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Thomas B. (Thomas Brackett) Reed.

Modern eloquence; (Volume 5) online

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Maurice, and Stopford Brooke are never idle. They scorn
> to furl their sails and ride at anchor in the sluggish bays
of extinct thought, but are ever busy in the great thor-
oughfares of life, casting out those devils of intolerance,
superstition and hypocrisy. [Applause.] Who doesn't
like to see a minister fully master of the situation from
an earnest desire to serve the great cause in which he is
enlisted? Robert Collyer told me the other day of a big-
hearted, big-fisted old clergyman in Yorkshire who was
so determined to convert the wild wicked dwellers on the
moors; that when they refused to come into church on
Sunday, he would rush out of his pulpit spring into a
crowd of cock-fighters outside the chapel, knock some



42 g JAMES THOMAS FIELDS

of them down with his brawny fist, collar them, drag them
in, and then administer Gospel truths right and left to
the rascals. [Laughter and applause.]

Conceit kills many a man who is perhaps on the high
road to mastery. "The sun rises in the East where I
live," said a popular orator from Boston once. "Yes,"
said a bystander from the West, " but he doesn't stay there
long!" [Laughter.] There are men who never pro-
nounce their own names without involuntarily taking off
their hats, so profound is their self-admiration ; and all of
us have known persons who felt that if they had been con-
sulted prior to placing Adam on the old homestead, they
could have added something to human nature which
would have greatly improved it. [Continued laughter.]
Complaining people, people who are in a state of normal
dissatisfaction with the universe generally, do not often
master the situation. The wrong side of the tapestry of
life is never the most beautiful or encouraging one.

There are men who fail of mastery in the world from
too low an estimate of human nature, and there are others
who slip up on the way to eminence from too great a
reverence for upper-standing, and too little for under-
standing. Such men would if possible, make a close cor-
poration of the air of heaven, and only sell stock to people
who have an income of not less than $50,000 a year.
[Laughter and applause.] " Despise nothing, my son!"
was the advice a wise mother gave to her boy when he
went forth into the untried world to seek his fortune, and
that boy grew up into Sir Walter Scott. [Applause.]

All great leaders have been inspired with a great be-
lief. In nine cases out of ten, failure is born of unbelief.
Tennyson sings, " Faith and unfaith can ne'er be equal
powers." To be a great leader and so always master of
the situation, one must of necessity have been a great
thinker in action. An eagle was never yet hatched from
a goose's egg. Dante speaks in bitter sarcasm of Branca
d'Oria, whom he placed among the dead, when he says,
" He still eats and sleeps and puts on clothes." In a case
of great emergency it took a certain general in our army
several days to get his personal baggage ready. Sheri-
dan rode into Winchester without even a change of stock-
ings in his saddle-bags. [Applause.]



MASTERS OF THE SITUATION 429

When the Lords of the Admiralty, in a case of pressing
need, asked Sir Charles Napier, in London, when he
would be ready to start for India, he replied : " In half an
hour, gentlemen, if necessary." Insight, foresight and
knowledge are what the world demands in great leaders
men who have the power to transmute calamity into
greatness. To a real commander nothing exists which
cannot be overcome. " Monsieur," said Mirabeau's secre-
tary to him one day, " what you require is impossible."
"Impossible?" cried Mirabeau, starting from his chair,
" never name to me again that blockhead of a word."

One of the ancients said that an army of stags with a
lion for their commander was more formidable than an
army of lions led by a stag. There are men who will
pluck the very spear out of their wounds and turn round
and slay their adversaries with the same weapon ; and you
will never find such men as these sending home the cow-
ardly despatch of a French Marshal : " We have met the
enemy, and we are theirs." So long as Epaminondas was
their general, the Theban army never had a panic. It is
the part of a really competent leader to turn disaster into
conquest. When a soldier ran crying to Pelopidas, "We
are fallen among the enemies, and are lost ! " " How are
we fallen among them any more than they among us?"
replied the undaunted spirit. And when the soldiers of
Marius complained of thirst, being encamped where there
was no water, he pointed to a river running close to the
enemy's trenches, and bade them take the drink which
valor could give them in that direction. A gallant young
officer who fought in the Wilderness told me the other
day, that there was always such encouragement in his,
general's demeanor when he went into battle that the
most desponding took fire from him and went in for vic-
tory on the first onset, because they knew that General
Grant never made up his mind to be beaten anywhere.
[Applause.] They who achieve great victories have first
learned how to conquer, and opinions that have life in
them will almost always come to the front. The first Na-
poleon seemed to have been born with ideas but he was
never idle for a moment after he started on his stupen-
dous career. He said : " If I appear always ready to reply
to every question, to face all things, it is because before



