Thomas B. (Thomas Brackett) Reed.

Modern eloquence; (Volume 5) online

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in the increase of material comforts; but, unless we are


mistaken about our nature, they do not highly concern us
after all.

Once more : not only is there in men this baffling duality
of principle, but there is something else in us which still
more defies scientific analysis.

Mr. Buckle would deliver himself from the eccentrici-
ties of this and that individual by a doctrine of averages.
Though he cannot tell whether A, B, or C will cut his
throat, he may assure himself that one man in every fifty
thousand, or thereabout (I forget the exact proportion),
will cut his throat, and with this he consoles himself. No
doubt it is a comforting discovery. Unfortunately, the av-
erage of one generation need not be the average of the
next. We may be converted by the Japanese, for all that
we know, and the Japanese methods of taking leave of
life may become fashionable among us. Nay, did not
Novalis suggest that the whole race of men would at last
become so disgusted with their impotence, that they
would extinguish themselves by a simultaneous act of
suicide, and make room for a better order of beings?,
Anyhow, the fountain out of which the race is flowing
perpetually changes; no two generations are alike.
Whether there is a change in the organization itself we
cannot tell ; but this is certain, that, as the planet varies
with the atmosphere which surrounds it, so each new
generation varies from the last, because it inhales as its
atmosphere the accumulated experience and knowledge
of the whole past of the world. These things form the
spiritual air which we breathe as we grow; and, in the
infinite multiplicity of elements of which that air is now
composed, it is forever matter of conjecture what the
minds will be like which expand under its influence.

From the England of Fielding and Richardson to the
England of Miss Austen, from the England of Miss Aus-
ten to the England of Railways and Free Trade, how vast
the change ! Yet perhaps Sir Charles Grandison would
not seem so strange to us now as one of ourselves will
seem to our great-grandchildren. The world moves
faster and faster ; and the difference will probably be con-
siderably greater.

The temper of each new generation is a continual sur-
prise. The Fates delight to contradict our most confident


expectations. Gibbon believed that the era of conquerors
was at an end. Had he lived out the full life of man, he
would have seen Europe at the feet of Napoleon. But a
few years ago we believed the world had grown too civ-
ilized for war, and the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park was
to be the inauguration of a new era. Battles bloody as
Napoleon's are now the familiar tale of every day; and
the arts which have made greatest progress are the arts
of destruction. What next? We may strain our eyes
into the future which lies beyond this waning century;
but never was conjecture more at fault. It is blank dark-
ness, which even the imagination fails to people.

What, then, is the use of History, and what are its les-
sons ? If it can tell us little of the past, and nothing of
the future, why waste our time over so barren a study?

First it is a voice forever sounding across the centuries
the laws of right and wrong. Opinions alter, manners
change, creeds rise and fall, but the moral law is written
on the tablets of eternity. For every false word or un-
righteous deed, for cruelty and oppression, for lust or
vanity, the price has to be paid at last ; not always by the
chief offenders, but paid by some one. Justice and truth
alone endure and live. Injustice and falsehood may be
long-lived, but doomsday comes at last to them, in
French revolutions and other terrible ways.

That is one lesson of history. Another is, that we
should draw no horoscopes ; that we should expect little,
for what we expect will not come to pass. Revolutions,
reformations, those vast movements into which heroes
and saints have flung themselves, in the belief that they
were the dawn of the millennium, have not borne the
fruit which they looked for. Millenniums are still far
away. These great convulsions leave the world changed
perhaps improved, but not improved as the actors in
them hoped it would be. Luther would have gone to
work with less heart, could he have foreseen the Thirty
Years' War, and in the distance the theology of Tubin-
gen. Washington might have hesitated to draw the
sword against England, could he have seen the country
which he made as we see it now. [1864.]

The most reasonable anticipations fail us, antecedents


the most apposite mislead us, because the conditions of
human problems never repeat themselves. Some new fea-
ture alters everything, some element which we detect
only in its after-operation.

