John Campbell Shairp.

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whom the world of thought has more power and
reality than the world of sense, they will read in
these facts a different lesson, that He has made
all things double, the one over against the other,
and that the thought by which both are pervaded
is one.

Truly then Las it been said, " Language is fos-
sil poetry." And any one who will set himself
to spell out those fossils, and the meanings they
contain, will find a wonderful record of the way


in which the mind of man has wrought in their
formation. This record will lead him down into
layers of thought as varied as any which the
geologist deciphers, filled with more subtle and
marvelous formations than any animal or vege-
table fossils. For full exposition and illustration
of the mental processes by which so large a por-
tion of language has been created, the reader
should turn to Professor Miiller's volume, to
which I have already referred.

Wholly different from this primeval process of
naming things by unconscious metaphors is the
modern metaphor, as we find it in the poets.
When Shelley speaks of the moon as

" That orbed maiden with white fire laden,
Whom mortals call the Moon,"

he is using a metaphor, and a very fine one, but
he does so with perfect consciousness that it is a
metaphor, and there is not the least danger of the
poet, or any one else, confounding the moon with
any maiden, earthly or heavenly.

Again, when Mrs. Hemans addresses the moan-
ing night- winds as

" Wild, and mighty, and mysterious singers !
At whose tones my heart within me burns,"

there is no likelihood of any confusion between
the winds and mortal singers, no chance of the
metaphor ever growing into mythology.
Once more : to return to Shelley

" Winter came ; the wind was his whip
One choppy finger was on his lip :


He had torn the cataracts from the hills,
And they clanked at his girdle like manacles ,
His breath was a chain that without a sound
The earth, and the air, and the water bound ;
He came, fiercely driven in his chariot- throne
By the ten-fold blasts of the arctic zone."

Here is not only metaphor, but personification so
strong and vivid that it is only kept from passing
into mythology by the conscious and reflective
character of the age in which it was created.

Mythology. The other great primitive crea-
tion wrought by the action of the human imagi-
nation, in its attempts to name and explain the
appearances of visible Nature, was ancient my-
thology. That huge unintelligible mass of fable
which we find imbedded in the poets of Greece
and Rome has long been a riddle which no learn-
ing could read. But just as modern telescopes
have resolved the dim masses of nebulae into dis-
tinct stars, so the resources of that modern schol-
arship called Comparative Philology seems at last
on the way to let in light on the hitherto im-
penetrable secret of the origin of religious myths.
It has gradually been made probable that the
Olympian gods, whatever capricious shapes they
afterward assumed, were in their origin but the
first feeble efforts of the human mind to name
the unnamable, to give local habitation and
expression to the incomprehensible Being who
haunted men's inmost thoughts, but was abovo
their highest powers of conception. In making
this attempt, the religious instinct of our Aryan


forefathers wrought, not through the abstracting
or philosophical faculty, but through Jthe thought-
embodying, shaping power f of imagination, by
which in later ages all true poets have worked,
that in the dim foretime fashioned the whole
fabric of mythology. It was the same faculty of
giving a visible shape to thought.

As soon as man wakes up to think of himself,
what he is, how he is here, he feels that he de-
pends not on himself, but on something other
than and independent of himself ; that there is
One on whom "our dark foundations rest." "It
is He that made us, and not we ourselves ; " this
is the instinctive cry of the human heart when it
begins to reflect that it is here, and to ask how it
came here. This consciousness of God, which is
the dawn of all religion, is reached not as a con-
clusion reasoned out from premises, not as a law
generalized from a multitude of facts, but as a
first instinct of intelligence, a perception flashed
on the soul as directly as impressions are borne
in upon the sense, a faith which may be after-
ward fortified by arguments, but is itself anterior
to all argument. 1 When this thought awoke,
when men felt the reality of " that secret thing
which they see by reverence alone," how were
they to conceive of it, how name it ? for a name
was necessary to retain any thought as a per-
manent possession, much more this thought, the
highest of all thoughts. The story of the well-

