Horace Greeley.

The autobiography of Horace Greeley: or, Recollections of a busy life: to ... online

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Online LibraryHorace GreeleyThe autobiography of Horace Greeley: or, Recollections of a busy life: to ... → online text (page 42 of 53)
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And what you would do with me, in fine.

In the new lifo come in the old one's stead.

I have lived, I shall say, so much since then,

Given up myself so many times ;
Gained by the gains of various men.

Ransacked the ages, spoiled the dimes :
Yet one thing— one— in my soul's full 80op%

Either I missed or itself missed me, —
And J want and find you, Evdyn Hope I

What is the issue? let us seel

I loved. you, Evelyn, all the while,

My heart seemed full as it could hold, —
There was place and to spare for (he fhmk young smile,

And the r^ young mouth, and the hair's young gold.
So, hush ! — I will give you this leaf to keep —

See, I shut it inside the sweet, cold hand ;
There — that is our secret! ^ to sieef);

You wiU wake, and remember, and undentand.

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I oftTj the biographer (tf Bobeit and EKjcabetii Barrett
Browning. Twenijr years ago they were poets, unknown to
each other, undistinguished ; he poor, and each by no means
young. I have heard that their first acquaintance came
through their published works, which reveded a sympathy
destined to make th^n one forever. Bevendng the usual
order, they loved, they became personally acquainted, and
were married. Thenceforward, each wrote better, more ac-
oq)tably, — in the main, more lucidly, — than before; wrote,
doubtless, 1^ the help of the other^s happy suggestions as wdl
as loving criticisms. And so each won larger and still widen-
ing audience, and more generous appreciation, and ampler
recompense ; and a fidr son was bom to them ; and a wealthy
Mend, nowise related to either, left them a modest fortune ;
and they spent their wedded years partly in their native
England and partly in their beloved Florence, which inspired
b(^ of them, but especially the wife, with some of her noblest
and most enduring poems, — "Casa Guidi Windows" for
instance, and "Aurora Leigh," — and there, I believe, she
died, leaving her husband and son not to lament, but to
rejoice over and thank Gk)d for, the abiding memory of her
worth and her love.

I close this hurried survey without having attempted to con-
sider the claims of any among our countrymen to the character
and designation of Poets. I should prefer to consider Amer-
ican Foetry by itself, and in its relations to that which pre-
ceded and that which is cotemporary with it. In so doing,
we should find, I judge, that, wWle it has grave faults, — faults
of imitation, of poverty, of crudity, of exaggeration, — it has
decided merits and excellences also, — merits not only emi-
nent in themselves, but such as give promise of still loftier
achievement in the future. If we have contributed our full
share to the bounteous Anglo-Saxon stock of shallow and
sham poetry, we have also contributed our fall quota — con-
sidOTaig our youth as a nation, and our prosaic preoccupa-
tions, our lack of leisure, and of the highest intellectual cul-
ture — to that which the world will not willingly let die. I

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waive this discussion for the present, however, and close with
a more direct consideration of the problem, ''What is the
essential nature and true office of Poetry ? "

Of course, I need waste no more time on the pitiable igno-
rance which confounds Poetry with Verse, — the eternal es-
sence with the occasional form or garb, — though this delusion
has still many votaries, — I might say, victims. The young
lady who corrected a friend's allusion to Shakespeare as a Poet
with the smilingly confident assurance that his plays were not
poetry, not being rhymed, has still sharers in her sad misap-
prehension. Poetry is at least four thousand year6 old, — as
old as extant literature, if not older; while Ehyme, I sus-
pect, can hardly be traced beyond the time of the Troubadours
of western and southern Europe, in the dajrs of the Crusades
Verse, Metre, or Rhythm is of course much older. I pre-
sume some rude trace of this may be found in the very oldest
writings extant, — the chant or speech in Genesis of Lamech
to his wives, for instance, and the oldest Hindoo or Chinese
Poems. But, though it may seem natural, and almost neces-
sary, that poetic utterances should flow into harmonious or
rhythmical numbers, this is not inevitable. Chateaubriand,
one of the greatest poets of the last generation, wrote rarely in
verse. Willis has written good verses^ but his finest poem is
" Unwritten Music," — in structure, a prose essay. That Rhjone
is not essential to Poetiy, all probably know who clearly laiow
anjrthiug ; but that measured and duly accented lines, each
banning with a capital letter, do not, constitute Poetry,
though it may be generally, is by no means imiversaUy un-
derstood. But we cannot define by negations alone ; and the
question still recurs, What is Poetry ?

