outer form, at first, at least, a baby is a failure, and always has been. The same is true of our other musical instruments. A horn caricatures music. A flute is a man rubbing a black stick with his lips. A trombone player is a monster. We listen solemnly to the violin—the voice of an archangel with a board tucked under his chin—and to Girardi's 'cello—a whole human race laughing and crying and singing to us between a boy's legs. The eye-language of the violin has to be interpreted, and only people who are cultivated enough to suppress whole parts of themselves (rather useful and important parts elsewhere) can enjoy a great opera—a huge conspiracy of symbolism, every visible thing in it standing for something that can not be seen, beckoning at something that cannot be heard. Nothing could possibly be more grotesque, looked at from the outside or by a tourist from another planet or another religion, than the celebration of the Lord's Supper in a Protestant church. All things have their outer senses, and these outer senses have to be learned one at a time by being flashed through with inner ones. Except to people who have tried it, nothing could be more grotesque than kissing, as a form of human expression. A reception—a roomful of people shouting at each other three inches away—is comical enough. So is handshaking. Looked at from the outside, what could be more unimpressive than the spectacle of the greatest dignitary of the United States put in a vise in his own house for three hours, having his hand squeezed by long rows of people? And, taken as a whole, scurrying about in its din, what could possibly be more grotesque than a great city—a city looked at from almost any adequate, respectable place for an immortal soul to look from—a star, for instance, or a beautiful life?
Whether he is looked at by ants or by angels, every outer token that pertains to man is absurd and unfinished until some inner thing is put with it. Man himself is futile and comic-looking (to the other animals), rushing empty about space. New York is a spectacle for a squirrel to laugh at, and, from the point of view of a mouse, a man is a mere, stupid, sitting-down, skull-living, desk-infesting animal.
All these things being true of expression—both the expression of men and of God—the fact that machines which have poetry in them do not express it very well does not trouble me much. I do not forget the look of the first ocean-engine I ever saw—four or five stories of it; nor do I forget the look of the ocean-engine's engineer as in its mighty heart-beat he stood with his strange, happy, helpless "Twelve thousand horse-power, sir!" upon his lips.
That first night with my first engineer still follows me. The time seems always coming back to me again when he brought me up from his whirl of wheels in the hold to the deck of stars, and left me—my new wonder all stumbling through me—alone with them and with my thoughts.
The engines breathe. No sound but cinders on the sails And the ghostly heave, The voice the wind makes in the mast— And dainty gales And fluffs of mist and smoking stars Floating past— From night-lit funnels.
In the wild of the heart of God I stand. Time and Space Wheel past my face. Forever. Everywhere. I alone. Beyond the Here and There Now and Then Of men, Winds from the unknown Round me blow Blow to the unknown again.
Out in its solitude I hear the prow Beyond the silence-crowded decks Laughing and shouting At Night, Lashing the heads and necks Of the lifted seas, That in their flight Urge onward And rise and sweep and leap and sink To the very brink Of Heaven.
Timber and steel and smoke And Sleep Thousand-souled A quiver, A deadened thunder, A vague and countless creep Through the hold, The weird and dusky chariot lunges on Through Fate. From the lookout watch of my soul's eyes Above the houses of the deep Their shadowy haunches fall and rise —O'er the glimmer-gabled roofs The flying of their hoofs, Through the wonder and the dark Where skies and waters meet The shimmer of manes and knees Dust of seas... The sound of breathing, urge, confusion And the beat, the starlight beat Soft and far and stealthy-fleet Of the dim unnumbered trampling of their feet.
ON BEING BUSY AND STILL
One of the hardest things about being an inventor is that the machines (excepting the poorer ones) never show off. The first time that the phonograph (whose talking had been rumored of many months) was allowed to talk in public, it talked to an audience in Metuchen, New Jersey, and, much to Mr. Edison's dismay, everybody laughed. Instead of being impressed with the real idea of the phonograph—being impressed because it could talk at all—people were impressed because it talked through its nose.
The more modern a machine is, when a man stands before it and seeks to know it,—the more it expects of the man, the more it appeals to his imagination and his soul,—the less it is willing to appeal to the outside of him. If he will not look with his whole being at a twin-screw steamer, he will not see it. Its poetry is under water. This is one of the chief characteristics of the modern world, that its poetry is under water. The old sidewheel steamer floundering around in the big seas, pounding the air and water both with her huge, showy paddles, is not so poetic-looking as the sailboat, and the poetry in the sailboat is not so obvious, so plainly on top, as in a gondola.
