Thomas B. (Thomas Brackett) Reed.

Modern eloquence; (Volume 5) online

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that Adam, immediately upon his creation, and before the
appearance of Eve, was placed in the Garden of Eden.
The problem of the geographical position of Eden has
greatly vexed the spirits of the learned in such matters,
but there is one point respecting which, so far as I know,
no commentator has ever raised a doubt. This is, that
of the four rivers which are said to run out of it, Euph-
rates and Hiddekel are identical with the rivers now
known by the names of Euphrates and Tigris. But the


whole country in which these mighty rivers take their
origin, and through which they run, is composed of rocks
which are either of the same age as the chalk, or of later
date. So that the chalk must not only have been formed,
but, after its formation, the time required for the deposit
of these later rocks, and for their upheaval into dry land,
must have elapsed, before the smallest brook which feeds
the swift stream of " the great river, the river of Baby-
lon," began to flow.

Thus, evidence which cannot be rebutted, and which
need not be strengthened, though if time permitted I
might indefinitely increase its quantity, compels you to
believe that the earth, from the time of the chalk to the
present day, has been the theatre of a series of changes
as vast in their amount, as they were slow in their prog-
ress. The area on which we stand has been first sea and
then land, for at least four alternations ; and has remained
in each of these conditions for a period of great length.

Nor have these wonderful metamorphoses of sea into
land, and of land into sea, been confined to one corner of
England. During the chalk period, or " cretaceous
epoch," not one of the present great physical features of
the globe was in existence. Our great mountain ranges,
Pyrenees, Alps, Himalayas, Andes, have all been up-
heaved since the chalk was deposited, and the cretaceous
sea flowed over the sites of Sinai and Ararat. All this is
certain, because rocks of cretaceous, or still later, date
have shared in the elevatory movements which gave rise
to these mountain chains ; and may be found perched up,
in some cases, many thousand feet high upon their flanks.
And evidence of equal cogency demonstrates that,
though, in Norfolk, the forest-bed rests directly upon
the chalk, yet it does so, not because the period at which
the forest grew immediately followed that at which the
chalk was formed, but because an immense lapse of time,
represented elsewhere by thousands of feet of rock, is not
indicated at Cromer.

I must ask you to believe that there is no less conclu-
sive proof that a still more prolonged succession of similar
changes occurred, before the chalk was deposited. Nor
have we any reason to think that the first term in the
series of these changes is known. The oldest sea-beds


preserved to us are sands, and mud, and pebbles, the wear
and tear of rocks which were formed in still older oceans.

But, great as is the magnitude of these physical changes
of the world, they have been accompanied by a no less
striking series of modifications in its living inhabitants.
All the great classes of animals, beasts of the field, fowls
of the air, creeping things, and things which dwell in the
waters, flourished upon the globe long ages before the
chalk was deposited. Very few, however, if any, of these
ancient forms of animal life were identical with those '
which now live. Certainly not one of the higher animals
was of the same species as any of those now in existence.
The beasts of the field, in the days before the chalk, were
not our beasts of the field, nor the fowls of the air such as
those which the eye of man has seen flying, unless his
antiquity dates infinitely further back than we at present
surmise. If we could be carried back into those times,
we should be as one suddenly set down in Australia be-
fore it was colonized. We should see mammals, birds,
reptiles, fishes, insects, snails, and the like, clearly recog-
nizable as such, and yet not one of them would be just
the same as those with which we are familiar, and many
would be extremely different.

From that time to the present, the population of the
world has undergone slow and gradual, but incessant,
changes. There has been no grand catastrophe no de-
stroyer has swept away the forms of life of one period,
and replaced them by a totally new creation; but one
species has vanished and another has taken its place;
creatures of one type of structure have diminished, those
of another have increased, as time has passed on. And
thus, while the differences between the living creatures
of the time before the chalk and those of the present day
appear startling, if placed side by side, we are led from
one to the other by the most gradual progress, if we fol-
low the course of Nature through the whole series of
those relics of her operations which she has left behind.
It is by the population of the chalk sea that the ancient
and the modern inhabitants of the world are most com-
pletely connected. The groups which are dying out
flourish, side by side, with the groups which are now the
dominant forms of life. Thus the chalk contains remains


of those strange flying and swimming reptiles, the ptero-
dactyl, the ichthyosaurus, and the plesiosaurus, which are
found in no later deposits, but abounded in preceding
ages. The chambered shells called ammonites and belem-
nites, which are so characteristic of the period preceding
the cretaceous, in like manner die with it.

