The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table
By Oliver Wendell Holmes
[ILLUSTRATION: Chapter 6 half-title]
SIN has many tools, but a lie is the handle which fits them all.
----I think, Sir,--said the divinity-student,--you must intend that for one of the sayings of the Seven Wise Men of Boston you were speaking of the other day.
I thank you, my young friend,--was my reply, but I must say something better than that, before I could pretend to fill out the number.
----The schoolmistress wanted to know how many of these sayings there were on record, and what, and by whom said.
----Why, let us see,--there is that one of Benjamin Franklin, "the great Bostonian," after whom this lad was named. To be sure, he said a great many wise things,--and I don't feel sure he didn't borrow this,--he speaks as if it were old. But then he applied it so neatly!--
"He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged."
Then there is that glorious Epicurean paradox, uttered by my friend, the Historian, in one of his flashing moments:--
"Give us the luxuries of life, and we will dispense with its necessaries."
To these must certainly be added that other saying of one of the wittiest of men:--
"Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris."
----The divinity-student looked grave at this, but said nothing.
The schoolmistress spoke out, and said she didn't think the wit meant any irreverence. It was only another way of saying, Paris is a heavenly place after New York or Boston.
A jaunty-looking person, who had come in with the young fellow they call John,--evidently a stranger,--said there was one more wise man's saying that he had heard; it was about our place, but he didn't know who said it.--A civil curiosity was manifested by the company to hear the fourth wise saying. I heard him distinctly whispering to the young fellow who brought him to dinner, Shall I tell it? To which the answer was, Go ahead!-- Well, he said,--this was what I heard:--
"Boston State-House is the hub of the solar system. You couldn't pry that out of a Boston man, if you had the tire of all creation straightened out for a crowbar."
Sir,--said I,--I am gratified with your remark. It expresses with pleasing vivacity that which I have sometimes heard uttered with malignant dulness. The satire of the remark is essentially true of Boston,--and of all other considerable--and inconsiderable--places with which I have had the privilege of being acquainted. Cockneys think London is the only place in the world. Frenchmen--you remember the line about Paris, the Court, the World, etc.--I recollect well, by the way, a sign in that city which ran thus: "Hôtel de l'Univers et des États Unis"; and as Paris is the universe to a Frenchman, of course the United States are outside of it.--"See Naples and then die."--It is quite as bad with smaller places. I have been about, lecturing, you know, and have found the following propositions to hold true of all of them.
1. The axis of the earth sticks out visibly through the centre of each and every town or city.
2. If more than fifty years have passed since its foundation, it is affectionately styled by the inhabitants the "good old town of"----(whatever its name may happen to be.)
3. Every collection of its inhabitants that comes together to listen to a stranger is invariably declared to be a "remarkably intelligent audience."
[ILLUSTRATION: "The remarkably intelligent audience."]
4. The climate of the place is particularly favorable to longevity.
5. It contains several persons of vast talent little known to the world. (One or two of them, you may perhaps chance to remember, sent short pieces to the "Pactolian" some time since, which were "respectfully declined.")
Boston is just like other places of its size;--only perhaps, considering its excellent fish-market, paid fire-department, superior monthly publications, and correct habit of spelling the English language, it has some right to look down on the mob of cities. I'll tell you, though, if you want to know it, what is the real offence of Boston. It drains a large water-shed of its intellect, and will not itself be drained. If it would only send away its first-rate men, instead of of its second-rate ones, (no offence to the well-known exceptions, of which we are always proud,) we should be spared such epigrammatic remarks as that which the gentleman has quoted. There can never be a real metropolis in this country, until the biggest centre can drain the lesser ones of their talent and wealth.--I have observed, by the way, that the people who really live in two great cities are by no means so jealous of each other, as are those of smaller cities situated within the intellectual basin, or suction-range, of one large one, of the pretensions of any other. Don't you see why? Because their promising young author and rising lawyer and large capitalist have been drained off to the neighboring big city,--their prettiest girl has been exported to the same market; all their ambition points there, and all their thin gilding of glory comes from there. I hate little toad-eating cities.
