Henry Cabot Lodge.

The Best of the World's Classics, Restricted to Prose, Vol. X (of X) - America - II, Index online

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most rigorously close and consequential - it is hardly a matter for
wonder that nine of us out of ten are content to rest in the
gratification thus received as in the gratification of absolute
truth.




OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES

Born in 1809, died in 1894; professor in the Medical School
of Harvard in 1847-82; wrote for the _Atlantic Monthly_ "The
Autocrat of the Breakfast Table" in 1857-58, "The Professor
at the Breakfast Table" in 1859, "The Poet at the Breakfast
Table" in 1872; published "Elsie Venner" in 1861, "The
Guardian Angel" in 1868, "A Mortal Antipathy" in 1885; a
collection of verse entitled "Songs in Many Keys" in 1861,
"Humorous Poems" in 1865, "Songs of Many Seasons," in 1874,
"Before the Curfew" in 1888; also wrote volumes of essays
and memoirs of Emerson and Motley.




I

OF DOCTORS, LAWYERS, AND MINISTERS[9]


"What is your general estimate of doctors, lawyers, and ministers?"
said I.

"Wait a minute, till I have got through with your first question,"
said the Master. "One thing at a time. You asked me about the young
doctors, and about our young doctors, they come home _très bien
chaussés_, as a Frenchman would say, mighty well shod with
professional knowledge. But when they begin walking round among their
poor patients - they don't commonly start with millionaires - they find
that their new shoes of scientific acquirements have got to be broken
in just like a pair of boots or brogans. I don't know that I have put
it quite strong enough. Let me try again. You've seen those fellows at
the circus that get up on horseback, so big that you wonder how they
could climb into the saddle. But pretty soon they throw off their
outside coat, and the next minute another one, and then the one under
that, and so they keep peeling off one garment after another till
people begin to look queer and think they are going too far for strict
propriety. Well, that is the way a fellow with a real practical turn
serves a good many of his scientific wrappers - flings 'em off for
other people to pick up, and goes right at the work of curing
stomach-aches and all the other little mean unscientific complaints
that make up the larger part of every doctor's business. I think our
Dr. Benjamin is a worthy young man, and if you are in need of a doctor
at any time I hope you will go to him; and if you come off without
harm, I will - recommend some other friend to try him."

[Footnote 9: From Chapter V of "The Poet at the Breakfast Table."
Copyright, 1872, 1891, by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Published by
Houghton, Mifflin Company.]

I thought he was going to say he would try him in his own person; but
the Master is not fond of committing himself.

"Now I will answer your other question," he said. "The lawyers are the
cleverest men, the ministers are the most learned, and the doctors are
the most sensible."

"The lawyers are a picked lot, 'first scholars,' and the like, but
their business is as unsympathetic as Jack Ketch's. There is nothing
humanizing in their relations with their fellow creatures. They go for
the side that retains them. They defend the man they know to be a
rogue, and not very rarely throw suspicion on the man they know to be
innocent. Mind you, I am not finding fault with them - every side of a
case has a right to the best statement it admits of; but I say it does
not tend to make them sympathetic. Suppose in a case of Fever _vs._
Patient, the doctor should side with either party according to whether
the old miser or his expectant heir was his employer. Suppose the
minister should side with the Lord or the devil, according to the
salary offered, and other incidental advantages, where the soul of a
sinner was in question. You can see what a piece of work it would make
of their sympathies. But the lawyers are quicker witted than either of
the other professions, and abler men generally. They are good-natured,
or if they quarrel, their quarrels are above-board. I don't think they
are as accomplished as the ministers; but they have a way of cramming
with special knowledge for a case, which leaves a certain shallow
sediment of intelligence in their memories about a good many things.
They are apt to talk law in mixt company; and they have a way of
looking round when they make a point, as if they were addressing a
jury, that is mighty aggravating - as I once had occasion to see when
one of 'em, and a pretty famous one, put me on the witness stand at a
dinner party once.