But this, it may be said, is but a meagre outcome. Can
the long records of humanity, with all its joys and sor-
rows, its sufferings and its conquests, teach us no more
than this? Let us approach the subject from another

If you were asked to point out the special features in
which Shakespeare's plays are so transcendently excel-
lent, you would mention perhaps, among others, this
that his stories are not put together, and his characters
are not conceived, to illustrate any particular law or prin-
ciple. They teach many lessons, but not any one promi-
nent above another ; and, when we have drawn from them
all the direct instruction which they contain, there re-
mains still something unresolved, something which the
artist gives, and which the philosopher cannot give.

It is in this characteristic that we are accustomed to
say Shakespeare's supreme truth lies. He represents real
life. His dramas teach as life teaches, neither less nor
more. He builds his fabrics, as Nature does, on right
and wrong; but he does not struggle to make Nature
more systematic than she is. In the subtle interflow of
good and evil ; in the unmerited sufferings of innocence ;
in the disproportion of penalties to desert; in the seem-
ing blindness with which justice, in attempting to assert
itself, overwhelms innocent and guilty in a common ruin
Shakespeare is true to real experience. The mystery
of life he leaves as he finds it; and, in his most tremen-
dous positions, he is addressing rather the intellectual
emotions than the understanding, knowing well that the
understanding in such things is at fault, and the sage as
ignorant as the child.

Only the highest order of genius can represent Na-
ture thus. An inferior artist produces either something
entirely immoral, where good and evil are names, and
nobility of disposition is supposed to show itself in the
absolute disregard of them, or else, if he is a better kind
of man, he will force on Nature a didactic purpose; he



composes what are called moral tales, which may edify
the conscience, but only mislead the intellect.

The finest work of this kind produced in modern times
is Lessing's play of " Nathan the Wise." The object of it
is to teach religious toleration. The doctrine is admir-
able, the mode in which it is enforced is interesting ; but
it has the fatal fault that it is not true. Nature does not
teach religious toleration by any such direct method ; and
the result is no one knew it better than Lessing him-
self that the play is not poetry, but only splendid manu-
facture. Shakespeare is eternal ; Lessing's " Nathan "
will pass away with the mode of thought which gave it
birth. One is based on fact ; the other, on human theory
about fact. The theory seems at first sight to contain
the most immediate instruction; but it is not really so.

Gibber and others, as you know, wanted to alter
Shakespeare. The French King, in " Lear," was to be
got rid of; Cordelia was to marry Edgar, and Lear him-
self was to be rewarded for his sufferings by a golden
old age. They could not bear that Hamlet should suffer
for the sins of Claudius. The wicked king was to die,
and the wicked mother; and Hamlet and Ophelia were
to make a match of it, and live happily ever after. A
common novelist would have arranged it thus; and you
would have had your comfortable moral that wickedness
was fitly punished, and virtue had its due reward, and all
would have been well. But Shakespeare would not have
it so. Shakespeare knew that crime was not so simple in
its consequences, or Providence so paternal. He was
contented to take the truth from life ; and the effect upon
the mind of the most correct theory of what life ought to
be, compared to the effect of the life itself, is infinitesimal
in comparison.

Again, let us compare the popular historical treatment
of remarkable incidents with Shakespeare's treatment of
them. Look at " Macbeth." You may derive abundant
instruction from it, instruction of many kinds. There
is a moral lesson of profound interest in the steps by
which a noble nature glides to perdition. In more mod-
ern fashion you may speculate, if you like, on the political
conditions represented there, and the temptation pre-
sented in absolute monarchies to unscrupulous ambition ;


you may say, like Doctor Slop, these things could not
have happened under a constitutional government: or,
again, you may take up your parable against superstition ;
you may dilate on the frightful consequences of a belief
in witches, and reflect on the superior advantages of an
age of schools and newspapers. If the bare facts of the
story had come down to us from a chronicler, and an
ordinary writer of the Nineteenth century had under-
taken to relate them, his account, we may depend upon
it, would have been put together upon one or other of
these principles. Yet, by the side of that unfolding of
the secrets of the prison-house of the soul, what lean and
shriveled anatomies the best of such descriptions would

Shakespeare himself, I suppose, could not have given
us a theory of what he meant ; he gave us the thing itself,
on which we might make whatever theories we pleased.