----Would I be so good as to specify any particular example?--Oh,--an example? Did you ever see a bear-trap? Never? Well, shouldn't you like to see me put my foot into one? With sentiments of the highest consideration I must beg leave to be excused.
Besides, some of the smaller cities are charming. If they have an old church or two, a few stately mansions of former grandees, here and there an old dwelling with the second story projecting, (for the convenience of shooting the Indians knocking at the front-door with their tomahawks,)--if they have, scattered about, those mighty square houses built something more than half a century ago, and standing like architectural boulders dropped by the former diluvium of wealth, whose refluent wave has left them as its monument,--if they have gardens with elbowed apple-trees that push their branches over the high board-fence and drop their fruit on the side-walk,--if they have a little grass in the side-streets, enough to betoken quiet without proclaiming decay,--I think I could go to pieces, after my life's work were done, in one of those tranquil places, as sweetly as in any cradle that an old man may be rocked to sleep in. I visit such spots always with infinite delight. My friend, the Poet, says, that rapidly growing towns are most unfavorable to the imaginative and reflective faculties. Let a man live in one of these old quiet places, he says, and the wine of his soul, which is kept thick and turbid by the rattle of busy streets, settles, and, as you hold it up, you may see the sun through it by day and the stars by night.
----Do I think that the little villages have the conceit of the great towns?--I don't believe there is much difference. You know how they read Pope's line in the smallest town in our State of Massachusetts?--Well, they read it
"All are but parts of one stupendous HULL!"
Every person's feelings have a front-door and a side-door by which they may be entered. The front-door is on the street. Some keep it always open; some keep it latched; some, locked; some, bolted,--with a chain that will let you peep in, but not get in; and some nail it up, so that nothing can pass its threshold. This front-door leads into a passage which opens into an ante-room, and this into the interior apartments. The side-door opens at once into the sacred chambers.
There is almost always at least one key to this side-door. This is carried for years hidden in a mother's bosom. Fathers, brothers, sisters, and friends, often, but by no means so universally, have duplicates of it. The wedding-ring conveys a right to one; alas, if none is given with it!
If nature or accident has put one of these keys into the hands of a person who has the torturing instinct, I can only solemnly pronounce the words that Justice utters over its doomed victim,--The Lord have mercy on your soul! You will probably go mad within a reasonable time,--or, if you are a man, run off and die with your head on a curb-stone, in Melbourne or San Francisco,--or, if you are a woman, quarrel and break your heart, or turn into a pale, jointed petrifaction that moves about as if it were alive, or play some real life-tragedy or other.
Be very careful to whom you trust one of these keys of the side-door. The fact of possessing one renders those even who are dear to you very terrible at times. You can keep the world out from your front-door, or receive visitors only when you are ready for them; but those of your own flesh and blood, or of certain grades of intimacy, can come in at the side-door, if they will, at any hour and in any mood. Some of them have a scale of your whole nervous system, and can play all the gamut of your sensibilities in semitones,--touching the naked nerve-pulps as a pianist strikes the keys of his instrument. I am satisfied that there are as great masters of this nerve, playing as Vieuxtemps or Thalberg in their lines of performance. Married life is the school in which the most accomplished artists in this department are found. A delicate woman is the best instrument; she has such a magnificent compass of sensibilities! From the deep inward moan which follows pressure on the great nerves of right, to the sharp cry as the filaments of taste are struck with a crashing sweep, is a range which no other instrument possesses. A few exercises on it daily at home fit a man wonderfully for his habitual labors, and refresh him immensely as he returns from them. No stranger can get a great many notes of torture out of a human soul; it takes one that knows it well,--parent, child, brother, sister, intimate. Be very careful to whom you give a side-door key; too many have them already.