1 See Miiller's Lectures on Language, 2d series, pp. 435, 436.


known Dyaus, or the formation of this name for
the Supreme God, has been told so often of late
by Professor M. Miiller, in his various works, that
I should not have ventured to repeat it after him
once again, had it not been necessary for the illus-
tration of my present subject. It has been proved
that in almost all the Aryan languages San-
scrit, Greek, Latin, Teutonic, Celtic the name
for the Highest, the Supreme Being, has sprung
from one root. " The Highest God received the
same name in the ancient mythology of India,
Greece, Italy, Germany, and retained the name
whether worshiped on the Himalayan mountains
or among the oaks of Dodona, or in the Capitol
of Rome, or in the forests of Germany." The
Sanscrit Dyaus, the Greek Zeus, the Latin Jupi-
ter (Jovis), the Teutonic Tiu (whence our Tues-
day), are originally one word, and spring from
one root. That root is found in Sanscrit, in the
old word dyu, which originally meant sky and day.
Dyaus therefore meant the bright heavenly Deity.
When men began to think of the incomprehensi-
ble Being who is above all things, and compre-
hends all things, and when they sought to name
Him, the name must be taken from some known
visible thing, and what so natural as that the
bright, blue, boundless, all-embracing, sublime,
and infinite vault, which contains man and all
that man knows, should be made the type and
symbol to furnish that name ?

When the old Aryan people, before their dis


persion, thus named their thought about the Su-
preme as the Shining One, Professor Miiller does
not think that it was any mere personification of
the sky, or Nature-worship, or idolatry that led
to their so naming Him. Rather he thinks that
that old race were still believers in one God,
whom they worshiped under the name Heaven-
Father. This inquiry, however, lies beyond our
present purpose. What it more concerns us now
to note is that it was a high effort of thought
to make the blue, calm, all-embracing sky the
type and symbol of the Invisible One, and that
the power which wrought out that first name for
the Supreme was Imagination working uncon-
sciously, we might almost say involuntarily
the same power which in its later conscious ac-
tion, under control of the poet's will, has found a
vent for itself in Poetry.

In the same way Comparative Philology ac-
counts for all the stories about the beautiful youth
Phoebus Apollo, Athene, and Aphrodite.

" I look," Professor Miiller says, " on the sun-
rise and sunset, on the daily return of night and
day, on the battle between light and darkness, on
the whole solar drama in all its details that is
acted every day, every month, every year, in
heaven and in earth, as the principal subject of
early mythology. I consider that the very idea
of Divine powers sprang from the wonderment
with which the forefathers of the Aryan family
stared at the bright (devil) powers that came and


went no one knew whence or whither, that never
failed, never faded, never died, and were called
immortal, i. e., unfading, as compared with the
feeble and decaying race of man. I consider the
regular recurrence of phenomena an almost indis-
pensable condition of their being raised, through,
the charms of mythological phraseology, to the
rank of immortals : and I give a proportionably
small place to the meteorological phenomena, such
as clouds, thunder, and lightning, which, although
causing for a time a violent commotion in nature
and in the heart of man, would not be ranked
together with the immortal bright beings, but
would rather be classed together as their subjects
or as their enemies."

In this eloquent passage Professor Miiller ex-
presses his well-known " Solar Theory " of my-
thology. At the close of the passage he alludes
to a counter theory which has been called the
Meteoric, which makes mythology find its chief
field, not in the calm and uniform phenomena of
the sun's coming and going, and of day and night,
but in the occasional and violent convulsions of
storm, thunder, and earthquake. Not what is
fixed and uniform, but what is sudden and start-
ling, most arrests the imagination, according to
this latter theory. But it does not concern us
here to discuss the claims of these rival views, but.
rather to remark that in both alike it is the im-
aginat;on in man to which the aspects of heaven,
whether uniform or occasional, calm or torbulent,


make their appeal, and that when, according to
that tendency of language noted by Professor
Miiller, words assume, an independent power and
dominate over the mind instead of being domi-
nated by it, it is Imagination which throws itself
into the tendency, and takes occasion from it to
weave its many-tissued, many-colored web of
mythologic fable.

