Thomas B. (Thomas Brackett) Reed.

Modern eloquence; (Volume 5) online

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ful, and modest retrospect on his own character. May
the aspirations with which it concludes be fulfilled. But
the little he has done of true and sterling excellence, is
overloaded by the quantity of indifferent matter which
he turns out every year, "prosing or versing," with
equally mechanical and irresistible facility. His " Essays,"
or political and moral disquisitions are not so full of orig-
inal matter as Montaigne's. They are second or third-
rate compositions in that class.

It remains that I should say a few words of Mr. Cole-
ridge; and there is no one who has a better right to say
what he thinks of him than I have. " Is there here any
dear friend of Csesar? To him I say, that Brutus' love
to Caesar was no less than his." But no matter. His
" Ancient Mariner " is his most remarkable performance,
and the only one that I could point out to any one as
giving an adequate idea of his great natural powers. It
is high German, however, and in it he seems to " conceive
of poetry but as a drunken dream, reckless, careless, and
heedless of past, present, and to come." His tragedies
(for he has written two) are not answerable to it; they
are, except a few poetical passages, drawling sentiment
and metaphysical jargon. He has no genuine dramatic


talent. There is one fine passage in his " Christabel,"
that which contains the description of the quarrel between
Sir Leoline and Sir Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine, who
had been friends in youth :

" Alas ! they had been friends in youth,
But whispering tongues can poison truth ;
And constancy lives in realms above ;
And life is thorny ; and youth is vain ;
And to be wroth with one we love,
Doth work like madness in the brain ;
And thus it chanc'd as I divine,
With Roland and Sir Leoline,
Each spake words of high disdain
And insult to his heart's best brother,
And parted ne'er to meet again !
But neither ever found another
To free the hollow heart from paining
They stood aloof, the scars remaining,
Like cliffs which had been rent asunder:
A dreary sea now floats between,
But neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder,
Shall wholly do away I ween
The marks of that which once hath been.
Sir Leoline a moment's space
Stood gazing on the damsel's face ;
And the youthful lord of Tryermaine
Came back upon his heart again."

It might seem insidious if I were to praise his ode, en-
titled " Fire, Famine, and Slaughter," as an effusion of
high poetical enthusiasm and strong political feeling. His
" Sonnet to Schiller " conveys a fine compliment to the
author of the " Robbers," and an equally fine idea of the
state of youthful enthusiasm in which he composed it :

" Schiller ! that hour I would have wish'd to die,
If through the shudd'ring midnight I had sent
From the dark dungeon of the tower time-rent,
That fearful voice, a famish'd father's cry

That in no after moment aught less vast

Might stamp me mortal ! A triumphant shout
Black Horror scream'd, and all her goblin rout,

From the more with'ring scene diminish'd pass'd.


Ah ! Bard tremendous in sublimity !

Could I behold thee in thy loftier mood,
Wand'ring at eve, with finely frenzied eye,

Beneath some vast old tempest-swinging wood !

Awhile, with mute awe gazing, I would brood,
Then weep aloud in a wild ecstasy ! "

His " Condones ad Populum" " Watchman," etc., are
dreary trash. Of his " Friend " I have spoken the truth
elsewhere. But I may say of him here, that he is the only
person I ever knew who answered to the idea of a man
of genius. He is the only person from whom I ever
learnt anything. There is only one thing he could learn
from me in return, but that he has not. He was the first
poet I ever knew. His genius at that time [1798] had
angelic wings, and fed on manna. He talked on forever;
and you wished him to talk on forever. His thoughts did
not seem to come with labor and effort, but as if borne
on the gusts of genius, and as if the wings of his imagina-
tion lifted him from off his feet. His voice rolled on the
ear like the pealing organ, and its sound alone was the
music of thought. His mind was clothed with wings ; and
raised on them, he lifted philosophy to heaven. In his
descriptions, you then saw the progress of human happi-
ness and liberty in bright and never-ending succession,
like the steps of Jacob's Ladder, with airy shapes ascend-
ing and descending, and with the voice of God at the top
of the ladder. And shall I, who heard him then, listen to
him now? Not I! ... That spell is broken; that
time is gone forever; that voice is heard no more: but
still the recollection comes rushing by with thoughts of
long-past years, and rings in my ears with never-dying
sound :