Or, again, look at Homer.

The Iliad is from two to three thousand years older
than " Macbeth," and yet it is as fresh as if it had been
written yesterday. We have there no lesson save in the
emotions which rise in us as we read. Homer had no
philosophy ; he never struggles to press upon us his views
about this or that ; you can scarcely tell, indeed, whether
his sympathies are Greek or Trojan : but he represents to
us faithfully the men and women among whom he lived.
He sang the tale of Troy, he touched his lyre, he drained
the golden beaker in the halls of men like those on whom
he was conferring immortality. And thus, although no
Agamemnon, king of men, ever led a Grecian fleet to
Ilium; though no Priam sought the midnight tent of
Achilles; though Ulysses and Diomed and Nestor were
but names, and Helen but a dream, yet, through Homer's
power of representing men and women, those old Greeks
will still stand out from amidst the darkness of the an-
cient world with a sharpness of outline which belongs to
no period of history except the most recent. For the
mere hard purposes of history, the Iliad and Odys-
sey are the most effective books which ever were writ-
ten. We see the hall of Menelaus, we see the garden of
Alcinous, we see Nausicaa among her maidens on the
shore, we see the mellow monarch sitting with ivory seep-



tre in the market-place dealing out genial justice. Or,
again, when the wild mood is on, we can hear the crash of
the spears, the rattle of the armor as the heroes fall, and
the plunging of the horses among the slain. Could we
enter the palace of an old Ionian lord, we know what we
should see there ; we know the words in which he would
address us. We could meet Hector as a friend. If we
could choose a companion to spend an evening with over
a fireside, it would be the man of many counsels, the hus-
band of Penelope.

I am not going into the vexed question whether His-
tory or Poetry is the more true. It has been sometimes
said that Poetry is the more true, because it can make
things more like what our moral sense would prefer they
should be. We hear of poetic justice and the like, as if
nature and fact were not just enough.

I entirely dissent from that view. So far as Poetry at-
tempts to improve on truth in that way, so far it aban-
dons truth, and is false to itself. Even literal facts,
exactly as they were, a great poet will prefer whenever
he can get them. Shakespeare in the historical plays is
studious, wherever possible, to give the very words which
he finds to have been used; and it shows how wisely he
was guided in this, that those magnificent speeches of
Wolsey are taken exactly, with no more change than the
metre makes necessary, from Cavendish's Life. Marl-
borough read Shakespeare for English history, and read
nothing else. The poet only is not bound, when it is
inconvenient, to what may be called the accidents of
facts. It was enough for Shakespeare to know that
Prince Hal in his youth had lived among loose compan-
ions, and the tavern in Eastcheap came in to fill out his
picture; although Mrs. Quickly and Falstaff, and Poins
and Bardolph, were more likely to have been fallen in
with by Shakespeare himself at the Mermaid, than to
have been comrades of the true Prince Henry. It was
enough for Shakespeare to draw real men, and the situa-
tion, whatever it might be, would sit easy on them. In
this sense only it is that Poetry is truer than History,
that it can make a picture more complete. It may take
liberties with time and space, and give the action distinct-


ness by throwing it into more manageable compass. But
it may not alter the real conditions of things, or repre-
sent life as other than it is. The greatness of the poet
depends on his being true to Nature, without insisting
that Nature shall theorize with him, without making her
more just, more philosophical, more moral than reality ;
and, in difficult matters, leaving much to reflection which
cannot be explained.

And if this be true of Poetry if Homer and Shakes-
peare are what they are from the absence of everything
didactic about them may we not thus learn something
of what History should be, and in what sense it should
aspire to teach?

