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Full Online Book HomeEssaysThe Poet At The Breakfast Table - Chapter X
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The Poet At The Breakfast Table - Chapter X Post by :WealthMaker Category :Essays Author :Oliver Wendell Holmes Date :April 2012 Read :745

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The Poet At The Breakfast Table - Chapter X


Caveat Lector. Let the reader look out for himself. The old Master, whose words I have so frequently quoted and shall quote more of, is a dogmatist who lays down the law, ex cathedra, from the chair of his own personality. I do not deny that he has the ambition of knowing something about a greater number of subjects than any one man ought to meddle with, except in a very humble and modest way. And that is not his way. There was no doubt something of, humorous bravado in his saying that the actual "order of things" did not offer a field sufficiently ample for his intelligence. But if I found fault with him, which would be easy enough, I should say that he holds and expresses definite opinions about matters that he could afford to leave open questions, or ask the judgment of others about. But I do not want to find fault with him. If he does not settle all the points he speaks of so authoritatively, he sets me thinking about them, and I like a man as a companion who is not afraid of a half-truth. I know he says some things peremptorily that he may inwardly debate with himself. There are two ways of dealing with assertions of this kind. One may attack them on the false side and perhaps gain a conversational victory. But I like better to take them up on the true side and see how much can be made of that aspect of the dogmatic assertion. It is the only comfortable way of dealing with persons like the old Master.

There have been three famous talkers in Great Britain, either of whom would illustrate what I say about dogmatists well enough for my purpose. You cannot doubt to what three I refer: Samuel the First, Samuel the Second, and Thomas, last of the Dynasty. (I mean the living Thomas and not Thomas B.)

I say the last of the Dynasty, for the conversational dogmatist on the imperial scale becomes every year more and more an impossibility. If he is in intelligent company he will be almost sure to find some one who knows more about some of the subjects he generalizes upon than any wholesale thinker who handles knowledge by the cargo is like to know. I find myself, at certain intervals, in the society of a number of experts in science, literature, and art, who cover a pretty wide range, taking them all together, of human knowledge. I have not the least doubt that if the great Dr. Samuel Johnson should come in and sit with this company at one of their Saturday dinners, he would be listened to, as he always was, with respect and attention. But there are subjects upon which the great talker could speak magisterially in his time and at his club, upon which so wise a man would express himself guardedly at the meeting where I have supposed him a guest. We have a scientific man or two among us, for instance, who would be entitled to smile at the good Doctor's estimate of their labors, as I give it here:

"Of those that spin out life in trifles and die without a memorial, many flatter themselves with high opinion of their own importance and imagine that they are every day adding some improvement to human life."--"Some turn the wheel of electricity, some suspend rings to a loadstone, and find that what they did yesterday they can do again to-day. Some register the changes of the wind, and die fully convinced that the wind is changeable.

"There are men yet more profound, who have heard that two colorless liquors may produce a color by union, and that two cold bodies will grow hot if they are mingled; they mingle them, and produce the effect expected, say it is strange, and mingle them again."

I cannot transcribe this extract without an intense inward delight in its wit and a full recognition of its thorough half-truthfulness. Yet if while the great moralist is indulging in these vivacities, he can be imagined as receiving a message from Mr. Boswell or Mrs. Thrale flashed through the depths of the ocean, we can suppose he might be tempted to indulge in another oracular utterance, something like this:----A wise man recognizes the convenience of a general statement, but he bows to the authority of a particular fact. He who would bound the possibilities of human knowledge by the limitations of present acquirements would take the dimensions of the infant in ordering the habiliments of the adult. It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen. Will the Professor have the kindness to inform me by what steps of gradual development the ring and the loadstone, which were but yesterday the toys of children and idlers, have become the means of approximating the intelligences of remote continents, and wafting emotions unchilled through the abysses of the no longer unfathomable deep?

--This, you understand, Beloved, is only a conventional imitation of the Doctor's style of talking. He wrote in grand balanced phrases, but his conversation was good, lusty, off-hand familiar talk. He used very often to have it all his own way. If he came back to us we must remember that to treat him fairly we must suppose him on a level with the knowledge of our own time. But that knowledge is more specialized, a great deal, than knowledge was in his day. Men cannot talk about things they have seen from the outside with the same magisterial authority the talking dynasty pretended to. The sturdy old moralist felt grand enough, no doubt, when he said, "He that is growing great and happy by electrifying a bottle wonders how the world can be engaged by trifling prattle about war or peace." Benjamin Franklin was one of these idlers who were electrifying bottles, but he also found time to engage in the trifling prattle about war and peace going on in those times. The talking Doctor hits him very hard in "Taxation no Tyranny": "Those who wrote the Address (of the American Congress in 1775), though they have shown no great extent or profundity of mind, are yet probably wiser than to believe it: but they have been taught by some master of mischief how to put in motion the engine of political electricity; to attract by the sounds of Liberty and Property, to repel by those of Popery and Slavery; and to give the great stroke by the name of Boston." The talking dynasty has always been hard upon us Americans. King Samuel II. says: "It is, I believe, a fact verified beyond doubt, that some years ago it was impossible to obtain a copy of the Newgate Calendar, as they had all been bought up by the Americans, whether to suppress the blazon of their forefathers or to assist in their genealogical researches I could never learn satisfactorily." As for King Thomas, the last of the monological succession, he made such a piece of work with his prophecies and his sarcasms about our little trouble with some of the Southern States, that we came rather to pity him for his whims and crotchets than to get angry with him for calling us bores and other unamiable names.