"The ministers come next in point of talent. They are far more curious
and widely interested outside of their own calling than either of the
other professions. I like to talk with 'em. They are interesting men:
full of good feelings, hard workers, always foremost in good deeds,
and on the whole the most efficient civilizing class - working downward
from knowledge to ignorance, that is; not so much upward,
perhaps - that we have. The trouble is that so many of 'em work in
harness, and it is pretty sure to chafe somewhere. They feed us on
canned meats mostly. They cripple our instincts and reason, and give
us a crutch of doctrine. I have talked with a great many of 'em, of
all sorts of belief; and I don't think they are quite so easy in their
minds, the greater number of them, nor so clear in their convictions
as one would think to hear 'em lay down the law in the pulpit. They
used to lead the intelligence of their parishes; now they do pretty
well if they keep up with it, and they are very apt to lag behind it.
Then they must have a colleague. The old minister thinks he can hold
to his old course, sailing right into the wind's eye of human nature,
as straight as that famous old skipper John Bunyan; the young minister
falls off three or four points, and catches the breeze that left the
old man's sails all shivering. By-and-by the congregation will get
ahead of him, and then it must have another new skipper. The priest
holds his own pretty well; the minister is coming down every
generation nearer and nearer to the common level of the useful
citizen - no oracle at all, but a man of more than average moral
instincts, who, if he knows anything, knows how little he knows. The
ministers are good talkers, only the struggle between nature and grace
makes some of 'em a little awkward occasionally. The women do their
best to spoil 'em, as they do the poets. You find it pleasant to be
spoiled, no doubt; so do they. Now and then one of 'em goes over the
dam; no wonder - they're always in the rapids."

By this time our three ladies had their faces all turned toward the
speaker, like the weathercocks in a northeaster, and I thought it best
to switch off the talk on to another rail.

"How about the doctors?" I said.

"Theirs is the least learned of the professions, in this country at
least. They have not half the general culture of the lawyers, nor a
quarter of that of the ministers. I rather think, tho, they are more
agreeable to the common run of people than the men with the black
coats or the men with green bags. People can swear before 'em if they
want to, and they can't very well before ministers. I don't care
whether they want to swear or not, they don't want to be on their good
behavior. Besides, the minister has a little smack of the sexton about
him; he comes when people are _in extremis_, but they don't send for
him every time they make a slight moral slip - tell a lie, for
instance, or smuggle a silk dress through the custom-house: but they
call in the doctor when the child is cutting a tooth or gets a
splinter in its finger. So it doesn't mean much to send for him, only
a pleasant chat about the news of the day; for putting the baby to
rights doesn't take long. Besides, everybody doesn't like to talk
about the next world; people are modest in their desires, and find
this world as good as they deserve: but everybody loves to talk
physic. Everybody loves to hear of strange cases; people are eager to
tell the doctor of the wonderful cures they have heard of; they want
to know what is the matter with somebody or other who is said to be
suffering from "a complication of diseases," and above all to get a
hard name, Greek or Latin, for some complaint which sounds altogether
too commonplace in plain English. If you will only call a headache a
_Cephalalgia_, it acquires dignity at once, and a patient becomes
rather proud of it. So I think doctors are generally welcome in most
companies."




II

OF THE GENIUS OF EMERSON[10]


Emerson's was an Asiatic mind, drawing its sustenance partly from the
hard soil of our New England, partly, too, from the air that has known
Himalaya and the Ganges. So imprest with this character of his mind
was Mr. Burlingame,[11] as I saw him, after his return from his
mission, that he said to me, in a freshet of hyperbole, which was the
overflow of a channel with a thread of truth running in it, "There are
twenty thousand Ralph Waldo Emersons in China."

[Footnote 10: From an address before the Massachusetts Historical
Society in 1862. Published by Houghton, Mifflin Company.]

[Footnote 11: Anson Burlingame, famous in his time for treaties
negotiated between China and the United States, England, Denmark,
Sweden, Holland, and Prussia. His son, E. I. Burlingame, has long been
the editor of _Scribner's Magazine_.]

What could we do with this unexpected, unprovided for, unclassified,
half-unwelcome new-comer, who had been for a while potted, as it
were, in our Unitarian cold green-house, but had taken to growing so
fast that he was lifting off its glass roof and letting in the
hailstorms? Here was a protest that outflanked the extreme left of
liberalism, yet so calm and serene that its radicalism had the accents
of the gospel of peace. Here was an iconoclast without a hammer, who
took down our idols from their pedestals so tenderly that it seemed
like an act of worship.

