Part 1 out of 6
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THE PROFESSOR AT THE BREAKFAST TABLE
by Oliver Wendell Holmes
PREFACE TO REVISED EDITION.
The reader of to-day will not forget, I trust, that it is nearly a
quarter of a century since these papers were written. Statements
which were true then are not necessarily true now. Thus, the speed
of the trotting horse has been so much developed that the record of
the year when the fastest time to that date was given must be very
considerably altered, as may be seen by referring to a note on page
49 of the "Autocrat." No doubt many other statements and opinions
might be more or less modified if I were writing today instead of
having written before the war, when the world and I were both more
than a score of years younger.
These papers followed close upon the track of the "Autocrat." They
had to endure the trial to which all second comers are subjected,
which is a formidable ordeal for the least as well as the greatest.
Paradise Regained and the Second Part of Faust are examples which are
enough to warn every one who has made a jingle fair hit with his
arrow of the danger of missing when he looses "his fellow of the
There is good reason why it should be so. The first juice that runs
of itself from the grapes comes from the heart of the fruit, and
tastes of the pulp only; when the grapes are squeezed in the press
the flow betrays the flavor of the skin. If there is any freshness
in the original idea of the work, if there is any individuality in
the method or style of a new author, or of an old author on a new
track, it will have lost much of its first effect when repeated.
Still, there have not been wanting readers who have preferred this
second series of papers to the first. The new papers were more
aggressive than the earlier ones, and for that reason found a
heartier welcome in some quarters, and met with a sharper antagonism
in others. It amuses me to look back on some of the attacks they
called forth. Opinions which do not excite the faintest show of
temper at this time from those who do not accept them were treated as
if they were the utterances of a nihilist incendiary. It required
the exercise of some forbearance not to recriminate.
How a stray sentence, a popular saying, the maxim of some wise man, a
line accidentally fallen upon and remembered, will sometimes help one
when he is all ready to be vexed or indignant! One day, in the time
when I was young or youngish, I happened to open a small copy of "Tom
Jones," and glance at the title-page. There was one of those little
engravings opposite, which bore the familiar name of "T. Uwins," as I
remember it, and under it the words "Mr. Partridge bore all this
patiently." How many times, when, after rough usage from
ill-mannered critics, my own vocabulary of vituperation was simmering
in such a lively way that it threatened to boil and lift its lid and
so boil over, those words have calmed the small internal
effervescence! There is very little in them and very little of them;
and so there is not much in a linchpin considered by itself, but it
often keeps a wheel from coming off and prevents what might be a
catastrophe. The chief trouble in offering such papers as these to
the readers of to-day is that their heresies have become so familiar
among intelligent people that they have too commonplace an aspect.
All the lighthouses and land-marks of belief bear so differently from
the way in which they presented themselves when these papers were
written that it is hard to recognize that we and our fellow-
passengers are still in the same old vessel sailing the same
unfathomable sea and bound to the same as yet unseen harbor.
But after all, there is not enough theology, good or bad, in these
papers to cause them to be inscribed on the Protestant Index
Expurgatorius; and if they are medicated with a few questionable
dogmas or antidogmas, the public has become used to so much rougher
treatments, that what was once an irritant may now act as an anodyne,
and the reader may nod over pages which, when they were first
written, would have waked him into a paroxysm of protest and
PREFACE TO THE NEW EDITION
This book is one of those which, if it lives for a number of decades,
and if it requires any Preface at all, wants a new one every ten
years. The first Preface to a book is apt to be explanatory, perhaps
apologetic, in the expectation of attacks from various quarters. If
the book is in some points in advance of public opinion, it is
natural that the writer should try to smooth the way to the reception
of his more or less aggressive ideas. He wishes to convince, not to
offend,--to obtain a hearing for his thought, not to stir up angry
opposition in those who do not accept it. There is commonly an
anxious look about a first Preface. The author thinks he shall be
misapprehended about this or that matter, that his well-meant
expressions will probably be invidiously interpreted by those whom he
looks upon as prejudiced critics, and if he deals with living
questions that he will be attacked as a destructive by the
conservatives and reproached for his timidity by the noisier
radicals. The first Preface, therefore, is likely to be the weakest
part of a work containing the thoughts of an honest writer.
After a time the writer has cooled down from his excitement,--has got
over his apprehensions, is pleased to find that his book is still
read, and that he must write a new Preface. He comes smiling to his
task. How many things have explained themselves in the ten or twenty
or thirty years since he came before his untried public in those
almost plaintive paragraphs in which he introduced himself to his
readers,--for the Preface writer, no matter how fierce a combatant he
may prove, comes on to the stage with his shield on his right arm and
his sword in his left hand.
The Professor at the Breakfast-Table came out in the "Atlantic
Monthly" and introduced itself without any formal Preface. A quarter
of a century later the Preface of 1882, which the reader has just had
laid before him, was written. There is no mark of worry, I think, in
that. Old opponents had come up and shaken hands with the author
they had attacked or denounced. Newspapers which had warned their
subscribers against him were glad to get him as a contributor to
their columns. A great change had come over the community with
reference to their beliefs. Christian believers were united as never
before in the feeling that, after all, their common object was to
elevate the moral and religious standard of humanity. But within the
special compartments of the great Christian fold the marks of
division have pronounced themselves in the most unmistakable manner.
As an example we may take the lines of cleavage which have shown
themselves in the two great churches, the Congregational and the
Presbyterian, and the very distinct fissure which is manifest in the
transplanted Anglican church of this country. Recent circumstances
have brought out the fact of the great change in the dogmatic
communities which has been going on silently but surely. The
licensing of a missionary, the transfer of a Professor from one
department to another, the election of a Bishop,--each of these
movements furnishes evidence that there is no such thing as an air-
tight reservoir of doctrinal finalities.
The folding-doors are wide open to every Protestant to enter all the
privileged precincts and private apartments of the various exclusive
religious organizations. We may demand the credentials of every
creed and catechise all the catechisms. So we may discuss the
gravest questions unblamed over our morning coffee-cups or our
evening tea-cups. There is no rest for the Protestant until he gives
up his legendary anthropology and all its dogmatic dependencies.
It is only incidentally, however, that the Professor at the
Breakfast-Table handles matters which are the subjects of religious
controversy. The reader who is sensitive about having his fixed
beliefs dealt with as if they were open to question had better skip
the pages which look as if they would disturb his complacency.
"Faith" is the most precious of possessions, and it dislikes being
meddled with. It means, of course, self-trust,--that is, a belief in
the value of our, own opinion of a doctrine, of a church, of a
religion, of a Being, a belief quite independent of any evidence that
we can bring to convince a jury of our fellow beings. Its roots are
thus inextricably entangled with those of self-love and bleed as
mandrakes were said to, when pulled up as weeds. Some persons may
even at this late day take offence at a few opinions expressed in the
following pages, but most of these passages will be read without loss
of temper by those who disagree with them, and by-and-by they may be
found too timid and conservative for intelligent readers, if they are
still read by any.
BEVERLY FARM, MASS., June 18, 1891.
O. W. H.
What he said, what he heard, and what he saw.
I intended to have signalized my first appearance by a certain large
statement, which I flatter myself is the nearest approach to a
universal formula, of life yet promulgated at this breakfast-table.
It would have had a grand effect. For this purpose I fixed my eyes
on a certain divinity-student, with the intention of exchanging a few
phrases, and then forcing my court-card, namely, The great end of
being.--I will thank you for the sugar,--I said.--Man is a
It is a small favor to ask,--said the divinity-student,--and passed
the sugar to me.
--Life is a great bundle of little things,--I said.
The divinity-student smiled, as if that were the concluding epigram
of the sugar question.
You smile,--I said.--Perhaps life seems to you a little bundle of
The divinity-student started a laugh, but suddenly reined it back
with a pull, as one throws a horse on his haunches.--Life is a great
bundle of great things,--he said.
(NOW, THEN!) The great end of being, after all, is....
Hold on!--said my neighbor, a young fellow whose name seems to be
John, and nothing else,--for that is what they all call him,--hold
on! the Sculpin is go'n' to say somethin'.
Now the Sculpin (Cottus Virginianus) is a little water-beast which
pretends to consider itself a fish, and, under that pretext, hangs
about the piles upon which West-Boston Bridge is built, swallowing
the bait and hook intended for flounders. On being drawn from the
water, it exposes an immense head, a diminutive bony carcass, and a
surface so full of spines, ridges, ruffles, and frills, that the
naturalists have not been able to count them without quarrelling
about the number, and that the colored youth, whose sport they spoil,
do not like to touch them, and especially to tread on them, unless
they happen to have shoes on, to cover the thick white soles of their
broad black feet.
When, therefore, I heard the young fellow's exclamation, I looked
round the table with curiosity to see what it meant. At the further
end of it I saw a head, and a--a small portion of a little deformed
body, mounted on a high chair, which brought the occupant up to a
fair level enough for him to get at his food. His whole appearance
was so grotesque, I felt for a minute as if there was a showman
behind him who would pull him down presently and put up Judy, or the
hangman, or the Devil, or some other wooden personage of the famous
spectacle. I contrived to lose the first of his sentence, but what I
heard began so:
--by the Frog-Pond, when there were frogs in and the folks used to
come down from the tents on section and Independence days with their
pails to get water to make egg-pop with. Born in Boston; went to
school in Boston as long as the boys would let me.--The little man
groaned, turned, as if to look around, and went on.--Ran away from
school one day to see Phillips hung for killing Denegri with a
logger-head. That was in flip days, when there were always two three
loggerheads in the fire. I'm a Boston boy, I tell you,--born at
North End, and mean to be buried on Copp's Hill, with the good old
underground people,--the Worthylakes, and the rest of 'em. Yes,--up
on the old hill, where they buried Captain Daniel Malcolm in a stone
grave, ten feet deep, to keep him safe from the red-coats, in those
old times when the world was frozen up tight and there was n't but
one spot open, and that was right over Faneuil all,--and black enough
it looked, I tell you! There 's where my bones shall lie, Sir, and
rattle away when the big guns go off at the Navy Yard opposite! You
can't make me ashamed of the old place! Full crooked little
streets;--I was born and used to run round in one of 'em--
--I should think so,--said that young man whom I hear them call
"John,"--softly, not meaning to be heard, nor to be cruel, but
thinking in a half-whisper, evidently.--I should think so; and got
kinked up, turnin' so many corners.--The little man did not hear
what was said, but went on,--
--full of crooked little streets; but I tell you Boston has opened,
and kept open, more turnpikes that lead straight to free thought and
free speech and free deeds than any other city of live men or dead
men,--I don't care how broad their streets are, nor how high their
--How high is Bosting meet'n'-house?--said a person with black
whiskers and imperial, a velvet waistcoat, a guard-chain rather too
massive, and a diamond pin so very large that the most trusting
nature might confess an inward suggestion,--of course, nothing
amounting to a suspicion. For this is a gentleman from a great city,
and sits next to the landlady's daughter, who evidently believes in
him, and is the object of his especial attention.