But however adequate such theories may be
to people the whole Pantheon of Olympus, they
seem quite out of place when brought to ac.count
for the inhabitants of this lower world. Nothing
can seem less likely than that the conceptions of
Achilles and Hector can have arisen from myths
of the dawn. Characters that stand out so firmly
drawn, so human and so natural, in the gallery of
human portraiture, can hardly have been shaped
out of such skyey materials. One could as read-
ily believe that Othello or Macbeth had such an

It is easy to laugh at those early fancies which
men dreamed in the childhood of the world, and
took for truth ; and to congratulate ourselves that
we, with our modern lights of Science, have long
outgrown those mythic fables ; but with the ex-
acter knowledge of the world's mechanism which
Science has taught us, is there not something we
have lost ? Whither has gone that fine wonder
with which the first men gazed on the earth and
tho heavens from the plains of Iran and Chal-
dea ? It lies buried beneath the mass of second-


hand thought and information which Science has
heaped upon us. Would it not be well if we
could win back the truth, of which a dull me-
chanical or merely logical way of thinking has
long robbed us, that the outward world, with all
its movements, is not a mere dead machine, going
by ropes and pulleys and cog-wheels, but an or-
ganism full of a mysterious life, which defies our
most subtle analysis, and escapes us when placed
in the crucible? This feeling, that things are
alive and not dead, rests at the bottom of all my-
thology, the one root of truth underlying the
huge mass of fable. How to regain this percep-
tion of something divine in Nature, more than
eye and ear discover, and to do this in harmony
with all the facts and laws which Science has as-
certained, this is a problem reserved for thought-
ful men in the future time.



THOSE who have not given attention to the
subject are apt to imagine that the chief creators
of mythological fables were the poets, and espe-
cially Homer. They suppose that the early poets,
by sheer power of imagination, invented those
stories to adorn their poems, and so gave them
currency among the people. It was not so. Even
Homer, the earliest poet whom we know, belonged
to an era when the myth-creating instinct was
past its prime, and already on the wane. The
fables of the gods, their loves and their quarrels,
as these appear in his poems, there is no reason
to suppose that he created them or imagined
them for the first time. It would rather seem
that they had been long current in popular belief,
and that he only used and gave expression to
stories which he found ready-made. Here and
there in Homer you may still detect some traces
of the mythologizing tendency still lingering, and
catch the primitive physical meaning of the myth
shining through the anthropomorphic covering
which it afterward assumed. Such glimpses we


get in Zeus, when he gathers the clouds in the
sky, when he rouses himself to snow upon men
and manifests his feathery shafts, when he rains
continuously, when he bows the heavens and
comes down upon the peaks of Ida. Or again,
when Poseidon, the earth-encompassing, the earth-
shaker, yokes his car at Hegese and drives full
upon the Trojan strand : I take the passage from
Mr. Cordery's translation of the Iliad :

" He entered in,

And there beneath his chariot drew to yoke
Fast-flying horses, maned with flowing gold,
Hooved with bright brass ; and girt himself in gold,
Took golden goad, and sprang upon the car ;
So forth upon the billows, round whose path
Huge monsters gamboled, gathering from the depth
Afar, anear, and joyous knew their lord ;
Ocean for gladness stood in sunder cloven,
Whilst lightly flew the steeds, nor 'neath the car
The burnished axle moistened with the brine :
Thus tow'rd the fleet his coursers bore the god."

Here we have, half-physical, half -mythological,
like Milton's half-created lion, the fore part per-
fect, the hinder part still clay, a well-known nat-
ural appearance. After the storm-winds are laid,
but while the sea still feels their power, it is thus
that the high-crested breakers may be seen rac-
ing shore wards with their white manes backward
streaming, and glorified with rainbow hues from
a bright dawn or a splendid sunset poured upon
them from the land.

But for the most part, even Homer, early poet
though he was, has quittf forgotten that original


aspect of Nature out of which each god was
shaped, and has invested them with entirely hu-
man attributes, even with human follies and vices,
which have no connection at all with the primary
fact, but are the wildest freaks of extravagant
fancy. If then even Homer has so much forgot-
ten the physical origin of his mythic gods, how
must it be with the tragic poets ! JEschylus and
Sophocles we see have entirely put aside the im-
moral fables about them, and are anxious to find
the truth which lies at the root of the popular be-
lief, and to moralize the whole conception of the
gods. When we come down to the Latin poets,
we do not find even this effort ; but the gods
they have borrowed from Greece are used as mere
poetic machines, with as little of either physical
or moral meaning as a modern romance-writer
might use fairies, gnomes, or hobgoblins.