The scribes and pharisees made light of his oracular sayings. The
lawyers could not find the witnesses to subpoena and the documents
to refer to when his case came before them, and turned him over to
their wives and daughters. The ministers denounced his heresies, and
handled his writings as if they were packages of dynamite, and the
grandmothers were as much afraid of his new teachings as old Mrs.
Piozzi[12] was of geology. We had had revolutionary orators,
reformers, martyrs; it was but a few years since Abner Kneeland had
been sent to jail for expressing an opinion about the great First
Cause; but we had had nothing like this man, with his seraphic voice
and countenance, his choice vocabulary, his refined utterance, his
gentle courage, which, with a different manner, might have been called
audacity, his temperate statement of opinions which threatened to
shake the existing order of thought like an earthquake.

[Footnote 12: Hester Lynch Salisbury, who married first Henry Thrale,
the English brewer, and second an Italian musician named Piozzi; but
her fame rests on her friendship of twenty years with Doctor Samuel
Johnson, of whom she wrote reminiscences, described by Carlyle as
"Piozzi's ginger beer."]

His peculiarities of style and of thinking became fertile parents of
mannerisms, which were fair game for ridicule as they appeared in his
imitators. For one who talks like Emerson or like Carlyle soon finds
himself surrounded by a crowd of walking phonographs, who mechanically
reproduce his mental and vocal accents. Emerson was before long
talking in the midst of a babbling Simonetta of echoes, and not
unnaturally was now and then himself a mark for the small-shot of
criticism. He had soon reached that height in the "cold thin
atmosphere" of thought where

"Vainly the fowler's eye
Might mark his distant flight to do him wrong."

I shall add a few words, of necessity almost epigrammatic, upon his
work and character. He dealt with life, and life with him was not
merely this particular air-breathing phase of being, but the spiritual
existence which included it like a parenthesis between the two
infinities. He wanted his daily drafts of oxygen like his neighbors,
and was as thoroughly human as the plain people he mentions who had
successively owned or thought they owned the house-lot on which he
planted his hearthstone. But he was at home no less in the
interstellar spaces outside of all the atmospheres. The
semi-materialistic idealism of Milton was a gross and clumsy medium
compared to the imponderable ether of "The Over-soul" and the
unimaginable vacuum of "Brahma." He followed in the shining and daring
track of the _Graius homo_ of Lucretius:

_"Vivida vis animi pervicit, et extra
Processit longe flammantia moenia mundi."_

It always seemed to me as if he looked at this earth very much as a
visitor from another planet would look upon it. He was interested, and
to some extent curious about it, but it was not the first spheroid he
had been acquainted with, by any means. I have amused myself with
comparing his descriptions of natural objects with those of the Angel
Raphael in the seventh book of Paradise Lost. Emerson talks of his
titmouse as Raphael talks of his emmet. Angels and poets never deal
with nature after the manner of those whom we call naturalists.

To judge of him as a thinker, Emerson should have been heard as a
lecturer, for his manner was an illustration of his way of thinking.
He would lose his place just as his mind would drop its thought and
pick up another, twentieth cousin or no relation at all to it. This
went so far at times that one could hardly tell whether he was putting
together a mosaic of colored fragments, or only turning a kaleidoscope
where the pieces tumbled about as they best might. It was as if he had
been looking in at a cosmic peep-show, and turning from it at brief
intervals to tell us what he saw. But what fragments these colored
sentences were, and what pictures they often placed before us, as if
we too saw them! Never has this city known such audiences as he
gathered; never was such an Olympian entertainment as that which he
gave them.