----You remember the old story of the tender-hearted man, who placed a frozen viper in his bosom, and was stung by it when it became thawed? If we take a cold-blooded creature into our bosom, better that it should sting us and we should die than that its chill should slowly steal into our hearts; warm it we never can! I have seen faces of women that were fair to look upon, yet one could see that the icicles were forming round these women's hearts. I knew what freezing image lay on the white breasts beneath the laces!
A very simple intellectual mechanism answers the necessities of friendship, and even of the most intimate relations of life. If a watch tells us the hour and the minute, we can be content to carry it about with us for a life-time, though it has no second-hand, and is not a repeater, nor a musical watch,--though it is not enamelled nor jewelled,--in short, though it has little beyond the wheels required for a trust-worthy instrument, added to a good face and a pair of useful hands. The more wheels there are in a watch or a brain, the more trouble they are to take care of. The movements of exaltation which belong to genius are egotistic by their very nature. A calm, clear mind, not subject to the spasms and crises which are so often met with in creative or intensely perceptive natures, is the best basis for love or friendship.--Observe, I am talking about minds. I won't say, the more intellect, the less capacity for loving; for that would do wrong to the understanding and reason;--but, on the other hand, that the brain often runs away with the heart's best blood, which gives the world a few pages of wisdom or sentiment or poetry, instead of making one other heart happy, I have no question.
If one's intimate in love or friendship cannot or does not share all one's intellectual tastes or pursuits, that is a small matter. Intellectual companions can be found easily in men and books. After all, if we think of it, most of the world's loves and friendship's have been between people that could not read nor spell.
But to radiate the heat of the affections into a clod, which absorbs all that is poured into it, but never warms beneath the sunshine of smiles or the pressure of hand or lip,--this is the great martyrdom of sensitive beings,--most of all in that perpetual auto da fé where young womanhood is the sacrifice.
You noticed, perhaps, what I just said about the loves and friendships of illiterate persons,--that is, of the human race, with a few exceptions here and there. I like books,--I was born and bred among them, and have the easy feeling, when I get into their presence, that a stable-boy has among horses. I don't think I undervalue them either as companions or as instructors. But I can't help remembering that the world's great men have not commonly been great scholars, nor its great scholars great men. The Hebrew patriarchs had small libraries, I think, if any; yet they represent to our imaginations a very complete idea of manhood, and, I think, if we could ask in Abraham to dine with us men of letters next Saturday, we should feel honored by his company.
What I wanted to say about books is this: that there are times in which every active mind feels itself above any and all human books.
----I think a man must have a good opinion of himself; Sir,--said the divinity-student,--who should feel himself above Shakspeare at any time.
My young friend,--I replied,--the man who is never conscious of a state of feeling or of intellectual effort entirely beyond expression by any form of words whatsoever is a mere creature of language. I can hardly believe there are any such men. Why, think for a moment of the power of music. The nerves that make us alive to it spread out (so the Professor tells me) in the most sensitive region of the marrow, just where it is widening to run upwards into the hemispheres. It has its seat in the region of sense rather than of thought. Yet it produces a continuous and, as it were, logical sequence of emotional and intellectual changes; but how different from trains of thought proper! how entirely beyond the reach of symbols!--Think of human passions as compared with all phrases! Did you ever hear of a man's growing lean by the reading of "Romeo and Juliet," or blowing his brains out because Desdemona was maligned? There are a good many symbols, even, that are more expressive than words. I remember a young wife who had to part with her husband for a time. She did not write a mournful poem; indeed, she was a silent person, and perhaps hardly said a word about it; but she quietly turned of a deep orange color with jaundice. A great many people in this world have but one form of rhetoric for their profoundest experiences,--namely, to waste away and die. When a man can read, his paroxysm of feeling is passing. When he can read, his thought has slackened its hold.--You talk about reading Shakspeare, using him as an expression for the highest intellect, and you wonder that any common person should be so presumptuous as to suppose his thought can rise above the text which lies before him. But think a moment. A child's reading of Shakspeare is one thing, and Coleridge's or Schlegel's reading of him is another. The saturation-point of each mind differs from that of every other. But I think it is as true for the small mind which can only take up a little as for the great one which takes up much, that the suggested trains of thought and feeling ought always to rise above--not the author, but the reader's mental version of the author, whoever he may be.