How high?--said the little man.--As high as the first step of the
stairs that lead to the New Jerusalem. Is n't that high enough?
It is,--I said.--The great end of being is to harmonize man with the
order of things, and the church has been a good pitch-pipe, and may
be so still. But who shall tune the pitch-pipe? Quis cus-(On the
whole, as this quotation was not entirely new, and, being in a
foreign language, might not be familiar to all the boarders, I
thought I would not finish it.)
--Go to the Bible!--said a sharp voice from a sharp-faced, sharp-
eyed, sharp-elbowed, strenuous-looking woman in a black dress,
appearing as if it began as a piece of mourning and perpetuated
itself as a bit of economy.
You speak well, Madam,--I said;--yet there is room for a gloss or
commentary on what you say. "He who would bring back the wealth of
the Indies must carry out the wealth of the Indies." What you bring
away from the Bible depends to some extent on what you carry to it.-
Benjamin Franklin! Be so good as to step up to my chamber and bring
me down the small uncovered pamphlet of twenty pages which you will
find lying under the "Cruden's Concordance." [The boy took a large
bite, which left a very perfect crescent in the slice of bread-and-
butter he held, and departed on his errand, with the portable
fraction of his breakfast to sustain him on the way.]
--Here it is. "Go to the Bible. A Dissertation, etc., etc. By J.
J. Flournoy. Athens, Georgia, 1858."
Mr. Flournoy, Madam, has obeyed the precept which you have
judiciously delivered. You may be interested, Madam, to know what
are the conclusions at which Mr. J. J. Flournoy of Athens, Georgia,
has arrived. You shall hear, Madam. He has gone to the Bible, and
he has come back from the Bible, bringing a remedy for existing
social evils, which, if it is the real specific, as it professes to
be, is of great interest to humanity, and to the female part of
humanity in particular. It is what he calls TRIGAMY, Madam, or the
marrying of three wives, so that "good old men" may be solaced at
once by the companionship of the wisdom of maturity, and of those
less perfected but hardly less engaging qualities which are found at
an earlier period of life. He has followed your precept, Madam; I
hope you accept his conclusions.
The female boarder in black attire looked so puzzled, and, in fact,
"all abroad," after the delivery of this "counter" of mine, that I
left her to recover her wits, and went on with the conversation,
which I was beginning to get pretty well in hand.
But in the mean time I kept my eye on the female boarder to see what
effect I had produced. First, she was a little stunned at having her
argument knocked over. Secondly, she was a little shocked at the
tremendous character of the triple matrimonial suggestion. Thirdly.
--I don't like to say what I thought. Something seemed to have
pleased her fancy. Whether it was, that, if trigamy should come into
fashion, there would be three times as many chances to enjoy the
luxury of saying, "No!" is more than I, can tell you. I may as well
mention that B. F. came to me after breakfast to borrow the pamphlet
for "a lady,"--one of the boarders, he said,--looking as if he had a
secret he wished to be relieved of.
--I continued.--If a human soul is necessarily to be trained up in
the faith of those from whom it inherits its body, why, there is the
end of all reason. If, sooner or later, every soul is to look for
truth with its own eyes, the first thing is to recognize that no
presumption in favor of any particular belief arises from the fact of
our inheriting it. Otherwise you would not give the Mahometan a fair
chance to become a convert to a better religion.
The second thing would be to depolarize every fixed religious idea in
the mind by changing the word which stands for it.
--I don't know what you mean by "depolarizing" an idea,--said the
I will tell you,--I said.---When a given symbol which represents a
thought has lain for a certain length of time in the mind, it
undergoes a change like that which rest in a certain position gives
to iron. It becomes magnetic in its relations,--it is traversed by
strange forces which did not belong to it. The word, and
consequently the idea it represents, is polarized.
The religious currency of mankind, in thought, in speech, and in
print, consists entirely of polarized words. Borrow one of these
from another language and religion, and you will find it leaves all
its magnetism behind it. Take that famous word, O'm, of the Hindoo
mythology. Even a priest cannot pronounce it without sin; and a holy
Pundit would shut his ears and run away from you in horror, if you
should say it aloud. What do you care for O'm? If you wanted to get
the Pundit to look at his religion fairly, you must first depolarize
this and all similar words for him. The argument for and against new
translations of the Bible really turns on this. Skepticism is afraid
to trust its truths in depolarized words, and so cries out against a
new translation. I think, myself, if every idea our Book contains
could be shelled out of its old symbol and put into a new, clean,
unmagnetic word, we should have some chance of reading it as
philosophers, or wisdom-lovers, ought to read it,--which we do not
and cannot now any more than a Hindoo can read the "Gayatri" as a
fair man and lover of truth should do. When society has once fairly
dissolved the New Testament, which it never has done yet, it will
perhaps crystallize it over again in new forms of language.
I did n't know you was a settled minister over this parish,--said the
young fellow near me.
A sermon by a lay-preacher may be worth listening--I replied, calmly.
--It gives the parallax of thought and feeling as they appear to the
observers from two very different points of view. If you wish to get
the distance of a heavenly body, you know that you must take two
observations from remote points of the earth's orbit,--in midsummer
and midwinter, for instance. To get the parallax of heavenly truths,
you must take an observation from the position of the laity as well
as of the clergy. Teachers and students of theology get a certain
look, certain conventional tones of voice, a clerical gait, a
professional neckcloth, and habits of mind as professional as their
externals. They are scholarly men and read Bacon, and know well
enough what the "idols of the tribe" are. Of course they have their
false gods, as all men that follow one exclusive calling are prone to
do.--The clergy have played the part of the flywheel in our modern
civilization. They have never suffered it to stop. They have often
carried on its movement, when other moving powers failed, by the
momentum stored in their vast body. Sometimes, too, they have kept
it back by their vis inertia, when its wheels were like to grind the
bones of some old canonized error into fertilizers for the soil that
yields the bread of life. But the mainspring of the world's onward
religious movement is not in them, nor in any one body of men, let me
tell you. It is the people that makes the clergy, and not the clergy
that makes the people. Of course, the profession reacts on its
source with variable energy.--But there never was a guild of dealers
or a company of craftsmen that did not need sharp looking after.
Our old friend, Dr. Holyoke, whom we gave the dinner to some time
since, must have known many people that saw the great bonfire in
Harvard College yard.
--Bonfire?--shrieked the little man.--The bonfire when Robert
Calef's book was burned?
The same,--I said,--when Robert Calef the Boston merchant's book was
burned in the yard of Harvard College, by order of Increase Mather,
President of the College and Minister of the Gospel. You remember
the old witchcraft revival of '92, and how stout Master Robert Calef,
trader of Boston, had the pluck to tell the ministers and judges what
a set of fools and worse than fools they were-
Remember it?--said the little man.--I don't think I shall forget it,
as long as I can stretch this forefinger to point with, and see what
it wears. There was a ring on it.
May I look at it?--I said.
Where it is,--said the little man;--it will never come off, till it
falls off from the bone in the darkness and in the dust.
He pushed the high chair on which he sat slightly back from the
table, and dropped himself, standing, to the floor,--his head being
only a little above the level of the table, as he stood. With pain
and labor, lifting one foot over the other, as a drummer handles his
sticks, he took a few steps from his place,--his motions and the
deadbeat of the misshapen boots announcing to my practised eye and
ear the malformation which is called in learned language talipes
varus, or inverted club-foot.
Stop! stop!--I said,--let me come to you.
The little man hobbled back, and lifted himself by the left arm, with
an ease approaching to grace which surprised me, into his high chair.
I walked to his side, and he stretched out the forefinger of his
right hand, with the ring upon it. The ring had been put on long
ago, and could not pass the misshapen joint. It was one of those
funeral rings which used to be given to relatives and friends after
the decease of persons of any note or importance. Beneath a round
fit of glass was a death's head. Engraved on one side of this, "L.
B. AEt. 22,"--on the other, "Ob. 1692"
My grandmother's grandmother,--said the little man.--Hanged for a
witch. It does n't seem a great while ago. I knew my grandmother,
and loved her. Her mother was daughter to the witch that Chief
Justice Sewall hanged and Cotton Mather delivered over to the Devil.-
-That was Salem, though, and not Boston. No, not Boston. Robert
Calef, the Boston merchant, it was that blew them all to-
Never mind where he blew them to,--I said; for the little man was
getting red in the face, and I did n't know what might come next.
This episode broke me up, as the jockeys say, out of my square
conversational trot; but I settled down to it again.
--A man that knows men, in the street, at their work, human nature in
its shirt-sleeves, who makes bargains with deacons, instead of
talking over texts with them, a man who has found out that there are
plenty of praying rogues and swearing saints in the world,--above
all, who has found out, by living into the pith and core of life,
that all of the Deity which can be folded up between the sheets of
any human book is to the Deity of the firmament, of the strata, of
the hot aortic flood of throbbing human life, of this infinite,
instantaneous consciousness in which the soul's being consists,--an
incandescent point in the filament connecting the negative pole of a
past eternity with the positive pole of an eternity that is to come,-
-that all of the Deity which any human book can hold is to this
larger Deity of the working battery of the universe only as the films
in a book of gold-leaf are to the broad seams and curdled lumps of
ore that lie in unsunned mines and virgin placers,--Oh!--I was saying
that a man who lives out-of-doors, among live people, gets some
things into his head he might not find in the index of his "Body of
I tell you what,--the idea of the professions' digging a moat round
their close corporations, like that Japanese one at Jeddo, on the
bottom of which, if travellers do not lie, you could put Park Street
Church and look over the vane from its side, and try to stretch
another such spire across it without spanning the chasm,--that idea,
I say, is pretty nearly worn out. Now when a civilization or a
civilized custom falls into senile dementia, there is commonly a
judgment ripe for it, and it comes as plagues come, from a breath,--
as fires come, from a spark.