I do not think we believe things because considerable people say them, on personal authority, that is, as intelligent listeners very commonly did a century ago. The newspapers have lied that belief out of us. Any man who has a pretty gift of talk may hold his company a little while when there is nothing better stirring. Every now and then a man who may be dull enough prevailingly has a passion of talk come over him which makes him eloquent and silences the rest. I have a great respect for these divine paroxysms, these half-inspired moments of influx when they seize one whom we had not counted among the luminaries of the social sphere. But the man who can--give us a fresh experience on anything that interests us overrides everybody else. A great peril escaped makes a great story-teller of a common person enough. I remember when a certain vessel was wrecked long ago, that one of the survivors told the story as well as Defoe could have told it. Never a word from him before; never a word from him since. But when it comes to talking one's common thoughts,--those that come and go as the breath does; those that tread the mental areas and corridors with steady, even foot-fall, an interminable procession of every hue and garb,--there are few, indeed, that can dare to lift the curtain which hangs before the window in the breast and throw open the window, and let us look and listen. We are all loyal enough to our sovereign when he shows himself, but sovereigns are scarce. I never saw the absolute homage of listeners but once, that I remember, to a man's common talk, and that was to the conversation of an old man, illustrious by his lineage and the exalted honors he had won, whose experience had lessons for the wisest, and whose eloquence had made the boldest tremble.

All this because I told you to look out for yourselves and not take for absolute truth everything the old Master of our table, or anybody else at it sees fit to utter. At the same time I do not think that he, or any of us whose conversation I think worth reporting, says anything for the mere sake of saying it and without thinking that it holds some truth, even if it is not unqualifiedly true.

I suppose a certain number of my readers wish very heartily that the Young Astronomer whose poetical speculations I am recording would stop trying by searching to find out the Almighty, and sign the thirty-nine articles, or the Westminster Confession of Faith, at any rate slip his neck into some collar or other, and pull quietly in the harness, whether it galled him or not. I say, rather, let him have his talk out; if nobody else asks the questions he asks, some will be glad to hear them, but if you, the reader, find the same questions in your own mind, you need not be afraid to see how they shape themselves in another's intelligence. Do you recognize the fact that we are living in a new time? Knowledge--it excites prejudices to call it science--is advancing as irresistibly, as majestically, as remorselessly as the ocean moves in upon the shore. The courtiers of King Canute (I am not afraid of the old comparison), represented by the adherents of the traditional beliefs of the period, move his chair back an inch at a time, but not until his feet are pretty damp, not to say wet. The rock on which he sat securely awhile ago is completely under water. And now people are walking up and down the beach and judging for themselves how far inland the chair of King Canute is like to be moved while they and their children are looking on, at the rate in which it is edging backward. And it is quite too late to go into hysterics about it.

The shore, solid, substantial, a great deal more than eighteen hundred years old, is natural humanity. The beach which the ocean of knowledge--you may call it science if you like--is flowing over, is theological humanity. Somewhere between the Sermon on the Mount and the teachings of Saint Augustine sin was made a transferable chattel. (I leave the interval wide for others to make narrow.)

The doctrine of heritable guilt, with its mechanical consequences, has done for our moral nature what the doctrine of demoniac possession has done in barbarous times and still does among barbarous tribes for disease. Out of that black cloud came the lightning which struck the compass of humanity. Conscience, which from the dawn of moral being had pointed to the poles of right and wrong only as the great current of will flowed through the soul, was demagnetized, paralyzed, and knew henceforth no fixed meridian, but stayed where the priest or the council placed it. There is nothing to be done but to polarize the needle over again. And for this purpose we must study the lines of direction of all the forces which traverse our human nature.

