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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what I could do for a living, some sad experience in conforming to the
wishes of friends being fresh in my mind to tax my ingenuity, I
thought often and seriously of picking huckleberries; that surely I
could do, and its small profits might suffice - for my greatest skill
has been to want but little - so little capital it required, so little
distraction from my wonted moods, I foolishly thought. While my
acquaintances went unhesitatingly into trade or the professions, I
contemplated this occupation as most like theirs; ranging the hills
all summer to pick the berries which came in my way, and thereafter
carelessly dispose of them; so to keep the flocks of Admetus. I also
dreamed that I might gather the wild herbs, or carry evergreens to
such villagers as loved to be reminded of the woods, even to the city,
by hay-cart loads. But I have since learned that trade curses
everything it handles; and tho you trade in messages from heaven, the
whole curse of trade attaches to the business....

In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to
maintain one's self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if
we will live simply and wisely; as the pursuits of the simpler nations
are still the sports of the more artificial. It is not necessary that
a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he
sweats easier than I do....

The only house I had been the owner of before, if I except a boat, was
a tent, which I used occasionally when making excursions in the
summer, and this is still rolled up in my garret; but the boat, after
passing from hand to hand, has gone down the stream of time. With this
more substantial shelter about me, I had made some progress toward
settling in the world. This frame, so slightly clad, was a sort of
crystallization around me, and reacted on the builder. It was
suggestive as a picture in outlines. I did not need to go outdoors to
take the air, for the atmosphere within had lost none of its
freshness. It was not so much within doors as behind a door where I
sat, even in the rainiest weather. The Harivansa says, "An
abode-without birds is like a meat without seasoning." Such was not my
abode, for I found myself suddenly neighbor to the birds; not by
having imprisoned one, but having caged myself near them. I was not
only nearer to some of those which commonly frequent the garden and
the orchard, but to those wilder and more thrilling songsters of the
forest which never, or rarely, serenade a villager, the wood-thrush,
the veery, the scarlet tanager, the field-sparrow, the whippoorwill,
and many others.

I was seated by the shore of a small pond, about a mile and a half
south of the village of Concord, and somewhat higher than it, in the
midst of an extensive wood between that town and Lincoln, and about
two miles south of that our only field known to fame, Concord battle
ground; but I was so low in the woods that the opposite shore, half a
mile off, like the rest covered with wood, was my most distant
horizon. For the first week, whenever I looked out on the pond it
imprest me like a tarn high up on the side of a mountain, its bottom
far above the surface of other lakes, and, as the sun arose, I saw it
throwing off its mighty clothing of mist, and here and there, by
degrees, its soft ripples or its smooth reflecting surface were
revealed, while the mists, like ghosts, were stealthily withdrawing in
every direction into the woods, as at the breaking up of some
nocturnal conventicle. The very dew seemed to hang upon the trees
later into the day than usual, as on the sides of mountains.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front
only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what
it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not
lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear;
nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary.
I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so
sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to
cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and
reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, then to
get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to
the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be
able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men,
it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is
of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is
the chief end of man here to "glorify God and enjoy Him forever."

Still we live meanly, like ants; tho the fable tells us that we were
long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is
error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for
its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. Our life is
frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more
than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and
lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your
affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead
of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb
nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are
the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand and one items to be
allowed for that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to
the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he
must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify.
Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary, eat but one; instead
of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.

Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off
the track by every nutshell and mosquito's wing that falls on the
rails. Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently and without
perturbation; let company come and let company go, let the bells ring
and the children cry - determined to make a day of it. Why should we
knock under and go with the stream? Let us not be upset and
overwhelmed in that terrible rapid and whirlpool called a dinner,
situated in the meridian shallows. Weather this danger and you are
safe, for the rest of the way is down hill. With unrelaxed nerves,
with morning vigor, sail by it, looking another way, tied to the mast
like Ulysses. If the engine whistles, let it whistle till it is hoarse
for its pains. If the bell rings, why should we run? We will consider
what kind of music they are like.