Here, look at medicine. Big wigs, gold-headed canes, Latin
prescriptions, shops full of abominations, recipes a yard long,
"curing" patients by drugging as sailors bring a wind by whistling,
selling lies at a guinea apiece,--a routine, in short, of giving
unfortunate sick people a mess of things either too odious to swallow
or too acrid to hold, or, if that were possible, both at once.
--You don't know what I mean, indignant and not unintelligent
country-practitioner? Then you don't know the history of medicine,--
and that is not my fault. But don't expose yourself in any outbreak
of eloquence; for, by the mortar in which Anaxarchus was pounded! I
did not bring home Schenckius and Forestus and Hildanus, and all the
old folios in calf and vellum I will show you, to be bullied by the
proprietor, of a "Wood and Bache," and a shelf of peppered sheepskin
reprints by Philadelphia Editors. Besides, many of the profession
and I know a little something of each other, and you don't think I am
such a simpleton as to lose their good opinion by saying what the
better heads among them would condemn as unfair and untrue? Now mark
how the great plague came on the generation of drugging doctors, and
in what form it fell.
A scheming drug-vender, (inventive genius,) an utterly untrustworthy
and incompetent observer, (profound searcher of Nature,) a shallow
dabbler in erudition, (sagacious scholar,) started the monstrous
fiction (founded the immortal system) of Homoeopathy. I am very
fair, you see,---you can help yourself to either of these sets of
All the reason in the world would not have had so rapid and general
an effect on the public mind to disabuse it of the idea that a drug
is a good thing in itself, instead of being, as it is, a bad thing,
as was produced by the trick (system) of this German charlatan
(theorist). Not that the wiser part of the profession needed him to
teach them; but the routinists and their employers, the "general
practitioners," who lived by selling pills and mixtures, and their
drug-consuming customers, had to recognize that people could get
well, unpoisoned. These dumb cattle would not learn it of
themselves, and so the murrain of Homoeopathy fell on them.
--You don't know what plague has fallen on the practitioners of
theology? I will tell you, then. It is Spiritualism. While some
are crying out against it as a delusion of the Devil, and some are
laughing at it as an hysteric folly, and some are getting angry with
it as a mere trick of interested or mischievous persons, Spiritualism
is quietly undermining the traditional ideas of the future state
which have been and are still accepted,--not merely in those who
believe in it, but in the general sentiment of the community, to a
larger extent than most good people seem to be aware of. It need n't
be true, to do this, any more than Homoeopathy need, to do its work.
The Spiritualists have some pretty strong instincts to pry over,
which no doubt have been roughly handled by theologians at different
times. And the Nemesis of the pulpit comes, in a shape it little
thought of, beginning with the snap of a toe-joint, and ending with
such a crack of old beliefs that the roar of it is heard in all the
ministers' studies of Christendom? Sir, you cannot have people of
cultivation, of pure character, sensible enough in common things,
large-hearted women, grave judges, shrewd business-men, men of
science, professing to be in communication with the spiritual world
and keeping up constant intercourse with it, without its gradually
reacting on the whole conception of that other life. It is the folly
of the world, constantly, which confounds its wisdom. Not only out
of the mouths of babes and sucklings, but out of the mouths of fools
and cheats, we may often get our truest lessons. For the fool's
judgment is a dog-vane that turns with a breath, and the cheat
watches the clouds and sets his weathercock by them,--so that one
shall often see by their pointing which way the winds of heaven are
blowing, when the slow-wheeling arrows and feathers of what we call
the Temples of Wisdom are turning to all points of the compass.
--Amen!--said the young fellow called John--Ten minutes by the
watch. Those that are unanimous will please to signify by holding up
their left foot!
I looked this young man steadily in the face for about thirty
seconds. His countenance was as calm as that of a reposing infant.
I think it was simplicity, rather than mischief, with perhaps a
youthful playfulness, that led him to this outbreak. I have often
noticed that even quiet horses, on a sharp November morning, when
their coats are beginning to get the winter roughness, will give
little sportive demi-kicks, with slight sudden elevation of the
subsequent region of the body, and a sharp short whinny,--by no means
intending to put their heels through the dasher, or to address the
driver rudely, but feeling, to use a familiar word, frisky. This, I
think, is the physiological condition of the young person, John. I
noticed, however, what I should call a palpebral spasm, affecting the
eyelid and muscles of one side, which, if it were intended for the
facial gesture called a wink, might lead me to suspect a disposition
to be satirical on his part.
--Resuming the conversation, I remarked,--I am, ex officio, as a
Professor, a conservative. For I don't know any fruit that clings to
its tree so faithfully, not even a "froze-'n'-thaw" winter-apple, as
a Professor to the bough of which his chair is made. You can't shake
him off, and it is as much as you can do to pull him off. Hence, by
a chain of induction I need not unwind, he tends to conservatism
But then, you know, if you are sailing the Atlantic, and all at once
find yourself in a current, and the sea covered with weeds, and drop
your Fahrenheit over the side and find it eight or ten degrees higher
than in the ocean generally, there is no use in flying in the face of
facts and swearing there is no such thing as a Gulf-Stream, when you
are in it.
You can't keep gas in a bladder, and you can't keep knowledge tight
in a profession. Hydrogen will leak out, and air will leak in,
through India-rubber; and special knowledge will leak out, and
general knowledge will leak in, though a profession were covered with
twenty thicknesses of sheepskin diplomas.
By Jove, Sir, till common sense is well mixed up with medicine, and
common manhood with theology, and common honesty with law, We the
people, Sir, some of us with nut-crackers, and some of us with trip-
hammers, and some of us with pile-drivers, and some of us coming with
a whish! like air-stones out of a lunar volcano, will crash down on
the lumps of nonsense in all of them till we have made powder of
them--like Aaron's calf
[See Holmes poem: "When doctor's take what they would give and
lawyers give what they would take and strawberries grow larger down
through the box." D.W.]
If to be a conservative is to let all the drains of thought choke up
and keep all the soul's windows down,--to shut out the sun from the
east and the wind from the west,--to let the rats run free in the
cellar, and the moths feed their fill in the chambers, and the
spiders weave their lace before the mirrors, till the soul's typhus
is bred out of our neglect, and we begin to snore in its coma or rave
in its delirium,--I, Sir, am a bonnet-rouge, a red cap of the
barricades, my friends, rather than a conservative.
--Were you born in Boston, Sir?--said the little man,--looking eager
I was not,--I replied.
It's a pity,--it's a pity,--said the little man;--it 's the place to
be born in. But if you can't fix it so as to be born here, you can
come and live here. Old Ben Franklin, the father of American science
and the American Union, was n't ashamed to be born here. Jim Otis,
the father of American Independence, bothered about in the Cape Cod
marshes awhile, but he came to Boston as soon as he got big enough.
Joe Warren, the first bloody ruffed-shirt of the Revolution, was as
good as born here. Parson Charming strolled along this way from
Newport, and stayed here. Pity old Sam Hopkins hadn't come, too;--
we'd have made a man of him,--poor, dear, good old Christian heathen!
There he lies, as peaceful as a young baby, in the old burying-
ground! I've stood on the slab many a time. Meant well,--meant
well. Juggernaut. Parson Charming put a little oil on one linchpin,
and slipped it out so softly, the first thing they knew about it was
the wheel of that side was down. T' other fellow's at work now, but
he makes more noise about it. When the linchpin comes out on his
side, there'll be a jerk, I tell you! Some think it will spoil the
old cart, and they pretend to say that there are valuable things in
it which may get hurt. Hope not,--hope not. But this is the great
Macadamizing place,--always cracking up something.
Cracking up Boston folks,--said the gentleman with the diamond-pin,
whom, for convenience' sake, I shall hereafter call the Koh-i-noor.
The little man turned round mechanically towards him, as Maelzel's
Turk used to turn, carrying his head slowly and horizontally, as if
it went by cogwheels.--Cracking up all sorts of things,--native and
foreign vermin included,--said the little man.
This remark was thought by some of us to have a hidden personal
application, and to afford a fair opening for a lively rejoinder, if
the Koh-i-noor had been so disposed. The little man uttered it with
the distinct wooden calmness with which the ingenious Turk used to
exclaim, E-chec! so that it must have been heard. The party supposed
to be interested in the remark was, however, carrying a large knife-
bladeful of something to his mouth just then, which, no doubt,
interfered with the reply he would have made.
--My friend who used to board here was accustomed sometimes, in a
pleasant way, to call himself the Autocrat of the table,--meaning, I
suppose, that he had it all his own way among the boarders. I think
our small boarder here is like to prove a refractory subject, if I
undertake to use the sceptre my friend meant to bequeath me, too
magisterially. I won't deny that sometimes, on rare occasions, when
I have been in company with gentlemen who preferred listening, I have
been guilty of the same kind of usurpation which my friend openly
justified. But I maintain, that I, the Professor, am a good
listener. If a man can tell me a fact which subtends an appreciable
angle in the horizon of thought, I am as receptive as the
contribution-box in a congregation of colored brethren. If, when I
am exposing my intellectual dry-goods, a man will begin a good story,
I will have them all in, and my shutters up, before he has got to the
fifth "says he," and listen like a three-years' child, as the author
of the "Old Sailor" says. I had rather hear one of those grand
elemental laughs from either of our two Georges, (fictitious names,
Sir or Madam,) glisten to one of those old playbills of our College
days, in which "Tom and Jerry" ("Thomas and Jeremiah," as the old
Greek Professor was said to call it) was announced to be brought on
the stage with whole force of the Faculty, read by our Frederick, (no
such person, of course,) than say the best things I might by any
chance find myself capable of saying. Of course, if I come across a
real thinker, a suggestive, acute, illuminating, informing talker, I
enjoy the luxury of sitting still for a while as much as another.
