The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 01, No. 05, March, 1858 online

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one of the most skilful in the use of those unworthy arts which have
brought the pursuit of politics into disrepute; but we doubt whether
he could have succeeded upon the broader field of the present day.
Perfectly competent to manage a single city, he would have failed in an
attempt to govern a party. His talents were well defined by Jefferson,
who spoke of him as a great man in little things, and a small man in
great things.

One of the qualities most frequently attributed to Burr is fortitude;
upon this characteristic his biographer frequently dwells. And
indeed, when one reads of the misfortunes which came upon him, - the
disappointments which he encountered, - his poverty abroad, - his terrible
afflictions, and dreary old age, - and how gallantly he bore up under
all, - unblenching, unmurmuring, struggling cheerfully and patiently to
the end, - one cannot repress a feeling of admiration for the courage
which endured so much misery, and of pity for the faults which brought
that misery upon him. Such a feeling would be justified, if we could
believe that fortitude was a positive trait in his character. That is
to say, if he had been properly sensible of the odium which covered
his name, and had really felt the sorrows which visited him, - if these
things had moved him as they do others, and he had still gone on calmly
and bravely to the end, hiding the wounds which tortured him, and giving
no sign of pain, - he would, indeed, have been worthy of admiration;
he would have been a hero. But we think it will appear, upon a closer
examination, that his fortitude was a negative, not a positive quality;
it was insensibility, not courage. He did not suffer, because he did not
feel. The emotional part of our nature he did not possess; at least, it
did not show itself in any of the forms which it usually takes, - in love
of country, or of kindred, - in the opinions which he professed, or in
the subjects which occupied his thoughts. The first act of his manhood
was to join in the resistance of his countrymen to foreign oppression.
But it was no love of liberty that urged him to arms. He went to the
camp at Cambridge from the mere love of adventure. The sacred spirit
which gave nobility to so many, - which transformed mechanics,
tradesmen, village lawyers, and plain country-gentlemen into statesmen,
philosophers, diplomatists, and great captains, - which united the
children of many races into one nation, and roused a simple people to
deeds of lofty heroism, - awakened no enthusiasm in him. He was in the
very flush of youth, yet to his most intimate friends he did not breathe
a word of even moderate interest in the cause for which he had drawn his
sword. His political life was passed during the first twenty years of
our national existence, when men's minds were exercised in the effort to
adapt one government to the various and apparently conflicting interests
of many communities widely separated by distance, climate, and ancient
differences; but these complicated and momentous subjects, so absorbing
to all thoughtful men, never weighed upon his mind. He was in Europe
when Napoleon was at the height of his power, when his armies swept
from the Danube to the Guadalquivir; but that strange story, which the
giddiest school-girl cannot read with divided attention, drew no remark
from his lips. It is said that he was fond of his daughter; - it was a
fondness of the head, not of the heart. He admired her because she was
beautiful and intelligent; - had she been plain and dull, he would not
have cared for her. He made no return for the affection, warm and
generous, which her noble heart lavished upon him, liberal as the
sunlight. Had that earnest love touched, for a single instant, a
responsive chord in his heart, he could never have written those foul,
foul words to make her blush at the record of her father's shame.
Nowhere does he express regret for the misfortunes which he brought
upon others, - the bereaved family of Hamilton, - the ruin of
Blennerhassett, - the victims of his passions and his ambition. He spoke
freely, as if they were indifferent matters, of things which most men
would have concealed. He laughed at his trial, - alluded to Hamilton as
"my friend Hamilton, whom I shot," - and used to repeat some doggerel
lines upon the duel, which he had seen in a strolling exhibition. It is
said that he was courteous and amiable, and that he did many kind and
generous acts. His courtesy and amiability did not restrain him from
perfidy and debauchery; neither did he ever do a kind act when an unkind
one would have served his purposes better.