It is very hard to speak of Mr. Emerson's poetry; not to do it
injustice, still more to do it justice. It seems to me like the robe
of a monarch patched by a New England housewife. The royal tint and
stuff are unmistakable, but here and there the gray worsted from the
darning-needle crosses and ekes out the Tyrian purple. Few poets who
have written so little in verse have dropped so many of those "jewels
five words long" which fall from their setting only to be more
choicely treasured. _E pluribus unum_ is scarcely more familiar to our
ears than "He builded better than he knew," and Keats's "thing of
beauty" is little better known than Emerson's "beauty is its own
excuse for being." One may not like to read Emerson's poetry because
it is sometimes careless, almost as if carefully so, tho never
undignified even when slipshod; spotted with quaint archaisms and
strange expressions that sound like the affectation of negligence, or
with plain, homely phrases such as the self-made scholar is always
afraid of. But if one likes Emerson's poetry he will be sure to love
it; if he loves it, its phrases will cling to him as hardly any others
do. It may not be for the multitude, but it finds its place like
pollen-dust and penetrates to the consciousness it is to fertilize and
bring to flower and fruit.

I have known something of Emerson as a talker, not nearly so much as
many others who can speak and write of him. It is unsafe to tell how a
great thinker talks, for perhaps, like a city dealer with a village
customer, he has not shown his best goods to the innocent reporter of
his sayings. However that may be in this case, let me contrast in a
single glance the momentary effect in conversation of the two
neighbors, Hawthorne and Emerson. Speech seemed like a kind of travail
to Hawthorne. One must harpoon him like a cetacean with questions to
make him talk at all. Then the words came from him at last, with
bashful manifestations, like those of a young girl, almost - words that
gasped themselves forth, seeming to leave a great deal more behind
them than they told, and died out discontented with themselves, like
the monologue of thunder in the sky, which always goes off mumbling
and grumbling as if it had not said half it wanted to, and ought to
say....

To sum up briefly what would, as it seems to me, be the text to be
unfolded in his biography, he was a man of excellent common sense,
with a genius so uncommon that he seemed like an exotic transplanted
from some angelic nursery. His character was so blameless, so
beautiful, that it was rather a standard to judge others by than to
find a place for on the scale of comparison. Looking at life with the
profoundest sense of its infinite significance, he was yet a cheerful
optimist, almost too hopeful, peeping into every cradle to see if it
did not hold a babe with the halo of a new Messiah about it. He
enriched the treasure-house of literature, but, what was far more, he
enlarged the boundaries of thought for the few that followed him, and
the many who never knew, and do not know to-day, what hand it was
which took down their prison walls. He was a preacher who taught that
the religion of humanity included both those of Palestine, nor those
alone, and taught it with such consecrated lips that the narrowest
bigot was ashamed to pray for him, as from a footstool nearer to the
throne. "Hitch your wagon to a star": this was his version of the
divine lesson taught by that holy George Herbert whose words he
loved. Give him whatever place belongs to him in our literature, in
the literature of our language, of the world, but remember this: the
end and aim of his being was to make truth lovely and manhood
valorous, and to bring our daily life nearer and nearer to the
eternal, immortal, invisible.




III

THE HOUSE IN WHICH THE PROFESSOR LIVED[13]


"This is the shortest way," she said, as we came to a corner.

"Then we won't take it," said I. The schoolmistress laughed a little,
and said she was ten minutes early, so she could go around.

[Footnote 13: From Part X of "The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table."
Published by Houghton, Mifflin Company.]

We walked around Mr. Paddock's row of English elms. The gray squirrels
were out looking for their breakfasts, and one of them came toward us
in light, soft, intermittent leaps, until he was close to the rail of
the burial ground. He was on a grave with a broad blue slate-stone at
its head, and a shrub growing on it. The stone said this was the grave
of a young man who was the son of an honorable gentleman, and who died
a hundred years ago and more. Oh, yes, died - with a small triangular
mark in one breast, and another smaller opposite, in his back, where
another young man's rapier had slid through his body; and so he lay
down out there on the Common, and was found cold the next morning,
with the night dews and the death dews mingled on his forehead.

"Let us have one look at poor Benjamin's grave," said I. "His bones
lie where his body was laid so long ago, and where the stone says they
lie - which is more than can be said of most of the tenants of this and
several other burial grounds....

"Stop before we turn away, and breathe a woman's sigh over poor
Benjamin's dust. Love killed him, I think. Twenty years old, and out
there fighting another young fellow on the common, in the cool of that
old July evening; yes, there must have been love at the bottom of it."