Nobody talks much that does n't say unwise things,--things he did not
mean to say; as no person plays much without striking a false note
sometimes. Talk, to me, is only spading up the ground for crops of
thought. I can't answer for what will turn up. If I could, it would
n't be talking, but "speaking my piece." Better, I think, the hearty
abandonment of one's self to the suggestions of the moment at the
risk of an occasional slip of the tongue, perceived the instant it
escapes, but just one syllable too late, than the royal reputation of
never saying a foolish thing.
--What shall I do with this little man?--There is only one thing to
do,--and that is to let him talk when he will. The day of the
"Autocrat's" monologues is over.
--My friend,--said I to the young fellow whom, as I have said, the
boarders call "John,"--My friend,--I said, one morning, after
breakfast,--can you give me any information respecting the deformed
person who sits at the other end of the table?
What! the Sculpin?--said the young fellow.
The diminutive person, with angular curvature of the spine,--I said,-
-and double talipes varus,--I beg your pardon,--with two club-feet.
Is that long word what you call it when a fellah walks so?--said the
young man, making his fists revolve round an imaginary axis, as you
may have seen youth of tender age and limited pugilistic knowledge,
when they show how they would punish an adversary, themselves
protected by this rotating guard,--the middle knuckle, meantime,
thumb-supported, fiercely prominent, death-threatening.
It is,--said I.--But would you have the kindness to tell me if you
know anything about this deformed person?
About the Sculpin?--said the young fellow.
My good friend,--said I,--I am sure, by your countenance, you would
not hurt the feelings of one who has been hardly enough treated by
Nature to be spared by his fellows. Even in speaking of him to
others, I could wish that you might not employ a term which implies
contempt for what should inspire only pity.
A fellah 's no business to be so crooked,--said the young man called
Yes, yes,--I said, thoughtfully,--the strong hate the weak. It's all
right. The arrangement has reference to the race, and not to the
individual. Infirmity must be kicked out, or the stock run down.
Wholesale moral arrangements are so different from retail!--I
understand the instinct, my friend,--it is cosmic,--it is planetary,-
-it is a conservative principle in creation.
The young fellow's face gradually lost its expression as I was
speaking, until it became as blank of vivid significance as the
countenance of a gingerbread rabbit with two currants in the place of
eyes. He had not taken my meaning.
Presently the intelligence came back with a snap that made him wink,
as he answered,--Jest so. All right. A 1. Put her through. That's
the way to talk. Did you speak to me, Sir?--Here the young man
struck up that well-known song which I think they used to sing at
Masonic festivals, beginning, "Aldiborontiphoscophornio, Where left
I beg your pardon,--I said;--all I meant was, that men, as temporary
occupants of a permanent abode called human life, which is improved
or injured by occupancy, according to the style of tenant, have a
natural dislike to those who, if they live the life of the race as
well as of the individual, will leave lasting injurious effects upon
the abode spoken of, which is to be occupied by countless future
generations. This is the final cause of the underlying brute
instinct which we have in common with the herds.
--The gingerbread-rabbit expression was coming on so fast, that I
thought I must try again.--It's a pity that families are kept up,
where there are such hereditary infirmities. Still, let us treat
this poor man fairly, and not call him names. Do you know what his
I know what the rest of 'em call him,--said the young fellow.--They
call him Little Boston. There's no harm in that, is there?
It is an honorable term,--I replied.--But why Little Boston, in a
place where most are Bostonians?
Because nobody else is quite so Boston all over as he is,--said the
"L. B. Ob. 1692."--Little Boston let him be, when we talk about him.
The ring he wears labels him well enough. There is stuff in the
little man, or he would n't stick so manfully by this crooked,
crotchety old town. Give him a chance.--You will drop the Sculpin,
won't you?--I said to the young fellow.
Drop him?--he answered,--I ha'n't took him up yet.
No, no,--the term,--I said,--the term. Don't call him so any more,
if you please. Call him Little Boston, if you like.
All right,--said the young fellow.--I would n't be hard on the poor
The word he used was objectionable in point of significance and of
grammar. It was a frequent termination of certain adjectives among
the Romans,--as of those designating a person following the sea, or
given to rural pursuits. It is classed by custom among the profane
words; why, it is hard to say,--but it is largely used in the street
by those who speak of their fellows in pity or in wrath.
I never heard the young fellow apply the name of the odious pretended
fish to the little man from that day forward.
--Here we are, then, at our boarding--house. First, myself, the
Professor, a little way from the head of the table, on the right,
looking down, where the "Autocrat" used to sit. At the further end
sits the Landlady. At the head of the table, just now, the Koh-i-
noor, or the gentleman with the diamond. Opposite me is a Venerable
Gentleman with a bland countenance, who as yet has spoken little.
The Divinity Student is my neighbor on the right,--and further down,
that Young Fellow of whom I have repeatedly spoken. The Landlady's
Daughter sits near the Koh-i-noor, as I said. The Poor Relation near
the Landlady. At the right upper corner is a fresh-looking youth of
whose name and history I have as yet learned nothing. Next the
further left-hand corner, near the lower end of the table, sits the
deformed person. The chair at his side, occupying that corner, is
empty. I need not specially mention the other boarders, with the
exception of Benjamin Franklin, the landlady's son, who sits near his
mother. We are a tolerably assorted set,--difference enough and
likeness enough; but still it seems to me there is something wanting.
The Landlady's Daughter is the prima donna in the way of feminine
attractions. I am not quite satisfied with this young lady. She
wears more "jewelry," as certain young ladies call their trinkets,
than I care to see on a person in her position. Her voice is
strident, her laugh too much like a giggle, and she has that foolish
way of dancing and bobbing like a quill-float with a "minnum" biting
the hook below it, which one sees and weeps over sometimes in persons
of more pretensions. I can't help hoping we shall put something into
that empty chair yet which will add the missing string to our social
harp. I hear talk of a rare Miss who is expected. Something in the
schoolgirl way, I believe. We shall see.
--My friend who calls himself The Autocrat has given me a caution
which I am going to repeat, with my comment upon it, for the benefit
of all concerned.
Professor,--said he, one day,--don't you think your brain will run
dry before a year's out, if you don't get the pump to help the cow?
Let me tell you what happened to me once. I put a little money into
a bank, and bought a check-book, so that I might draw it as I wanted,
in sums to suit. Things went on nicely for a time; scratching with a
pen was as easy as rubbing Aladdin's Lamp; and my blank check-book
seemed to be a dictionary of possibilities, in which I could find all
the synonymes of happiness, and realize any one of them on the spot.
A check came back to me at last with these two words on it,--NO
FUNDS. My check-book was a volume of waste-paper.
Now, Professor,--said he,--I have drawn something out of your bank,
you know; and just so sure as you keep drawing out your soul's
currency without making new deposits, the next thing will be, NO
FUNDS,--and then where will you be, my boy? These little bits of
paper mean your gold and your silver and your copper, Professor; and
you will certainly break up and go to pieces, if you don't hold on to
your metallic basis.
There is something in that,--said I.--Only I rather think life can
coin thought somewhat faster than I can count it off in words. What
if one shall go round and dry up with soft napkins all the dew that
falls of a June evening on the leaves of his garden? Shall there be
no more dew on those leaves thereafter? Marry, yea,--many drops,
large and round and full of moonlight as those thou shalt have
Here am I, the Professor,--a man who has lived long enough to have
plucked the flowers of life and come to the berries,--which are not
always sad-colored, but sometimes golden-hued as the crocus of April,
or rosy-cheeked as the damask of June; a man who staggered against
books as a baby, and will totter against them, if he lives to
decrepitude; with a brain full of tingling thoughts, such as they
are, as a limb which we call "asleep," because it is so particuly
awake, is of pricking points; presenting a key-board of nerve-pulps,
not as yet tanned or ossified, to finger-touch of all outward
agencies; knowing nothing of the filmy threads of this web of life in
which we insects buzz awhile, waiting for the gray old spider to come
along; contented enough with daily realities, but twirling on his
finger the key of a private Bedlam of ideals; in knowledge feeding
with the fox oftener than with the stork,--loving better the breadth
of a fertilizing inundation than the depth of narrow artesian well;
finding nothing too small for his contemplation in the markings of
the grammatophora subtilissima, and nothing too large in the movement
of the solar system towards the star Lambda of the constellation
Hercules;--and the question is, whether there is anything left for
me, the Professor, to suck out of creation, after my lively friend
has had his straw in the bung-hole of the Universe!
A man's mental reactions with the atmosphere of life must go on,
whether he will or no, as between his blood and the air he breathes.
As to catching the residuum of the process, or what we call thought,-
-the gaseous ashes of burned-out thinking,--the excretion of mental
respiration,--that will depend on many things, as, on having a
favorable intellectual temperature about one, and a fitting
receptacle.--I sow more thought-seeds in twenty-four hours' travel
over the desert-sand along which my lonely consciousness paces day
and night, than I shall throw into soil where it will germinate, in a
year. All sorts of bodily and mental perturbations come between us
and the due projection of our thought. The pulse-like "fits of easy
and difficult transmission" seem to reach even the transparent medium
through which our souls are seen. We know our humanity by its often
intercepted rays, as we tell a revolving light from a star or meteor
by its constantly recurring obscuration.
An illustrious scholar once told me, that, in the first lecture he
ever delivered, he spoke but half his allotted time, and felt as if
he had told all he knew. Braham came forward once to sing one of his
most famous and familiar songs, and for his life could not recall the
first line of it;--he told his mishap to the audience, and they
screamed it at him in a chorus of a thousand voices. Milton could
not write to suit himself, except from the autumnal to the vernal
equinox. One in the clothing-business, who, there is reason to
suspect, may have inherited, by descent, the great poet's impressible
temperament, let a customer slip through his fingers one day without
fitting him with a new garment. "Ah!" said he to a friend of mine,
who was standing by, "if it hadn't been for that confounded headache
of mine this morning, I'd have had a coat on that man, in spite of
himself, before he left-the store." A passing throb, only,--but it
deranged the nice mechanism required to persuade the accidental human
being, X, into a given piece of broadcloth, A.
