Lafcadio Hearn.

Books and Habits from the Lectures of Lafcadio Hearn online

. (page 16 of 19)
Online LibraryLafcadio HearnBooks and Habits from the Lectures of Lafcadio Hearn → online text (page 16 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

France to be his wife." Here I had better quote from the French version of
the story, in which the names of the friends are changed, but without
changing the beauty of the tale itself:

"And straightway he fell upon him, and began to weep greatly, and kissed
him. And when his wife heard that, she ran out with her hair in disarray,
weeping and distressed exceedingly - for she remembered that it was he who
had slain the false Ardres. And thereupon they placed him in a fair bed,
and said to him, 'Abide with us until God's will be accomplished in thee,
for all that we have is at thy service.' So he abode with them."

You must understand, by the allusion to "God's will," that leprosy was in
the Middle Ages really considered to be a punishment from heaven - so that
in taking a leper into his castle, the good friend was not only offending
against the law of the land, but risking celestial punishment as well,
according to the notions of that age. His charity, therefore, was true
charity indeed, and his friendship without fear. But it was going to be
put to a test more terrible than any ever endured before. To comprehend
what followed, you must know that there was one horrible superstition of
the Middle Ages - the belief that by bathing in human blood the disease of
leprosy might be cured. Murders were often committed under the influence
of that superstition. I believe you will remember that the "Golden Legend"
of Longfellow is founded upon a mediæval story in which a young girl
voluntarily offers up her life in order that her blood may cure the
leprosy of her king. In the present romance there is much more tragedy.
One night while sleeping in his friend's castle, the leper was awakened by
an angel from God - Raphael - who said to him:

"I am Raphael, the angel of the Lord, and I am come to tell thee how thou
mayst be healed. Thou shalt bid Amile thy comrade that he slay his two
children and wash thee in their blood, and so thy body shall be made
whole." And Amis said to him, "Let not this thing be, that my comrade
should become a murderer for my sake." But the angel said, "It is
convenient that he do this." And thereupon the angel departed.

The phrase, "it is convenient," must be understood as meaning, "it is
ordered." For the mediæval lord used such gentle expressions when issuing
his commands; and the angel talked like a feudal messenger. But in spite
of the command, the sick man does not tell his friend about the angel's
visit, until Amile, who has overheard the voice, forces him to acknowledge
whom he had been talking with during the night. And the emotion of the
lord may be imagined, though he utters it only in the following gentle
words - "I would have given to thee my man servants and my maid servants
and all my goods - and thou feignest that an angel hath spoken to thee that
I should slay my two children. But I conjure thee by the faith which there
is between me and thee and by our comradeship, and by the baptism we
received together, that thou tell me whether it was man or angel said that
to thee."

Amis declares that it was really an angel, and Amile never thinks of
doubting his friend's word. It would be a pity to tell you the sequel in
my own words; let me quote again from the text, translated by Walter
Pater. I think you will find it beautiful and touching:

"Then Amile began to weep in secret, and thought within himself, 'If this
man was ready to die before the King for me, shall I not for him slay my
children? Shall I not keep faith with him who was faithful to me even unto
death?' And Amile tarried no longer, but departed to the chamber of his
wife, and bade her go to hear the Sacred Office. And he took a sword, and
went to the bed where the children were lying, and found them asleep. And
he lay down over them and began to weep bitterly and said, 'Has any man
yet heard of a father who of his own will slew his children? Alas, my
children! I am no longer your father, but your cruel murderer.'