I understand by Poetiy that mode of expression or aver-
ment which lifts the soul above the r^ion of mere sense, —
which reaches beyond the merely physical or mechanical as-
pects of the truth affirmed, and apprehends that truth in its
imiversal chsuracter and all-pervading relations, so that our
own natures are exalted and purified by its contemplation
For instance, I affirm that the Creation was a wondrous, be-

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nefioent wdrk, which all inteUigent,. moral beings cognizant
thereof must have regarded with admiration^ but that the
plans and purposes of Gkxi are entirely above the comprehen-
sion of Man, — that is plain prose. Now let us see a poetic
statement of that same truth, and mark its immensely supe-
rior vividness and force : —

" Then the Lord answered Job out of a whirlwind, and said, ^
Where wast thoa when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Dedare, if thoa hast understanding !
Who hath laid the measures thereof? if dioa knowest?
Or who hath stretched the line upon it?
Whereupon are the foundations thereof listened %
Or who laid the comer-stone thereof, —
When the morning stars sang together.
And all the sons of Qod shouted for joy ? "

Or I am impelled to observe that the creations of the mind,
unlike all corporeal existences, are essentially indestructible,
and so fitted to abide and exert influence forever, — that is a
prosaic statement of an obvious fact ; let us note how Byron
presents it in poetry : —

" The beings of the mind are not of daj ;
Essentially immortal, they create
And multiply in us a brighter ray,
And more beloved existence — that which Fate
Prohibits to dull hfts in this onr state —
Of mortal bondage, by these spirits supplied
First exiles, then replaces, what we hate,
Watering the hearts whose early flowers have died,
And with a greener growth replenishing the void."

Or I observe that the midnight thunder, during a violent
Summer tempest, is echoed from mountain-top to mountain-
top, forming a chorus of awful sublimity ; but the poet seizes
the thought, and fuses it in the glowing alembic of his num-
bers thus: —

" Far along,
From crag to cm*; the rattling peaks among,

Leaps the lire thunder, — not from one lone dond,
Bift every mountain now hath fonnd a tongue ;
And Jura answers, through his misty shroud,
Back to the joyous Alps, that call to her akrnd."

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Such instanees speak more clearly than the jdainest or the
subtlest definitions. They show that, to the . poetic concep-
tion, Nature is no huge aggregaticm of senseless matter^
warmed into fitful vitality by sunbeams only to die and be
resolved roto its elements, but a living, conscious, vital uni-
verse, quivering with deathless aspiration because animated
by the breath of GkKL

Nor must we regard Poetry merely as an intdlectual
achievement, — a trophy of hunmn genius, em utterance from
the heart of Nature, fitted to solace its votaries and strengthen
them for the battle of lifa Poetry is essentially, inevitably,
the friend of Virtue and Merit, the foe of Oji^ression and
Wrong, the champion of Justice and Freedom. Wherever
the good sufiTer from the machinations and malevolence of the
evil, — wherever Vice riots, or Corruption festers, or Tyranny
afflicts and degrades, there Poetiy is heard as an accusing
angel, and her breath sounds the trump of impending doom.
She cannot be suborned nor perverted to the service of the
powers of darkness : a Dante or a Komer, lured or bribed to
sing the praises of a despot, or glonty the achievements of an
Alva or a Cortes, could only stammer out feeble, halting stan-
zas, which maiddnd would first despise, then compassionately
forget. But to the patriot in his exile, the slave in his unjust
bondage, the martyr at the stake, the voice of Poetiy comes
freighted with hope and cheer, giving assurance that, while
Evil is but for a moment. Good is for ever and ever; that all
the forces of the Universe are at last on the side of Justice ;
that the seeming triumphs of Iniquity are but a mirage,
Divinely permitted to test our virtue and our fidth; and
that all things work together to fulfil the counsels and estab-
lish the kingdom of the all-seeing and omnipotent Ood.

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THIS hard, cold, rocky planet, on whose surface we exist,
toward whose centre we gravitate, seems to evince but
a ragged and wayward kindness for her step-child, Man.
Even to the savage; whom she takes to her rough breast with
some show of. maternal fondness, she says, "Take your
chance with my varying moods, — to-day, sunshine, flowers,
and bounty ; to-morrow, wintry blasts, bare hills, and desti-
tution." What wonder if the poor Esquimaux, shivering in
his foodless lodge, which, bleak wastes of drifting snow envi-
ron, should misread even the serenely benignant skies, and
fancy that diabolic was at least equally potent with Divine
agency in creating such a world?