We must take care not to confound this frequent difficulty of
transmission of our ideas with want of ideas. I suppose that a man's
mind does in time form a neutral salt with the elements in the
universe for which it has special elective affinities. In fact, I
look upon a library as a kind of mental chemist's shop filled with
the crystals of all forms and hues which have come from the union of
individual thought with local circumstances or universal principles.
When a man has worked out his special affinities in this way, there
is an end of his genius as a real solvent. No more effervescence and
hissing tumult--as he pours his sharp thought on the world's biting
alkaline unbeliefs! No more corrosion of the old monumental tablets
covered with lies! No more taking up of dull earths, and turning
them, first into clear solutions, and then into lustrous prisms!
I, the Professor, am very much like other men: I shall not find out
when I have used up my affinities. What a blessed thing it is, that
Nature, when she invented, manufactured, and patented her authors,
contrived to make critics out of the chips that were left! Painful
as the task is, they never fail to warn the author, in the most
impressive manner, of the probabilities of failure in what he has
undertaken. Sad as the necessity is to their delicate sensibilities,
they never hesitate to advertise him of the decline of his powers,
and to press upon him the propriety of retiring before he sinks into
imbecility. Trusting to their kind offices, I shall endeavor to
--Bridget enters and begins clearing the table.
--The following poem is my (The Professor's) only contribution to the
great department of Ocean-Cable literature. As all the poets of this
country will be engaged for the next six weeks in writing for the
premium offered by the Crystal-Palace Company for the Burns
Centenary, (so called, according to our Benjamin Franklin, because
there will be nary a cent for any of us,) poetry will be very scarce
and dear. Consumers may, consequently, be glad to take the present
article, which, by the aid of a Latin tutor--and a Professor of
Chemistry, will be found intelligible to the educated classes.
AN ELECTRO-CHEMICAL ECLOGUE.
Tell me, O Provincial! speak, Ceruleo-Nasal!
Lives there one De Sauty extant now among yon,
Whispering Boanerges, son of silent thunder,
Holding talk with nations?
Is there a De Sauty, ambulant on Tellus,
Bifid-cleft like mortals, dormient in night-cap,
Having sight, smell, hearing, food-receiving feature
Three times daily patent?
Breathes there such a being, O Ceruleo-Nasal?
Or is he a mythus,--ancient word for "humbug,"--
Such as Livy told about the wolf that wet-nursed
Romulus and Remus?
Was he born of woman, this alleged De Sauty?
Or a living product of galvanic action,
Like the status bred in Crosses flint-solution?
Speak, thou Cyano-Rhinal!
Many things thou askest, jackknife-bearing stranger,
Much-conjecturing mortal, pork-and-treacle-waster!
Pretermit thy whittling, wheel thine ear-flap toward me,
Thou shalt hear them answered.
When the charge galvanic tingled through the cable,
At the polar focus of the wire electric
Suddenly appeared a white-faced man among us
Called himself "DE SAUTY."
As the small opossum held in pouch maternal
Grasps the nutrient organ whence the term mammalia,
So the unknown stranger held the wire electric,
Sucking in the current.
When the current strengthened, bloomed the pale-faced stranger,
Took no drink nor victual, yet grew fat and rosy,
And from time to time, in sharp articulation,
Said, "All right! DE SAUTY."
From the lonely station passed the utterance, spreading
Through the pines and hemlocks to the groves of steeples
Till the land was filled with loud reverberations
Of "All right! DE SAUTY."
When the current slackened, drooped the mystic stranger,
Faded, faded, faded, as the stream grew weaker,
Wasted to a shadow, with a hartshorn odor
Drops of deliquescence glistened on his forehead,
Whitened round his feet the dust of efflorescence,
Till one Monday morning, when the flow suspended,
There was no De Sauty.
Nothing but a cloud of elements organic,
C. O. H. N. Ferrum, Chor. Flu. Sil. Potassa,
Calc. Sod. Phosph. Mag. Sulphur, Mang.(?) Alumin.(?) Cuprum,(?)
Such as man is made of.
Born of stream galvanic, with it be had perished!
There is no De Sauty now there is no current!
Give us a new cable, then again we'll hear him
Cry, "All right! DE SAUTY."
Back again!--A turtle--which means a tortoise--is fond of his shell;
but if you put a live coal on his back, he crawls out of it. So the
It is a libel on the turtle. He grows to his shell, and his shell is
in his body as much as his body is in his shell.--I don't think
there is one of our boarders quite so testudineous as I am. Nothing
but a combination of motives, more peremptory than the coal on the
turtle's back, could have got me to leave the shelter of my carapace;
and after memorable interviews, and kindest hospitalities, and grand
sights, and huge influx of patriotic pride,--for every American owns
"Creation's heir,--the world, the world is"
his, if anybody's,--I come back with the feeling which a boned turkey
might experience, if, retaining his consciousness, he were allowed to
resume his skeleton.
Welcome, O Fighting Gladiator, and Recumbent Cleopatra, and Dying
Warrior, whose classic outlines (reproduced in the calcined mineral
of Lutetia) crown my loaded shelves! Welcome, ye triumphs of
pictorial art (repeated by the magic graver) that look down upon me
from the walls of my sacred cell! Vesalius, as Titian drew him,
high-fronted, still-eyed, thick-bearded, with signet-ring, as beseems
a gentleman, with book and carelessly-held eyeglass, marking him a
scholar; thou, too, Jan Kuyper, commonly called Jan Praktiseer, old
man of a century and seven years besides, father of twenty sons and
two daughters, cut in copper by Houbraken, bought from a portfolio on
one of the Paris quais; and ye Three Trees of Rembrandt, black in
shadow against the blaze of light; and thou Rosy Cottager of Sir
Joshua, roses hinted by the peppery burin of Bartolozzi; ye, too, of
lower grades in nature, yet not unlovely for unrenowned, Young Bull
of Paulus Potter, and sleeping Cat of Cornelius Visscher; welcome
once more to my eyes! The old books look out from the shelves, and I
seem to read on their backs something asides their titles,--a kind of
solemn greeting. The crimson carpet flushes warm under my feet. The
arm-chair hugs me; the swivel-chair spins round with me, as if it
were giddy with pleasure; the vast recumbent fauteuil stretches
itself out under my weight, as one joyous with food and wine
stretches in after-dinner laughter.
The boarders were pleased to say that they were glad to get me back.
One of them ventured a compliment, namely,--that I talked as if I
believed what I said.--This was apparently considered something
unusual, by its being mentioned.
One who means to talk with entire sincerity,--I said,--always feels
himself in danger of two things, namely,--an affectation of
bluntness, like that of which Cornwall accuses Kent in "Lear," and
actual rudeness. What a man wants to do, in talking with a stranger,
is to get and to give as much of the best and most real life that
belongs to the two talkers as the time will let him. Life is short,
and conversation apt to run to mere words. Mr. Hue I think it is,
who tells us some very good stories about the way in which two
Chinese gentlemen contrive to keep up a long talk without saying a
word which has any meaning in it. Something like this is
occasionally heard on this side of the Great Wall. The best Chinese
talkers I know are some pretty women whom I meet from time to time.
Pleasant, airy, complimentary, the little flakes of flattery
glimmering in their talk like the bits of gold-leaf in eau-de-vie de
Dantzic; their accents flowing on in a soft ripple,--never a wave,
and never a calm; words nicely fitted, but never a colored phrase or
a highly-flavored epithet; they turn air into syllables so
gracefully, that we find meaning for the music they make as we find
faces in the coals and fairy palaces in the clouds. There is
something very odd, though, about this mechanical talk.
You have sometimes been in a train on the railroad when the engine
was detached a long way from the station you were approaching? Well,
you have noticed how quietly and rapidly the cars kept on, just as if
the locomotive were drawing them? Indeed, you would not have
suspected that you were travelling on the strength of a dead fact, if
you had not seen the engine running away from you on a side-track.
Upon my conscience, I believe some of these pretty women detach their
minds entirely, sometimes, from their talk,--and, what is more, that
we never know the difference. Their lips let off the fluty syllables
just as their fingers would sprinkle the music-drops from their
pianos; unconscious habit turns the phrase of thought into words just
as it does that of music into notes.--Well, they govern the world
for all that, these sweet-lipped women,--because beauty is the index
of a larger fact than wisdom.
--The Bombazine wanted an explanation.
Madam,--said I,--wisdom is the abstract of the past, but beauty is
the promise of the future.
--All this, however, is not what I was going to say. Here am I,
suppose, seated--we will say at a dinner-table--alongside of an
intelligent Englishman. We look in each other's faces,--we exchange
a dozen words. One thing is settled: we mean not to offend each
other,--to be perfectly courteous,--more than courteous; for we are
the entertainer and the entertained, and cherish particularly amiable
feelings, to each other. The claret is good; and if our blood
reddens a little with its warm crimson, we are none the less kind for
I don't think people that talk over their victuals are like to say
anything very great, especially if they get their heads muddled with
strong drink before they begin jabberin'.
The Bombazine uttered this with a sugary sourness, as if the words
had been steeped in a solution of acetate of lead.--The boys of my
time used to call a hit like this a "side-winder."
--I must finish this woman.--
Madam,--I said,--the Great Teacher seems to have been fond of talking
as he sat at meat. Because this was a good while ago, in a far-off
place, you forget what the true fact of it was,--that those were real
dinners, where people were hungry and thirsty, and where you met a
very miscellaneous company. Probably there was a great deal of loose
talk among the guests; at any rate, there was always wine, we may
Whatever may be the hygienic advantages or disadvantages of wine,--
and I for one, except for certain particular ends, believe in water,
and, I blush to say it, in black tea,--there is no doubt about its
being the grand specific against dull dinners. A score of people
come together in all moods of mind and body. The problem is, in the
space of one hour, more or less, to bring them all into the same
condition of slightly exalted life. Food alone is enough for one
person, perhaps,--talk, alone, for another; but the grand equalizer
and fraternizer, which works up the radiators to their maximum
radiation, and the absorbents to their maximum receptivity, is now
just where it was when
The conscious water saw its Lord and blushed,
--when six great vessels containing water, the whole amounting to
more than a hogshead-full, were changed into the best of wine. I
once wrote a song about wine, in which I spoke so warmly of it, that
I was afraid some would think it was written inter pocula; whereas it
was composed in the bosom of my family, under the most tranquillizing
--The divinity-student turned towards me, looking mischievous.--Can
you tell me,--he said,--who wrote a song for a temperance celebration
once, of which the following is a verse?