III

ON READING THE ANCIENT CLASSICS[32]


The student may read Homer or Æschylus in the Greek without danger of
dissipation or luxuriousness, for it implies that he in some measure
emulates their heroes, and consecrates morning hours to their pages.
The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother
tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we
must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing
a larger sense than common use permits out of that wisdom and valor
and generosity we have. The modern cheap and fertile press, with all
its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic
writers of antiquity. They seem as solitary, and the letter in which
they are printed as rare and curious as ever. It is worth the expense
of youthful days and costly hours, if you learn only some words of an
ancient language, which are raised out of the trivialness of the
street, to be perpetual suggestions and provocation. It is not in vain
that the farmer remembers and repeats the few Latin words which he has
heard. Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at
length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the
adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language
they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the
classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only
oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most
modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave. We might as
well omit to study Nature because she is old.

[Footnote 32: From Chapter III of "Walden."]

To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble
exercise, and one that will tax the reader more than any exercise
which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as
the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life
to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as
they were written. It is not enough even to be able to speak the
language of that nation by which they are written, for there is a
memorable interval between the spoken and the written language, the
language heard and the language read. The one is commonly transitory,
a sound, a tongue, a dialect merely, almost brutish, and we learn it
unconsciously, like the brutes, of our mothers. The other is the
maturity and experience of that; if that is our mother tongue, this is
our father tongue, a reserved and select expression, too significant
to be heard by the ear, which we must be born again in order to speak.
The crowds of men who merely spoke the Greek and Latin tongues in the
Middle Ages were not entitled by the accident of birth to read the
works of genius written in those languages; for these were not written
in that Greek or Latin which they knew, but in the select language of
literature. They had not learned the nobler dialects of Greece and
Rome, but the very materials on which they were written were waste
paper to them, and they prized instead a cheap contemporary
literature. But when the several nations of Europe had acquired
distinct tho rude written languages of their own, sufficient for the
purposes of their rising literatures, then first learning revived, and
scholars were enabled to discern from that remoteness the treasures of
antiquity. What the Roman and Grecian multitude could not hear, after
the lapse of ages a few scholars read, and a few scholars only are
still reading it.

However much we may admire the orator's occasional bursts of
eloquence, the noblest written words are commonly as far behind or
above the fleeting spoken language as the firmament with its stars is
behind the clouds. There are the stars, and they who can may read
them. The astronomers forever comment on and observe them. They are
not exhalations like our daily colloquies and vaporous breath. What is
called eloquence in the forum is commonly found to be rhetoric in the
study. The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion,
and speaks to the mob before him, to those who can hear him; but the
writer, whose more equable life is his occasion, and who would be
distracted by the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks
to the intellect and heart of mankind, to all in any age who can
understand him.

No wonder that Alexander carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions
in a precious casket. A written word is the choicest of relics. It is
something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any
other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It
may be translated into every language, and not only be read but
actually breathed from all human lips; not be represented on canvas or
in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself. The
symbol of an ancient man's thought becomes a modern man's speech. Two
thousand summers have imparted to the monuments of Grecian literature,
as to her marbles, only a maturer golden and autumnal tint, for they
have carried their own serene and celestial atmosphere into all lands
to protect them against the corrosion of time. Books are the treasured
wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and
nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and
rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of
their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader
his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and
irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or
emperors, exert an influence on mankind. When the illiterate and
perhaps scornful trader has earned by enterprise and industry his
coveted leisure and independence, and is admitted to the circles of
wealth and fashion, he turns inevitably at last to those still higher
but yet inaccessible circles of intellect and genius, and is sensible
only of the imperfection of his culture, and the vanity and
insufficiency of all his riches, and further proves his good sense by
the pains which he takes to secure for his children that intellectual
culture whose want he so keenly feels; and thus it is that he becomes
the founder of a family.

Those who have not learned to read the ancient classics in the
language in which they were written must have a very imperfect
knowledge of the history of the human race; for it is remarkable that
no transcript of them has ever been made into any modern tongue,
unless our civilization itself may be regarded as such a transcript.
Homer has never yet been printed in English, nor Æschylus, nor Virgil
even - works as refined, as solidly done, and as beautiful almost as
the morning itself; for later writers, say what we will of their
genius, have rarely, if ever, equaled the elaborate beauty and finish
and the lifelong and heroic literary labors of the ancients. They only
talk of forgetting them who never knew them. It will be soon enough to
forget them when we have the learning and the genius which will enable
us to attend to and appreciate them. That age will be rich, indeed,
when those relics which we call classics, and the still older and more
than classic but even less known scriptures of the nations, shall have
still further accumulated, when the Vaticans shall be filled with
Vedas and Zendavestas and Bibles, with Homers and Dantes and
Shakespeares, and all the centuries to come shall have successively
deposited their trophies in the forum of the world. By such a pile we
may hope to scale heaven at last.