To civilized man, unless fenced about aiid shielded by that
purely artificial creation we term Property, Nature presents a
stUl sterner aspect He may know, even better than the
savage, how to extract sustenance and comfort from the ele-
ments everywhere surrounding him ; but he finds those ele-
ments appropriated, — monopolized, — tabooed, — the private,
exclusive possessions of a minority. To cut in the forest a
dead, decaying tree, wherewith to warm his shivering, scarce-
clad limbs, — to dig edible roots from the swamp, or gather
berries from the beetling crag to stay Ms gnawing hunger, —
is a trespass on the rights of some proprietor, property-owner,
landlord, which legally subjects him to the assiduous but dis-
agreeable attentions of the justice and the constable. Doomed
to fight his way throtigh this thorny jungle, he finds the weap-
ons all chained out of his reach, or pointed against him. Bom


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into a state of war, he must first forge or buy the requisite im-
plements for the fray, though his adversaries are under no sort
of obligation to wait till he is ready. The fertile prairie
often produces sour, ungenial grasses ; and the giant forest, so
luxuriant in its panoply of tender foliage, affords but a
grudging subsistence to the few birds and animals which in-
habit or traverse it. Everywhere is presented the spectacle
of diverse species of animated beings struggling desperately
for subsistence, and often devouring each other for food.

Into this unchained menagerie Man is thrust, to fight his
way as best he can.' The forest, the prairie, the mountain,
the valley, the lakes, and the ocean, must be tamed to hear
and heed his voice ere they can be relied on \o satisfy his
urgent needs. The river long obstructs his progress ere he
learns the secret of making it bear him swiftly and cheaply
on his course ; the soil that shall ultimately yield him the
amplest harvests is a quaking bog, useless, and hardly passa-
ble, imtil he succeeds in draining and tilling it The lion or
tiger, whom he ultimately regards as a raree-show, and carts
about for his diversion, is primarily quite other than amus-
ing, and, though exhibiting himself at less than the "half
price" at which children are elsewhere admitted to the spec-
tacle, attracts no curious children of Adam to any exhibition
but that of their own heels. The waterfall that propels the
civilizee*s mill arrests the savage's canoe. In short, Nature,
though complaisant at seasons, is yet, in the lai^ger view,
grudging and stem toward our race, until transformed and
vivified by Labor and Science.

Man, therefore, is by primal necessity a Transformer, — in
other words, a Reformer. He must first, by resolute effort,
fix his bit in the mouth of Nature, his saddle on her back,
and his spurs in her sides, ere he is prepared to run his no-
bler race and achieve his higher destiny. Though mental
development and moral culture be the admitted end$ of his
mundane existence, yet to begin with the pursuit of these is
to court and insure defeat, by invoking' frost and starvation.
If the philosopher or divine were to visit the. pioneer just

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slashing together his log hut in the wilderness, and accost
him with, " Why wear out your life in such sordid, grovel-
ling, material drudgery, when the gorgeous canopy of heaven
overarches you, the glad sun irradiates and warms you, and
all Nature, ministering gratuitously to your gross, bodily
wants, invites to meditation and elevating self-commimion ? *'
the squatter's proper answer, should he deign to give any* an-
swer at all, would be: "Sir, I provide first for my bodily
needs, and against the fitful inclemencies of the now genial
skies, in order that I may by and by have leisure and oppor-
tunity for those loftier pursuits you eulogize so justly, though
inappositely. I could not fitly* meditate on God, the Uni-
verse, and Human Destiny, with a shivering wife looking me
sadly in the face, nor with the cries of hungry children ring-
ing in my ears. Nay : I could not so meditate this balmy
June morning, in full view of the truth that, if 1 were con-
tent, with meditation to-day, such v>ovid be the appeals of
those dependent on me ere Jime should greet us again.
What you suggest, then, is excellent in its time and place ;
but I must hew and delve to-day, in order tjiat my season for
contemplation, and culture may ultimately come."