We must study man as we have studied stars and rocks. We need not go, we are told, to our sacred books for astronomy or geology or other scientific knowledge. Do not stop there! Pull Canute's chair back fifty rods at once, and do not wait until he is wet to the knees! Say now, bravely, as you will sooner or later have to say, that we need not go to any ancient records for our anthropology. Do we not all hold, at least, that the doctrine of man's being a blighted abortion, a miserable disappointment to his Creator, and hostile and hateful to him from his birth, may give way to the belief that he is the latest terrestrial manifestation of an ever upward-striving movement of divine power? If there lives a man who does not want to disbelieve the popular notions about the condition and destiny of the bulk of his race, I should like to have him look me in the face and tell me so.

I am not writing for the basement story or the nursery, and I do not pretend to be, but I say nothing in these pages which would not be said without fear of offence in any intelligent circle, such as clergymen of the higher castes are in the habit of frequenting. There are teachers in type for our grandmothers and our grandchildren who vaccinate the two childhoods with wholesome doctrine, transmitted harmlessly from one infant to another. But we three men at our table have taken the disease of thinking in the natural way. It is an epidemic in these times, and those who are afraid of it must shut themselves up close or they will catch it.

I hope none of us are wanting in reverence. One at least of us is a regular church-goer, and believes a man may be devout and yet very free in the expression of his opinions on the gravest subjects. There may be some good people who think that our young friend who puts his thoughts in verse is going sounding over perilous depths, and are frightened every time he throws the lead. There is nothing to be frightened at. This is a manly world we live in. Our reverence is good for nothing if it does not begin with self-respect. Occidental manhood springs from that as its basis; Oriental manhood finds the greatest satisfaction in self-abasement. There is no use in trying to graft the tropical palm upon the Northern pine. The same divine forces underlie the growth of both, but leaf and flower and fruit must follow the law of race, of soil, of climate. Whether the questions which assail my young friend have risen in my reader's mind or not, he knows perfectly well that nobody can keep such questions from springing up in every young mind of any force or honesty. As for the excellent little wretches who grow up in what they are taught, with never a scruple or a query, Protestant or Catholic, Jew or Mormon, Mahometan or Buddhist, they signify nothing in the intellectual life of the race. If the world had been wholly peopled with such half-vitalized mental negatives, there never would have been a creed like that of Christendom.

I entirely agree with the spirit of the verses I have looked over, in this point at least, that a true man's allegiance is given to that which is highest in his own nature. He reverences truth, he loves kindness, he respects justice. The two first qualities he understands well enough. But the last, justice, at least as between the Infinite and the finite, has been so utterly dehumanized, disintegrated, decomposed, and diabolized in passing through the minds of the half-civilized banditti who have peopled and unpeopled the world for some scores of generations, that it has become a mere algebraic x, and has no fixed value whatever as a human conception.

As for power, we are outgrowing all superstition about that. We have not the slightest respect for it as such, and it is just as well to remember this in all our spiritual adjustments. We fear power when we cannot master it; but just as far as we can master it, we make a slave and a beast of burden of it without hesitation. We cannot change the ebb and flow of the tides, or the course of the seasons, but we come as near it as we can. We dam out the ocean, we make roses bloom in winter and water freeze in summer. We have no more reverence for the sun than we have for a fish-tail gas-burner; we stare into his face with telescopes as at a ballet-dancer with opera-glasses; we pick his rays to pieces with prisms as if they were so many skeins of colored yarn; we tell him we do not want his company and shut him out like a troublesome vagrant. The gods of the old heathen are the servants of to-day. Neptune, Vulcan, Aolus, and the bearer of the thunderbolt himself have stepped down from their pedestals and put on our livery. We cannot always master them, neither can we always master our servant, the horse, but we have put a bridle on the wildest natural agencies. The mob of elemental forces is as noisy and turbulent as ever, but the standing army of civilization keeps it well under, except for an occasional outbreak.

When I read the Lady's letter printed some time since, I could not help honoring the feeling which prompted her in writing it. But while I respect the innocent incapacity of tender age and the limitations of the comparatively uninstructed classes, it is quite out of the question to act as if matters of common intelligence and universal interest were the private property of a secret society, only to be meddled with by those who know the grip and the password.

We must get over the habit of transferring the limitations of the nervous temperament and of hectic constitutions to the great Source of all the mighty forces of nature, animate and inanimate. We may confidently trust that we have over us a Being thoroughly robust and grandly magnanimous, in distinction from the Infinite Invalid bred in the studies of sickly monomaniacs, who corresponds to a very common human type, but makes us blush for him when we contrast him with a truly noble man, such as most of us have had the privilege of knowing both in public and in private life.

I was not a little pleased to find that the Lady, in spite of her letter, sat through the young man's reading of portions of his poem with a good deal of complacency. I think I can guess what is in her mind. She believes, as so many women do, in that great remedy for discontent, and doubts about humanity, and questionings of Providence, and all sorts of youthful vagaries,--I mean the love-cure. And she thinks, not without some reason, that these astronomical lessons, and these readings of poetry and daily proximity at the table, and the need of two young hearts that have been long feeling lonely, and youth and nature and "all impulses of soul and sense," as Coleridge has it, will bring these two young people into closer relations than they perhaps have yet thought of; and so that sweet lesson of loving the neighbor whom he has seen may lead him into deeper and more trusting communion with the Friend and Father whom he has not seen.