But, amongst these fading remainders of a previous
state of things, are some very modern forms of life, look-
ing like Yankee pedlers among a tribe of Red Indians.
Crocodiles of modern type appear; bony fishes, many of
them very similar to existing species, almost supplant the
forms of fish which predominate in more ancient seas;
and many kinds of living shell-fish first become known
to us in the chalk. The vegetation acquires a modern
aspect. A few living animals are not even distinguish-
able as species, from those which existed at that remote
epoch. The Globigerina of the present day, for example,
is not different specifically from that of the chalk ; and the
same may be said of many other Foraminifera. I think it
probable that critical and unprejudiced examination will
show that more than one species of much higher animals
have had a similar longevity ; but the only example which
I can at present give confidently is the snake's-head
lamp-shell (Terebratulina caput serpentis), which lives in
our English seas and abounded (as Terebratulina striata of
authors) in the chalk.

The longest line of human ancestry must hide its dimin-
ished head before the pedigree of this insignificant shell-
fish. We Englishmen are proud to have an ancestor who
was present at the Battle of Hastings. The ancestors of
Terebratulina caput serpentis may have been present at a
battle of Ichthyosauria in that part of the sea which, when
the chalk was forming, flowed over the site of Hastings.
While all around has changed, this Terebratulina has
peacefully propagated its species from generation to
generation, and stands to this day, as a living testimony
to the continuity of the present with the past history of
the globe.

Up to this moment I have stated, so far as I know,
nothing but well-authenticated facts, and the immediate
conclusions which they force upon the mind. But the
mind is so constituted that it does not willingly rest in


facts and immediate causes, but seeks always after a
knowledge of the remoter links in the chain of causation.

Taking the many changes of any given spot of the
earth's surface, from sea to land and from land to sea, as
an established fact, we cannot refrain from asking our-
selves how these changes have occurred. And when we
have explained them as they must be explained by
the alternate slow movements of elevation and depres-
sion which have affected the crust of the earth, we go
still further back, and ask, Why these movements ?

I am not certain that any one can give you a satisfac-
tory answer to that question. Assuredly I cannot. All
that can be said, for certain, is, that such movements are
part of the ordinary course of nature, inasmuch as they
are going on at the present time. Direct proof may be
given, that some parts of the land of the northern hemis-
phere are at this moment insensibly rising and others in-
sensibly sinking ; and there is indirect, but perfectly satis-
factory, proof, that an enormous area now covered by
the Pacific has been deepened thousands of feet, since the
present inhabitants of that sea came into existence. Thus
there is not a shadow of a reason for believing that the
physical changes of the globe, in past times, have been
effected by other than natural causes. Is there any more
reason for believing that the concomitant modifications
in the forms of the living inhabitants of the globe have
been brought about in other ways ?

Before attempting to answer this question, let us try
to form a distinct mental picture of what has happened
in some special case. The crocodiles are animals which,
as a group, have a very vast antiquity. They abounded
ages before the chalk was deposited; they throng the
rivers in warm climates, at the present day. There is a
difference in the form of the joints of the back-bone, and
in some minor particulars, between the crocodiles of the
present epoch and those which lived before the chalk;
but, in the cretaceous epoch, as I have already men-
tioned, the crocodiles had assumed the modern type of
structure. Notwithstanding this, the crocodiles of the
chalk are not identically the same as those which lived
in the times called " older tertiary," which succeeded the
cretaceous epoch; and the crocodiles of the older ter-


tiaries are not identical with those of the newer tertiaries,
nor are these identical with existing forms. I leave open
the question whether particular species may have lived
on from epoch to epoch. But each epoch has had its
peculiar crocodiles ; though all, since the chalk, have be-
longed to the modern type, and differ simply in their pro-
portions, and in such structural particulars as are dis-
cernible only to trained eyes.