People who do not admit poetry in machinery in general admit that there is poetry in a Dutch windmill, because the poetry is in sight. A Dutch windmill flourishes. The American windmill, being improved so much that it does not flourish, is supposed not to have poetry in it at all. The same general principle holds good with every machine that has been invented. The more the poet—that is, the inventor—works on it, the less the poetry in it shows. Progress in a modern machine, if one watches it in its various stages, always consists in making a machine stop posing and get down to work. The earlier locomotive, puffing helplessly along with a few cars on its crooked rails, was much more fire-breathing, dragon-like and picturesque than the present one, and the locomotive that came next, while very different, was more impressive than the present one. Every one remembers it,—the important-looking, bell-headed, woodpile-eating locomotive of thirty years ago, with its noisy steam-blowing habits and its ceaseless water-drinking habits, with its grim, spreading cowcatcher and its huge plug-hat—who does not remember it—fussing up and down stations, ringing its bell forever and whistling at everything in sight? It was impossible to travel on a train at all thirty years ago without always thinking of the locomotive. It shoved itself at people. It was always doing things—now at one end of the train and now at the other, ringing its bell down the track, blowing in at the windows, it fumed and spread enough in hauling three cars from Boston to Concord to get to Chicago and back. It was the poetic, old-fashioned way that engines were made. One takes a train from New York to San Francisco now, and scarcely knows there is an engine on it. All he knows is that he is going, and sometimes the going is so good he hardly knows that.
The modern engines, the short-necked, pin-headed, large-limbed, silent ones, plunging with smooth and splendid leaps down their aisles of space—engines without any faces, blind, grim, conquering, lifting the world—are more poetic to some of us than the old engines were, for the very reason that they are not so poetic-looking. They are less showy, more furtive, suggestive, modern and perfect.
In proportion as a machine is modern it hides its face. It refuses to look as poetic as it is; and if it makes a sound, it is almost always a sound that is too small for it, or one that belongs to some one else. The trolley-wire, lifting a whole city home to supper, is a giant with a falsetto voice. The large-sounding, the poetic-sounding, is not characteristic of the modern spirit. In so far as it exists at all in the modern age, either in its machinery or its poetry, it exists because it is accidental or left over. There was a deep bass steamer on the Mississippi once, with a very small head of steam, which any one would have admitted had poetry in it—old-fashioned poetry. Every time it whistled it stopped.
ON NOT SHOWING OFF
It is not true to say that the modern man does not care for poetry. He does not care for poetry that bears on—or for eloquent poetry. He cares for poetry in a new sense. In the old sense he does not care for eloquence in anything. The lawyer on the floor of Congress who seeks to win votes by a show of eloquence is turned down. Votes are facts, and if the votes are to be won, facts must be arranged to do it. The doctor who stands best with the typical modern patient is not the most agreeable, sociable, jogging-about man a town contains, like the doctor of the days gone by. He talks less. He even prescribes less, and the reason that it is hard to be a modern minister (already cut down from two hours and a half to twenty or thirty minutes) is that one has to practise more than one can preach.
To be modern is to be suggestive and symbolic, to stand for more than one says or looks—the little girl with her loom clothing twelve hundred people. People like it. They are used to it. All life around them is filled with it. The old-fashioned prayer-meeting is dying out in the modern church because it is a mere specialty in modern life. The prayer-meeting recognizes but one way of praying, and people who have a gift for praying that way go, but the majority of people—people who have discovered that there are a thousand other ways of praying, and who like them better—stay away.
When the telegraph machine was first thought of, the words all showed on the outside. When it was improved it became inner and subtle. The messages were read by sound. Everything we have which improves at all improves in the same way. The exterior conception of righteousness of a hundred years ago—namely, that a man must do right because it is his duty—is displaced by the modern one, the morally thorough one—namely, that a man must do right because he likes it—do it from the inside. The more improved righteousness is, the less it shows on the outside. The more modern righteousness is, the more it looks like selfishness, the better the modern world likes it, and the more it counts.
On the whole, it is against a thing rather than in its favor, in the twentieth century, that it looks large. Time was when if it had not been known as a matter of fact that Galileo discovered heaven with a glass three feet long, men would have said that it would hardly do to discover heaven with anything less than six hundred feet long. To the ancients, Galileo's instrument, even if it had been practical, would not have been poetic or fitting. To the moderns, however, the fact that Galileo's star-tool was three feet long, that he carried a new heaven about with him in his hands, was half the poetry and wonder of it. Yet it was not so poetic-looking as the six-hundred-foot telescope invented later, which never worked.
Nothing could be more impressive than the original substantial R—— typewriter. One felt, every time he touched a letter, as if he must have said a sentence. It was like saying things with pile-drivers. The machine obtruded itself at every point. It flourished its means and ends. It was a gesticulating machine. One commenced every new line with his foot.
The same general principle may be seen running alike through machinery and through life. The history of man is traced in water-wheels. The overshot wheel belonged to a period when everything else—religion, literature, and art—was overshot. When, as time passed on, common men began to think, began to think under a little, the Reformation came in—and the undershot wheel, as a matter of course. There is no denying that the overshot wheel is more poetic-looking—it does its work with twelve quarts of water at a time and shows every quart—but it soon develops into the undershot wheel, which shows only the drippings of the water, and the undershot wheel develops into the turbine wheel, which keeps everything out of sight—except its work. The water in the six turbine wheels at Niagara has sixty thousand horses in it, but it is not nearly as impressive and poetic-looking as six turbine wheels' worth of water would be—wasted and going over the Falls.