Alas for the loved one, too gentle and fair
The joys of the banquet to chasten and share!
Her eye lost its light that his goblet might shine,
And the rose of her cheek was dissolved in his wine!
I did,--I answered.--What are you going to do about it?--I will tell
you another line I wrote long ago:--
Don't be "consistent,"--but be simply true.
The longer I live, the more I am satisfied of two things: first, that
the truest lives are those that are cut rose-diamond-fashion, with
many facets answering to the many-planed aspects of the world about
them; secondly, that society is always trying in some way or other to
grind us down to a single flat surface. It is hard work to resist
this grinding-down action.--Now give me a chance. Better eternal
and universal abstinence than the brutalities of those days that made
wives and mothers and daughters and sisters blush for those whom they
should have honored, as they came reeling home from their debauches!
Yet better even excess than lying and hypocrisy; and if wine is upon
all our tables, let us praise it for its color and fragrance and
social tendency, so far as it deserves, and not hug a bottle in the
closet and pretend not to know the use of a wine-glass at a public
dinner! I think you will find that people who honestly mean to be
true really contradict themselves much more rarely than those who try
to be "consistent." But a great many things we say can be made to
appear contradictory, simply because they are partial views of a
truth, and may often look unlike at first, as a front view of a face
and its profile often do.
Here is a distinguished divine, for whom I have great respect, for I
owe him a charming hour at one of our literary anniversaries, and he
has often spoken noble words; but he holds up a remark of my friend
the "Autocrat,"--which I grieve to say he twice misquotes, by
omitting the very word which gives it its significance,--the word
fluid, intended to typify the mobility of the restricted will,--holds
it up, I say, as if it attacked the reality of the self-determining
principle, instead of illustrating its limitations by an image. Now
I will not explain any farther, still less defend, and least of all
attack, but simply quote a few lines from one of my friend's poems,
printed more than ten years ago, and ask the distinguished gentleman
where he has ever asserted more strongly or absolutely the
independent will of the "subcreative centre," as my heretical friend
has elsewhere called man.
--Thought, conscience, will, to make them all thy own
He rent a pillar from the eternal throne!
--Made in His image, thou must nobly dare
The thorny crown of sovereignty to share.
--Think not too meanly of thy low estate;
Thou hast a choice; to choose is to create!
If he will look a little closely, he will see that the profile and
the full-face views of the will are both true and perfectly
Now let us come back, after this long digression, to the conversation
with the intelligent Englishman. We begin skirmishing with a few
light ideas,--testing for thoughts,--as our electro-chemical friend,
De Sauty, if there were such a person, would test for his current;
trying a little litmus-paper for acids, and then a slip of turmeric-
paper for alkalies, as chemists do with unknown compounds; flinging
the lead, and looking at the shells and sands it brings up to find
out whether we are like to keep in shallow water, or shall have to
drop the deep-sea line;--in short, seeing what we have to deal with.
If the Englishman gets his H's pretty well placed, he comes from one
of the higher grades of the British social order, and we shall find
him a good companion.
But, after all, here is a great fact between us. We belong to two
different civilizations, and, until we recognize what separates us,
we are talking like Pyramus and Thisbe, without any hole in the wall
to talk through. Therefore, on the whole, if he were a superior
fellow, incapable of mistaking it for personal conceit, I think I
would let out the fact of the real American feeling about Old-World
folks. They are children to us in certain points of view. They are
playing with toys we have done with for whole-generations.
The more I have observed and reflected, the more limited seems to me
the field of action of the human will. Every act of choice involves a
special relation between the ego and the conditions before it. But
no man knows what forces are at work in the determination of his ego.
The bias which decides his choice between two or more motives may
come from some unsuspected ancestral source, of which he knows
nothing at all. He is automatic in virtue of that hidden spring of
reflex action, all the time having the feeling that he is self-
determining. The Story of Elsie Yenner, written-soon after this book
was published, illustrates the direction in which my thought was
moving. 'The imaginary subject of the story obeyed her will, but her
will Obeyed the mysterious antenatal poisoning influence.
That silly little drum they are always beating on, and the trumpet
and the feather they make so much noise and cut such a figure with,
we have not quite outgrown, but play with much less seriously and
constantly than they do. Then there is a whole museum of wigs, and
masks, and lace-coats, and gold-sticks, and grimaces, and phrases,
which we laugh at honestly, without affectation, that are still used
in the Old-World puppet-shows. I don't think we on our part ever
understand the Englishman's concentrated loyalty and specialized
reverence. But then we do think more of a man, as such, (barring
some little difficulties about race and complexion which the
Englishman will touch us on presently,) than any people that ever
lived did think of him. Our reverence is a great deal wider, if it
is less intense. We have caste among us, to some extent; it is true;
but there is never a collar on the American wolf-dog such as you
often see on the English mastiff, notwithstanding his robust, hearty
This confronting of two civilizations is always a grand sensation to
me; it is like cutting through the isthmus and letting the two oceans
swim into each other's laps. The trouble is, it is so difficult to
let out the whole American nature without its self-assertion seeming
to take a personal character. But I never enjoy the Englishman so
much as when he talks of church and king like Manco Capac among the
Peruvians. Then you get the real British flavor, which the
cosmopolite Englishman loses.
How much better this thorough interpenetration of ideas than a barren
interchange of courtesies, or a bush-fighting argument, in which each
man tries to cover as much of himself and expose as much of his
opponent as the tangled thicket of the disputed ground will let him!
---My thoughts flow in layers or strata, at least three deep. I
follow a slow person's talk, and keep a perfectly clear under-current
of my own beneath it. Under both runs obscurely a consciousness
belonging to a third train of reflections, independent of the two
others. I will try to write out a Mental movement in three parts.
A.---First voice, or Mental Soprano,--thought follows a woman
B.--Second voice, or Mental Barytone,--my running accompaniment.
C.--Third voice, or Mental Basso,--low grumble of importunate self-
A.--White lace, three skirts, looped with flowers, wreath of apple-
blossoms, gold bracelets, diamond pin and ear-rings, the most
delicious berthe you ever saw, white satin slippers-
B.--Deuse take her! What a fool she is! Hear her chatter! (Look
out of window just here.--Two pages and a half of description, if it
were all written out, in one tenth of a second.)--Go ahead, old lady!
(Eye catches picture over fireplace.) There's that infernal family
nose! Came over in the "Mayflower" on the first old fool's face.
Why don't they wear a ring in it?
C.--You 'll be late at lecture,--late at lecture,--late,--late-
I observe that a deep layer of thought sometimes makes itself felt
through the superincumbent strata, thus:--The usual single or double
currents shall flow on, but there shall be an influence blending with
them, disturbing them in an obscure way, until all at once I say,--
Oh, there! I knew there was something troubling me,--and the thought
which had been working through comes up to the surface clear,
definite, and articulates itself,--a disagreeable duty, perhaps, or
an unpleasant recollection.
The inner world of thought and the outer world of events are alike in
this, that they are both brimful. There is no space between
consecutive thoughts, or between the never-ending series of actions.
All pack tight, and mould their surfaces against each other, so that
in the long run there is a wonderful average uniformity in the forms
of both thoughts and actions, just as you find that cylinders crowded
all become hexagonal prisms, and spheres pressed together are formed
into regular polyhedra.
Every event that a man would master must be mounted on the run, and
no man ever caught the reins of a thought except as it galloped by
him. So, to carry out, with another comparison, my remark about the
layers of thought, we may consider the mind as it moves among
thoughts or events, like a circus-rider whirling round with a great
troop of horses. He can mount a fact or an idea, and guide it more
or less completely, but he cannot stop it. So, as I said in another
way at the beginning, he can stride two or three thoughts at once,
but not break their steady walk, trot, or gallop. He can only take
his foot from the saddle of one thought and put it on that of
--What is the saddle of a thought? Why, a word, of course.--Twenty
years after you have dismissed a thought, it suddenly wedges up to
you through the press, as if it had been steadily galloping round and
round all that time without a rider.
The will does not act in the interspaces of thought, for there are no
such interspaces, but simply steps from the back of one moving
thought upon that of another.
--I should like to ask,--said the divinity-student,--since we are
getting into metaphysics, how you can admit space, if all things are
in contact, and how you can admit time, if it is always now to
--I thought it best not to hear this question.
--I wonder if you know this class of philosophers in books or
elsewhere. One of them makes his bow to the public, and exhibits an
unfortunate truth bandaged up so that it cannot stir hand or foot,--
as helpless, apparently, and unable to take care of itself, as an
Egyptian mummy. He then proceeds, with the air and method of a
master, to take off the bandages. Nothing can be neater than the way
in which he does it. But as he takes off layer after layer, the
truth seems to grow smaller and smaller, and some of its outlines
begin to look like something we have seen before. At last, when he
has got them all off, and the truth struts out naked, we recognize it
as a diminutive and familiar acquaintance whom we have known in the
streets all our lives. The fact is, the philosopher has coaxed the
truth into his study and put all those bandages on; or course it is
not very hard for him to take them off. Still, a great many people
like to watch the process,--he does it so neatly!
Dear! dear! I am ashamed to write and talk, sometimes, when I see
how those functions of the large-brained, thumb-opposing plantigrade
are abused by my fellow-vertebrates,--perhaps by myself. How they
spar for wind, instead of hitting from the shoulder!
--The young fellow called John arose and placed himself in a neat
fighting attitude.--Fetch on the fellah that makes them long words!
--he said,--and planted a straight hit with the right fist in the
concave palm of the left hand with a click like a cup and ball.--You
small boy there, hurry up that "Webster's Unabridged!"