"And the children awoke at the tears of their father, which fell upon
them; and they looked up into his face and began to laugh. And as they
were of age about three years, he said, 'Your laughing will be turned into
tears, for your innocent blood must now be shed'; and therewith he cut off
their heads. Then he laid them back in the bed, and put the heads upon the
bodies, and covered them as though they slept; and with the blood which he
had taken he washed his comrade, and said, 'Lord Jesus Christ! who hast
commanded men to keep faith on earth, and didst heal the leper by Thy
word! cleanse now my comrade, for whose love I have shed the blood of my
children.'" And of course the leper is immediately and completely cured.
But the mother did not know anything about the killing of the children; we
have to hear something about her share in the tragedy. Let me again quote,
this time giving the real and very beautiful conclusion -

"Now neither the father nor the mother had yet entered where the children
were, but the father sighed heavily because they were dead, and the mother
asked for them, that they might rejoice together; but Amile said, 'Dame!
let the children sleep.' And it was already the hour of Tierce. And going
in alone to the children to weep over them, he found them at play in the
bed; only, in the place of the sword-cuts about their throats was, as it
were, a thread of crimson. And he took them in his arms and carried them
to his wife and said, 'Rejoice greatly! For thy children whom I had slain
by the commandment of the angel, are alive, and by their blood is Amis

I think you will all see how fine a story this is, and feel the emotional
force of the grand moral idea behind it. There is nothing more to tell
you, except the curious fact that during the Middle Ages, when it was
believed that the story was really true, Amis and Amile - or Amicus and
Amelius - were actually considered by the Church as saints, and people used
to pray to them. When anybody was anxious for his friend, or feared that
he might lose the love of his friend, or was afraid that he might not have
strength to perform his duty as friend - then he would go to church to
implore help from the good saints Amicus and Amelius. But of course it was
all a mistake - a mistake which lasted until the end of the seventeenth
century! Then somebody called the attention of the Church to the
unmistakable fact that Amicus and Amelius were merely inventions of some
mediæval romancer. Then the Church made investigation, and greatly
shocked, withdrew from the list of its saints those long-loved names of
Amicus and Amelius - a reform in which I cannot help thinking the Church
made a very serious mistake. What matter whether those shadowy figures
represented original human lives or only human dreams? They were
beautiful, and belief in them made men think beautiful thoughts, and the
imagined help from them had comforted many thousands of hearts. It would
have been better to have left them alone; for that matter, how many of the
existent lives of saints are really true? Nevertheless the friends are not
dead, though expelled from the heaven of the Church. They still live in
romance; and everybody who reads about them feels a little better for
their acquaintance.

What I read to you was from the French version - that is much the more
beautiful of the two. You will find some extracts from the English version
in the pages of Ten Brink. But as that great German scholar pointed out,
the English story is much rougher than the French. For example, in the
English story, the knight rushes out of his castle to beat the leper at
the gate, and to accuse him of having stolen the cup. And he does beat him
ferociously, and abuses him with very violent terms. In fact, the English
writer reflected too much of mediæval English character, in trying to
cover, or to improve upon, the French story, which was the first. In the
French story all is knightly smooth, refined as well as simple and strong.
And where did the mediæval imagination get its material for the story?
Partly, perhaps, from the story of Joseph in the Bible, partly from the
story of Abraham; but the scriptural material is so admirably worked over
that the whole thing appears deliciously original. That was the great art
of the Middle Ages - to make old, old things quite new by the magic of
spiritual imagination. Men then lived in a world of dreams. And that world
still attracts us, for the simple reason that happiness chiefly consists
in dreams. Exact science may help us a great deal no doubt, but
mathematics do not make us any happier. Dreams do, if we can believe them.
The Middle Ages could believe them; we, at the best, can only try.