The Young Girl evidently did not intend that her accomplice should be a loser by the summary act of the Member of the Haouse: I took occasion to ask That Boy what had become of all the popguns. He gave me to understand that popguns were played out, but that he had got a squirt and a whip, and considered himself better off than before.

This great world is full of mysteries. I can comprehend the pleasure to be got out of the hydraulic engine; but what can be the fascination of a whip, when one has nothing to flagellate but the calves of his own legs, I could never understand. Yet a small riding-whip is the most popular article with the miscellaneous New-Englander at all great gatherings,--cattle-shows and Fourth-of-July celebrations. If Democritus and Heraclitus could walk arm in arm through one of these crowds, the first would be in a broad laugh to see the multitude of young persons who were rejoicing in the possession of one of these useless and worthless little commodities; happy himself to see how easily others could purchase happiness. But the second would weep bitter tears to think what a rayless and barren life that must be which could extract enjoyment from the miserable flimsy wand that has such magic attraction for sauntering youths and simpering maidens. What a dynamometer of happiness are these paltry toys, and what a rudimentary vertebrate must be the freckled adolescent whose yearning for the infinite can be stayed even for a single hour by so trifling a boon from the venal hands of the finite!

Pardon these polysyllabic reflections, Beloved, but I never contemplate these dear fellow-creatures of ours without a delicious sense of superiority to them and to all arrested embryos of intelligence, in which I have no doubt you heartily sympathize with me. It is not merely when I look at the vacuous countenances of the mastigophori, the whip-holders, that I enjoy this luxury (though I would not miss that holiday spectacle for a pretty sum of money, and advise you by all means to make sure of it next Fourth of July, if you missed it this), but I get the same pleasure from many similar manifestations.

I delight in Regalia, so called, of the kind not worn by kings, nor obtaining their diamonds from the mines of Golconda. I have a passion for those resplendent titles which are not conferred by a sovereign and would not be the open sesame to the courts of royalty, yet which are as opulent in impressive adjectives as any Knight of the Garter's list of dignities. When I have recognized in the every-day name of His Very Worthy High Eminence of some cabalistic association, the inconspicuous individual whose trifling indebtedness to me for value received remains in a quiescent state and is likely long to continue so, I confess to having experienced a thrill of pleasure. I have smiled to think how grand his magnificent titular appendages sounded in his own ears and what a feeble tintinnabulation they made in mine. The crimson sash, the broad diagonal belt of the mounted marshal of a great procession, so cheap in themselves, yet so entirely satisfactory to the wearer, tickle my heart's root.

Perhaps I should have enjoyed all these weaknesses of my infantile fellow-creatures without an afterthought, except that on a certain literary anniversary when I tie the narrow blue and pink ribbons in my button-hole and show my decorated bosom to the admiring public, I am conscious of a certain sense of distinction and superiority in virtue of that trifling addition to my personal adornments which reminds me that I too have some embryonic fibres in my tolerably well-matured organism.

I hope I have not hurt your feelings, if you happen to be a High and Mighty Grand Functionary in any illustrious Fraternity. When I tell you that a bit of ribbon in my button-hole sets my vanity prancing, I think you cannot be grievously offended that I smile at the resonant titles which make you something more than human in your own eyes. I would not for the world be mistaken for one of those literary roughs whose brass knuckles leave their mark on the foreheads of so many inoffensive people.

There is a human sub-species characterized by the coarseness of its fibre and the acrid nature of its intellectual secretions. It is to a certain extent penetrative, as all creatures are which are provided with stings. It has an instinct which guides it to the vulnerable parts of the victim on which it fastens. These two qualities give it a certain degree of power which is not to be despised. It might perhaps be less mischievous, but for the fact that the wound where it leaves its poison opens the fountain from which it draws its nourishment.

Beings of this kind can be useful if they will only find their appropriate sphere, which is not literature, but that circle of rough-and-tumble political life where the fine-fibred men are at a discount, where epithets find their subjects poison-proof, and the sting which would be fatal to a literary debutant only wakes the eloquence of the pachydermatous ward-room politician to a fiercer shriek of declamation.

The Master got talking the other day about the difference between races and families. I am reminded of what he said by what I have just been saying myself about coarse-fibred and fine-fibred people.