Although in the more imaginative of modern
poets, modes of conceiving Nature, and expres-
sions every here and there crop out, which in an
earlier age would certainly have flowered into my-
thology, it is nevertheless true that, ever since the
literary age set in, poets in general have viewed
Nature with a more familiar eye, and described it
in language which ordinary speech would not dis-
own. I shall now endeavor to classify the several
ways in which Nature is dealt with by the poets,
the several aspects .of it which enter most promi-
nently into Poetry. It will be enough for my
present purpose merely to generalize, under a few


heads, the most obvious of these forms, without
attempting to analyze them or to account for

I. The first form I shall notice is the expres-
sion of that simple, spontaneous, unreflecting
pleasure which all unsophisticated beings feel in
free open-air life. We all know how children
feel when they are let loose to wander at will in
green fields, or by a burn-side, or under the bud-
ding woods when the primroses and anemones
first appear. The full-grown man, too, the man
of business or letters, knows how when his
nerves have been over-strung and his heart fretted
by worldly things a day abroad under a blue
sky, with a soft southwest blowing, restores and
harmonizes him. Old persons, we may have ob-
served, who have seen and suffered much, from
whom the world and its interests are receding:
what a sense of peace and refreshment comes
over them as they gaze in .quiet over a distant
landscape with the sunlight upon it !

This delight, which children, busy men, and
weary age alike find in out-of-door life, may be
said to be merely physical, a thing of the nerves
and animal spirits. It is so, no doubt, but it is
something more. Along with pleasure to the
senses, there enters in something more ethereal,
not the less real because it may be undefinable.
This fresh child-like delight in Nature lias found
expression abundantly in the poets, especially in


those of the early time. Chaucer, before all
others, is full of it. As one sample out of many,
take this. In the Prologue to " The Legend of
Good Women," he tells that he has such love to
the daisy that

" When comen is the May,
Then in my bed there daweth me no day
That I n'am up and walking in the mead,
To see this flower against the sunne' spread,
When it upriseth early in the morrow ;
That blissful sight softeneth all my sorrow ;
So glad am I when that I have presence
Of it, to doen it all reverence,
As she that is of all flow'rs the flow'r."

Then he goes on to describe himself kneeling
down on the sod to greet the daisy when it first
opens :

" And down on knees anon right I me set,
And as-! could this freshe flow'r I grette,
Kneeling always till it unclosed was
Upon the small, and soft, and sweete gras."

So we see Chaucer has been beforehand with
Burns, not to say Wordsworth, in tender affec-
tion for the daisy.

The same transparent expression of delight in
the open-air world comes in unexpectedly in
some of the old ballads, which are concerned
with far other matters. Thus :

" When leaves be large and long
It 's pleasant walking In good greenwood
To hear the small birds' song.


The woodweel sang and would not cease.

Sitting upon the spray,
So loud he wakened Robin Hood,

In greenwood where he lay."

Suchlike utterances of ballad- writers and early
poets might be multiplied without number. It ia
a penalty we have to pay for our late and over-
stimulated civilization that such direct and un
reflecting expressions of gladness in the face of
Nature seem hardly any longer possible for a
poet. If he will be listened to by our jaded,
sophisticated ears, it is not enough for him to
utter once again the spontaneous gladness that
human hearts feel, and always will feel, in the
pleasant air and the sunshine ; he must say some-
thing about it which shall be novel, and out of
the way, something subtle or analytic, or strongly
stimulative. And yet it cannot but be that a
poet who has a heart keenly sensitive to the com-
mon sights of earth and sky, and who describes
these with the direct freshness which feeling
heart and clear eye always give, may still do
much to win back men from over-subtilizing, and
to make them feel as if they have never felt be-

" The simple, the sincere delight,
The habitual scene of hill and dale,
The rural herds, the vernal gale,
The tangled vetches 7 purple bloom,
The fragrance of the bean's perfume."