I am going now to talk about a very rare kind of poetry in a very rare
little book, like fine wine in a small and precious flask. The author
never put his name to the book - indeed for many years it was not known who
wrote the volume. We now know that the author was a school teacher called
William Johnson who, later in life, coming into a small fortune, changed
his name to William Cory. He was born sometime about 1823, and died in
1892. He was, I believe, an Oxford man and was assistant master of Eton
College for a number of years. Judging from his poems, he must have found
pleasure in his profession as well as pain. There is a strange sadness
nearly always, but this sadness is mixed with expressions of love for the
educational establishment which he directed, and for the students whose
minds he helped to form. He must have been otherwise a very shy man.
Scarcely anything seems to be known about him after his departure from
educational circles, although everybody of taste now knows his poems. I
wish to speak of them because I think that literary graduates of this
university ought to be at least familiar with the name "Ionica." At all
events you should know something about the man and about the best of his
poems. If you should ask why so little has yet been said about him in
books on English literature, I would answer that in the first place he was
a very small poet writing in the time of giants, having for competitors
Tennyson, Browning and others. He could scarcely make his small pipe heard
in the thunder of those great organ tones. In the second place his verses
were never written to please the public at all. They were written only for
fine scholars, and even the titles of many of them cannot be explained by
a person devoid of some Greek culture. So the little book, which appeared
quite early in the Victorian Age, was soon forgotten. Being forgotten it
ran out of print and disappeared. Then somebody remembered that it had
existed. I have told you that it was like the tone of a little pipe or
flute as compared with the organ music of the larger poets. But the little
pipe happened to be a Greek pipe - the melody was very sweet and very
strange and old, and people who had heard it once soon wanted to hear it
again. But they could not get it. Copies of the first edition fetched
extraordinary sums. Some few years ago a new edition appeared, but this
too is now out of print and is fetching fancy prices. However, you must
not expect anything too wonderful from this way of introducing the
subject. The facts only show that the poems are liked by persons of
refinement and wealth. I hope to make you like some of them, but the
difficulties of so doing are considerable, because of the extremely
English character of some pieces and the extremely Greek tone of others.
There is also some uneven work. The poet is not in all cases successful.
Sometimes he tried to write society verse, and his society verse must be
considered a failure. The best pieces are his Greek pieces and some
compositions on love subjects of a most delicate and bewitching kind.

Of course the very name "Ionica" suggests Greek work, a collection of
pieces in Ionic style. But you must not think that this means only
repetitions of ancient subjects. This author brings the Greek feeling back
again into the very heart of English life sometimes, or makes an English
fact illustrate a Greek fable. Some delightful translations from the Greek
there are, but less than half a dozen in all.

I scarcely know how to begin - what piece to quote first. But perhaps the
little fancy called "Mimnermus in Church" is the best known, and the one
which will best serve to introduce us to the character of Cory. Before
quoting it, however, I must explain the title briefly. Mimnermus was an
old Greek philosopher and poet who thought that all things in the world
are temporary, that all hope of a future life is vain, that there is
nothing worth existing for except love, and that without affection one
were better dead. There are, no doubt, various modern thinkers who tell
you much the same thing, and this little poem exhibits such modern feeling
in a Greek dress. I mean that we have here a picture of a young man, a
young English scholar, listening in church to Christian teaching, but
answering that teaching with the thought of the old Greeks. There is of
course one slight difference; the modern conception of love is perhaps a
little wider in range than that of the old Greeks. There is more of the
ideal in it.


You promise heavens free from strife,
Pure truth, and perfect change of will;
But sweet, sweet is this human life,
So sweet, I fain would breathe it still;
Your chilly stars I can forego,
This warm kind world is all I know.

You say there is no substance here,
One great reality above:
Back from that void I shrink in fear
And child-like hide myself in love;
Show me what angels feel. Till then
I cling, a mere weak man, to men.

You bid me lift my mean desires
From faltering lips and fitful veins
To sexless souls, ideal choirs,
Unwearied voices, wordless strains;
My mind with fonder welcome owns
One dear dead friend's remembered tones.

Forsooth the present we must give
To that which cannot pass away;
All beauteous things for which we live
By laws of time and space decay.
But oh, the very reason why
I clasp them, is because they die.

The preacher has been talking to his congregation about the joys of
Heaven. There, he says, there will be no quarrelling, no contest, no
falsehood, and all evil dispositions will be entirely changed to good. The
poet answers, "This world and this life are full of beauty and of joy for
me. I do not want to die, I want to live. I do not wish to go to that cold
region of stars about which you teach. I only know this world and I find
in it warm hearts and precious affection. You say that this world is a
phantom, unsubstantial, unreal, and that the only reality is above, in
Heaven. To me that Heaven appears but as an awful emptiness. I shrink from
it in terror, and like a child seek for consolation in human love. It is
no use to talk to me about angels until you can prove to me that angels
can feel happier than men. I prefer to remain with human beings. You say
that I ought to wish for higher things than this world can give, that here
minds are unsteady and weak, hearts fickle and selfish, and you talk of
souls without sex, imaginary concerts of perfect music, tireless singing
in Heaven, and the pleasure of conversation without speech. But all the
happiness that we know is received from our fellow beings. I remember the
voice of one dead friend with deeper love and pleasure than any images of
Heaven could ever excite in my mind."