I think most readers of Shakspeare sometimes find themselves thrown into exalted mental conditions like those produced by music. Then they may drop the book, to pass at once into the region of thought without words. We may happen to be very dull folks, you and I, and probably are, unless there is some particular reason to suppose the contrary. But we get glimpses now and then of a sphere of spiritual possibilities, where we, dull as we are now, may sail in vast circles round the largest compass of earthly intelligences.
----I confess there are times when I feel like the friend I mentioned to you some time ago,--I hate the very sight of a book. Sometimes it becomes almost a physical necessity to talk out what is in the mind, before putting anything else into it. It is very bad to have thoughts and feelings, which were meant to come out in talk, strike in, as they say of some complaints that ought to show outwardly.
I always believed in life rather than in books. I suppose every day of earth, with its hundred thousand deaths and something more of births,--with its loves and hates, its triumphs and defeats, its pangs and blisses, has more of humanity in it than all the books that were ever written, put together. I believe the flowers growing at this moment send up more fragrance to heaven than was ever exhaled from all the essences ever distilled.
----Don't I read up various matters to talk about at this table or elsewhere?--No, that is the last thing I would do. I will tell you my rule. Talk about those subjects you have had long in your mind, and listen to what others say about subjects you have studied but recently. Knowledge and timber shouldn't be much used till they are seasoned.
----Physiologists and metaphysicians have had their attention turned a good deal of late to the automatic and involuntary actions of the mind. Put an idea into your intelligence and leave it there an hour, a day, a year, without ever having occasion to refer to it. When, at last, you return to it, you do not find it as it was when acquired. It has domiciliated itself; so to speak,--become at home,--entered into relations with your other thoughts, and integrated itself with the whole fabric of the mind. --Or take a simple and familiar example; Dr. Carpenter has adduced it. You forget a name, in conversation,--go on talking, without making any effort to recall it,--and presently the mind evolves it by its own involuntary and unconscious action, while you were pursuing another train of thought, and the name rises of itself to your lips.
There are some curious observations I should like to make about the mental machinery, but I think we are getting rather didactic.
[ILLUSTRATION: Our Benjamin Franklin]
----I should be gratified, if Benjamin Franklin would let me know something of his progress in the French language. I rather liked that exercise he read us the other day, though I must confess I should hardly dare to translate it, for fear some people in a remote city where I once lived might think I was drawing their portraits.
Yes, Paris is a famous place for societies. I don't know whether the piece I mentioned from the French author was intended simply as Natural History, or whether there was not a little malice in his description. At any rate, when I gave my translation to B. F. to turn back again into French, one reason was that I thought it would sound a little bald in English, and some people might think it was meant to have some local bearing or other,--which the author, of course, didn't mean, inasmuch as he could not be acquainted with anything on this side of the water.
[The above remarks were addressed to the schoolmistress, to whom I handed the paper after looking it over. The divinity-student came and read over her shoulder,--very curious, apparently, but his eyes wandered, I thought. Fancying that her breathing was somewhat hurried and high, or thoracic, as my friend, the Professor, calls it, I watched her a little more closely.--It is none of my business.--After all, it is the imponderables that move the world,--heat, electricity, love.--Habet?]
This is the piece that Benjamin Franklin made into boarding-school French, such as you see here; don't expect too much;--the mistakes give a relish to it, I think.
LES SOCIÉTES POLYPHYSIOPHILOSOPHIQUES.
CES Sociétés là sont une Institution pour suppléer aux besoins d'esprit et de coeur de ces individus qui ont survécu à leurs émotions à l'égard du beau sexe, et qui n'ont pas la distraction de l'habitude do boire.