430 JAMES THOMAS FIELDS

undertaking anything, I have long thought of it, and have
long foreseen what may come. There is no genius who
recalls to me all at once in secret what I have to say or do
under circumstances unexpected by others; it is done by
reflection and by meditation."

If ever a man was supreme master of the situation, with
a heart that strengthened his understanding, it was assur-
edly Washington. No one knew him better at all points
intimately and thoroughly, than Thomas Jefferson, and
we have his estimate of our first President, written in a
letter to Walter Jones, in 1814: "His mind was great
and powerful, without being of the very first order, as that
of Newton or Bacon or Locke, and as far as he saw no
judgment was sounder. It was slow in operation, sure in
conclusion. He was incapable of fear, meeting personal
danger with the calmest unconcern. Perhaps the strong-
est feature in his character was prudence, never acting
until every circumstance every consideration was ma-
turely weighe/i, and when once decided going through
with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed. His in-
tegrity was most pure, and his justice the most inflexible
I have ever known."

I suppose if any man was ever master of the situation,
from his boundless knowledge, abundant language, in-
stantaneous apprehension and undaunted speech, it was
Edmund Burke. The vastness of his attainments and the
immensity of his varied powers startled his great contem-
poraries into admiration. Somebody once asked Dr.
Johnson whether he did not think Burke resembled
Cicero. " No, sir," growled Johnson, " Cicero resembled
Burke!" Goldsmith and Windham and Pitt, among
others, have left on record eloquent testimony to the
superiority of Burke's genius, and the striking fact that
he was the best informed man of his time. Did this great
statesman lounge carelessly into all this reputation, and
rely on his genius solely to bring him into Parliament, to
continue that long and brilliant career which is part of
English history? Never for a moment did he trust to his
genius. See him at the top of his high fame, elaborating
every speech, every sentence he wrote with the most
studious and exhaustive care. He would have twelve dif-
ferent proofs of his " Reflections on the French Reyolu-



MASTERS OF THE SITUATION



431



tion " before he would allow it to go to press, and even
then he watched every page with a vigilant eye, as if his
very existence depended on faultless accuracy of state-
ment and style.

When the quality most needed in a Prime Minister
who should be fully master of the situation, was the sub-
ject of conversation in the presence of Mr. Pitt, one of the
speakers said it was eloquence, another said it was knowl-
edge a third said it was toil. " No," said Pitt, " it is
patience." And patience is undoubtedly a prime quality
of mastery in any situation. Those were good lines which
the good Santa Teresa of Spain put into verse centuries
ago :

" Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee;
All things are passing;
God never changeth;
Patient endurance
Attaineth to, all things."

There is an apprenticeship to difficulty, also, which is
better for excellence sometimes than years of ease and
comfort. A great musician once said of a promising but
passionless young singer who was being educated for the
stage : " She sings well, but she lacks something which is
everything. If she were married to a tyrant who would
maltreat her and break her heart, in six months she would
be the greatest singer in Europe." It was the poverty of
Cervantes, which gave to the world the riches of " Don
Quixote " ; and if Washington Irving had been successful
in business and not crossed in love, we might never have
had " The Sketch-Book " and " Knickerbocker's History
of New York," books that were born, as it were, out of
adversity and suffering. It is necessity sometimes that
teaches and compels. We are told that a dumb man, see-
ing the knife of an assassin at his father's throat, sud-
denly acquired speech.