--We talk about a Yankee, a New-Englander,---he said,-as if all of 'em were just the same kind of animal. "There is knowledge and knowledge," said John Bunyan. There are Yankees and Yankees. Do you know two native trees called pitch pine and white pine respectively? Of course you know 'em. Well, there are pitch-pine Yankees and white-pine Yankees. We don't talk about the inherited differences of men quite as freely, perhaps, as they do in the Old World, but republicanism doesn't alter the laws of physiology. We have a native aristocracy, a superior race, just as plainly marked by nature as of a higher and finer grade than the common run of people as the white pine is marked in its form, its stature, its bark, its delicate foliage, as belonging to the nobility of the forest; and the pitch pine, stubbed, rough, coarse-haired, as of the plebeian order. Only the strange thing is to see in what a capricious way our natural nobility is distributed. The last born nobleman I have seen, I saw this morning; he was pulling a rope that was fastened to a Maine schooner loaded with lumber. I should say he was about twenty years old, as fine a figure of a young man as you would ask to see, and with a regular Greek outline of countenance, waving hair, that fell as if a sculptor had massed it to copy, and a complexion as rich as a red sunset. I have a notion that the State of Maine breeds the natural nobility in a larger proportion than some other States, but they spring up in all sorts of out-of-the-way places. The young fellow I saw this morning had on an old flannel shirt, a pair of trowsers that meant hard work, and a cheap cloth cap pushed back on his head so as to let the large waves of hair straggle out over his forehead; he was tugging at his rope with the other sailors, but upon my word I don't think I have seen a young English nobleman of all those whom I have looked upon that answered to the notion of "blood" so well as this young fellow did. I suppose if I made such a levelling confession as this in public, people would think I was looking towards being the labor-reform candidate for President. But I should go on and spoil my prospects by saying that I don't think the white-pine Yankee is the more generally prevailing growth, but rather the pitch-pine Yankee.

--The Member of the Haouse seemed to have been getting a dim idea that all this was not exactly flattering to the huckleberry districts. His features betrayed the growth of this suspicion so clearly that the Master replied to his look as if it had been a remark. (I need hardly say that this particular member of the General Court was a pitch-pine Yankee of the most thoroughly characterized aspect and flavor.)

--Yes, Sir,--the Master continued,--Sir being anybody that listened, --there is neither flattery nor offence in the views which a physiological observer takes of the forms of life around him. It won't do to draw individual portraits, but the differences of natural groups of human beings are as proper subjects of remark as those of different breeds of horses, and if horses were Houyhnhnms I don't think they would quarrel with us because we made a distinction between a "Morgan" and a "Messenger." The truth is, Sir, the lean sandy soil and the droughts and the long winters and the east-winds and the cold storms, and all sorts of unknown local influences that we can't make out quite so plainly as these, have a tendency to roughen the human organization and make it coarse, something as it is with the tree I mentioned. Some spots and some strains of blood fight against these influences, but if I should say right out what I think, it would be that the finest human fruit, on the whole; and especially the finest women that we get in New England are raised under glass.

--Good gracious!--exclaimed the Landlady, under glass!

--Give me cowcumbers raised in the open air, said the Capitalist, who was a little hard of hearing.

--Perhaps,--I remarked,--it might be as well if you would explain this last expression of yours. Raising human beings under glass I take to be a metaphorical rather than a literal statement of your meaning.

--No, Sir!--replied the Master, with energy,--I mean just what I say, Sir. Under glass, and with a south exposure. During the hard season, of course,--for in the heats of summer the tenderest hot-house plants are not afraid of the open air. Protection is what the transplanted Aryan requires in this New England climate. Keep him, and especially keep her, in a wide street of a well-built city eight months of the year; good solid brick walls behind her, good sheets of plate-glass, with the sun shining warm through them, in front of her, and you have put her in the condition of the pine-apple, from the land of which, and not from that of the other kind of pine, her race started on its travels. People don't know what a gain there is to health by living in cities, the best parts of them of course, for we know too well what the worst parts are. In the first place you get rid of the noxious emanations which poison so many country localities with typhoid fever and dysentery, not wholly rid of them, of course, but to a surprising degree. Let me tell you a doctor's story. I was visiting a Western city a good many years ago; it was in the autumn, the time when all sorts of malarious diseases are about. The doctor I was speaking of took me to see the cemetery just outside the town, I don't know how much he had done to fill it, for he didn't tell me, but I'll tell you what he did say.

"Look round," said the doctor. "There isn't a house in all the ten-mile circuit of country you can see over, where there isn't one person, at least, shaking with fever and ague. And yet you need n't be afraid of carrying it away with you, for as long as your home is on a paved street you are safe."