The schoolmistress dropt a rosebud she had in her hand through the
rails, upon the grave of Benjamin Woolbridge. That was all her comment
upon what I told her. "How women love Love!" said I; but she did not
speak.

We came opposite the head of a place or court running eastward from
the main street. "Look down there," I said; "my friend, the Professor,
lived in that house, at the left hand, next the further corner, for
years and years. He died out of it, the other day." "Died?" said the
schoolmistress. "Certainly," said I. "We die out of houses, just as we
die out of our bodies. A commercial smash kills a hundred men's homes
for them, as a railroad crash kills their mortal frames and drives out
the immortal tenants. Men sicken of houses until at last they quit
them, as the soul leaves its body when it is tired of its infirmities.
The body has been called 'the house we live in'; the house is quite
as much the body we live in. Shall I tell you some things the
Professor said the other day?" "Do!" said the schoolmistress.

"'A man's body,' said the Professor, 'is whatever is occupied by his
will and his sensibility. The small room down there, where I wrote
those papers you remember reading, was much more a part of my body
than a paralytic's senseless and motionless arm or leg is of his.

"'The soul of a man has a series of concentric envelopes around it,
like the core of an onion, or the innermost of a nest of boxes. First,
he has his natural garment of flesh and blood. Then his artificial
integuments, with their true skin of solid stuffs, their cuticle of
lighter tissues, and their variously tinted pigments. Third, his
domicile, be it a single chamber or a stately mansion. And then, the
whole visible world, in which Time buttons him up as in a loose
outside wrapper.

"'You shall observe,' the Professor said, for like Mr. John Hunter and
other great men, he brings in that 'shall' with great effect
sometimes, 'you shall observe that a man's clothing or series of
envelopes after a certain time mold themselves upon his individual
nature. We know this of our hats, and are always reminded of it when
we happen to put them on wrong side foremost. We soon find that the
beaver is a hollow cast of the skull, with all its irregular bumps and
depressions. Just so all that clothes a man, even to the blue sky
which caps his head - a little loosely - shapes itself to fit each
particular being beneath it. Farmers, sailors, astronomers, poets,
lovers, condemned criminals, all find it different, according to the
eyes with which they severally look.

"'But our houses shape themselves palpably on our inner and outer
natures. See a householder breaking up and you will be sure of it.
There is a shellfish which builds all manner of smaller shells into
the walls of its own. A house is never a home until we have crusted it
with the spoils of a hundred lives besides those of our own past. See
what these are, and you can tell what the occupant is.

"'I had no idea,' said the Professor, 'until I pulled up my domestic
establishment the other day, what an enormous quantity of roots I had
been making the years I was planted there. Why, there wasn't a nook or
a corner that some fiber had not worked its way into; and when I gave
the last wrench, each of them seemed to shriek like a mandrake, as it
broke its hold and came away.

"'There is nothing that happens, you know, which must not inevitably,
and which does not actually, photograph itself in every conceivable
aspect and in all dimensions. The infinite galleries of the Past await
but one brief process, and all their pictures will be called out and
fixt forever. We had a curious illustration of the great fact on a
very humble scale. When a certain bookcase, long standing in one
place, for which it was built, was removed, there was the exact image
on the wall of the whole, and of many of its portions. But in the
midst of this picture was another - the precise outline of a map which
hung on the wall before the bookcase was built. We had all forgotten
everything about the map until we saw its photograph on the wall.
Then we remembered it, as some day or other we may remember a sin
which has been built over and covered up, when this lower universe is
pulled away from the wall of Infinity, where the wrongdoing stands,
self-recorded.'

"The Professor lived in that house a long time - not twenty years, but
pretty near it. When he entered that door, two shadows glided over the
threshold; five lingered in the doorway when he passed through it for
the last time - and one of the shadows was claimed by its owner to be
longer than his own. What changes he saw in that quiet place! Death
rained through every roof but his; children came into life, grew to
maturity; wedded, faded away, threw themselves away; the whole drama
of life was played in that stock company's theater of a dozen houses,
one of which was his, and no deep sorrow or severe calamity ever
entered his dwelling. 'Peace be to those walls forever,' the Professor
said, for the many pleasant years he has passed within them.


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