Preparation is a leading quality of mastery. Michel-
angelo, when an old man, said : " I carry my satchel
still ! " indicating that his life was a perpetual study and
preparation. The men who step from peak to peak, like
gods, have first stumbled, perhaps, over the very rudi-



432 JAMES THOMAS FIELDS

ments of climbing. What makes the Adamses always in
demand when great questions of national interest come up
for settlement? It is because it has always been the habit
of the family to study matters of diplomacy and the rules
of statesmanship. They have got the knack of work in
their very bones, and they dig into a subject of national
importance with the strength that comes of energetic and
intelligent action, and a pickaxe welded of iron will.
Whatever else we may accuse them of, the lack of perse-
verance has never been alleged against one of that family.

I once met a veteran sailor, one of the old Hull and
Decatur breed, who had been to sea forty years, and he
told me he had never known a mutiny on board ship
where the captain had risen from before the mast, imply-
ing that such an officer had acquired experience, and
knew how to manage men as well as vessels.

The president of the London Alpine Club said no man
was ever lost on the Alps who had properly prepared him-
self and knew how to ascend them, and when I quoted
to him the list of guides who had fallen into crevices and
been killed, he quoted back to me a certain passage of
Scripture wherein the fate of blind guides and those they
lead is set forth in unmistakable terms. " Choose for
your guides," said he, " the hardy men who have learned
their business thoroughly; who have been chamois hunt-
ers from their youth ; who have lived on these mountains
from their birth, and to whom these snows and these
rocks and the clouds speak a language which they can
understand and then accidents are impossible."

Great efforts upon the stage are produced only by great
preparation. When Charlotte Cushman plays the part of
Meg Merrilies, and Jefferson enacts the character of
Rip Van Winkle, and Sothern produces Dundreary,
our delight and satisfaction are the result of a profound
and untiring application of the actor to the study of the
art, and no man or woman can hold audiences for a life-
time without that preparation which great artists always
give to great conceptions. There was once an English
actor so terribly in earnest with the study of his profession
that he made a mark on his generation never exceeded by
any other tragedian. He was a little, dark man, with a
voice naturally harsh, but he determined when compara-



MASTERS OF THE SITUATION 433

lively young, to play the character of Sir Giles Over-
reach in Massinger's drama as no other man ever played
it before. He resolved to give years of indefatigable in-
dustry in preparing himself for the part, and to devote
his whole intellect to a proper conception of the character.
In the whole range of English dramatic literature the
character of Sir Giles is estimated one of the greatest
pieces of effective villainy and untamable passion ever
portrayed, and little Edmund Kean set to himself the task
of producing on the London stage all the effect which the
author intended. With what intensity he studied the lan-
guage, how he flung himself with a kind of rage into the
feeling of the piece, all his biographers have recorded.
His wife said that he would often remain up all night be-
fore the pier-glass, endeavoring to realize by gesture,
modulation, and action, the conception at which he had
arrived.

At last, after repeated refusals to the management to
appear as Sir Giles, saying he was not ready yet, and
must still give more time to the rehearsal, he consented
to have the play announced, as now he felt he could do it
justice. And what was the effect of all this hard work
and unceasing study of the part? Fortunately we know
all about it, although Kean played it on that memorable
evening more than fifty years ago. It was one of the
grandest effects ever witnessed on the English stage. We
have accounts from various eye-witnesses of the sensation
and the enthusiasm the presentation of this character pro-
duced, when Kean, fully ripe for the occasion, came upon
the stage as Sir Giles ; and some of the triumphs of that
wonderful evening in 1816, at Drury Lane, are well
known. It was observed that when he first walked in from
the wings there was that in his burning eye which betok-
ened greater determination than usual, and Lord Byron,
who was in a stage-box, whispered to the poet Moore,
that something dreadful was written on the great actor's
countenance, something more suggestive of power even
than he had ever noticed before. And never till then, in
the history of the stage, was there witnessed such an
exhibition of forceful endeavor. Throughout the whole
play Kean bore himself like a fury; but it was reserved
for the last scene to stamp an impression which existed