How is the existence of this long succession of different
species of crocodiles to be accounted for? Only two sup-
positions seem to be open to us either each species of
crocodile has been specially created, or it has arisen out
of some pre-existing form by the operation of natural
causes. Choose your hypothesis ; I have chosen mine. I
can find no warranty for believing in the distinct creation
of a score of successive species of crocodiles in the course
of countless ages of time. Science gives no countenance
to such a wild fancy ; nor can even the perverse ingenuity
of a commentator pretend to discover this sense, in the
simple words in which the writer of Genesis records the
proceedings of the fifth and six days of the Creation.

On the other hand, I see no good reason for doubting
the necessary alternative, that all these varied species
have been evolved from pre-existing crocodilian forms, by
the operation of causes as completely a part of the com-
mon order of nature as those which have effected the
changes of the inorganic world. Few will venture to
affirm that the reasoning which applies to crocodiles loses
its force among other animals, or among plants. If one
series of species has come into existence by the operation
of natural causes, it seems folly to deny that all may have
arisen in the same way.

A small beginning has led us to a great ending. If I
were to put the bit of chalk with which we started into
the hot but obscure flame of burning hydrogen, it would
presently shine like the sun. It seems to me that this
physical metamorphosis is no false image of what has
been the result of our subjecting it to a jet of fervent,
though nowise brilliant, thought to-night. It has become
luminous, and its clear rays, penetrating the abyss of the
remote past, have brought within our ken some stages of


the evolution of the earth. And in the shifting " without
haste, but without rest " of the land and sea, as in the
endless variation of the forms assumed by living beings,
we have observed nothing but the natural product of the
forces originally possessed by the substance of the uni-



[Lecture by Colonel Robert Green Ingersoll, lawyer and orator (born
in Dresden, N. Y., August n, 1833; died in Dobbs Ferry, N. Y., July 21,
1809). This lecture was considered by his admirers the most scholarly
and most delightful of Colonel Ingersoll's public efforts. It was de-
livered many times in various places.]

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN : William Shakespeare was
the greatest genius of our world. He left to us the richest
legacy of all the dead the treasures of the rarest soul
that ever lived and loved and wrought of words the stat-
ues, pictures, robes, and gems of thought.

It is hard to overstate the debt we owe to the men and
women of genius. Take from our world what they have
given, and all the niches would be empty, all the walls
naked ; meaning and connection would fall from words of
poetry and fiction, music would go back to common air,
and all the forms of subtle and enchanting Art would lose
proportion, and become the unmeaning waste and shat-
tered spoil of thoughtless Chance.

Shakespeare is too great a theme. I feel as though
endeavoring to grasp a globe so large that the hand ob-
tains no hold. He who would worthily speak of the
great dramatist should be inspired by " a muse of fire that
should ascend the brightest heaven of invention." He
should have " a kingdom for a stage, and monarchs to be-
hold the swelling scene."

More than three centuries ago, the most intellectual
of the human race was born. He was not of supernatural
origin. At his birth there were no celestial pyrotechnics.
His father and mother were both English, and both had

Copyright, 1894, by Robert G. Ingersoll. Published by permission.


the cheerful habit of living in this world. The cradle in
which he was rocked was canopied by neither myth nor
miracle, and in his veins there was no drop of royal blood.

This babe became the wonder of mankind. Neither of
his parents could read or write. He grew up in a small
and ignorant village on the banks of the Avon, in the
midst of the common people of three hundred years ago.
There was nothing in the peaceful, quiet landscape on
which he looked, nothing in the low hills, the cultivated
and undulating fields, and nothing in the murmuring
stream, to excite the imagination: nothing, so far as we
can see, calculated to sow the seeds of the subtlest and
sublimest thought.

So there is nothing connected with his education, or
his lack of education, that in any way accounts for what
he did. It is supposed that he attended school in his
native town ; but of this we are not certain. Many have
tried to show that he was, after all, of gentle blood, but
the fact seems to be the other way. Some of his biog-
raphers have sought to do him honor by showing that he
was patronized by Queen Elizabeth, but of this there is
not the slightest proof. As a matter of fact, there never
sat on any throne, a king, queen, or emperor who could
have honored William Shakespeare.