Pour devenir membre d'une de ces Sociétés, on doit avoir le moins de cheveux possible. S'il y en reste plusieurs qui resistent aux dépilatoires naturelles et autres, on doit avoir quelques connaissances, n'importe dans quel genre. Dà le moment qu'on ouvre la porte de la Sociéte, on a un grand intérêt dans toutes les choses dont on ne sait rien. Ainsi, un microscopiste démontre un nouveau flexor du tarse d'un melolontha vulgaris. Douze savans improvisés, portans des besicles, et qui ne connaissent rien des insectes, si ce n'est les morsures du culex, se précipitent sur l'instrument, et voient--une grande bulle d'air, dont ils s'émerveillent avec effusion. Ce qui est un spectacle plein d'instruction--pour ceux qui ne sont pas de ladite Société. Tous les membres regardent les chimistes en particulier avec un air d'intelligence parfaite pendant qu'ils prouvent dans un discours d'une demiheure que O6 N3 H5 C6 etc. font quelque chose qui n'est bonne à rien, mais qui probablement a une odeur très désagréable, selon l'habitude des produits chimiques. Après celà vient un mathématicien qui vous bourre avec des a + b et vous rapporte enfin un x + y, dont vous n'avez pas besoin et qui ne change nullement vos relations avec la vie. Un naturaliste vous parle des formations spéciales des animaux excessivement inconnus, dout vous n'avez jamais soupçonné l'existence. Ainsi il vous décrit les follicules de l'appendix vermiformis d'un dzigguetai. Vous ne savez pas ce que c'est qu'un follicule. Vous ne savez pas ce que c'est qu'un appendix vermiformis. Vous n'avez jamais entendu parler du dzigguetai. Ainsi vous gagnez toutes ces connaissances à la fois, qui s'attachent à votre esprit comme l'eau adhére aux plumes d'un canard. On connait toutes les langues ex officio en devenant membre d'une de ces Sociétés. Ainsi quand on entend lire un Essai sur les dialectes Tchutchiens, on comprend tout celè de suite, et s'instruit énormément.
Il y a deux espèces d'individus qu'on trouve toujours à ces Sociétés: 1o Le membre à questions; 2o Le membre à "Bylaws."
La question est une spécialité. Celui qui en fait métier ne fait jamais des réponses. La question est une manière très commode de dire les choses suivantes: "Me voilè! Je ne suis pas fossil, moi,--je respire encore! J'ai des idées,--voyez mon intelligence! Vous ne croyiez pas, vous autres, que je savais quelque chose de celè! Ah, nous avons un peu de sagacité, voyez vous! Nous ne sommes nullement la bête qu'on pense!"--Le faiseur de questions donne peu d'attention aux réponses qu'on fait; ce n'est pas tà dans sa spécialité.
Le membre à "Bylaws" est le bouchon de toutes les émotions mousseuses et généreuses qui se montrent dans la Société. C'est un empereur manqué,--un tyran à la troisième trituration. C'est un esprit dur, borné, exact, grand dans les petitesses, petit dans les grandeurs, selon le mot du grand Jefferson. On ne l'aime pas dans la Société, mais on le respecte et on le craint. Il n'y a qu'un mot pour ce membre audessus de "Bylaws." Ce mot est pour lui ce que l'Om est aux Hindous. C'est sa religion; il n'y a rien audelà. Ce mot là c'est la CONSTITUTION!
Lesdites Sociétés publient des feuilletons de tems en tems. On les trouve abandonnés à sa porte, nus comme des enfans nouveaunés, faute de membrane cutanée, ou mêdmo papyracée. Si on aime la botanique, on y trouve une mémoire sur les coquilles; si on fait des études zoölogiques, on trouve un grand tas de q'[square root sign]-1, ce qui doit être infiniment plus commode que les encyclopédies. Ainsi il est clair comme la métaphysique qu'on doit devenir membre d'une Société telle que nous décrivons.
Recette pour le Dépilatoire Physiophilosophique.
Chaux vive lb. ss. Eau bouillante Oj.