II. The second method I shall mention is that
of using Nature as a background or setting to


human action or emotion, just as we see Ra-
phael and other old masters, in their pictures of a
Holy Family, bring in behind the human groups
a far-off mountain line, with a piece of blue sky
or some streaks of sunset abcfve it.

This is the way in which Nature is very fre-
quently used by Homer in the Iliad, and, es-
pecially, in the Odyssey. It is as a frame or
setting to his pictures of human action and char-
acter. And closely allied to this is the way of
illustrating the actions, the feelings, sometimes
the sufferings, of men, by striking similes taken
from the most obvious appearances of the out-
ward world, or from the doing of wild creatures
in Nature. This is a use of Nature in which the
Iliad of Homer especially abounds, although all
poets down to our own day have freely employed
it. In the Iliad there is little or no description
of the scenes in which the battles are fought.
The features are hinted at by single epithets,
such as many-fountained Ida, windy Ilion, deep-
whirlpooled Scamander, and the presence of Nat-
ure you are made to feel by images fetched
straight from every element, from the clouds,
the mountain-top, the woody crag, the forest, the
sea darkening under the western breeze, the mid
night sky with the moon and the stars shining in
its depths.

But there is in the Iliad no dwelling on the
features of the scenes through which the heroes
pass, such as you find in the Odyssey and in the


jEneid. In these last, more than in the Iliad,
Nature is used as the regular framework in which
human actions are set. I cannot now stay to
quote passages. We shall in the sequel see how
large a place is filled, how much of Nature is let
in upon the reader by Homer in his similes, which,
are almost all taken from common occurrences in
Nature or from the working of man with Nature.
Sometimes, however, we are made to feel the
presence of Nature by other methods than that
of simile. In the thick of the great battle in the
llth Book of the Iliad, just before Agamemnon
breaks forth in his splendid charge, how the mind
is relieved by this glance aside from the heat and
hurry of the battle to the cool and quiet of this
woodland scene :

" All through the dawn, and as the day grew on
From either side the shafts were showered amain,
And fast the people fell. But at the hour
When the lone woodman in the mountain glens
Prepares his noonday meal, for that his arms
Are weary with long labor, and his heart
Had had its fill of felling the tall treen,
And craving for sweet food comes over him ;
Just at that hour the Danai by sheer might
Broke through their foemen's ranks, each shouting loud
To cheer his comrade on. First from the van
Forth-leaping, Agamemnon slew a chief,

acd then he presses on through the Trojan host,
to slay, and slay, and slay.

III. Akin to this, and yet distinct from it, i*


the way of regarding Nature through the light of
the human and especially the historic events VU 1
which it has witnessed, and with which some par-
ticular spots have become indelibly associated.)
This, which I may call the historic coloring of
Nature, has been, of course, the slow accretion
of the ages, and only in quite modern times is it
a prominent feature in the poets. The poets of
Greece and Rome, proud as they were of the
deeds of their countrymen, do not seem to have
visited their great battle-fields nor to have hung
on the scenery that surrounded them with that
romantic interest which modern poets do. Mara-
thon, Thermopylae, Salamis, names of glory as
they were, and often on their lips, became to the
Greek imagination names for deeds, abstractions
of national achievement, rather than actual local-
ities to be visited and gazed on for their own
sakes and for the memories they enshrined. It
is an English, not a Greek, poet who seizes the
great features of the immortal plain, and sings

" The mountains look on Marathon,
And Marathon looks on the sea."

The same, too, who, alluding to the great sea*
fight, gives the scenery also :

" A king sat on the rocky brow
That looks o'er sea-born Salamis,
And ships in thousands lay below,
And men in nations all were his.
He counted them at break of day,
And when the sun set where were they ? "


Perhaps of all modern poets Walter Scott is the
one who has looked on the earth most habitually
as seen through tfte coloring with which historic
events and great historic names have invested it.
It is not only that he has in his romantic epics

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Online LibraryJohn Campbell ShairpOn poetic interpretation of nature → online text (page 6 of 16)