Ignorant people are apt to overrate the value of what
is called education. The sons of the poor, having suf-
fered the privations of poverty, think of wealth as the
mother of joy. On the other hand, the children of the
rich, finding that gold does not produce happiness, are
apt to underrate the value of wealth. So the children of
the educated often care but little for books, and hold all
culture in contempt. The children of great authors do
not, as a rule, become writers.

Nature is filled with tendencies and obstructions. Ex-
tremes beget limitations, even as a river by its own swift-
ness creates obstructions for itself.

Possibly, many generations of culture breed a desire
for the rude joys of savagery, and possibly generations of
ignorance breed such a longing for knowledge, that of
this desire, of this hunger of the brain, Genius is born.
It may be that the mind, by lying fallow, by remaining
idle for generations, gathers strength.


Shakespeare's father seems to have been an ordinary
man of his time and class. About the only thing we know
of him is that he was officially reported for not coming
monthly to church. This is good as far as it goes. We
can hardly blame him, because at that time Richard
Bifield was the minister at Stratford, and an extreme
Puritan, one who read the Psalter by Sternhold and Hop-

The church was at one time Catholic, but in John
Shakespeare's day it was Puritan, and in 1564, the year
of Shakespeare's birth, they had the images defaced. It
is greatly to the honor of John Shakespeare that he
refused to listen to the " tidings of great joy " as delivered
by the Puritan Bifield.

Nothing is known of his mother, except her beautiful
name Mary Arden. In those days but little attention
was given to the biographies of women. They were
born, married, had children, and died. No matter how
celebrated their sons became, the mothers were forgotten.
In old times, when a man achieved distinction, great pains
were taken to find out about the father and grandfather,
the idea being that genius is inherited from the father's
side. The truth is, that all great men have had great
mothers. Great women have had, as a rule, great fathers.

The mother of Shakespeare was, without doubt, one
of the greatest of women. She dowered her son with
passion and imagination and the higher qualities of the
soul, beyond all other men. It has been said, that a man
of genius should select his ancestors with great care ; and
yet there does not seem to be as much in heredity as
most people think. The children of the great are often
small. Pigmies are born in palaces, while over the chil-
dren of genius is the roof of straw. Most of the great
are like mountains, with the valley of ancestors on one
side and the depression of posterity on the other.

In his day Shakespeare was of no particular impor-
tance. It may be that his mother had some marvelous
and prophetic dreams, but Stratford was unconscious of
the immortal child. He was never engaged in a rep-
utable business. Socially he occupied a position below
servants. The law described him as "a sturdy vaga-
bond." He was neither a noble, a soldier, nor a priest.


Among the half-civilized people of England, he who
amused and instructed them was regarded as a menial.
Kings had their clowns, the people their actors and musi-
cians. Shakespeare was scheduled as a servant. It is
thus that successful stupidity has always treated genius.
Mozart was patronized by an archbishop lived in the
palace, but was compelled to eat with the scullions. The
composer of divine melodies was not fit to sit by the
side of the theologian, who long ago would have been
forgotten but for the fame of the composer.

We know but little of the personal peculiarities, of the
daily life, or of what may be called the outward Shake-
speare, and it may be fortunate that so little is known.
He might have been belittled by friendly fools. What
silly stories, what idiotic personal reminiscences, would
have been remembered by those who scarcely saw him!
We have his best, his sublimest; and we have probably
lost only the trivial and the worthless. All that is known
can be written on a page.

We are tolerably certain of the date of his birth, of his
marriage, and of his death. We think he went to London
in 1586, when he was twenty-two years old. We think
that three years afterwards he was part owner of Black-
friars' Theatre. We have a few signatures, some of
which are supposed to be genuine. We know that he
bought some land, that he had two or three law-suits.
We know the names of his children. We also know that
this incomparable man, so apart from, and so 'familiar
with, all the world, lived during his literary life in Lon-
don ; that he was an actor, dramatist, and manager ; that
he returned to Stratford, the place of his birth; that he
neglected his writings, deserted the children of his brain ;
that he died on the anniversary of his birth at the age
of fifty-two, and that he was buried in the church where
the images had been defaced, and that on his tomb was
chiseled a rude, absurd, and ignorant epitaph.