As we have seen, Mr. Parton has described Aaron Burr as suited to many
very incongruous conditions in life. If we were to select an epoch in
history and a form of society for which he was best adapted, we should
place him in France daring the Regency and the reign of Louis XV. There,
where a successful _bon-mot_ established a claim to office, and a
well-turned leg did more for a man than the best mind in Europe, Burr
would have risen to distinction. He might have shone in the literary
circles at Sceaux, and in the _petits soupers_ at the Palais Royal.
Among the wits, the _littérateurs_, the fashionable men and women of
the time, he would have found society congenial to his tastes, and
sufficient employment for his talents. He would have exhibited in his
own life and character their vices and their superficial virtues, their
extravagance, libertinism, and impiety, their politeness, courage,
and wit. He might have borne a distinguished part in the petty
statesmanship, the intriguing diplomacy, and the wild speculations of
that period. But here, among the stern rebels of the Revolution and the
practical statesmen of the early Republic, this trickster and shallow
politician, this visionary adventurer and boaster of ladies' favors, was
out of place. He has given to his country nothing except a pernicious
example. The full light, which shows us that his vices may have
been exaggerated, shows likewise that his talents have surely been
overestimated. The contrast which gave fascination to his career is
destroyed; and for a partial vindication of his character he will pay
the penalty which he would most have dreaded, that of being forgotten.

* * * * *



A lyric conception - my friend, the Poet, said - hits me like a bullet in
the forehead. I have often had the blood drop from my cheeks when it
struck, and felt that I turned as white as death. Then comes a creeping
as of centipedes running down the spine, - then a gasp and a great jump
of the heart, - then a sudden flush and a beating in the vessels of the
head, - then a long sigh, - and the poem is written.

It is an impromptu, I suppose, then, if you write it so suddenly, - I

No, - said he, - far from it. I said written, but I did not say _copied_.
Every such poem has a soul and a body, and it is the body of it, or the
copy, that men read and publishers pay for. The soul of it is born in an
instant in the poet's soul. It comes to him a thought, tangled in the
meshes of a few sweet words, - words that have loved each other from the
cradle of the language, but have never been wedded until now. Whether it
will ever fully embody itself in a bridal train of a dozen stanzas or
not is uncertain; but it exists potentially from the instant that the
poet turns pale with it. It is enough to stun and scare anybody, to have
a hot thought come crashing into his brain, and ploughing up those
parallel ruts where the wagon trains of common ideas were jogging along
in their regular sequences of association. No wonder the ancients made
the poetical impulse wholly external. [Greek: Maenin aeide, Thea],
Goddess, - Muse, - divine afflatus, - something outside always. _I_ never
wrote any verses worth reading. I can't. I am too stupid. If I ever
copied any that were worth reading, I was only a medium.

[I was talking all this time to our boarders, you understand, - telling
them what this poet told me. The company listened rather attentively, I
thought, considering the literary character of the remarks.]

The old gentleman opposite all at once asked me if I ever read anything
better than Pope's "Essay on Man"? Had I ever perused McFingal? He was
fond of poetry when he was a boy, - his mother taught him to say many
little pieces, - he remembered one beautiful hymn; - and the old gentleman
began, in a clear, loud voice, for his years, -

"The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens," - -

He stopped, as if startled by our silence, and a faint flush ran up
beneath the thin white hairs that fell upon his cheek. As I looked
round, I was reminded of a show I once saw at the Museum, - the Sleeping
Beauty, I think they called it. The old man's sudden breaking out in
this way turned every face towards him, and each kept his posture as if
changed to stone. Our Celtic Bridget, or Biddy, is not a foolish fat
scullion to burst out crying for a sentiment. She is of the serviceable,
red-handed, broad-and-high-shouldered type; one of those imported female
servants who are known in public by their amorphous style of person,
their stoop forwards, and a headlong and as it were precipitous
walk, - the waist plunging downwards into the rocking pelvis at every
heavy footfall. Bridget, constituted for action, not for emotion, was
about to deposit a plate heaped with something upon the table, when I
saw the coarse arm stretched by my shoulder arrested, - motionless as the
arm of a terra-cotta caryatid; she couldn't set the plate down while the
old gentleman was speaking!

He was quite silent after this, still wearing the slight flush on his
cheek. Don't ever think the poetry is dead in an old man because his
forehead is wrinkled, or that his manhood has left him when his hand
trembles! If they ever _were_ there, they _are_ there still!

By and by we got talking again. - Does a poet love the verses written
through him, do you think, Sir? - said the divinity-student.