The main fact about the modern man as regards poetry is, that he prefers poetry that has this reserved turbine-wheel trait in it. It is because most of the poetry the modern man gets a chance to see to-day is merely going over the Falls that poetry is not supposed to appeal to the modern man. He supposes so himself. He supposes that a dynamo (forty street-cars on forty streets, flying through the dark) is not poetic, but its whir holds him, sense and spirit, spellbound, more than any poetry that is being written. The things that are hidden—the things that are spiritual and wondering—are the ones that appeal to him. The idle, foolish look of a magnet fascinates him. He gropes in his own body silently, harmlessly with the X-ray, and watches with awe the beating of his heart. He glories in inner essences, both in his life and in his art. He is the disciple of the X-ray, the defier of appearances. Why should a man who has seen the inside of matter care about appearances, either in little things or great? Or why argue about the man, or argue about the man's God, or quibble with words? Perhaps he is matter. Perhaps he is spirit. If he is spirit, he is matter-loving spirit, and if he is matter, he is spirit-loving matter. Every time he touches a spiritual thing, he makes it (as God makes mountains out of sunlight) a material thing. Every time he touches a material thing, in proportion as he touches it mightily he brings out inner light in it. He spiritualizes it. He abandons the glistening brass knocker—pleasing symbol to the outer sense—for a tiny knob on his porch door and a far-away tinkle in his kitchen. The brass knocker does not appeal to the spirit enough for the modern man, nor to the imagination. He wants an inner world to draw on to ring a door-bell with. He loves to wake the unseen. He will not even ring a door-bell if he can help it. He likes it better, by touching a button, to have a door-bell rung for him by a couple of metals down in his cellar chewing each other. He likes to reach down twelve flights of stairs with a thrill on a wire and open his front door. He may be seen riding in three stories along his streets, but he takes his engines all off the tracks and crowds them into one engine and puts it out of sight. The more a thing is out of the sight of his eyes the more his soul sees it and glories in it. His fireplace is underground. Hidden water spouts over his head and pours beneath his feet through his house. Hidden light creeps through the dark in it. The more might, the more subtlety. He hauls the whole human race around the crust of the earth with a vapor made out of a solid. He stops solids—sixty miles an hour—with invisible air. He photographs the tone of his voice on a platinum plate. His voice reaches across death with the platinum plate. He is heard of the unborn. If he speaks in either one of his worlds he takes two worlds to speak with. He will not be shut in with one. If he lives in either he wraps the other about him. He makes men walk on air. He drills out rocks with a cloud and he breaks open mountains with gas. The more perfect he makes his machines the more spiritual they are, the more their power hides itself. The more the machines of the man loom in human life the more they reach down into silence, and into darkness. Their foundations are infinity. The infinity which is the man's infinity is their infinity. The machines grasp all space for him. They lean out on ether. They are the man's machines. The man has made them and the man worships with them. From the first breath of flame, burning out the secret of the Dust to the last shadow of the dust—the breathless, soundless shadow of the dust, which he calls electricity—the man worships the invisible, the intangible. Electricity is his prophet. It sums him up. It sums up his modern world and the religion and the arts of his modern world. Out of all the machines that he has made the electric machine is the most modern because it is the most spiritual. The empty and futile look of a trolley wire does not trouble the modern man. It is his instinctive expression of himself. All the habits of electricity are his habits. Electricity has the modern man's temperament—the passion of being invisible and irresistible. The electric machine fills him with brotherhood and delight. It is the first of the machines that he can not help seeing is like himself. It is the symbol of the man's highest self. His own soul beckons to him out of it.
And the more electricity grows the more like the man it grows, the more spirit-like it is. The telegraph wire around the globe is melted into the wireless telegraph. The words of his spirit break away from the dust. They envelop the earth like ether, and Human Speech, at last, unconquerable, immeasurable, subtle as the light of stars,—fights its way to God.
The man no longer gropes in the dull helpless ground or through the froth of heaven for the spirit. Having drawn to him the X-ray, which makes spirit out of dust, and the wireless telegraph, which makes earth out of air, he delves into the deepest sea as a cloud. He strides heaven. He has touched the hem of the garment at last of ELECTRICITY—the archangel of matter.
ON MAKING PEOPLE PROUD OF THE WORLD
Religion consists in being proud of the Creator. Poetry is largely the same feeling—a kind of personal joy one takes in the way the world is made and is being made every morning. The true lover of nature is touched with a kind of cosmic family pride every time he looks up from his work—sees the night and morning, still and splendid, hanging over him. Probably if there were another universe than this one, to go and visit in, or if there were an extra Creator we could go to—some of us—and boast about the one we have, it would afford infinite relief among many classes of people—especially poets.
The most common sign that poetry, real poetry, exists in the modern human heart is the pride that people are taking in the world. The typical modern man, whatever may be said or not said of his religion, of his attitude toward the maker of the world, has regular and almost daily habits of being proud of the world.