No letter of his to any human being has been found,
and no line written by him can be shown.

And here let me give my explanation of the epitaph.
Shakespeare was an actor a disreputable business but
he made money always reputable. He came back from
London a rich man. He bought land, and built houses.



Some of the supposed great probably treated him with
deference. When he died he was buried in the church.
Then came a reaction. The pious thought the church
had been profaned. They did not feel that the ashes of
an actor were fit to lie in holy ground. The people began
to say the body ought to be removed. Then it was, as
I believe, that Dr. John Hall, Shakespeare's son-in-law,
had this epitaph cut on the tomb :

" Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbeare
To digg the dust enclosed heare:
Blese be ye man yt spares thes stones,
And curst be he yt moves my bones."

Certainly Shakespeare could have had no fear that his
tomb would be violated. How could it have entered his
mind to have put a warning, a threat, and a blessing,
upon his grave? But the ignorant people of that day
were no doubt convinced that the epitaph was the voice
of the dead, and so feeling, they feared to invade the
tomb. In this way the dust was left in peace.

The epitaph gave me great trouble for years. It puz-
zled me to explain why he, who erected the intellectual
pyramids, should put such a pebble at his tomb. But
when I stood beside the grave and read the ignorant
words, the explanation I have given flashed upon me.

It has been said that Shakespeare was hardly men-
tioned by his contemporaries, and that he was substan-
tially unknown. This is a mistake. In 1600 a book was
published called " England's Parnassus," and it contained
ninety extracts from Shakespeare. In the same year
was published the " Garden of the Muses," containing
several pieces from Shakespeare, Chapman, Marston, and
Ben Jonson. " England's Helicon " was printed in the
same year, and contained poems from Spenser, Greene,
Harvey, and Shakespeare.

In 1600 a play was acted at Cambridge, in which
Shakespeare was alluded to as follows : " Why, here's our
fellow Shakespeare who puts them all down." John
Weaver published a book of poems in 1595, in which
there was a sonnet to Shakespeare. In 1598 Richard
Bamfield wrote a poem to Shakespeare. Francis Meres,


" clergyman, master of arts in both universities, compiler
of school-books," was the author of the " Wits' Treasury."
In this he compares the ancient and modern tragic poets,
and mentions Marlowe, Peel, Kyd, and Shakespeare. So
he compares the writers of comedies, and mentions Lilly,
Lodge, Greene, and Shakespeare. He speaks of elegiac
poets, and names Surrey, Wyatt, Sidney, Raleigh, and
Shakespeare. He compares the lyric poets, and names
Spencer, Drayton, Shakespeare, and others. This same
writer, speaking of Horace, says that England has Sidney,
Shakespeare, and others, and that " as the soul of Euphor-
bus was thought to live in Pythagoras, so the sweet-
wittie soul of Ovid lives in the mellifluous and honey-
tongued Shakespeare." He also says: "If the Muses
could speak English, they would speak in Shakespeare's
phrase." This was in 1598. In 1607, John Davies al-
ludes in a poem to Shakespeare.

Of course we are all familiar with what rare Ben Jon-
son wrote. Henry Chettle took Shakespeare to task
because he wrote nothing on the death of Queen Eliz-

It may be wonderful that he was not better known.
But is it not wonderful that he gained the reputation that
he did in so short a time, and that twelve years after
he began to write he stood at least with the first?

But there is a wonderful fact connected with the writ-
ings of Shakespeare : In the Plays there is no direct men-
tion of any of his contemporaries. We do not know of
any poet, author, soldier, sailor, statesman, priest, noble-
man, king, or queen, that Shakespeare directly mentioned.

Online LibraryThomas B. (Thomas Brackett) ReedModern eloquence; (Volume 5) → online text (page 21 of 38)