IV

OF SOCIETY AND SOLITUDE[33]


When I return to my house I find that visitors have been there and
left their cards, either a bunch of flowers, or a wreath of evergreen,
or a name in pencil on a yellow walnut leaf or a chip. They who come
rarely to the woods take some little piece of the forest into their
hands to play with by the way, which they leave, either intentionally
or accidentally. One has peeled a willow wand, woven it into a ring,
and dropt it on my table. I could always tell if visitors had called
in my absence, either by the bended twigs or grass, or the print of
their shoes, and generally of what sex or age or quality they were by
some slight trace left, as a flower dropt, or a bunch of grass plucked
and thrown away, even as far off as the railroad, half a mile distant,
or by the lingering odor of a cigar or pipe. Nay, I was frequently
notified of the passage of a traveler along the highway sixty rods off
by the scent of his pipe....

[Footnote 33: From Chapter IV of "Walden."]

I have never felt lonesome, or in the least opprest by a sense of
solitude but once, and that was a few weeks after I came to the woods,
when, for an hour, I doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not
essential to a serene and healthy life. To be alone was something
unpleasant. But I was at the same time conscious of a slight insanity
in my mood, and seemed to foresee my recovery. In the midst of a
gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of
such sweet and beneficent society in nature, in the very pattering of
the drops and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite
and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere
sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood
significant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine
needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. I was so
distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even
in scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary, and also
that the nearest of blood to me and humanest was not a person, nor a
villager, that I thought no place could ever be strange to me
again....

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in
company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love
to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as
solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among
men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is
always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by
the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The
really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge
College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert. The farmer can work
alone in the field all day, hoeing or chopping, and not feel lonesome,
because he is employed; but when he comes home at night he can not sit
down in a room alone, at the mercy of his thoughts, but must be where
he can "see the folks," and recreate, and, as he thinks, remunerate
himself for his day's solitude; and hence he wonders how the student
can sit alone in the house all night and most of the day without ennui
and "the blues"; but he does not realize that the student, tho in the
house, is still at work in his field, and chopping in his woods, as
the farmer in his, and in turn seeks the same recreation and society
that the latter does, tho it may be a more condensed form of it.

Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not
having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at
meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old
musty cheese that we are. We have to agree on a certain set of rules,
called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting
tolerable and that we need not come to open war. We meet at the
post-office, and at the sociable, and about the fireside every night;
we live thick and are in each other's way, and stumble over one
another, and I think that we thus lose some respect for one another.
Certainly less frequency would suffice for all important and hearty
communications. Consider the girls in a factory - never alone, hardly
in their dreams. It would be better if there were but one inhabitant
to a square mile, as where I live. The value of a man is not in his
skin, that we should touch him.

I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning,
when nobody calls. Let me suggest a few comparisons, that some one may
convey an idea of my situation. I am no more lonely than the loon in
the pond that laughs so loud, or than Walden pond itself. What
company has that lonely lake, I pray? And yet it has not the blue
devils, but the blue angels in it, in the azure tint of its waters.
The sun is alone, except in thick weather, when there sometimes appear
to be two, but one is a mock sun. God is alone - but the devil, he is
far from being alone; he sees a great deal of company; he is legion. I
am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture, or
a bean leaf, or sorrel, or a horse-fly, or a humble-bee. I am no more
lonely than the Mill brook, or a weathercock, or the north star, or
the south wind, or an April shower, or a January thaw, or the first
spider in a new house.