"What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now forever taken from my sight
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of glory in the grass, of splendor in the flow'r?
I do not grieve, but rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy,
Which having been, must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering ;
In years that bring the philosophic mind ! "


I have thus gone through the task I intended, and have
come at last to the level ground. I have felt my subject
gradually sinking from under me as I advanced, and have
been afraid of ending in nothing. The interest has un-
avoidably decreased at almost every successive step of the
progress, like a play that has its catastrophe in the first
,or second act. This, however, I could not help. I have
done as well as I could.



[Lecture by T. W. Higginson, author, lecturer, advocate of political
and social reforms (born in Cambridge, Mass., December 22, 1823 ;
), delivered first in 1892.]

LADIES AND GENTLEMEJN : In a Nation like ours, where
literature came somewhat iate into the field among the
great forces of humanity, literature has, and is destined
to have, a power such as it hardly can possess in any
nation not republican in form. The expression of this
love of literature may sometimes be crude. In reading
the other day the report of that most delightful tribute
made by one literary man to another, the address of Mr.
Curtis on his friend, the late Mr. Lowell, I could not but
go back in memory to a tradition there used to be thirty
years ago, when George William Curtis, to the great
credit of the citizens of New York, was selected as a dele-
gate to the New York Constitutional Convention. And
while there he happened one day to be waiting in one of
the parlors in one of the alcoves with some of his fellow-
members of the convention, and fell upon that subject
which is more universally interesting to human beings
than all others together namely, themselves and their
fellow-members. He listened to them, an unconscious,
or rather, an unintentional auditor in that somewhat
rather awkward confidential intercourse which we some-
times derive as to the family affairs of those who occupy
the next room. The members of the convention were
discussed, and at last, with painful interest, he found that
the conversation was coming around to him.

"There is Curtis," said one of them; "he is an intelli-
gent man."

Copyright, 1901, by A. C. Butters.



" Yes," said the other somewhat reluctantly, " an intel-
ligent man."

Said the first one : " Curtis is a very intelligent man."

" Yes, yes," said the other man, " you may call him a
very intelligent man for a literary man." [Laughter.]

We did not use to hear it said that Abraham Lincoln
was a very intelligent man for a rail-splitter, or that
General Grant was a very intelligent man for a tanner.
The literary man is also a man and a brother, and why
should it be surprising that he, like other American citi-
zens in humble avocations, should sometimes exhibit in-
telligence also?

I sometimes think, therefore, that with all the real sym-
pathy with and often enthusiasm for literature in America,
it is not always quite a complimentary enthusiasm. It is
a little too much like the enthusiasm that the Agricultural
Society shows for what they call the Ladies' Department
at the annual exhibition. They set apart for it the nicest
room in the whole building. They devote their best ac-
commodations to the little dogs in worsted and the little
cats in canvas and fine cane frames, but after all, you will
find the farmers themselves outside, among the two-year-
olds and the mowing-machines. I might go further and
compare the condition of literature to those old-fashioned
toll-bridges you still find in Vermont, where everybody
who is anybody pays to go over, but ministers and women
were accustomed to cross without paying toll.

Now, it is not at all strange when you look at the origin
of this country that there should be some divided feeling.
This Nation was not born like Greece, with the ideal State
always to the front. It was born like Rome, where states-
manship came first, and, as we know of Rome, all poetry,
all literature, was for a time regarded with distrust.