In the twentieth century the best way for a man to worship God is going to be to realize his own nature, to recognize what he is for, and be a god, too. We believe to-day that the best recognition of God consists in recognizing the fact that he is not a mere God who does divine things himself, but a God who can make others do them.
Looked at from the point of view of a mere God who does divine things himself, an earthquake, for instance, may be called a rather feeble affair, a slight jar to a ball going —— miles an hour—a Creator could do little less, if He gave a bare thought to it—but when I waked a few mornings ago and felt myself swinging in my own house as if it were a hammock, and was told that some men down in Hazardville, Connecticut, had managed to shake the planet like that, with some gunpowder they had made, I felt a new respect for Messrs. —— and Co. I was proud of man, my brother. Does he not shake loose the Force of Gravity—make the very hand of God to tremble? To his thoughts the very hills, with their hearts of stone, make soft responses—when he thinks them.
The Corliss engine of Machinery Hall in '76, under its sky of iron and glass, is remembered by many people the day they saw it first as one of the great experiences of life. Like some vast, Titanic spirit, soul of a thousand, thousand wheels, it stood to some of us, in its mighty silence there, and wrought miracles. To one twelve-year-old boy, at least, the thought of the hour he spent with that engine first is a thought he sings and prays with to this day. His lips trembled before it. He sought to hide himself in its presence. Why had no one ever taught him anything before? As he looks back through his life there is one experience that stands out by itself in all those boyhood years—the choking in his throat—the strange grip upon him—upon his body and upon his soul—as of some awful unseen Hand reaching down Space to him, drawing him up to Its might. He was like a dazed child being held up before It—held up to an infinite fact, that he might look at it again and again.
The first conception of what the life of man was like, of what it might be like, came to at least one immortal soul not from lips that he loved, or from a face behind a pulpit, or a voice behind a desk, but from a machine. To this day that Corliss engine is the engine of dreams, the appeal to destiny, to the imagination and to the soul. It rebuilds the universe. It is the opportunity of beauty throughout life, the symbol of freedom, the freedom of men, and of the unity of nations, and of the worship of God. In silence—like the soft far running of the sky—it wrought upon him there; like some heroic human spirit, its finger on a thousand wheels, through miles of aisles, and crowds of gazers, it wrought. The beat and rhythm of it was as the beat and rhythm of the heart of man mastering matter, of the clay conquering God.
Like some wonder-crowded chorus its voices surrounded me. It was the first hearing of the psalm of life. The hum and murmur of it was like the spell of ages upon me; and the vision that floated in it—nay, the vision that was builded in it—was the vision of the age to be: the vision of Man, My Brother, after the singsong and dance and drone of his sad four thousand years, lifting himself to the stature of his soul at last, lifting himself with the sun, and with the rain, and with the wind, and the heat and the light, into comradeship with Creation morning, and into something (in our far-off, wistful fashion) of the might and gentleness of God.
There seem to be two ways to worship Him. One way is to gaze upon the great Machine that He has made, to watch it running softly above us all, moonlight and starlight, and winter and summer, rain and snowflakes, and growing things. Another way is to worship Him not only because He has made the vast and still machine of creation, in the beating of whose days and nights we live our lives, but because He has made a Machine that can make machines—because out of the dust of the earth He has made a Machine that shall take more of the dust of the earth, and of the vapor of heaven, crowd it into steel and iron and say, "Go ye now, depths of the earth—heights of heaven—serve ye me. I, too, am God. Stones and mists, winds and waters and thunder—the spirit that is in thee is my spirit. I also—even I also—am God!"
A MODEST UNIVERSE
I have heard it objected that a machine does not take hold of a man with its great ideas while he stands and watches it. It does not make him feel its great ideas. And therefore it is denied that it is poetic.
The impressiveness of the bare spiritual facts of machinery is not denied. What seems to be lacking in the machines from the artistic point of view at present is a mere knack of making the faces plain and literal-looking. Grasshoppers would be more appreciated by more people if they were made with microscopes on,—either the grasshoppers or the people.
If the mere machinery of a grasshopper's hop could be made plain and large enough, there is not a man living who would not be impressed by it. If grasshoppers were made (as they might quite as easily have been) 640 feet high, the huge beams of their legs above their bodies towering like cranes against the horizon, the sublimity of a grasshopper's machinery—the huge levers of it, his hops across valleys from mountain to mountain, shadowing fields and villages—would have been one of the impressive features of human life. Everybody would be willing to admit of the mere machinery of a grasshopper, (if there were several acres of it) that there was creative sublimity in it. They would admit that the bare idea of having such a stately piece of machinery in a world at all, slipping softly around on it, was an idea with creative sublimity in it; and yet these same people because the sublimity, instead of being spread over several acres, is crowded into an inch and a quarter, are not impressed by it.
But it is objected, it is not merely a matter of spiritual size. There is something more than plainness lacking in the symbolism of machinery. "The symbolism of machinery is lacking in fitness. It is not poetic." "A thing can only be said to be poetic in proportion as its form expresses its nature." Mechanical inventions may stand for impressive facts, but such inventions, no matter how impressive the facts may be, cannot be called poetic unless their form expresses those facts. A horse plunging and champing his bits on the eve of battle, for instance, is impressive to a man, and a pill-box full of dynamite, with a spark creeping toward it, is not.