If Poetry must not theorize, much less should the his-
torian theorize, whose obligations to be true to fact are
even greater than the poet's. If the drama is grandest
when the action is least explicable by laws, because then
it best resembles life, then history will be grandest also
under the same conditions. " Macbeth," were it literally
true, would be perfect history ; and so far as the historian
can approach to that kind of model, so far as he can let
his story tell itself in the deeds and words of those who
act it out, so far is he most successful. His work is no
longer the vapor of his own brain, which a breath will
scatter; it is the thing itself, which will have interest for
all time. A thousand theories may be formed about it,
spiritual theories, Pantheistic theories, cause and effect
theories; but each age will have its own philosophy of
history, and all these in turn will fail and die. Hegel falls
out of date, Schlegel falls out of date, and Comte in good
time will fall out of date ; the thought about the thing
must change as we change : but the thing itself can never
change; and a history is durable or perishable as it con-
tains more or least of the writer's own speculations. The
splendid intellect of Gibbon for the most part kept him
true to the right course in this; yet the philosophical
chapters for which he has been most admired or censured
may hereafter be thought the least interesting in his
work. The time has been when they would not have
been comprehended: the time may come when they will
seem commonplace.


It may be said, that, in requiring history to be written
like a drama, we require an impossibility.

For history to be written with the complete form of a
drama, doubtless is impossible ; but there are periods, and
these the periods, for the most part, of greatest interest to
mankind, the history of which may be so written that the
actors shall reveal their characters in their own words;
where mind can be seen matched against mind, and the
great passions of the epoch not simply be described as
existing, but be exhibited at their white heat in the souls
and hearts possessed by them. There are all the elements
of drama drama of the highest order where the huge
forces of the times are as the Grecian destiny, and the
power of the man is seen either stemming the stream till
it overwhelms him, or ruling while he seems to yield to it.

It is Nature's drama not Shakespeare's, but a drama
none the less.

So at least it seems to me. Wherever possible, let us
not be told about this man or that. Let us hear the man
himself speak, let us see him act, and let us be left to
form our own opinions about him. The historian, we are
told, must not leave his readers to themselves. He must
not only lay the facts before them : he must tell them
what he himself thinks about those facts. In my opinion
this is precisely what he ought not to do. Bishop Butler
says somewhere, that the best book which could be writ-
ten would be a book consisting only of premises, from
which the readers should draw conclusions for them-
selves. The highest poetry is the very thing which But-
ler requires, and the highest history ought to be. We
should no more ask for a theory of this or that period of
history, than we should ask for a theory of " Macbeth " or
" Hamlet." Philosophies of history, sciences of history,
all these there will continue to be : the fashions of them
will change, as our habits of thought will change ; each
new philosopher will find his chief employment in show-
ing that before him no one understood anything; but the
drama of history is imperishable, and the lessons of it
will be like what we learn from Homer or Shakespeare,
lessons for which we have no words.

The address of history is less to the understanding than


to the higher emotions. We learn in it to sympathize
with what is great and good; we learn to hate what is
base. In the anomalies of fortune we feel the mystery of
our mortal existence; and in the companionship of the
illustrious natures who have shaped the fortunes of the
world, we escape from the littlenesses which cling to the
round of common life, and our minds are tuned in a
higher and nobler key.

For the rest, and for those large questions which I
touched in connection with Mr. Buckle, we live in times
of disintegration, and none can tell what will be after us.
What opinions, what convictions, the infant of to-day will
find prevailing on the earth, if he and it live out together
to the middle of another century, only a very bold man
would undertake to conjecture. " The time will come,"
said Lichtenberg, in scorn at the materializing tenden-
cies of modern thought, " the time will come when the
belief in God will be as the tales with which old women
frighten children ; when the world will be a machine, the
ether a gas, and God will be a force." Mankind, if they
last long enough on the earth, may develop strange things
out of themselves; and the growth of what is called the
Positive Philosophy is a curious commentary on Lichten-
berg's prophecy. But whether the end be seventy years
hence, or seven hundred, be the close of the mortal his-
tory of humanity as far distant in the future as its shad-
owy beginnings seem now to lie behind us, this only we
may foretell with confidence, that the riddle of man's
nature will remain unsolved. There will be that in him
yet which physical laws will fail to explain, that some-
thing, whatever it be, in himself and in the world, which
science cannot fathom, and which suggests the unknown
possibilities of his origin and his destiny. There will re-
main yet,

" Those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things ;
Falling from us, vanishings ;
Blank misgivings of a creature
Moving about in worlds not realized;
High instincts, before which our mortal nature
Doth tremble like a guilty thing surprised."