Dépilez avec. Polissez ensuite.
----I told the boy that his translation into French was creditable to him; and some of the company wishing to hear what there was in the piece that made me smile, I turned it into English for them, as well as I could, on the spot.
The landlady's daughter seemed to be much amused by the idea that a depilatory could take the place of literary and scientific accomplishments; she wanted me to print the piece, so that she might send a copy of it to her cousin in Mizzourah; she didn't think he'd have to do anything to the outside of his head to get into any of the societies; he had to wear a wig once, when he played a part in a tabullo.
No,--said I,--I shouldn't think of printing that in English. I'll tell you why. As soon as you get a few thousand people together in a town, there is somebody that every sharp thing you say is sure to hit. What if a thing was written in Paris or in Pekin?--that makes no difference. Everybody in those cities, or almost everybody, has his counterpart here, and in all large places.--You never studied averages as I have had occasion to.
I'll tell you how I came to know so much about averages. There was one season when I was lecturing, commonly, five evenings in the week, through most of the lecturing period. I soon found, as most speakers do, that it was pleasanter to work one lecture than to keep several in hand.
----Don't you get sick to death of one lecture?--said the landlady's daughter,--who had a new dress on that day, and was in spirits for conversation.
I was going to talk about averages,--I said,--but I have no objection to telling you about lectures, to begin with.
A new lecture always has a certain excitement connected with its delivery. One thinks well of it, as of most things fresh from his mind. After a few deliveries of it, one gets tired and then disgusted with its repetition. Go on delivering it, and the disgust passes off, until, after one has repeated it a hundred or a hundred and fifty times, he rather enjoys the hundred. and first or hundred and fifty-first time, before a new audience. But--this is on one condition,--that be never lays the lecture down and lets it cool. If he does, there comes on a loathing for it which is intense, so that the sight of the old battered manuscript is as bad as sea-sickness.
A new lecture is just like any other new tool. We use it for a while with pleasure. Then it blisters our hands, and we hate to touch it. By-and-by our hands get callous, and then we have no longer any sensitiveness about it. But if we give it up, the calluses disappear; and if we meddle with it again, we miss the novelty and get the blisters.--The story is often quoted of Whitefield, that he said a sermon was good for nothing until it had been preached forty times. A lecture doesn't begin to be old until it has passed its hundredth delivery; and some, I think, have doubled, if not quadrupled, that number. These old lectures are a man's best, commonly; they improve by age, also,--like the pipes, fiddles, and poems I told you of the other day. One learns to make the most of their strong points and to carry off their weak ones,--to take out the really good things which don't tell on the audience, and put in cheaper things that do. All this degrades him, of course, but it improves the lecture for general delivery. A thoroughly popular lecture ought to have nothing in it which five hundred people cannot all take in a flash, just as it is uttered.
No, indeed,--I should be very sorry to say anything disrespectful of audiences. I have been kindly treated by a great many, and may occasionally face one hereafter. But I tell you the average intellect of five hundred persons, taken as they come, is not very high. It may be sound and safe, so far as it goes, but it is not very rapid or profound. A lecture ought to be something which all can understand, about something which interests everybody. I think, that, if any experienced lecturer gives you a different account from this, it will probably be one of those eloquent or forcible speakers who hold an audience by the charm of their manner, whatever they talk about,--even when they don't talk very well.