Now, this obvious response of the pioneer to the phi-
losopher is in essence the material or circumstantial Be-
former*s answer to the Stoic and the Saint " Wealth is dross;
Power is anxiety, — is care ; Luxury enervates the body and
debases tiie soul," these remonstrate in chorus: "Enow
thyself, and be trtdy wise; chasten your appetites, and be
rich in the moderation of your physical wants," adds the
Stoic ; " Enow God, and find happiness in . adoring and
serving Him," echoes the Saint " True, Plato ! true,
divinest Cecilia I but everything in its order. To render
fasting meritorious, one should have meat at command ; and
great spiritual exaltation springs not naturally from a body
gaunt with enforced hunger. Let me surround myself with
what is needfcd for me and mine in the way of food, and
clothing, and shelter; not forgetting meantime the nobler
ends of my existence, but looking also to these ; thus will I

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achieye for myself Opportonity for that loftier plane of being
whereto you 80 justly invite me. I am not forgettii]^ nor
disobeying the injunction to ' Seek first the kingdom of God
and His righteousness " ; I am only afiBrming that, until the
legitimate physical needs of those dependent on my exertions
are provided for, it would not be righteous in me to surrender
myself to contemplation, nor even to devotion." And this is
substantially the answer of the Beformer of Man's external
circumstances to those who insist that the end he meditates
is to be attained from vnthdn, rather than from vnthout, — in
the apt phrase of Charles Lane, by improvement, not of this
or that arct^mstance, but of the vital centrestaxice. We
readily admit this ; but what then ? The question still recurs,
''How is the desired end to be attained?" and we hold
that there is no practical cure for the vital woes of the
pitiable which does not involve a preliminary change in their
outward conditions. You may shower precepts and admoni-
tions, tracts and Bibles, on the squalid, filthy, destitute
thousands who tenant, thick as knotted adders, the cellais
and rookeries of our great cities, and all will run off them
like water from a duck's back, leaving then> exactly as it
found them. But first take them out of these lairs and lazar-
houses, wash them, clothe them decently, and place them
iriiere they may, by. honest, useful labor, eaxn a fedr subsist-
ence ; now you may ply them with catechisms and exhorta-
tions with a rational hope of advantage. To attempt it sooner,
even with seeming success, is only to cover their filthiness
with a tenacious varnish of hypocrisy, rendering it less hate-
ful to the eye, but more profound and ineradicable.

But not the Worker only — the robust, earnest Thioker
also — is of necessity a BadicaL He sees . his less fortunate
brethren oppressed and degraded, debased and enslaved,
through the malign influences of selfish Gimning and despotic
Force ; and lus very soul is stirred within him as was that of
Moses by the spectacle of his people's sufferings under the
rule of their Egyptian taskmasters. No matt^ what is
the extent or nature of Man's abstract, inherent depravity,

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he cannot fiail to see that men are actually better or worse as
they have better or worse instraqtors, rulers, and institutions
Before condemning Human Nature as incorrigible, and there-
upon justifying those who nevertheless contrive to make its
guidance and government a gainful trade, he inquires whether
this same abused Kature has not done better under other
auspices, and becomes satisfied that it has. Then he says to
the banded decriers of Human Kature and to the con-
servatives of old abuses who take shelter under their wing :
" You say that Man cannot walk erect ; remove your bandages
from his feet, your shackles from his limbs, and let us see !
You say that he cannot take care of himself ; then why com-
pel him, in addition, to take such generous care of yout
You say he is naturally dishonest and thievish; but how
could he be otherwise, when he cannot fail to perceive that
you, who set yourselves up for his guides and exemplars, are
perpetually and enormously robbing him ? B^in by giving
back to him* the earth which you have taken from under
his feet, the knowledge you have monopolized, the privir
l^es you have engrossed ; and we can better determine
whether he needs anything, and what, from your charity,
after he shajl have recovered what is rightfully his own."

It is a fearful gift, this of moral prescience, — the ability
and the will to look straight into and through aU traditions^
usages, beliefs, conventionalities, garnitures, and ask : What
is tins for f What does it signify ? K it were swept away,
what would •be reaUy lost to mankind? This baptism, or
whatever may be the appliance, — does it really cleanse?
Does it even tend to the desiderated result ? or does it not
rather fortify with a varnish of hypocrisy and a crust of con-
ceit the . preexisting impurity and vice ? Is there the old
unrighteousness left, with only self-righteousness superadded?
Well does a deep thinker speak of the spirit of reform as
walking up and down, "paving the world with eyes," — eyes
which not merely inquire and pierce, but challehge, accuse,
arraign also. Happily was the prophet of old named a seer;
for he who rightly and deeply sees thence foresees. Your