The last stanza needs no paraphrasing, but it deserves some comment, for
it is the expression of one great difference between the old Greek feeling
in regard to life and death, and all modern religious feeling on the same
subject. You can read through hundreds of beautiful inscriptions which
were placed over the Greek tombs. They are contained in the Greek
Anthology. You will find there almost nothing about hope of a future life,
or about Heaven. They are not for the most part sad; they are actually
joyous in many cases. You would say that the Greek mind thought thus about
death - "I have had my share of the beauty and the love of this world, and
I am grateful for this enjoyment, and now it is time to go to sleep."
There is actually an inscription to the effect, "I have supped well of the
banquet of life." The Eastern religions, including Christianity, taught
that because everything in the world is uncertain, impermanent,
perishable, therefore we ought not to allow our minds to love worldly
things. But the Greek mind, as expressed by the old epigraphy in the
cemeteries, not less than by the teaching of Mimnermus, took exactly the
opposite view. "O children of men, it is because beauty and pleasure and
love and light can last only for a little while, it is exactly because of
this that you should love them. Why refuse to enjoy the present because it
can not last for ever?" And at a much later day the Persian poet Omar
took, you will remember, precisely the same view. You need not think that
it would be wise to accept such teaching for a rule of life, but it has a
certain value as a balance to the other extreme view, that we should make
ourselves miserable in this world with the idea of being rewarded in
another, concerning which we have no positive knowledge. The lines with
which the poem concludes at least deserve to be thought about -

But oh, the very reason why
I clasp them, is because they die.

We shall later on take some of the purely Greek work of Cory for study,
but I want now to interest you in the more modern part of it. The charm of
the following passage you will better feel by remembering that the writer
was then a schoolmaster at Eton, and that the verses particularly express
the love which he felt for his students - a love the more profound,
perhaps, because the circumstances of the teacher's position obliged him
to appear cold and severe, obliged him to suppress natural impulses of
affection and generosity. The discipline of the masters in English public
schools is much more severe than the discipline to which the students are
subjected. The boys enjoy a great deal of liberty. The masters may be said
to have none. Yet there are men so constituted that they learn to greatly
love the profession. The title of this poem is "Reparabo," which means "I
will atone."

The world will rob me of my friends,
For time with her conspires;
But they shall both, to make amends,
Relight my slumbering fires.

For while my comrades pass away
To bow and smirk and gloze,
Come others, for as short a stay;
And dear are these as those.

And who was this? they ask; and then
The loved and lost I praise:
"Like you they frolicked; they are men;
Bless ye my later days."

Why fret? The hawks I trained are flown;
'Twas nature bade them range;
I could not keep their wings half-grown,
I could not bar the change.

With lattice opened wide I stand
To watch their eager flight;
With broken jesses in my hand
I muse on their delight.

And oh! if one with sullied plume
Should droop in mid career,
My love makes signals, - "There is room,
O bleeding wanderer, here."

This comparison of the educator to a falconer, and of the students to
young hawks eager to break their jesses seems to an Englishman
particularly happy in reference to Eton, from which so many youths pass
into the ranks of the army and navy. The line about bowing, smirking and
glozing, refers to the comparative insincerity of the higher society into
which so many of the scholars must eventually pass. "Smirking" suggests
insincere smiles, "glozing" implies tolerating or lightly passing over
faults or wrongs or serious matters that should not be considered lightly.
Society is essentially insincere and artificial in all countries, but
especially so in England. The old Eton master thinks, however, that he
knows the moral character of the boys, the strong principles which make
its foundation, and he trusts that they will be able in a general way to
do only what is right, in spite of conventions and humbug.