434 JAMES THOMAS FIELDS

during the lifetime of all who were present. The great
actor himself shook like a strong oak in the whirlwind of
his passionate vengeance, as displayed in the closing sen-
tences of the play, and when he was removed from the
stage, his face, turned to the spectators, was so awful that
Byron was seized with a convulsive fit and fell forward
pale as death itself. The solemn stillness of the house was
broken by screams of terror from boxes and gallery ; the
pit rose en masse. Mrs. Glover, an actress of long experi-
ence, and great talent, fainted outright on the stage ; Mrs.
Horn, who was also playing in the piece, staggered to a
chair and wept aloud at the appalling sight of Kean's
agony and rage. Munclen, a veteran on the boards, who
played the part of Marall, stood so transfixed with aston-
ishment and terror that he had to be carried off by main
force from the scene, his eyes riveted on Kean's convulsed
and awful countenance. The actor that night was master
of the situation, and profound and earnest study gave him
the clue to his great achievement. [Applause.]

There have been masters of the situation who have
made a sudden leap into the arena of fame from low and
often from unknown origins, but there has always been
some preparation for a career thus distinguished. A man
may start suddenly from his tannery or his bench to win a
victory which may be imperishable. It is never in good
taste to slight any man on account of a former occupa-
tion. Said a Grecian warrior, son of a shoemaker, to one
who reviled him because of his mean birth : " My nobility
begins in me, but yours ends in you!" And one of our
own poets sings in this wise :

" If the rose were born a lily and by force
Of art and eagerness for light grew tall and fair,
It were a true type of the first fiery soul,
That makes a low name honorable ;
They who take it by inheritance alone,
Adding no brightness to it, are like stars,
Seen in the ocean, that were never there,
But for their bright originals in heaven."

A general who rose from the ranks in our army, told
me, not boastingly, that all he inherited from his father, in
Vermont, was a pair of second-hand trousers, a sealskin



MASTERS OF THE SITUATION



435



cap, and a tendency to rheumatism. [Laughter.] The
Spartans gave their cooks only vinegar and salt and com-
manded them to look for the rest of their sauce in the
meats they were to serve.

Modern luxury is an almost insurmountable bar to
modern mastery. " A too rich diet," said an old writer on
morals, " hinders the gallantry of the soul." Let us not
forget that luxury and ease have never been conducive to
liberty. It was the same Augustus who boasted that he
found Rome of brick and left it of marble, who also found
Rome free and left her a slave. Stretched on the rack of a
too easy chair, one man will let a great occasion go by and
lose in sleep the very birthright of his soul, while another,
encompassed round by want and woe, will leap from his
pallet of straw and go forth like Peter the Hermit to fire
the age with enthusiasm. [Applause.]

Too much preparation is sometimes as fatal in results
as too little. Too much light is as blinding as too much
darkness. And when I see a morning procession of pallid
schoolboys staggering to school under a load of text-
books almost too heavy to be held together by the strap
that encircles them, or a bevy of young girls, bound on the
same educational errand, more pallid and more exhausted
by the eight or ten pounds of torture in the shape of
grammars, dictionaries, geographies, arithmetics, geom-
etries, and philosophies, they too tug along the streets,
I wish their piles of knowledge might be reduced one-
half, for I cannot but feel that with fewer books there
would be more culture, that too many studies produce too
little scholarship, and that the intellect which is forced
will rarely be expanded. [Applause.]

Attention is a prime requisite where mastery of the sit-
uation is to be acquired. No one, I suppose, will accuse
me of over-statement if I call Charles Dickens a man of
genius. Genius is a big word. Next to the supremest
names, it is the largest word in the dictionary. The popu-
lar idea of a man of genius is a very vague and oftentimes
a very foolish one. He is commonly supposed to be able
at any moment, without previous study or preparation of
any kind, to write a poem, an oration, a history, an essay,
or a novel in three volumes, as the case may be. Hear, if
you please, testimony on the other side. Dickens said:



436 JAMES THOMAS FIELDS

" My own invention or imagination, such as it is, I can
most truthfully assure you, would never have served me as
it has, but for the habit of commonplace, humble, patient,
daily, toiling, drudging attention. The one serviceable,
safe, certain, remunerative, attainable quality in every
study and in every pursuit is the quality of attention.
Genius, vivacity, quickness of penetration, brilliancy in
association of ideas, will not always be commanded, but
attention, after due term of submissive service, always
will. Like certain plants which the poorest peasant may
grow in the poorest soil, it may be cultivated by any one,
and it is certain, in its own good season to bring forth
flower and fruit."