In the early days of this Republic, literature could not
be expected to have a footing; the conditions were too
stern and the imagination too serious to give place to
literature at first. The men who settled this Nation were,
to an unusual extent, to an extent, for instance, unequalled
in the older British colonies, men of education, college-
bred men, men that brought with them books and
libraries. John Harvard, who was not a college-bred man
of the Church of England, but of what was then a less



trained body, representing the dissenting clergy of Eng-
land John Harvard, in the library which he bequeathed
to Harvard College, and of which only one book now re-
mains, gave books that represented then not only the
theology but the literature of the human race Homer
and Herodotus, Hesiod and Juvenal and ^Eschylus. It
was a race of cultivated men who settled New England,
and, though to a less degree, Virginia. But the contact
of actual life in the Colonies was unfavorable, if not to the
substance, at least to the graces, of literature. The ex-
planation was that everything was concentrated on the
training of clergymen of profound theology. All was
secondary to that.

It was an exceptional class of clergymen who founded
especially the Puritan commonwealths, and all the com-
monwealths then were more or less Puritan in America.
It was not, therefore, that these men did not appreciate
literature. They appreciated theirs. The difficulty is for
us to appreciate it as much as they. The impression that
often exists that the Puritan clergymen set themselves
against literature and science is quite wrong. The clergy-
men were the educated class of the people, and all there
was of literature and science belonged to them, and they
filled all the functions of the State, and therefore had the
knowledge useful to the State.

Professor Goodale, of Harvard, has lately shown that
the first introduction of the natural sciences at Harvard
came, not from the love of science, but because the clergy-
man of that period, being also the physician of his parish,
needed to know how to do something for their bodies as
well as their souls ; and he studied his chemistry and got
a rather formidable materia medica, to correspond with
his rather formidable theology. Everything concentrated
itself on the training of the clergy. The clergy were the
lawyers and were the militia officers. The clergyman
who became a judge opened his court with prayer. The
clergyman who would become a militia captain opened his
spring training with prayer. It was all a part of the
same thing. And when we say that those men did not
love literature, we say, only, that we do not love the
literature they produced.

If you read, for instance, that most entertaining book

5 68


of the second generation of the Puritans, that American
Pepy's diary, the narrative, the journals and letter-books
of Judge Samuel Sewall, you will find that he not only did
not ignore poetry but that he wrote it on every imagin-
able occasion. If there was a law-suit going on in the
court, he always would pass around little copies of verses.
If there was a funeral it was always celebrated in song.

On one occasion Samuel Sewall, noticing a remarkable
circumstance at a funeral, recorded it in this couplet it j
was the funeral of Mrs. Mary Coney :

" Two Johns, two Sams, and one good Tom,
Bore prudent Mary to the tomb."

That was literature a little before the year 1800. You
can see that such poetry must have added new terrors to
death, litigation, and courtship. [Laughter and applause.]
In the days of the early Republic President John Adams
rejoiced that there were no artists in America, and never
likely to be, because it seemed clear to the men of those
times that art and literature belonged to the degradation
of the Government. In the year 1808 Fisher Ames, who
was the first person to pronounce an address on American
literature, devoted the whole address to saying that the
subject of his address never by any possibility could exist,
at least while America retained its freedom. " The time
will come," he said, " when our liberties have been over-
thrown, and when our future emperor shall have killed off
all his rivals and surrounded himself with a voluptuous
court when he will have art and literature to amuse his
leisure." Ten years after that time, the liberties of
America being still intact, American literature was born.

' The North American Review " was established in
1815; Bryant's " Thanatopsis " was published in 1817;
Cooper's "Spy" in 1825; and when the good-natured
Monroe, after a Presidency that was called " the era of
good feeling," went out of office, although Whittier was
still a boy on his father's farm, and Longfellow and Haw-
thorne were still undergraduates at Bowdoin College, and
Emerson was still a country school-teacher, American
literature was born. The thing was settled. The volup-



tuous court that Fisher Ames apprehended has never
come in. I have seen a variety of criticism upon the pres-
ent estimable and respectable Administration at Washing-
ton, but never in the most ardent opposition newspaper
have I seen it denounced as voluptuous.