There will remain,

" Those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet the master-light of all our seeing,
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the Eternal Silence."


Photogravure after an engraving



[Lecture by General John B. Gordon, lawyer, soldier, senator, gov-
ernor (born in Upson County, Georgia, February 6, 1832 ; ), de-
livered with marked effect before large audiences in various parts of
the country. This report is of the discourse as given in Brooklyn,
New York, February 7, 1901. The speaker was introduced by a former
soldier of the Union army in the Civil War Henry W. Knight.]

to deliver a series of lectures you will credit me, I trust,
with being influenced in part, at least, by other and higher
aims than mere personal considerations. If, from the
standpoint of a Southern soldier, I could suggest certain
beneficent results of our sectional war ; or if, as the Com-
rade and Friend of Lee, I could add any new facts illus-
trative of the character of Grant; or lastly, if I could aid
in lifting to a higher plane the popular estimate placed by
victors and vanquished upon their countrymen of the op-
posing section and thus strengthen the sentiment of na-
tional fraternity as an essential element of national unity,
I should in either event secure an abundant reward.

Let me say before beginning my lecture that although
you are to listen to-night to a Southern man, a Southern
soldier, yet I beg you to believe that he is as true as any
man to this Republic's flag and to all that it truly
represents. [Applause.]

In selecting as my theme " The Last Days of the Con-
federacy," it is not my purpose to analyze the causes of
its decline, nor attempt descriptions of the great battles
which preceded its overthrow. I propose to speak of
those less grave but scarcely less important phases or in-

Copyrlght, 1901, by J. B. Gordon.


cidents of the war which illustrate the spirit and character
of the American soldier and people.

Gettysburg and Appomattox fix the boundaries of the
Confederacy's decline and death. At Gettysburg its sun
reached its zenith, and passed its meridian ; at Appomattox
it went down forever. Gettysburg, therefore, is the turn-
ing point, the dividing line between the aspiring and the
expiring Confederate States of America.

Among the interesting questions suggested by the bat-
tle of Gettysburg is the inquiry into the reasons or mo-
tives of Southern invasion of Northern soil. In this day
of peace and plenty it is difficult to realize the force of
some of the reasons I am about to mention.

We were hungry, and as we stood on the heights of
our Southern Pisgah on the Potomac's shore,

" And viewed the landscape o'er,"

we beheld the valleys of Pennsylvania, fair, fertile, and
grain-clad, stretching out in inviting panorama before us.
Only the Potomac, like Jordan of old, " rolled between "
us and that " land of promise." To " cross over and pos-
sess it," therefore, seemed the dictate both of military
strategy and of empty stomachs.

But there was another reason for crossing. Social reci-
procity demanded it. We owed our Northern cousins a
large number of visits, and chivalric Southrons could not
ignore such obligations. We had endeavored to cancel a
part of the social debt by a visit to Maryland the summer
before; but the reception accorded us by McClellan and
his men at Antietam, or Sharpsburg, as we call it, while
very hearty, did not encourage us to stay long. We con-
cluded to postpone our visit further North till a more
convenient season. That season seemed to arrive in
'63, and we decided this time to test Pennsylvania's hospi-
tality. Therefore for the reasons given, and for the ad-
ditional reason that we desired closer communication with
our Northern kinspeople in order more effectually to per-
suade them to take General Scott's or Horace Greeley's
advice, and "let the wayward Southern sisters depart in
peace," and with appetites whetted to keenest relish for
Pennsylvania's ripened wheat an'd fatted cattle, we rapidly


Online LibraryThomas B. (Thomas Brackett) ReedModern eloquence; (Volume 5) → online text (page 7 of 38)