--I think it likely--the Master went on to say--that my friend the doctor put it pretty strongly, but there is no doubt at all that while all the country round was suffering from intermittent fever, the paved part of the city was comparatively exempted. What do you do when you build a house on a damp soil, and there are damp soils pretty much everywhere? Why you floor the cellar with cement, don't you? Well, the soil of a city is cemented all over, one may say, with certain qualifications of course. A first-rate city house is a regular sanatorium. The only trouble is, that the little good-for-nothings that come of utterly used-up and worn-out stock, and ought to die, can't die, to save their lives. So they grow up to dilute the vigor of the race with skim-milk vitality. They would have died, like good children, in most average country places; but eight months of shelter in a regulated temperature, in a well-sunned house, in a duly moistened air, with good sidewalks to go about on in all weather, and four months of the cream of summer and the fresh milk of Jersey cows, make the little sham organizations--the worm-eaten wind-falls, for that 's what they look like--hang on to the boughs of life like "froze-n-thaws"; regular struldbrugs they come to be, a good many of 'em.

--The Scarabee's ear was caught by that queer word of Swift's, and he asked very innocently what kind of bugs he was speaking of, whereupon That Boy shouted out, Straddlebugs! to his own immense amusement and the great bewilderment of the Scarabee, who only saw that there was one of those unintelligible breaks in the conversation which made other people laugh, and drew back his antennae as usual, perplexed, but not amused.

I do not believe the Master had said all he was going to say on this subject, and of course all these statements of his are more or less one-sided. But that some invalids do much better in cities than in the country is indisputable, and that the frightful dysenteries and fevers which have raged like pestilences in many of our country towns are almost unknown in the better built sections of some of our large cities is getting to be more generally understood since our well-to-do people have annually emigrated in such numbers from the cemented surface of the city to the steaming soil of some of the dangerous rural districts. If one should contrast the healthiest country residences with the worst city ones the result would be all the other way, of course, so that there are two sides to the question, which we must let the doctors pound in their great mortar, infuse and strain, hoping that they will present us with the clear solution when they have got through these processes. One of our chief wants is a complete sanitary map of every State in the Union.

The balance of our table, as the reader has no doubt observed, has been deranged by the withdrawal of the Man of Letters, so called, and only the side of the deficiency changed by the removal of the Young Astronomer into our neighborhood. The fact that there was a vacant chair on the side opposite us had by no means escaped the notice of That Boy. He had taken advantage of his opportunity and invited in a schoolmate whom he evidently looked upon as a great personage. This boy or youth was a good deal older than himself and stood to him apparently in the light of a patron and instructor in the ways of life. A very jaunty, knowing young gentleman he was, good-looking, smartly dressed, smooth-checked as yet, curly-haired, with a roguish eye, a sagacious wink, a ready tongue, as I soon found out; and as I learned could catch a ball on the fly with any boy of his age; not quarrelsome, but, if he had to strike, hit from the shoulder; the pride of his father (who was a man of property and a civic dignitary), and answering to the name of Johnny.

I was a little surprised at the liberty That Boy had taken in introducing an extra peptic element at our table, reflecting as I did that a certain number of avoirdupois ounces of nutriment which the visitor would dispose of corresponded to a very appreciable pecuniary amount, so that he was levying a contribution upon our Landlady which she might be inclined to complain of. For the Caput mortuum (or deadhead, in vulgar phrase) is apt to be furnished with a Venter vivus, or, as we may say, a lively appetite. But the Landlady welcomed the new-comer very heartily.

--Why! how--do--you--do Johnny?! with the notes of interrogation and of admiration both together, as here represented.

Johnny signified that he was doing about as well as could be expected under the circumstances, having just had a little difference with a young person whom he spoke of as "Pewter-jaw" (I suppose he had worn a dentist's tooth-straightening contrivance during his second dentition), which youth he had finished off, as he said, in good shape, but at the expense of a slight epistaxis, we will translate his vernacular expression.

--The three ladies all looked sympathetic, but there did not seem to be any great occasion for it, as the boy had come out all right, and seemed to be in the best of spirits.

--And how is your father and your mother? asked the Landlady.

--Oh, the Governor and the Head Centre? A 1, both of 'em. Prime order for shipping,--warranted to stand any climate. The Governor says he weighs a hunderd and seventy-five pounds. Got a chin-tuft just like Ed'in Forrest. D'd y' ever see Ed'in Forrest play Metamora? Bully, I tell you! My old gentleman means to be Mayor or Governor or President or something or other before he goes off the handle, you'd better b'lieve. He's smart,--and I've heard folks say I take after him.

--Somehow or other I felt as if I had seen this boy before, or known something about him. Where did he get those expressions "A 1" and "prime" and so on? They must have come from somebody who has been in the retail dry-goods business, or something of that nature. I have certain vague reminiscences that carry me back to the early times of this boardinghouse.--Johnny.--Landlady knows his father well.