That depends partly on the man and partly on the spark. A man may not be impressed by a pill-box full of dynamite and a spark creeping toward it, the first time he sees it, but the second time he sees it, if he has time, he is impressed enough. He does not stand and criticise the lack of expression in pill-boxes, nor wait to remember the day when he all but lost his life because
A pill-box by the river's brim A simple pill-box was to him And nothing more.
Wordsworth in these memorable lines has summed up and brought to an issue the whole matter of poetry in machinery. Everything has its language, and the power of feeling what a thing means, by the way it looks, is a matter of experience—of learning the language. The language is there. The fact that the language of the machine is a new language, and a strangely subtle one, does not prove that it is not a language, that its symbolism is not good, and that there is not poetry in machinery.
The inventor need not be troubled because in making his machine it does not seem to express. It is written that neither you nor I, comrade nor God, nor any man, nor any man's machine, nor God's machine, in this world shall express or be expressed. If it is the meaning of life to us to be expressed in it, to be all-expressed, we are indeed sorry, dumb, plaintive creatures dotting a star awhile, creeping about on it, warmed by a heater ninety-five million miles away. The machine of the universe itself, does not express its Inventor. It does not even express the men who are under it. The ninety-five millionth mile waits on us silently, at the doorways of our souls night and day, and we wait on IT. Is it not THERE? Is it not HERE—this ninety-five millionth mile? It is ours. It runs in our veins. Why should Man—a being who can live forever in a day, who is born of a boundless birth, who takes for his fireside the immeasurable—express or expect to be expressed? What we would like to be—even what we are—who can say? Our music is an apostrophe to dumbness. The Pantomime above us rolls softly, resistlessly on, over the pantomime within us. We and our machines, both, hewing away on the infinite, beckon and are still.
I am not troubled because the machines do not seem to express themselves. I do not know that they can express themselves. I know that when the day is over, and strength is spent, and my soul looks out upon the great plain—upon the soft, night-blooming cities, with their huge machines striving in sleep, might lifts itself out upon me. I rest.
I know that when I stand before a foundry hammering out the floors of the world, clashing its awful cymbals against the night, I lift my soul to it, and in some way—I know not how—while it sings to me I grow strong and glad.
THE MACHINES AS POETS
PLATO AND THE GENERAL ELECTRIC WORKS
I have an old friend who lives just around the corner from one of the main lines of travel in New England, and whenever I am passing near by and the railroads let me, I drop in on him awhile and quarrel about art. It's a good old-fashioned comfortable, disorderly conversation we have generally, the kind people used to have more than they do now—sketchy and not too wise—the kind that makes one think of things one wishes one had said, afterward.
We always drift a little at first, as if of course we could talk about other things if we wanted to, but we both know, and know every time, that in a few minutes we shall be deep in a discussion of the Things That Are Beautiful and the Things That Are Not.
Brim thinks that I have picked out more things to be beautiful than I have a right to, or than any man has, and he is trying to put a stop to it. He thinks that there are enough beautiful things in this world that have been beautiful a long while, without having people—well, people like me, for instance, poking blindly around among all these modern brand-new things hoping that in spite of appearances there is something one can do with them that will make them beautiful enough to go with the rest. I'm afraid Brim gets a little personal in talking with me at times and I might as well say that, while disagreeing in a conversation with Brim does not lead to calling names it does seem to lead logically to one's going away, and trying to find afterwards, some thing that is the matter with him.
"The trouble with you, my dear Brim, is," I say (on paper, afterwards, as the train speeds away), "that you have a false-classic or Stucco-Greek mind. The Greeks, the real Greeks, would have liked all these things—trolley cars, cables, locomotives,—seen the beautiful in them, if they had to do their living with them every day, the way we do. You would say you were more Greek than I am, but when one thinks of it, you are just going around liking the things the Greeks liked 3000 years ago, and I am around liking the things a Greek would like now, that is, as well as I can. I don't flatter myself I begin to enjoy the wireless telegraph to-day the way Plato would if he had the chance, and Alcibiades in an automobile would get a great deal more out of it, I suspect, than anyone I have seen in one, so far; and I suspect that if Socrates could take Bliss Carman and, say, William Watson around with him on a tour of the General Electric Works in Schenectady they wouldn't either of them write sonnets about anything else for the rest of their natural lives."
I can only speak for one and I do not begin to see the poetry in the machines that a Greek would see, as yet.
But I have seen enough.
I have seen engineers go by, pounding on this planet, making it small enough, welding the nations together before my eyes.
I have seen inventors, still men by lamps at midnight with a whirl of visions, with a whirl of thoughts, putting in new drivewheels on the world.