As I told you before, we know very little about the personal life of Cory,
who must have been a very reserved man; but a poet puts his heart into his
verses as a general rule, and there are many little poems in this book
that suggest to us an unhappy love episode. These are extremely pretty and
touching, the writer in most cases confessing himself unworthy of the
person who charmed him; but the finest thing of the kind is a composition
which he suggestively entitled "A Fable" - that is to say, a fable in the
Greek sense, an emblem or symbol of truth.

An eager girl, whose father buys
Some ruined thane's forsaken hall,
Explores the new domain and tries
Before the rest to view it all.

I think you have often noted the fact here related; when a family moves to
a new house, it is the child, or the youngest daughter, who is the first
to explore all the secrets of the new residence, and whose young eyes
discover things which the older folks had not noticed.

Alone she lifts the latch, and glides,
Through many a sadly curtained room,
As daylight through the doorway slides
And struggles with the muffled gloom.

With mimicries of dance she wakes
The lordly gallery's silent floor,
And climbing up on tiptoe, makes
The old-world mirror smile once more.

With tankards dry she chills her lips,
With yellowing laces veils the head,
And leaps in pride of ownership
Upon the faded marriage bed.

A harp in some dark nook she sees
Long left a prey to heat and frost,
She smites it; can such tinklings please?
Is not all worth, all beauty, lost?

Ah, who'd have thought such sweetness clung
To loose neglected strings like those?
They answered to whate'er was sung,
And sounded as a lady chose.

Her pitying finger hurried by
Each vacant space, each slackened chord;
Nor would her wayward zeal let die
The music-spirit she restored.

The fashion quaint, the timeworn flaws,
The narrow range, the doubtful tone,
All was excused awhile, because
It seemed a creature of her own.

Perfection tires; the new in old,
The mended wrecks that need her skill,
Amuse her. If the truth be told,
She loves the triumph of her will.

With this, she dares herself persuade,
She'll be for many a month content,
Quite sure no duchess ever played
Upon a sweeter instrument.

And thus in sooth she can beguile
Girlhood's romantic hours, but soon
She yields to taste and mood and style,
A siren of the gay saloon.

And wonders how she once could like
Those drooping wires, those failing notes,
And leaves her toy for bats to strike
Amongst the cobwebs and the motes.

But enter in, thou freezing wind,
And snap the harp-strings, one by one;
It was a maiden blithe and kind:
They felt her touch; their task is done.

In this charming little study we know that the harp described is not a
harp; it is the loving heart of an old man, at least of a man beyond the
usual age of lovers. He has described and perhaps adored some beautiful
person who seemed to care for him, and who played upon his heart, with her
whims, caresses, smiles, much as one would play upon the strings of a
harp. She did not mean to be cruel at all, nor even insincere. It is even
probable that she really in those times thought that she loved the man,
and under the charms of the girl the man became a different being; the
old-fashioned mind brightened, the old-fashioned heart exposed its hidden
treasures of tenderness and wisdom and sympathy. Very much like playing
upon a long forgotten instrument, was the relation between the maiden and
the man - not only because he resembled such an instrument in the fact of
belonging emotionally and intellectually to another generation, but also
because his was a heart whose true music had long been silent, unheard by
the world. Undoubtedly the maiden meant no harm, but she caused a great
deal of pain, for at a later day, becoming a great lady of society, she
forgot all about this old friendship, or perhaps wondered why she ever
wasted her time in talking to such a strange old-fashioned professor. Then
the affectionate heart is condemned to silence again, to silence and
oblivion, like the harp thrown away in some garret to be covered with
cobwebs and visited only by bats. "Is it not time," the old man thinks,
"that the strings should be broken, the strings of the heart? Let the cold

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 16 18 19

Online LibraryLafcadio HearnBooks and Habits from the Lectures of Lafcadio Hearn → online text (page 16 of 19)