But an average, which was what I meant to speak about, is one of the most extraordinary subjects of observation and study. It is awful in its uniformity, in its automatic necessity of action. Two columnnities of ants or bees are exactly alike in all their actions, so far as we can see. Two lyceum assemblies, of five hundred each, are so nearly alike, that they are absolutely undistinguishable in many cases by any definite mark, and there is nothing but the place and time by which one can tell the "remarkably intelligent audience" of a town in New York or Ohio from one in any New England town of similar size. Of course, if any principle of selection has come in, as in those special associations of young men which are common in cities, it deranges the uniformity of the assemblage. But let there be no such interfering circumstances, and one knows pretty well even the look the audience will have, before he goes in. Front seats: a few old folks,--shiny-headed, slant up best ear towards the speaker,--drop off asleep after a while, when the air begins to get a little narcotic with carbonic acid. Bright women's faces, young and middle-aged, a little behind these, but toward the front--(pick out the best, and lecture mainly to that.) Here and there a countenance, sharp and scholarlike, and a dozen pretty female ones sprinkled about. An indefinite number of pairs of young people,--happy, but not always very attentive. Boys, in the background, more or less quiet. Dull faces here, there,--in how many places! I don't say dull people, but faces without a ray of sympathy or a movement of expression. They are what kill the lecturer. These negative faces with their vacuous eyes and stony lineaments pump and suck the warm soul out of him;--that is the chief reason why lecturers grow so pale before the season is over. They render lalent any amount of vital caloric; they act on our minds as those cold-blooded creatures I was talking about act on our hearts.
Out of all these inevitable elements the audience is generated,--a great compound vertebrate, as much like fifty others you have seen as any two mammals of the same species are like each other. Each audience laughs, and each cries, in just the same places of your lecture; that is, if you make one laugh or cry, you make all. Even those little indescribable movements which a lecturer takes cognizance of, just as a driver notices his horse's cocking his ears, are sure to come in exactly the same place of your lecture always. I declare to you, that, as the monk said about the picture in the convent,--that he sometimes thought the living tenants were the shadows, and the painted figures the realities,--I have sometimes felt as if I were a wandering spirit, and this great unchanging multivertebrate which I faced night after night was one ever-listening animal, which writhed along after me wherever I fled, and coiled at my feet every evening, turning up to me the same sleepless eyes which I thought I had closed with my last drowsy incantation!
----Oh, yes! A thousand kindly and courteous acts,--a thousand faces that melted individually out of my recollection as the April snow' melts, but only to steal away and find the beds of flowers whose roots are memory, but which blossom in poetry and dreams. I am not ungrateful, nor unconscious of all the good feeling and intelligence everywhere to be met with through the vast parish to which the lecturer ministers. But when I set forth, leading a string of my mind's daughters to market, as the country-folk fetch in their strings of horses----Pardon me, that was a coarse fellow who sneered at the sympathy wasted on an unhappy lecturer, as if, because he was decently paid for his services, he had therefore sold his sensibilities.--Family men get dreadfully homesick. In the remote and bleak village the heart returns to the red blaze of the logs in one's fireplace at home."There are his young barbarians all at play,"--if he owns any youthful savages.--No, the world has a million roosts for a man, but only one nest.
----It is a fine thing to be an oracle to which an appeal is always made in all discussions. The men of facts wait their turn in grim silence, with that slight tension about the nostrils which the consciousness of carrying a "settler" in the form of a fact or a revolver gives the individual thus armed. When a person is really full of information, and does not abuse it to crush conversation, his part is to that of the real talkers what the instrumental accompaniment is in a trio or quartette of vocalists.
----What do I mean by the real talkers?--Why, the people with fresh ideas, of course, and plenty of good warm words to dress them in. Facts always yield the place of honor, in conversation, to thoughts about facts; but if a false note is uttered, down comes the finger on the key and the man of facts asserts his true dignity. I have known three of these men of facts, at least, who were always formidable,--and one of them was tyrannical.