This eulogium on attention, spoken out of his own
abundant experience, is quite worthy to be hung up in
golden letters on the walls of every school-house and col-
lege in the land. Dickens's sense of responsibility to the
public that had given him their homage was a marked
peculiarity. During his readings in America, although he
had the experience of thirteen years in those wonderful
performances, he never came before his audience without
a fresh preparation of hours over every piece he was to
read. He studied every point he was to make with the
anxiety of a novice.

In one of his novels, which we know to be the most
autobiographical of all his stories, the author drops this
admirable lesson like a jewel before his reader. I have
his distinct authority for saying it is a record of his own
perseverance as a young man. He says, speaking through
the medium of his hero : " I have been very fortunate in
worldly matters; many men have worked much harder,
and not succeeded half so well; but I never could have
done what I have done without the habits of punctuality,
order, and diligence; without the determination to con-
.centrate myself on one object at a time, no matter how
quickly its successor should come upon its heels, which I
then formed. My meaning simply is, that whatever I have
tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do well ;
that whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted
myself to completely ; that, in great aims and in small, I
have always been thoroughly in earnest. I have never be-
lieved it possible that any natural or improved ability can



437

claim immunity from the companionship of the steady,
plain, hard-working qualities, and hope to gain its end.
There is no such thing as such fulfillment on this earth.
Some happy talent and some fortunate opportunity may
form the two sides of the ladder on which some men
mount, but the rounds of that ladder must be made of
stuff to stand wear and tear, and there is no substitute for
thorough-going, ardent, and sincere earnestness. Never
to put one hand to anything on which I could throw my
whole self, and never to affect depreciation of my work,
whatever it was, I find now to have been my golden rule."

When Rubinstein, the great pianist, the greatest per-
haps in the annals of music, was asked a few days ago,
how he managed to produce such amazing effects when
he played the " Erl Kmg," he replied, as if surprised at
the question, " It is only by stoody."

There is a faith so expansive and a hope so elastic that
a man having them will keep on believing and hoping
till all danger is passed and victory is sure. When I talk
across an ocean of 3,000 miles, with my friends on the
other side of it, and feel that I may know any hour of the
day if all goes well with them, I think with gratitude of
the immense energy and perseverance of that one man,
Cyrus W. Field, who spent so many years of his life in
perfecting a communication second only in importance to
the discovery of this country. The story of his patient
striving during all that stormy period is one of the noblest
records of American enterprise, and only his own family
know the whole of it. It was a long, hard struggle!
Thirteen years of anxious watching and ceaseless toil!
Think what that enthusiast accomplished by his untiring
energy. He made fifty voyages across the Atlantic, and
when everything looked darkest for his enterprise, his
courage never flagged for an instant. He must have suf-
fered privations and dangers manifold. Think of him, in
those gloomy periods pacing the decks of ships on dark,
stormy nights in mid-ocean, or wandering in the desolate
forests of Newfoundland in pelting rains, comfortless and
forlorn. I saw him in 1858, immediately after the first
cable had ceased to throb. Public excitement had grown
wild over the mysterious working of those flashing wires,
and when they stopped speaking, the reaction was intense.



438 JAMES tHOMAS FIEL)S

Stockholders, as well as the public, generally grew exas-
perated and suspicious ; unbelievers sneered at the whole
project, and called the telegraph a hoax from the begin-
ning. They declared that never a message had passed
through the unresponsive wires, and that Cyrus Field was
a liar ! The odium cast upon him was boundless. He was
the butt and the by-word of his time.

It was at this moment I saw him, and I well remember
how cowardly I acted and how courageously he appeared !
I scarcely dared to face the man who had encountered
such an overwhelming disappointment and who was suf-
fering such a terrible disgrace. But when we met and I
saw how he rose to the occasion, and did not abate one jot
of heart or hope, I felt that this man was indeed master
of the situation, and would yet silence the host of doubters
who were thrusting their darts into his sensitive spirit.
[Applause.] Eight years more he encountered the odium



Online LibraryThomas B. (Thomas Brackett) ReedModern eloquence; (Volume 5) → online text (page 4 of 38)