So long as they are warm from his mind, carry any of his animal heat
about them, _I know_ he loves them, - I answered. When they have had time
to cool, he is more indifferent.

A good deal as it is with buckwheat cakes, - said the young fellow whom
they call John.

The last words, only, reached the ear of the economically organized
female in black bombazine. - Buckwheat is skerce and high, - she remarked.
[Must be a poor relation sponging on our landlady, - pays nothing, - so
she must stand by the guns and be ready to repel boarders.]

I liked the turn the conversation had taken, for I had some things I
wanted to say, and so, after waiting a minute, I began again. - I don't
think the poems I read you sometimes can be fairly appreciated, given to
you as they are in the green state.

- - You don't know what I mean by the _green state?_ Well, then, I will
tell you. Certain things are good for nothing until they have been kept
a long while; and some are good for nothing until they have been long
kept and _used_. Of the first, wine is the illustrious and immortal
example. Of those which must be kept and used, I will name
three, - meerschaum pipes, violins, and poems. The meerschaum is but
a poor affair until it has burned a thousand offerings to the
cloud-compelling deities. It comes to us without complexion or flavor,
born of the sea-foam, like Aphrodite, but colorless as _pallida Mors_
herself. The fire is lighted in its central shrine, and gradually the
juices which the broad leaves of the Great Vegetable had sucked up from
an acre and curdled into a drachm are diffused through its thirsting
pores. First a discoloration, then a stain, and at last a rich, glowing,
umber tint spreading over the whole surface. Nature true to her old
brown autumnal hue, you see, - as true in the fire of the meerschaum
as in the sunshine of October! And then the cumulative wealth of its
fragrant reminiscences! he who inhales its vapors takes a thousand
whiffs in a single breath; and one cannot touch it without awakening
the old joys that hang around it, as the smell of flowers clings to the
dresses of the daughters of the house of Farina!

[Don't think I use a meerschaum myself, for _I do not_, though I have
owned a calumet since my childhood, which from a naked Pict (of the
Mohawk species) my grandsire won, together with a tomahawk and beaded
knife-sheath; paying for the lot with a bullet-mark on his right
cheek. On the maternal side I inherit the loveliest silver-mounted
tobacco-stopper you ever saw. It is a little box-wood Triton, carved
with charming liveliness and truth; I have often compared it to a figure
in Raphael's "Triumph of Galatea." It came to me in an ancient shagreen
case, - how old it is I do not know, - but it must have been made since
Sir Walter Raleigh's time. If you are curious, you shall see it any
day. Neither will I pretend that I am so unused to the more perishable
smoking contrivance, that a few whiffs would make me feel as if I lay
in a groundswell on the Bay of Biscay. I am not unacquainted with
that fusiform, spiral-wound bundle of chopped stems and miscellaneous
incombustibles, the cigar, so called, of the shops, - which to "draw"
asks the suction-power of a nursling infant Hercules, and to relish, the
leathery palate of an old Silenus. I do not advise you, young man, even
if my illustration strikes your fancy, to consecrate the flower of your
life to painting the bowl of a pipe, for, let me assure you, the stain
of a reverie-breeding narcotic may strike deeper than you think for. I
have seen the green leaf of early promise grow brown before its time
under such Nicotian regimen, and thought the umbered meerschaum was
dearly bought at the cost of a brain enfeebled and a will enslaved.]

Violins, too, - the sweet old Amati! - the divine Straduarius! Played on
by ancient maestros until the bow-hand lost its power and the flying
fingers stiffened. Bequeathed to the passionate young enthusiast, who
made it whisper his hidden love, and cry his inarticulate longings, and
scream his untold agonies, and wail his monotonous despair. Passed from
his dying hand to the cold _virtuoso_, who let it slumber in its case
for a generation, till, when his hoard was broken up, it came forth once
more and rode the stormy symphonies of royal orchestras, beneath
the rushing bow of their lord and leader. Into lonely prisons with
improvident artists; into convents from which arose, day and night, the
holy hymns with which its tones were blended; and back again to orgies
in which it learned to howl and laugh as if a legion of devils were shut
up in it; then again to the gentle _dilettante_ who calmed it down with
easy melodies until it answered him softly as in the days of the old
_maestros_. And so given into our hands, its pores all full of music;
stained, like the meerschaum, through and through, with the concentrated
hue and sweetness of all the harmonies that have kindled and faded on
its strings.