--Boarded with her, no doubt.--There was somebody by the name of John, I remember perfectly well, lived with her. I remember both my friends mentioned him, one of them very often. I wonder if this boy isn't a son of his! I asked the Landlady after breakfast whether this was not, as I had suspected, the son of that former boarder.

--To be sure he is,--she answered,--and jest such a good-natur'd sort of creatur' as his father was. I always liked John, as we used to call his father. He did love fun, but he was a good soul, and stood by me when I was in trouble, always. He went into business on his own account after a while, and got merried, and settled down into a family man. They tell me he is an amazing smart business man,--grown wealthy, and his wife's father left her money. But I can't help calling him John,--law, we never thought of calling him anything else, and he always laughs and says, "That's right." This is his oldest son, and everybody calls him Johnny. That Boy of ours goes to the same school with his boy, and thinks there never was anybody like him,--you see there was a boy undertook to impose on our boy, and Johnny gave the other boy a good licking, and ever since that he is always wanting to have Johnny round with him and bring him here with him,--and when those two boys get together, there never was boys that was so chock full of fun and sometimes mischief, but not very bad mischief, as those two boys be. But I like to have him come once in a while when there is room at the table, as there is now, for it puts me in mind of the old times, when my old boarders was all round me, that I used to think so much of,--not that my boarders that I have now a'nt very nice people, but I did think a dreadful sight of the gentleman that made that first book; it helped me on in the world more than ever he knew of,--for it was as good as one of them Brandreth's pills advertisements, and did n't cost me a cent, and that young lady he merried too, she was nothing but a poor young schoolma'am when she come to my house, and now--and she deserved it all too; for she was always just the same, rich or poor, and she is n't a bit prouder now she wears a camel's-hair shawl, than she was when I used to lend her a woollen one to keep her poor dear little shoulders warm when she had to go out and it was storming,--and then there was that old gentleman,--I can't speak about him, for I never knew how good he was till his will was opened, and then it was too late to thank him....

I respected the feeling which caused the interval of silence, and found my own eyes moistened as I remembered how long it was since that friend of ours was sitting in the chair where I now sit, and what a tidal wave of change has swept over the world and more especially over this great land of ours, since he opened his lips and found so many kind listeners.

The Young Astronomer has read us another extract from his manuscript. I ran my eye over it, and so far as I have noticed it is correct enough in its versification. I suppose we are getting gradually over our hemispherical provincialism, which allowed a set of monks to pull their hoods over our eyes and tell us there was no meaning in any religious symbolism but our own. If I am mistaken about this advance I am very glad to print the young man's somewhat outspoken lines to help us in that direction.



The time is racked with birth-pangs; every hour
Brings forth some gasping truth, and truth new-born
Looks a misshapen and untimely growth,
The terror of the household and its shame,
A monster coiling in its nurse's lap
That some would strangle, some would only starve;
But still it breathes, and passed from hand to hand,
And suckled at a hundred half-clad breasts,
Comes slowly to its stature and its form,
Calms the rough ridges of its dragon-scales,
Changes to shining locks its snaky hair,
And moves transfigured into angel guise,
Welcomed by all that cursed its hour of birth,
And folded in the same encircling arms
That cast it like a serpent from their hold!

If thou wouldst live in honor, die in peace,
Have the fine words the marble-workers learn
To carve so well, upon thy funeral-stone,
And earn a fair obituary, dressed
In all the many-colored robes of praise,
Be deafer than the adder to the cry
Of that same foundling truth, until it grows
To seemly favor, and at length has won
The smiles of hard-mouthed men and light-upped dames,
Then snatch it from its meagre nurse's breast,
Fold it in silk and give it food from gold;
So shalt thou share its glory when at last
It drops its mortal vesture, and revealed
In all the splendor of its heavenly form,
Spreads on the startled air its mighty wings!

Alas! how much that seemed immortal truth
That heroes fought for, martyrs died to save,
Reveals its earth-born lineage, growing old
And limping in its march, its wings unplumed,
Its heavenly semblance faded like a dream!

Here in this painted casket, just unsealed,
Lies what was once a breathing shape like thine,
Once loved as thou art loved; there beamed the eyes
That looked on Memphis in its hour of pride,
That saw the walls of hundred-gated Thebes,
And all the mirrored glories of the Nile.
See how they toiled that all-consuming time
Might leave the frame immortal in its tomb;
Filled it with fragrant balms and odorous gums
That still diffuse their sweetness through the air,
And wound and wound with patient fold on fold
The flaxen bands thy hand has rudely torn!
Perchance thou yet canst see the faded stain
Of the sad mourner's tear.

But what is this?
The sacred beetle, bound upon the breast
Of the blind heathen! Snatch the curious prize,
Give it a place among thy treasured spoils
Fossil and relic,--corals, encrinites,
The fly in amber and the fish in stone,
The twisted circlet of Etruscan gold,
Medal, intaglio, poniard, poison-ring,
--Place for the Memphian beetle with thine hoard!