I have seen (in Schenectady,) all those men—the five thousand of them—the grime on their faces and the great caldrons of melted railroad swinging above their heads. I have stood and watched them there with lightning and with flame hammering out the wills of cities, putting in the underpinnings of nations, and it seemed to me me that Bliss Carman and William Watson would not be ashamed of them ... brother-artists every one ... in the glory ... in the dark ... Vulcan-Tennysons, blacksmiths to a planet, with dredges, skyscrapers, steam shovels and wireless telegraphs, hewing away on the heavens and the earth.
HEWING AWAY ON THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH
The poetry of machinery to-day is a mere matter of fact—a part of the daily wonder of life to countless silent people. The next thing the world wants to know about machinery is not that there is poetry in it, but that the poetry which the common people have already found there, has a right to be there. We have the fact. It is the theory to put with the fact which concerns us next and which really troubles us most. There are very few of us, on the whole, who can take any solid comfort in a fact—no matter what it is—until we have a theory to approve of it with. Its merely being a fact does not seem to make very much difference.
1. Machinery has poetry in it because it is an expression of the soul.
2. It expresses the soul (1) of the individual man who creates the machine—the inventor, and (2) the man who lives with the machine the engineer.
3. It expresses God, if only that He is a God who can make men who can thus express their souls. Machinery is an act of worship in the least sense if not in the greatest. If a man who can make machines like this is not clever enough with all his powers to find a God, and to worship a God, he can worship himself. It is because the poetry of machinery is the kind of poetry that does immeasurable things instead of immeasurably singing about them that it has been quite generally taken for granted that it is not poetry at all. The world has learned more of the purely poetic idea of freedom from a few dumb, prosaic machines that have not been able to say anything beautiful about it than from the poets of twenty centuries. The machine frees a hundred thousand men and smokes. The poet writes a thousand lines on freedom and has his bust in Westminster Abbey. The blacks in America were freed by Abraham Lincoln and the cotton gin. The real argument for unity—the argument against secession—was the locomotive. No one can fight the locomotive very long. It makes the world over into one world whether it wants to be one world or not. China is being conquered by steamships. It cannot be said that the idea of unity is a new one. Seers and poets have made poetry out of it for two thousand years. Machinery is making the poetry mean something. Every new invention in matter that comes to us is a spiritual masterpiece. It is crowded with ideas. The Bessemer process has more political philosophy in it than was ever dreamed of in Shelley's poetry, and it would not be hard to show that the invention of the sewing machine was one of the most literary and artistic as well as one of the most religious events of the nineteenth century. The loom is the most beautiful thought that any one has ever had about Woman, and the printing press is more wonderful than anything that has ever been said on it.
"This is all very true," interrupts the Logical Person, "about printing presses and looms and everything else—one could go on forever—but it does not prove anything. It may be true that the loom has made twenty readers for Robert Browning's poetry where Browning would have made but one, but it does not follow that because the loom has freed women for beauty that the loom is beautiful, or that it is a fit theme for poetry." "Besides"—breaks in the Minor Poet—"there is a difference between a thing's being full of big ideas and its being beautiful. A foundry is powerful and interesting, but is it beautiful the way an electric fountain is beautiful or a sonnet or a doily?"
This brings to a point the whole question as to where the definition of beauty—the boundary line of beauty—shall be placed. A thing's being considered beautiful is largely a matter of size. The question "Is a thing beautiful?" resolves itself into "How large has a beautiful thing a right to be?" A man's theory of beauty depends, in a universe like this, upon how much of the universe he will let into it. If he is afraid of the universe if he only lets his thoughts and passions live in a very little of it, he is apt to assume that if a beautiful thing rises into the sublime and immeasurable—suggests boundless ideas—the beauty is blurred out of it. It is something—there is no denying that it is something—but, whatever it is or is not, it is not beauty. Nearly everything in our modern life is getting too big to be beautiful. Our poets are dumb because they see more poetry than their theories have room for. The fundamental idea of the poetry of machinery is infinity. Our theories of poetry were made—most of them—before infinity was discovered.
Infinity itself is old, and the idea that infinity exists—a kind of huge, empty rim around human life—is not a new idea to us, but the idea that this same infinity has or can have anything to do with us or with our arts, or our theories of art, or that we have anything to do with IT, is an essentially modern discovery. The actual experience of infinity—that is, the experience of being infinite (comparatively speaking)—as in the use of machinery, is a still more modern discovery. There is no better way perhaps, of saying what modern machinery really is, than to say that it is a recent invention for being infinite.
The machines of the world are all practically engaged in manufacturing the same thing. They are all time-and-space-machines. They knit time and space. Hundreds of thousands of things may be put in machines this very day, for us, before night falls, but only eternity and infinity shall be turned out. Sometimes it is called one and sometimes the other. If a man is going to be infinite or eternal it makes little difference which. It is merely a matter of form whether one is everywhere a few years, or anywhere forever. A sewing machine is as much a means of communication as a printing press or a locomotive. The locomotive takes a woman around the world. The sewing machine gives her a new world where she is. At every point where a machine touches the life of a human being, it serves him with a new measure of infinity.