The little gentleman with the malformation, before described, shocked
the propriety of the breakfast-table by a loud utterance of three
words, of which the two last were "Webster's Unabridged," and the
first was an emphatic monosyllable.--Beg pardon,--he added,--forgot
myself. But let us have an English dictionary, if we are to have
any. I don't believe in clipping the coin of the realm, Sir! If I
put a weathercock on my house, Sir, I want it to tell which way the
wind blows up aloft,--off from the prairies to the ocean, or off from
the ocean to the prairies, or any way it wants to blow! I don't want
a weathercock with a winch in an old gentleman's study that he can
take hold of and turn, so that the vane shall point west when the
great wind overhead is blowing east with all its might, Sir! Wait
till we give you a dictionary; Sir! It takes Boston to do that
--Some folks think water can't run down-hill anywhere out of Boston,
--remarked the Koh-i-noor.
I don't know what some folks think so well as I know what some fools
say,--rejoined the Little Gentleman.--If importing most dry goods
made the best scholars, I dare say you would know where to look for
'em.--Mr. Webster could n't spell, Sir, or would n't spell, Sir,--at
any rate, he did n't spell; and the end of it was a fight between the
owners of some copyrights and the dignity of this noble language
which we have inherited from our English fathers. Language!--the
blood of the soul, Sir! into which our thoughts run and out of which
they grow! We know what a word is worth here in Boston. Young Sam
Adams got up on the stage at Commencement, out at Cambridge there,
with his gown on, the Governor and Council looking on in the name of
his Majesty, King George the Second, and the girls looking down out
of the galleries, and taught people how to spell a word that was n't
in the Colonial dictionaries ! R-e, re, s-i-s, sis, t-a-n-c-e,
tance, Resistance! That was in '43, and it was a good many years
before the Boston boys began spelling it with their muskets;--but
when they did begin, they spelt it so loud that the old bedridden
women in the English almshouses heard every syllable! Yes, yes,
yes,--it was a good while before those other two Boston boys got the
class so far along that it could spell those two hard words,
Independence and Union! I tell you what, Sir, there are a thousand
lives, aye, sometimes a million, go to get a new word into a language
that is worth speaking. We know what language means too well here in
Boston to play tricks with it. We never make a new word til we have
made a new thing or a new thought, Sir! then we shaped the new mould
of this continent, we had to make a few. When, by God's permission,
we abrogated the primal curse of maternity, we had to make a word or
two. The cutwater of this great Leviathan clipper, the OCCIDENTAL,--
this thirty-wasted wind-and-steam wave-crusher,--must throw a little
spray over the human vocabulary as it splits the waters of a new
He rose as he spoke, until his stature seemed to swell into the fair
human proportions. His feet must have been on the upper round of his
high chair; that was the only way I could account for it.
Puts her through fast-rate,--said the young fellow whom the boarders
The venerable and kind-looking old gentleman who sits opposite said
he remembered Sam Adams as Governor. An old man in a brown coat.
Saw him take the Chair on Boston Common. Was a boy then, and
remembers sitting on the fence in front of the old Hancock house.
Recollects he had a glazed 'lectionbun, and sat eating it and looking
down on to the Common. Lalocks flowered late that year, and he got a
great bunch off from the bushes in the Hancock front-yard.
Them 'lection-buns are no go,--said the young man John, so called.
--I know the trick. Give a fellah a fo'penny bun in the mornin', an'
he downs the whole of it. In about an hour it swells up in his
stomach as big as a football, and his feedin' 's spilt for that day.
That's the way to stop off a young one from eatin' up all the
Salem! Salem! not Boston,--shouted the little man.
But the Koh-i-noor laughed a great rasping laugh, and the boy
Benjamin Franklin looked sharp at his mother, as if he remembered the
bun-experiment as a part of his past personal history.
The Little Gentleman was holding a fork in his left hand. He stabbed
a boulder of home-made bread with it, mechanically, and looked at it
as if it ought to shriek. It did not,--but he sat as if watching it.
--Language is a solemn thing,--I said.--It grows out of life,--out
of its agonies and ecstasies, its wants and its weariness. Every
language is a temple, in which the soul of those who speak it is
enshrined. Because time softens its outlines and rounds the sharp
angles of its cornices, shall a fellow take a pickaxe to help time?
Let me tell you what comes of meddling with things that can take care
of themselves.--A friend of mine had a watch given him, when he was
a boy,--a "bull's eye," with a loose silver case that came off like
an oyster-shell from its contents; you know them,--the cases that you
hang on your thumb, while the core, or the real watch, lies in your
hand as naked as a peeled apple. Well, he began with taking off the
case, and so on from one liberty to another, until he got it fairly
open, and there were the works, as good as if they were alive,--
crown-wheel, balance-wheel, and all the rest. All right except one
thing,--there was a confounded little hair had got tangled round the
balance-wheel. So my young Solomon got a pair of tweezers, and
caught hold of the hair very nicely, and pulled it right out, without
touching any of the wheels,--when,--buzzzZZZ! and the watch had done
up twenty-four hours in double magnetic-telegraph time!--The English
language was wound up to run some thousands of years, I trust; but if
everybody is to be pulling at everything he thinks is a hair, our
grandchildren will have to make the discovery that it is a hair-
spring, and the old Anglo-Norman soul's-timekeeper will run down, as
so many other dialects have done before it. I can't stand this
meddling any better than you, Sir. But we have a great deal to be
proud of in the lifelong labors of that old lexicographer, and we
must n't be ungrateful. Besides, don't let us deceive ourselves,--
the war of the dictionaries is only a disguised rivalry of cities,
colleges, and especially of publishers. After all, it is likely that
the language will shape itself by larger forces than phonography and
dictionary-making. You may spade up the ocean as much as you like,
and harrow it afterwards, if you can,--but the moon will still lead
the tides, and the winds will form their surface.
--Do you know Richardson's Dictionary?--I said to my neighbor the
Haow?--said the divinity-student.--He colored, as he noticed on my
face a twitch in one of the muscles which tuck up the corner of the
mouth, (zygomaticus major,) and which I could not hold back from
making a little movement on its own account.
It was too late.--A country-boy, lassoed when he was a half-grown
colt. Just as good as a city-boy, and in some ways, perhaps,
better,--but caught a little too old not to carry some marks of his
earlier ways of life. Foreigners, who have talked a strange tongue
half their lives, return to the language of their childhood in their
dying hours. Gentlemen in fine linen, and scholars in large
libraries, taken by surprise, or in a careless moment, will sometimes
let slip a word they knew as boys in homespun and have not spoken
since that time,--but it lay there under all their culture. That is
one way you may know the country-boys after they have grown rich or
celebrated; another is by the odd old family names, particularly
those of the Hebrew prophets, which the good old people have saddled
--Boston has enough of England about it to make a good English
dictionary,--said that fresh-looking youth whom I have mentioned as
sitting at the right upper corner of the table.
I turned and looked him full in the face,--for the pure, manly
intonations arrested me. The voice was youthful, but full of
character.--I suppose some persons have a peculiar susceptibility in
the matter of voice.--Hear this.
Not long after the American Revolution, a young lady was sitting in
her father's chaise in a street of this town of Boston. She
overheard a little girl talking or singing, and was mightily taken
with the tones of her voice. Nothing would satisfy her but she must
have that little girl come and live in her father's house. So the
child came, being then nine years old. Until her marriage she
remained under the same roof with the young lady. Her children
became successively inmates of the lady's dwelling; and now, seventy
years, or thereabouts, since the young lady heard the child singing,
one of that child's children and one of her grandchildren are with
her in that home, where she, no longer young, except in heart, passes
her peaceful days.--Three generations linked together by so light a
breath of accident!
I liked--the sound of this youth's voice, I said, and his look when I
came to observe him a little more closely. His complexion had
something better than the bloom and freshness which had first
attracted me;--it had that diffused tone which is a sure index of
wholesome, lusty life. A fine liberal style of nature seemed to be:
hair crisped, moustache springing thick and dark, head firmly
planted, lips finished, as is commonly sees them in gentlemen's
families, a pupil well contracted, and a mouth that opened frankly
with a white flash of teeth that looked as if they could serve him as
they say Ethan Allen's used to serve their owner,--to draw nails
with. This is the kind of fellow to walk a frigate's deck and bowl
his broadsides into the "Gadlant Thudnder-bomb," or any forty-port-
holed adventurer who would like to exchange a few tons of iron
compliments.--I don't know what put this into my head, for it was
not till some time afterward I learned the young fellow had been in
the naval school at Annapolis. Something had happened to change his
plan of life, and he was now studying engineering and architecture in
When the youth made the short remark which drew my attention to him,
the little deformed gentleman turned round and took a long look at
Good for the Boston boy!--he said.
I am not a Boston boy,--said the youth, smiling,--I am a Marylander.
I don't care where you come from,--we'll make a Boston man of you,--
said the little gentleman. Pray, what part of Maryland did you come
from, and how shall I call you?
The poor youth had to speak pretty loud, as he was at the right upper
corner of the table, and the little gentleman next the lower left-
hand corner. His face flushed a little, but he answered pleasantly,
telling who he was, as if the little man's infirmity gave him a right
to ask any questions he wanted to.
Here is the place for you to sit,--said the little gentleman,
pointing to the vacant chair next his own, at the corner.
You're go'n' to have a young lady next you, if you wait till to-
morrow,--said the landlady to him.
He did not reply, but I had a fancy that he changed color. It can't
be that he has susceptibilities with reference to a contingent young
lady! It can't be that he has had experiences which make him
sensitive! Nature could not be quite so cruel as to set a heart
throbbing in that poor little cage of ribs! There is no use in
wasting notes of admiration. I must ask the landlady about him.
These are some of the facts she furnished.--Has not been long with
her. Brought a sight of furniture,--could n't hardly get some of it
upstairs. Has n't seemed particularly attentive to the ladies. The
Bombazine (whom she calls Cousin something or other) has tried to
enter into conversation with him, but retired with the impression
that he was indifferent to ladies' society. Paid his bill the other
day without saying a word about it. Paid it in gold,--had a great
heap of twenty-dollar pieces. Hires her best room. Thinks he is a
very nice little man, but lives dreadful lonely up in his chamber.
Wants the care of some capable nuss. Never pitied anybody more in
her life--never see a more interestin' person.