Literature in America, therefore, may fairly be consid-
ered as a thing which belongs to the future, and which is
one of the careers which young people can boldly enter
upon, and one which has won its place among the great
moving activities of the country. And there are certain
advantages which literature enjoys in a republican coun-
try, and especially in a country like this, which no other
form of government or type of society can rival. I am
constantly struck with this, as between American and
English authors, for instance. There is a certain pro-
fessional self-respect possible in a community like ours
for the literary class which hardly exists in a country
where there is a special aristocracy, and where, by its very
nature, literature takes an humble part in the social de-
marcation. Fancy a man like Anthony Trollope, for in-
stance, after his long and brilliant career of letters, writ-
ing his autobiography and giving a considerable space to
the question as to the manner in which the literary man
ought to treat his social superiors. I have never yet en-
countered a literary man in America who felt for an
instant that he had such a thing as a social superior. The
humblest little Gallagher on the smallest country news-
paper, who talks about " me and the editors," recognizes,
perhaps, that there is a class in the community who might
fancy themselves his superiors, but as it takes two to make
a quarrel, it takes two to make a superior. [Applause.]

As Mr. Howells well said, " The peculiarity of all that
calls itself aristocracy in America is that, although it may
look down, other people don't look up." There is the
difference. It is a curious fact that the great source and
organizer and recognized definer of all that claims to be
an artificial aristocracy in America should remain unheard
of and unknown in the world he and his favorite phrase,
the Four Hundred, alike until he stepped into the ranks
of authorship and became a comic writer. [Applause.]

I maintain there is a distinct character to American
literature. There was a time when the mere existence of


a highly organized and hereditary aristocracy was suffi-
cient to crush the most famous among men in literature.
Think, for instance, what the conditions of a monarchy
did to crush the greatest purely intellectual power of his
age, Voltaire. When Voltaire was in Paris, a young man
of twenty-one, the most brilliant person of his time, he
was sought everywhere for his companionship, his wit, his
brilliancy. On one occasion, at the table of a duke, he
met a man of some hereditary note, but none otherwise.
Chevalier Rohan-Chabot. They had a little discussion
and Voltaire was too strong for the Chevalier in his argu-
ments, who turned brutally upon him and said : " Who is
this young man who dares to talk so loudly to me? " " It
is a young man," said Voltaire, " who, if he did not inherit
any distinguished name, at least does some honor to the
name he bears." The Chevalier said nothing. He prob-
ably had nothing to say, but there was something he could
do, and the next time he had Voltaire down at that duke's
table that nobleman had his servants ready in the hall to
take Voltaire and drag him from the table, beat him with
rods from the hall and eject him from the front door.
For what? For getting the better of a nobleman in an
argument ! And the duke, his entertainer, who ought to
have laid down his life in the protection of the humblest
guest, looked on and laughed, thought it was a good joke,
served him right, what business had he to speak disre-
spectfully to one of superior rank?

Voltaire, the moment he left that house, went straight
to his lodgings; he sent for the best fencing-master in
Paris, and for a fortnight took fencing lessons a thing
he had never done before and sent a challenge to Cheva-
lier Rohan-Chabot. The answer to that challenge was
an order from the King to commit Voltaire to prison, but
with a notice that he might escape if he would go to Eng-
land and remain for six months; and the biographers of
Voltaire believe, justly, that a large part of the bitterness,
and the serious, malignant hostility to so much that was
good, which characterized his life, was due to that terrible
early contest with the established powers of society.

You may say that is an old story; nothing of the kind
can happen now. But to a sensitive person, and authors
are sometimes found to be sensitive, to a sensitive person



there may be social slights which cut like rods or imprison
like the Bastile.

Many years ago a young American girl, whom I knew,
found herself in London as the guest of a relative, who
was the wife of an Ambassador to England from a conti-
nental State, and a person of great social standing and
influence. This young lady, only seventeen years of age,
was, in a way, to enter upon easy terms the most exclu-
sive society. You can imagine how she enjoyed it.
What American girl would not like to go to England at
seventeen and find herself among the honored, dining
with lords and ladies, with princes and princesses, observ-
ing all these royal and noble creatures close at hand, and
even at feeding times, which is always the most interesting
period in any menagerie.