I have occasional visits in the long winter evenings, when the snow
falls fast and the wind howls in the wood, from an old settler and
original proprietor, who is reported to have dug Walden pond, and
stoned it, and fringed it with pine woods; who tells me stories of old
time and of new eternity; and between us we manage to pass a cheerful
evening, with social mirth and pleasant views of things, even without
apples or cider; a most wise and humorous friend, whom I love much,
who keeps himself more secret than ever did Goffe or Whalley;[34] and
tho he is thought to be dead, none can show where he is buried. An
elderly dame, too, dwells in my neighborhood, invisible to most
persons, in whose odorous herb garden I love to stroll sometimes,
gathering simples and listening to her fables; for she has a genius of
unequaled fertility, and her memory runs back farther than mythology,
and she can tell me the original of every fable, and on what fact
every one is founded, for the incidents occurred when she was young. A
ruddy and lusty old dame, who delights in all weathers and seasons,
and is likely to outlive all her children yet.

[Footnote 34: The English regicides who came to America, and after
1660 lived in concealment in New England, a part of the time in a cave
near New Haven. William Goffe died in Hadley, Mass., in 1679. Edward
Whalley, who had been one of Cromwell's major generals, died also in
Hadley a year before Goffe.]




JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL

Born in 1819, died in 1891; graduated from Harvard in 1838;
in 1855 became professor at Harvard; editor of _The Atlantic
Monthly_ in 1857-62, _The North American Review_ in 1863-72;
minister to Spain in 1877-80, and Great Britain in 1880-85;
published "A Year's Life" in 1841, "The Vision of Sir
Launfal" in 1845, "A Fable for Critics" in 1848, "The Biglow
Papers" in 1848, and a second series in 1867, "Under the
Willows" in 1868, "The Cathedral" in 1869; among his
best-known prose works, "Conversations on Some of the Old
Poets" published in 1845, "Fireside Travels" in 1864, "Among
My Books" in 1870 and 1876, "My Study Windows" in 1871; his
"Letters" edited by Charles Eliot Norton, published in 1893.




I

THE POET AS PROPHET[35]


Poets are the forerunners and prophets of changes in the moral world.
Driven by their fine nature to search into and reverently contemplate
the universal laws of the soul, they find some fragment of the broken
tables of God's law, and interpret it, half-conscious of its mighty
import. While philosophers are wrangling, and politicians playing at
snapdragon with, the destinies of millions, the poet, in the silent
deeps of his soul, listens to those mysterious pulses which, from one
central heart, send life and beauty through the finest veins of the
universe, and utters truths to be sneered at, perchance, by
contemporaries, but which become religion to posterity. Not unwisely
ordered is that eternal destiny which renders the seer despised of
men, since thereby he is but the more surely taught to lay his head
meekly upon the mother-breast of Nature, and harken to the musical
soft beating of her bounteous heart.

[Footnote 35: From an essay contributed to _The Pioneer_ in 1843.
Lowell was the founder and editor of _The Pioneer_, Robert Carter
being his associate. The magazine lived only three months. Charles
Eliot Norton, the editor of Lowell's "Letters," says it "left its
projectors burdened with a considerable debt." "I am deeply in debt,"
wrote Lowell afterward, when hesitating to undertake a journey, "and
feel a twinge for every cent I spend."]

That Poesy, save as she can soar nearer to the blissful throne of the
Supreme Beauty, is of no more use than all other beautiful things are,
we are fain to grant. That she does not add to the outward wealth of
the body, and that she is only so much more excellent than any bodily
gift as spirit is more excellent than matter, we must also yield. But,
inasmuch as all beautiful things are direct messages and revelations
of himself, given us by our Father, and as Poesy is the searcher out
and interpreter of all these, tracing by her inborn sympathy the
invisible nerves which bind them harmoniously together, she is to be
revered and cherished. The poet has a fresher memory of Eden, and of
the path leading back thereto, than other men; so that we might almost
deem him to have been conceived, at least, if not borne and nursed,
beneath the ambrosial shadow of those dimly remembered bowers, and to
have had his infant ears filled with the divine converse of angels,
who then talked face to face with his sires, as with beloved younger
brethren, and of whose golden words only the music remained to him,
vibrating forever in his soul, and making him yearn to have all sounds
of earth harmonize therewith. In the poet's lofty heart Truth hangs
her aerie, and there Love flowers, scattering thence her winged seeds
over all the earth with every wind of heaven. In all ages the poet's
fiery words have goaded men to remember and regain their ancient
freedom, and, when they had regained it, have tempered it with a love


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