Now I tell you a poem must be kept _and used_, like a meerschaum, or a
violin. A poem is just as porous as the meerschaum; - the more porous
it is, the better. I mean to say that a genuine poem is capable of
absorbing an indefinite amount of the essence of our own humanity, - its
tenderness, its heroism, its regrets, its aspirations, so as to be
gradually stained through with a divine secondary color derived from
ourselves. So you see it must take time to bring the sentiment of a
poem into harmony with our nature, by staining ourselves through every
thought and image our being can penetrate.

Then again as to the mere music of a new poem; why, who can expect
anything more from that than from the music of a violin fresh from
the maker's hands? Now you know very well that there are no less than
fifty-eight different pieces in a violin. These pieces are strangers
to each other, and it takes a century, more or less, to make them
thoroughly acquainted. At last they learn to vibrate in harmony, and the
instrument becomes an organic whole, as if it were a great seed-capsule
that had grown from a garden-bed in Cremona, or elsewhere. Besides, the
wood is juicy and full of sap for fifty years or so, but at the end of
fifty or a hundred more gets tolerably dry and comparatively resonant.

Don't you see that all this is just as true of a poem? Counting each
word as a piece, there are more pieces in an average copy of verses than
in a violin. The poet has forced all these words together, and fastened
them, and they don't understand it at first. But let the poem be repeated
aloud and murmured over in the mind's muffled whisper often enough, and
at length the parts become knit together in such absolute solidarity
that you could not change a syllable without the whole world's crying
out against you for meddling with the harmonious fabric. Observe, too,
how the drying process takes place in the stuff of a poem just as in
that of a violin. Here is a Tyrolese fiddle that is just coming to its
hundredth birthday, - (Pedro Klauss, Tyroli, fecit, 1760,) - the sap is
pretty well out of it. And here is the song of an old poet whom Neaera
cheated: -

"Nox erat, et coelo fulgebat Luna sereno
Inter minora sidera,
Cum tu magnorum numen laesura deorum
In verba jurubas mea."

Don't you perceive the sonorousness of these old dead Latin phrases? Now
I tell you that every word fresh from the dictionary brings with it
a certain succulence; and though I cannot expect the sheets of the
"Pactolian," in which, as I told you, I sometimes print my verses,
to get so dry as the crisp papyrus that held those words of Horatius
Flaccus, yet you may be sure, that, while the sheets are damp, and while
the lines hold their sap, you can't fairly judge of my performances, and
that, if made of the true stuff, they will ring better after a while.

[There was silence for a brief space, after my somewhat elaborate
exposition of these self-evident analogies. Presently _a person_ turned
towards me - I do not choose to designate the individual - and said that
he rather expected my pieces had given pretty good "sahtisfahction." - I
had, up to this moment, considered this complimentary phrase as sacred
to the use of secretaries of lyceums, and, as it has been usually
accompanied by a small pecuniary testimonial, have acquired a certain
relish for this moderately tepid and unstimulating expression of
enthusiasm. But as a reward for gratuitous services, I confess I thought
it a little below that blood-heat standard which a man's breath ought to
have, whether silent, or vocal and articulate. I waited for a favorable
opportunity, however, before making the remarks which follow.]

- - There are single expressions, as I have told you already, that fix
a man's position for you before you have done shaking hands with him.
Allow me to expand a little. There are several things, very slight in
themselves, yet implying other things not so unimportant. Thus, your
French servant has _dévalisé_ your premises and got caught. _Excusez_,
says the _sergent-de-ville_, as he politely relieves him of his upper
garments and displays his bust in the full daylight. Good shoulders
enough, - a little marked, - traces of smallpox, perhaps, - but
white....._Crac!_ from the _sergent-de-ville's_ broad palm on the white
shoulder! Now look! _Vogue la galère!_ Out comes the big red V - mark of
the hot iron; - he had blistered it out pretty nearly, - hadn't he? - the
old rascal VOLEUR, branded in the galleys at Marseilles! [Don't! What
if he has got something like this? nobody supposes I _invented_ such a