This would seem to be a poetic thing for a machine to do. Traditional poetry does not see any poetry in it, because, according to our traditions poetry has fixed boundary lines, is an old, established institution in human life, and infinity is not.
No one has wanted to be infinite before. Poetry in the ancient world was largely engaged in protecting people from the Infinite. They were afraid of it. They could not help feeling that the Infinite was over them. Worship consisted in propitiating it, poetry in helping people to forget it. With the exception of Job, the Hebrews almost invariably employed a poet—when they could get one—as a kind of transfigured policeman—to keep the sky off. It was what was expected of poets.
The Greeks did the same thing in a different way. The only difference was, that the Greeks, instead of employing their poets to keep the sky off, employed them to make it as much like the earth as possible—a kind of raised platform which was less dreadful and more familiar and homelike and answered the same general purpose. In other words, the sky became beautiful to the Greek when he had made it small enough. Making it small enough was the only way a Greek knew of making it beautiful.
Galileo knew another way. It is because Galileo knew another way—because he knew that the way to make the sky beautiful, was to make it large enough—that men are living in a new world. A new religion beats down through space to us. A new poetry lifts away the ceilings of our dreams. The old sky, with its little tent of stars, its film of flame and darkness burning over us, has floated to the past. The twentieth century—the home of the Infinite—arches over our human lives. The heaven is no longer, to the sons of men, a priests' wilderness, nor is it a poet's heaven—a paper, painted heaven, with little painted paper stars in it, to hide the wilderness.
It is a new heaven. Who, that has lived these latter years, that has seen it crashing and breaking through the old one, can deny that what is over us now is a new heaven? The infinite cave of it, scooped out at last over our little naked, foolish lives, our running-about philosophies, our religions, and our governments—it is the main fact about us. Arts and literatures—ants under a stone, thousands of years, blind with light, hither and thither, racing about, hiding themselves.
But not long for dreams. More than this. The new heaven is matched by a new earth. Men who see a new heaven make a new earth. In its cloud of steam, in a kind of splendid, silent stammer of praise and love, the new earth lifts itself to the new heaven, lifts up days out of nights to It, digs wells for winds under It, lights darkness with falling water, makes ice out of vapor, and heat out of cold, draws down Space with engines, makes years out of moments with machines. It is a new world and all the men that are born upon it are new widemoving, cloud and mountain-moving men. The habits of stars and waters, the huge habits of space and time, are the habits of the men.
The Infinite, at last, which in days gone by hung over us—the mere hiding place of Death, the awful living-room of God—is the neighborhood of human life.
Machinery has poetry in it because in expressing the soul it expresses the greatest idea that the soul of man can have, namely, the idea that the soul of man is infinite, or capable of being infinite.
Machinery has poetry in it also not merely because it is the symbol of infinite power in human life, or because it makes man think he is infinite, but because it is making him as infinite as he thinks he is. The infinity of man is no longer a thing that the poet takes—that he makes an idea out of—Machinery makes it a matter of fact.
THE GRUDGE AGAINST THE INFINITE
The main thing the nineteenth century has done in literature has been the gradual sorting out of poets into two classes—those who like the infinite, who have a fellow-feeling for it, and those who have not. It seems reasonable to say that the poets who have habits of infinity, of space-conquering (like our vast machines), who seek the suggestive and immeasurable in the things they see about them—poets who like infinity, will be the poets to whom we will have to look to reveal to us the characteristic and real poetry of this modern world. The other poets, it is to be feared, are not even liking the modern world, to say nothing of singing in it. They do not feel at home in it. The classic-walled poet seems to feel exposed in our world. It is too savagely large, too various and unspeakable and unfinished. He looks at the sky of it—the vast, unkempt, unbounded sky of it, to which it sings and lifts itself—with a strange, cold, hidden dread down in his heart. To him it is a mere vast, dizzy, dreary, troubled formlessness. Its literature—its art with its infinite life in it, is a blur of vagueness. He complains because mobs of images are allowed in it. It is full of huddled associations. When Carlyle appeared, the Stucco-Greek mind grudgingly admitted that he was 'effective.' A man who could use words as other men used things, who could put a pen down on paper in such a way as to lift men out from the boundaries of their lives and make them live in other lives and in other ages, who could lend them his own soul, had to have something said about him; something very good and so it was said, but he was not an "artist." From the same point of view and to the same people Browning was a mere great man (that is: a merely infinite man). He was a man who went about living and loving things, with a few blind words opening the eyes of the blind. It had to be admitted that Robert Browning could make men who had never looked at their brothers' faces dwell for days in their souls, but he was not a poet. Richard Wagner, too, seer, lover, singer, standing in the turmoil of his violins conquering a new heaven for us, had great conceptions and was a musical genius without the slightest doubt, but he was not an "artist." He never worked his conceptions out. His scores are gorged with mere suggestiveness. They are nothing if they are not played again and again. For twenty or thirty years Richard Wagner was outlawed because his music was infinitely unfinished (like the music of the spheres). People seemed to want him to write cosy, homelike music.