This young girl enjoyed it enormously. At the first of
these entertainments to which she went, she found herself
shrinking into a humble corner, looking around her to try
to decide who were the most distinguished or the most
high-born of those she saw. Most of them looked to her
rather commonplace, very much like other well-bred gen-
tlemen and ladies. But her eye fell on one very distin-
guished-looking old man in the opposite corner, who
seemed to her a person who might be worthy of any social
position; not handsome, rather ugly than otherwise, but
keenly intellectual, and in every way distinguished. She
resolved to fix her eye upon him and find out who he was.

After a while the summons was given to the dinner-
table they were summoned to the dining-hall in that
complicated and elaborate order of precedence which you
will find at the end of the English books on etiquette. It
is a very complicated order of precedence, and this young
girl saw every stripling lordship, and every young damsel,
the scion of an honorable house, pass her by, and she
watched from her corner. Still they went, two and two,
and two and two, like Noah's more ancient families on a
similar occasion. And still she watched for her distin-
guished-looking old man in the opposite corner, until the
last of all, at the very end of that brilliant procession,
walked the only two untitled plebeians in the room, that
young American girl, and that fine-looking old man, who
turned out to be Samuel Rogers, the distinguished poet



of those days, and the recognized head of literary society
in London.

My young friend said that she got two things at that
entertainment she got the most delightful companion
she ever had at a dinner-party, and she got a lesson in the
utter shallowness and folly of mere hereditary rank that
would last a lifetime. Samuel Rogers's poems are not
read so much now as formerly, but at that time the high-
est literary honor a man could have was to dine with
Rogers. He was one of the richest bankers in London,
and was probably or possibly the only person in the room
who had won for himself a reputation outside of his own
little island ; but he was next to nobody in that company,
and the little American girl was the nobody. [Laughter.]

Whatever may be said of the evils or the follies of the
aristocracy of wealth in this country, it may at least be
said of it that it knows its own place better than that. I
can easily conceive of circles of wealth where Longfellow
and Emerson might not be invited as guests, and where
the hosts might never have heard of them. I remember
just after the fall of the Tweed dynasty having pointed out
to me a New York alderman who had been conspicuously
identified with it, and who took a friend to drive through
the Park. As they passed the statue of Alexander von
Humboldt, the alderman said to his friend : " There is the
statue of Dr. Helmbold, though why they should have
put it there I do not know. He was nothing but an
apothecary, any way." [Laughter.] I do not undertake
to claim that that man would have invited Emerson or
Longfellow to an entertainment, but if that man had ever
heard of me or did invite me, it would not be to put me at
the wrong end of the dinner-table. That is what I mean
in saying of the literary life in America it gives or per-
mits a man a certain self-respect.

Then, again, we have another great advantage in litera-
ture in a republic, and especially in this republic, in the
greater variety of intercourse which prevails among all
sorts and conditions of people. Some years ago at Chau-
tauqua a distinguished English clergyman was astonished
when he went there to find people of all denominations
mingling with perfect freedom, whereas, he said : " In
England the mere presence of one-half of those people



would drive the other half out of the room." That is as
striking in all circles in England to an American as he
indicated. It is just as striking in circles of reformers and
freethinkers in England as in any other circle. English
society is not merely divided by the successive strata of
social distinction, but also by infinite collateral, infinite
cross ramifications of distinction.

Moncure D. Conway, who lived so long in England and
always liked it, said : " People talk about London literary
magazines. There is no such thing as a literary magazine
in London. The things they call magazines are a series
of circular letters, each of them addressed by a certain set
of people to a few gentlemen who belong to the same
clubs with themselves, and agree in their general opin-
ions." No magazines, but circular letters. That is why
our magazines displace them so easily.

The breadth of American discussion is always a source
of astonishment to the people of older nations, and it is a
point of immense value. The whole world is wiser than

Online LibraryThomas B. (Thomas Brackett) ReedModern eloquence; (Volume 5) → online text (page 16 of 38)