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brawling demagogue is a very empty and harmleas personage,
— "a voice, and nothing more " ; but a silent, unimpassioned
thinker, though uttering only the most obvious and uni-
versal truths, sets the social caldron furiously seething and
bubbling. " Think not that I am come to send peace on
earth," says the Prince of Peace ; " I am not come to send
peace, but a sword." All the rebels, conspirators. Messianic
impostors, of that turbulent age, were not half so formidable
to Judean conservatism, Roman despotism, as the Sermon
on the Mount. And so in our day, a* genuine, earnest re-
former, no matter in what manger cradled, in what Shaker
garb invested, sets all things spinning and tilting around

The true Eeformer turns his eyes first inward, scrutinizing
himself, lus habits, purposes, efforts, enjoyments, asking.
What signifies this ? and this ? and wherein is its justifica-
tion ? This daily provision of meat and drink, — is its end
nourishment and its incident enjoyment? or are the poles
reversed,- and do I eat and drink for the gratification of appe-
tite, hoping, or trusting, or blindly guessing, that, since it sa-
tiates my desires, it must satisfy also my needs ? Is it requi-
site that all the zones and continents should be ransacked to
build up the fleeting earthly tabernacle of this immortal
spirit ? Is not the soul rather submerged, stifled, drowned,
in this incessant idolizing, feasting, pampering of the body ?
these stmiptuous entertednments, wherein the palate has
everything, the soul notlung, — what fEtculty, whether of body
or mind, do they brighten or strengthen? Why should a
score of animals render up their lives to furnish forth my
da/s dinner, if my own life is thereby rendered neither surer
nor nobler? Why gorge myself witii 'dainties which cloud
the brain and clog the step, if the common grains and fruits
and roots and water afford precisely the same sustenance in
simpler and less cloying guise, and are far more conducive to
health, streiigth, elasticity, longevity ? Can a man worthily
surrender his life to the mere acquiring and absorbing of
food, thus alternating only &om the state of a beast of burden

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to that of a beast of prey ? Above all, why should I fire my
blood and sear my brain with liquors which give a temporary
exlulaiation to the spirits at the cost of permanent depra-
vation and disorder to the whole physical jframe ? In short,
why should I live for and in my appetites, if these were Di-
vinely created to serve and sustain, not master and dethrone,
the spirit to which tMs earthly frame is but a husk, a tent, a
halting-place, in an exalted, deathless career ? If the life be
indeed more than meat, why shall not the meat recognize and
attest that fiict ? And thus the sincere Eeformer, in the very
outset bf his course, becomes a "tee-total" jGeinatic, repre-
sented by the knavish and regarded by the vulgar as a foe to
all enjoyment and cheer, insisting that mankind shall con-
form to his crotchets, and live on bran-bread and blue cold

Turning his eyes away from himself, he scans the relations
of man with man, under which labor ia performed and service
secured, and finds, not absolute Justice, much less Love, but
Necessity on the one hand. Advantage on the other, presiding
over the general interchange of good offices among mankind.
In the n^rket, on the exchange, we meet no recognition of
the brotherhood of the human race. A famine in one C(tan-
try is a godsend to the grain-growers and flour-speculators of
another. An excess of immigration enhances the cost of food
while depressing the wages of labor, adding in both ways to
the wealth of the forehanded, who find their only drawback
in the increased burdens of pauperism. Thus the mansion
and the hovel rise side by side, and where sheriffs are abun-
dant is hangii^ most frequent. One man's necessity being
another's opportunity, we have no right to be surprised or in-
dignant that the general system culminates, by an inexorably
logical process, in the existence and stubborn maintenance of
Human Slavery.

Yes, I insist that Slavery is a logicial deduction from prin-
ciples generally accepted, and almost imiversally accounted
soimd and laudable. For, once admit the premises that I

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have a right to seek profit fix>m 1117 neighboi^s privations and
calamities \ that I have a right t^ consume in idleness the
products or earnings of half a dozen workers, if my income
will justify the outlay ; and that it is better to live indo-
lently on others' earnings than industriously from the pro-
ceeds of my own, — and the rightfulness of Slavery is a log-

Online LibraryHorace GreeleyThe autobiography of Horace Greeley: or, Recollections of a busy life: to ... → online text (page 42 of 53)