Ah! longer than thy creed has blest the world
This toy, thus ravished from thy brother's breast,
Was to the heart of Mizraim as divine,
As holy, as the symbol that we lay
On the still bosom of our white-robed dead,
And raise above their dust that all may know
Here sleeps an heir of glory. Loving friends,
With tears of trembling faith and choking sobs,
And prayers to those who judge of mortal deeds,
Wrapped this poor image in the cerement's fold
That Isis and Osiris, friends of man,
Might know their own and claim the ransomed soul

An idol? Man was born to worship such!
An idol is an image of his thought;
Sometimes he carves it out of gleaming stone,
And sometimes moulds it out of glittering gold,
Or rounds it in a mighty frescoed dome,
Or lifts it heavenward in a lofty spire,
Or shapes it in a cunning frame of words,
Or pays his priest to make it day by day;
For sense must have its god as well as soul;
A new-born Dian calls for silver shrines,
And Egypt's holiest symbol is our own,
The sign we worship as did they of old
When Isis and Osiris ruled the world.

Let us be true to our most subtle selves,
We long to have our idols like the rest.
Think! when the men of Israel had their God
Encamped among them, talking with their chief,
Leading them in the pillar of the cloud
And watching o'er them in the shaft of fire,
They still must have an image; still they longed
For somewhat of substantial, solid form
Whereon to hang their garlands, and to fix
Their wandering thoughts, and gain a stronger hold
For their uncertain faith, not yet assured
If those same meteors of the day and night
Were not mere exhalations of the soil.

Are we less earthly than the chosen race?
Are we more neighbors of the living God
Than they who gathered manna every morn,
Reaping where none had sown, and heard the voice
Of him who met the Highest in the mount,
And brought them tables, graven with His hand?
Yet these must have their idol, brought their gold,
That star-browed Apis might be god again;
Yea, from their ears the women brake the rings
That lent such splendors to the gypsy brown
Of sunburnt cheeks,--what more could woman do
To show her pious zeal? They went astray,
But nature led them as it leads us all.

We too, who mock at Israel's golden calf
And scoff at Egypt's sacred scarabee,
Would have our amulets to clasp and kiss,
And flood with rapturous tears, and bear with us
To be our dear companions in the dust,
Such magic works an image in our souls!

Man is an embryo; see at twenty years
His bones, the columns that uphold his frame
Not yet cemented, shaft and capital,
Mere fragments of the temple incomplete.
At twoscore, threescore, is he then full grown?
Nay, still a child, and as the little maids
Dress and undress their puppets, so he tries
To dress a lifeless creed, as if it lived,
And change its raiment when the world cries shame!
We smile to see our little ones at play
So grave, so thoughtful, with maternal care
Nursing the wisps of rags they call their babes;
Does He not smile who sees us with the toys
We call by sacred names, and idly feign
To be what we have called them?
He is still The Father of this helpless nursery-brood,
Whose second childhood joins so close its first,
That in the crowding, hurrying years between
We scarce have trained our senses to their task
Before the gathering mist has dimmed our eyes,
And with our hollowed palm we help our ear,
And trace with trembling hand our wrinkled names,
And then begin to tell our stories o'er,
And see--not hear-the whispering lips that say,
"You know--? Your father knew him.--This is he,
Tottering and leaning on the hireling's arm,--"
And so, at length, disrobed of all that clad
The simple life we share with weed and worm,
Go to our cradles, naked as we came.

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The Poet At The Breakfast Table - Chapter XI The Poet At The Breakfast Table - Chapter XI

The Poet At The Breakfast Table - Chapter XI
CHAPTER XII suppose there would have been even more remarks upon the growing intimacy of the Young Astronomer and his pupil, if the curiosity of the boarders had not in the mean time been so much excited at the apparently close relation which had sprung up between the Register of Deeds and the Lady. It was really hard to tell what to make of it. The Register appeared at the table in a new coat. Suspicious. The Lady was evidently deeply interested in him, if we could judge by the frequency and the length of their interviews. On at least one

The Poet At The Breakfast Table - Chapter IX The Poet At The Breakfast Table - Chapter IX

The Poet At The Breakfast Table - Chapter IX
CHAPTER IXThere was no sooner a vacancy on our side of the table, than the Master proposed a change of seats which would bring the Young Astronomer into our immediate neighborhood. The Scarabee was to move into the place of our late unlamented associate, the Man of Letters, so called. I was to take his place, the Master to take mine, and the young man that which had been occupied by the Master. The advantages of this change were obvious. The old Master likes an audience, plainly enough; and with myself on one side of him, and the young student of