SYMBOLISM IN MODERN ART
"So I drop downward from the wonderment Of timelessness and space, in which were blent The wind, the sunshine and the wanderings Of all the planets—to the little things That are my grass and flowers, and am content."
This prejudice against the infinite, or desire to avoid as much as possible all personal contact with it, betrays itself most commonly, perhaps, in people who have what might be called the domestic feeling, who consciously or unconsciously demand the domestic touch in a landscape before they are ready to call it beautiful. The typical American woman, unless she has unusual gifts or training, if she is left entirely to herself, prefers nice cuddlesome scenery. Even if her imagination has been somewhat cultivated and deepened, so that she feels that a place must be wild, or at least partly wild, in order to be beautiful, she still chooses nooks and ravines, as a rule, to be happy in—places roofed in with gentle, quiet wonder, fenced in with beauty on every side. She is not without her due respect and admiration for a mountain, but she does not want it to be too large, or too near the stars, if she has to live with it day and night; and if the truth were told—even at its best she finds a mountain distant, impersonal, uncompanionable. Unless she is born in it she does not see beauty in the wide plain. There is something in her being that makes her bashful before a whole sky; she wants a sunset she can snuggle up to. It is essentially the bird's taste in scenery. "Give me a nest, O Lord, under the wide heaven. Cover me from Thy glory." A bush or a tree with two or three other bushes or trees near by, and just enough sky to go with it—is it not enough?
The average man is like the average woman in this regard except that he is less so. The fact seems to be that the average human being (like the average poet), at least for everyday purposes, does not want any more of the world around him than he can use, or than he can put somewhere. If there is so much more of the world than one can use, or than anyone else can use, what is the possible object of living where one cannot help being reminded of it?
The same spiritual trait, a kind of gentle persistent grudge against the infinite, shows itself in the not uncommon prejudice against pine trees. There are a great many people who have a way of saying pleasant things about pine trees and who like to drive through them or look at them in the landscape or have them on other people's hills, but they would not plant a pine tree near their houses or live with pines singing over them and watching them, every day and night, for the world. The mood of the pine is such a vast, still, hypnotic, imperious mood that there are very few persons, no matter how dull or unsusceptible they may seem to be, who are not as much affected by a single pine, standing in a yard by a doorway, as they are by a whole skyful of weather. If they are down on the infinite—they do not want a whole treeful of it around on the premises. And the pine comes as near to being infinite as anything purely vegetable, in a world like this, could expect. It is the one tree of all others that profoundly suggests, every time the light falls upon it or the wind stirs through it, THE THINGS THAT MAN CANNOT TOUCH. Woven out of air and sunlight and its shred of dust, it always seems to stand the monument of the woods, to The Intangible, and The Invisible, to the spirituality of matter. Who shall find a tree that looks down upon the spirit of the pine? And who, who has ever looked upon the pines—who has seen them climbing the hills in crowds, drinking at the sun—has not felt that however we may take to them personally they are the Chosen People among the trees? To pass from the voice of them to the voice of the common leaves is to pass from the temple to the street. In the rest of the forest all the leaves seem to be full of one another's din—of rattle and chatter—heedless, happy chaos, but in the pines the voice of every pine-spill is as a chord in the voice of all the rest, and the whole solemn, measured chant of it floats to us as the voice of the sky itself. It is as if all the mystical, beautiful far-things that human spirits know had come from the paths of Space, and from the presence of God, to sing in the tree-trunks over our heads.
Now it seems to me that the supremacy of the pine in the imagination is not that it is more beautiful in itself than other trees, but that the beauty of the pine seems more symbolic than other beauty, and symbolic of more and of greater things. It is full of the sturdiness and strength of the ground, but it is of all trees the tree to see the sky with, and its voice is the voice of the horizons, the voice of the marriage of the heavens and the earth; and not only is there more of the sky in it, and more of the kingdom of the air and of the place of Sleep, but there is more of the fiber and odor from the solemn heart of the earth. No other tree can be mutilated like the pine by the hand of man and still keep a certain earthy, unearthly dignity and beauty about it and about all the place where it stands. A whole row of them, with their left arms cut off for passing wires, standing severe and stately, their bare trunks against heaven, cannot help being beautiful. The beauty is symbolic and infinite. It cannot be taken away. If the entire street-side of a row of common, ordinary middle-class trees were cut away there would be nothing to do with the maimed and helpless things but to cut them down—remove their misery from all men's sight. To lop away the half of a pine is only to see how beautiful the other half is. The other half has the infinite in it. However little of a pine is left it suggests everything there is. It points to the universe and beckons to the Night and the Day. The infinite still speaks in it. It is the optimist, the prophet of trees. In the sad lands it but grows more luxuriantly, and it is the spirit of the tropics in the snows. It is the touch of the infinite—of everywhere—wherever its shadow falls. I have heard the sound of a hammer in the street and it was the sound of a hammer. In the pine woods it was a hundred guns. As the cloud catches the great empty spaces of night out of heaven and makes them glorious the pine gathers all sound into itself—echoes it along the infinite.