My man John, who used to drive two of those six equine females which I
told you I had owned, - for, look you, my friends, simple though I stand
here, I am one that has been driven in his "kerridge," - not using that
term, as liberal shepherds do, for any battered old shabby-genteel
go-cart that has more than one wheel, but meaning thereby a four-wheeled
vehicle _with a pole_, - my man John, I say, was a retired soldier. He
retired unostentatiously, as many of Her Majesty's modest servants have
done before and since. John told me, that when an officer thinks he
recognizes one of these retiring heroes, and would know if he has really
been in the service, that he may restore him, if possible, to a grateful
country, he comes suddenly upon him, and says, sharply, "Strap!" If he
has ever worn the shoulder-strap, he has learned the reprimand for its
ill adjustment. The old word of command flashes through his muscles, and
his hand goes up in an instant to the place where the strap used to be.

[I was all the time preparing for my grand _coup_, you understand; but
I saw they were not quite ready for it, and so continued, - always in
illustration of the general principle I had laid down.]

Yes, odd things come out in ways that nobody thinks of. There was a
legend, that, when the Danish pirates made descents upon the English
coast, they caught a few Tartars occasionally, in the shape of Saxons,
that would not let them go, - on the contrary, insisted on their staying,
and, to make sure of it, treated them as Apollo treated Marsyas, or as
Bartholinus has treated a fellow-creature in his title-page, and, having
divested them of the one essential and perfectly fitting garment,
indispensable in the mildest climates, nailed the same on the
church-door as we do the banns of marriage, _in terrorem_.

[There was a laugh at this among some of the young folks; but as I
looked at our landlady, I saw that "the water stood in her eyes," as it
did in Christiana's when the interpreter asked her about the spider, and
that the school-mistress blushed, as Mercy did in the same conversation,
as you remember.]

That sounds like a cock-and-bull-story, - said the young fellow whom
they call John. I abstained from making Hamlet's remark to Horatio, and

Not long since, the church-wardens were repairing and beautifying an
old Saxon church in a certain English village, and among other things
thought the doors should be attended to. One of them particularly, the
front-door, looked very badly, crusted, as it were, and as if it would
be all the better for scraping. There happened to be a microscopist in
the village who had heard the old pirate story, and he took it into his
head to examine the crust on this door. There was no mistake about it;
it was a genuine historical document, of the Ziska drum-head
pattern, - a real _cutis humarca_, stripped from some old Scandinavian
filibuster, - and the legend was true.

My friend, the Professor, settled an important historical and financial
question once by the aid of an exceedingly minute fragment of a similar
document. Behind the pane of plate-glass which bore his name and title
burned a modest lamp, signifying to the passers-by that at all hours of
the night the slightest favors (or fevers) were welcome. A youth who
had freely partaken of the cup which cheers and likewise inebriates,
following a moth-like impulse very natural under the circumstances,
dashed his fist at the light and quenched the meek luminary, - breaking
through the plate-glass, of course, to reach it. Now I don't want to
go into _minutiae_ at table, you know, but a naked hand can no more go
through a pane of thick glass without leaving some of its cuticle,
to say the least, behind it, than a butterfly can go through a
sausage-machine without looking the worse for it. The Professor gathered
up the fragments of glass, and with them certain very minute but
entirely satisfactory documents which would have identified and hanged
any rogue in Christendom who had parted with them. - The historical
question, _Who did it_? and the financial question, _Who paid for it_?
were both settled before the new lamp was lighted the next evening.

You see, my friends, what immense conclusions, touching our lives,
our fortunes, and our sacred honor, may be reached by means of very
insignificant premises. This is eminently true of manners and forms of
speech; a movement or a phrase often tells you all you want to know
about a person. Thus, "How's your health?" (commonly pronounced
haälth) - instead of, How do you do? or, How are you? Or calling your
little dark entry a "hall," and your old rickety one-horse wagon a
"kerridge." Or telling a person who has been trying to please you that
he has given you pretty good "sahtisfahction." Or saying that you
"remember of" such a thing, or that you have been "stoppin'" at Deacon
Somebody's, - and other such expressions. One of my friends had a little

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