----Yes, a man sometimes makes a grand appearance on a particular occasion; but these men knew something about almost everything, and never made mistakes.--He? Veneers in first-rate style. The mahogany scales off now and then in spots, and then you see the cheap light stuff.--I found----very fine in conversational information, the other day when we were in company. The talk ran upon mountains. He was wonderfully well acquainted with the leading facts about the Andes, the Apennines, nnd the Appalachians; he had nothing in particular to say about Ararat, Ben Nevis, and various other mountains that were mentioned. By and by some Revolutionary anecdote came up, and he showed singular familiarity with the lives of the Adamses, and gave many details relating to Major André. A point of Natural History being suggested, he gave an excellent account of the air-bladder of fishes. He was very full upon the subject of agriculture, but retired from the conversation when horticulture was introduced in the discussion. So he seemed well acquainted with the geology of anthracite, but did not pretend to know anything of other kinds of coal. There was something so odd about the extent and limitations of his knowledge, that I suspected all at once what might be the meaning of it, and waited till I got an opportunity.--Have you seen the "New American Cyclopædia?" said I.--I have, he replied; I received an early copy.--How far does it go?--He turned red, and answered,--To Araguay.--Oh, said I to myself,--not quite so far as Ararat;--that is the reason he knew nothing about it; but he must have read all the rest straight through, and, if he can remember what is in this volume until he has read all those that are to come, he will know more than I ever thought he would.
Since I had this experience, I hear that somebody else has related a similar story. I didn't borrow it, for all that.--I made a comparison at table some time since, which has often been quoted and received many compliments. It was that of the mind of a bigot to the pupil of the eye; the more light you pour on it, the more it contracts. The simile is a very obvious, and, I suppose I may now say, a happy one; for it has just been shown me that it occurs in a Preface to certain Political Poems of Thomas Moore's published long before my remark was repeated. When a person of fair character for literary honesty uses an image such as another has employed before him, the presumption is, that he has struck upon it independently, or unconsciously recalled it, supposing it his own.
It is impossible to tell, in a great many cases, whether a comparison which suddenly suggests itself is a new conception or a recollection. I told you the other day that I never wrote a line of verse that seemed to me comparatively good, but it appeared old at once, and often as if it had been borrowed. But I confess I never suspected the above comparison of being old, except from the fact of its obviousness. It is proper, however, that I proceed by a formal instrument to relinquish all claim to any property in an idea given to the world at about the time when I had just joined the class in which Master Thomas Moore was then a somewhat advanced scholar.
I, therefore, in full possession of my native honesty, but knowing the liability of all men to be elected to public office, and for that reason feeling unccrtain how soon I may be in danger of losing it, do hereby renounce all claim to being considered the first person who gave utterance to a certain simile or comparison referred to in the accompanying documents, and relating to the pupil of the eye on the one part and the mind of the bigot on the other. I hereby relinquish all glory and profit, and especially all claims to letters from autograph collectors, founded upon my supposed property in the above comparison,--knowing well, that, according to the laws of literature, they who speak first hold the fee of the thing said, I do also agree that all Editors of Cyclopedias and Biographical Dictionaries, all Publishers of Reviews and Papers, and all Critics writing therein, shall be at liberty to retract or qualify any opinion predicated on the supposition that I was the sole and undisputed author of the above comparison. But, inasmuch as I do affirm that the comparison aforesaid was uttered by me in the firm belief that it was new and wholly my own, and as I have good reason to think that I had never seen or heard it when first expressed by me, and as it is well known that different persons may independently utter the same idea,--as is evinced by that familiar line from Donatus,--
"Percant illi qui ante nos nostra dixerunt,"--
now, therefore, I do request by this instrument that all well-disposed persons will abstain from asserting or implying that I am open to any accusation whatsoever touching the said comparison, and, if they have so asserted or implied, that they will have the manliness forthwith to retract the same assertion or insinuation.
I think few persons have a greater disgust for plagiarism than myself. If I had even suspected that the idea in question was borrowed, I should have disclaimed originality, or mentioned the coincidence, as I once did in a case where I had happened to hit on an idea of Swift's.--But what shall I do about these verses I was going to read you? I am afraid that half mankind would accuse me of stealing their thoughts, if I printed them. I am convinced that several of you, especially if you are getting a little on in life, will recognize some of these sentiments as having passed through your consciousness at some time. I can't help it,--it is too late now. The verses are written, and you must have them. Listen, then, and you shall hear
[POEM: What We All Think.]
[ILLUSTRATION: tail-piece Chapter 6]