--My intention was, when I began making these notes, to let them
consist principally of conversations between myself and the other
boarders. So they will, very probably; but my curiosity is excited
about this little boarder of ours, and my reader must not be
disappointed, if I sometimes interrupt a discussion to give an
account of whatever fact or traits I may discover about him. It so
happens that his room is next to mine, and I have the opportunity of
observing many of his ways without any active movements of curiosity.
That his room contains heavy furniture, that he is a restless little
body and is apt to be up late, that he talks to himself, and keeps
mainly to himself, is nearly all I have yet found out.
One curious circumstance happened lately which I mention without
drawing an absolute inference. Being at the studio of a sculptor
with whom I am acquainted, the other day, I saw a remarkable cast of
a left arm. On my asking where the model came from, he said it was
taken direct from the arm of a deformed person, who had employed one
of the Italian moulders to make the cast. It was a curious case, it
should seem, of one beautiful limb upon a frame otherwise singularly
imperfect--I have repeatedly noticed this little gentleman's use of
his left arm. Can he have furnished the model I saw at the
--So we are to have a new boarder to-morrow. I hope there will be
something pretty and pleasing about her. A woman with a creamy
voice, and finished in alto rilievo, would be a variety in the
boarding-house,--a little more marrow and a little less sinew than
our landlady and her daughter and the bombazine-clad female, all of
whom are of the turkey-drumstick style of organization. I don't mean
that these are our only female companions; but the rest being
conversational non-combatants, mostly still, sad feeders, who take in
their food as locomotives take in wood and water, and then wither
away from the table like blossoms that never came to fruit, I have
not yet referred to them as individuals.
I wonder what kind of young person we shall see in that empty chair
--I read this song to the boarders after breakfast the other morning.
It was written for our fellows;--you know who they are, of course.
Has there any old fellow got mixed with the boys?
If there has, take him out, without making a noise!
Hang the Almanac's cheat and the Catalogue's spite!
Old Time is a liar! We're twenty to-night!
We're twenty! We're twenty! Who says we are more?
He's tipsy,--young jackanapes!--show him the door!--
"Gray temples at twenty?"--Yes! white, if we please;
Where the snow-flakes fall thickest there's nothing can freeze!
Was it snowing I spoke of? Excuse the mistake!
Look close,--you will see not a sign of a flake;
We want some new garlands for those we have shed,
And these are white roses in place of the red!
We've a trick, we young fellows, you may have been told.
Of talking (in public) as if we were old;
That boy we call Doctor, (1) and this we call Judge (2)--
It's a neat little fiction,--of course it's all fudge.
That fellow's the Speaker, (3)--the one on the right;
Mr. Mayor, (4) my young one, how are you to-night?
That's our "Member of Congress,"(5) we say when we chaff;
There's the "Reverend" (6) What's his name?--don't make me laugh!
That boy with the grave mathematical look(7)
Made believe he had written a wonderful book,
And the ROYAL SOCIETY thought it was true!
So they chose him right in; a good joke it was, too.
There's a boy,--we pretend,--with a three-decker-brain
That could harness a team with a logical chain:
When he spoke for our manhood in syllabled fire,
We called him "The Justice,"--but now he's "The Squire."(1)
And there's a nice youngster of excellent pith,(2)
Fate tried to conceal him by naming him Smith,
But he shouted a song for the brave and the free,
--Just read on his medal,--"My country,--of thee!"
You hear that boy laughing?--you think he's all fun,
But the angels laugh, too, at the good he has done;
The children laugh loud as they troop to his call,
And the poor man that knows him laughs loudest of all!(3)
Yes, we're boys,--always playing with tongue or with pen,--
And I sometimes have asked,--Shall we ever be men?
Shall we always be youthful and laughing and gay,
Till the last dear companion drops smiling away?
Then here's to our boyhood, its gold and its gray!
The stars of its Winter, the dews of its May!
And when we have done with our life-lasting toys,
Dear Father, take care of thy children, the Boys!
1 Francis Thomas.
2 George Tyler Bigelow.
3 Francis Boardman Crowninshield.
4 G. W. Richardson.
5 George Thomas Davis.
6 James Freeman Clarke.
7 Benjamin Peirce.
[The Professor talks with the Reader. He tells a
Young Girl's Story.]
When the elements that went to the making of the first man, father of
mankind, had been withdrawn from the world of unconscious matter, the
balance of creation was disturbed. The materials that go to the
making of one woman were set free by the abstraction from inanimate
nature of one man's-worth of masculine constituents. These combined
to make our first mother, by a logical necessity involved in the
previous creation of our common father. All this, mythically,
illustratively, and by no means doctrinally or polemically.
The man implies the woman, you will understand. The excellent
gentleman whom I had the pleasure of setting right in a trifling
matter a few weeks ago believes in the frequent occurrence of
miracles at the present day. So do I. I believe, if you could find
an uninhabited coral-reef island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean,
with plenty of cocoa-palms and bread-fruit on it, and put a handsome
young fellow, like our Marylander, ashore upon it, if you touched
there a year afterwards, you would find him walking under the palm-
trees arm in arm with a pretty woman.
Where would she come from?
Oh, that 's the miracle!
--I was just as certain, when I saw that fine, high-colored youth at
the upper right-hand corner of our table, that there would appear
some fitting feminine counterpart to him, as if I had been a
clairvoyant, seeing it all beforehand.
--I have a fancy that those Marylanders are just about near enough to
the sun to ripen well.--How some of us fellows remember Joe and
Harry, Baltimoreans, both! Joe, with his cheeks like lady-apples,
and his eyes like black-heart cherries, and his teeth like the
whiteness of the flesh of cocoanuts, and his laugh that set the
chandelier-drops rattling overhead, as we sat at our sparkling
banquets in those gay times! Harry, champion, by acclamation, of
the college heavy-weights, broad-shouldered, bull-necked, square-
jawed, six feet and trimmings, a little science, lots of pluck, good-
natured as a steer in peace, formidable as a red-eyed bison in the
crack of hand-to-hand battle! Who forgets the great muster-day, and
the collision of the classic with the democratic forces? The huge
butcher, fifteen stone,--two hundred and ten pounds,--good weight,--
steps out like Telamonian Ajax, defiant. No words from Harry, the
Baltimorean,--one of the quiet sort, who strike first; and do the
talking, if there is any, afterwards. No words, but, in the place
thereof, a clean, straight, hard hit, which took effect with a spank
like the explosion of a percussion-cap, knocking the slayer of beeves
down a sand-bank,--followed, alas! by the too impetuous youth, so
that both rolled down together, and the conflict terminated in one of
those inglorious and inevitable Yankee clinches, followed by a
general melee, which make our native fistic encounters so different
from such admirably-ordered contests as that which I once saw at an
English fair, where everything was done decently and in order; and
the fight began and ended with such grave propriety, that a sporting
parson need hardly have hesitated to open it with a devout petition,
and, after it was over, dismiss the ring with a benediction.
I can't help telling one more story about this great field-day,
though it is the most wanton and irrelevant digression. But all of
us have a little speck of fight underneath our peace and good-will to
men, just a speck, for revolutions and great emergencies, you know,--
so that we should not submit to be trodden quite flat by the first
heavy-heeled aggressor that came along. You can tell a portrait from
an ideal head, I suppose, and a true story from one spun out of the
writer's invention. See whether this sounds true or not.
Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin sent out two fine blood-horses, Barefoot and
Serab by name, to Massachusetts, something before the time I am
talking of. With them came a Yorkshire groom, a stocky little
fellow, in velvet breeches, who made that mysterious hissing noise,
traditionary in English stables, when he rubbed down the silken-
skinned racers, in great perfection. After the soldiers had come
from the muster-field, and some of the companies were on the village-
common, there was still some skirmishing between a few individuals
who had not had the fight taken out of them. The little Yorkshire
groom thought he must serve out somebody. So he threw himself into
an approved scientific attitude, and, in brief, emphatic language,
expressed his urgent anxiety to accommodate any classical young
gentleman who chose to consider himself a candidate for his
attentions. I don't suppose there were many of the college boys that
would have been a match for him in the art which Englishmen know so
much more of than Americans, for the most part. However, one of the
Sophomores, a very quiet, peaceable fellow, just stepped out of the
crowd, and, running straight at the groom, as he stood there,
sparring away, struck him with the sole of his foot, a straight blow,
as if it had been with his fist, and knocked him heels over head and
senseless, so that he had to be carried off from the field. This
ugly way of hitting is the great trick of the French gavate, which is
not commonly thought able to stand its ground against English
pugilistic science. These are old recollections, with not much to
recommend them, except, perhaps, a dash of life, which may be worth a
The young Marylander brought them all up, you may remember. He
recalled to my mind those two splendid pieces of vitality I told you
of. Both have been long dead. How often we see these great red-
flaring flambeaux of life blown out, as it were, by a puff of wind,
--and the little, single-wicked night-lamp of being, which some
white-faced and attenuated invalid shades with trembling fingers,
flickering on while they go out one after another, until its glimmer
is all that is left to us of the generation to which it belonged!
I told you that I was perfectly sure, beforehand, we should find some
pleasing girlish or womanly shape to fill the blank at our table and
match the dark-haired youth at the upper corner.
There she sits, at the very opposite corner, just as far off as
accident could put her from this handsome fellow, by whose side she
ought, of course, to be sitting. One of the "positive" blondes, as
my friend, you may remember, used to call them. Tawny-haired,
amber-eyed, full-throated, skin as white as a blanched almond. Looks
dreamy to me, not self-conscious, though a black ribbon round her
neck sets it off as a Marie-Antoinette's diamond-necklace could not
do. So in her dress, there is a harmony of tints that looks as if an
artist had run his eye over her and given a hint or two like the
finishing touch to a picture. I can't help being struck with her,
for she is at once rounded and fine in feature, looks calm, as
blondes are apt to, and as if she might run wild, if she were trifled
with. It is just as I knew it would be,--and anybody can see that
our young Marylander will be dead in love with her in a week.
Then if that little man would only turn out immensely rich and have
the good-nature to die and leave them all his money, it would be as
nice as a three-volume novel.
The Little Gentleman is in a flurry, I suspect, with the excitement
of having such a charming neighbor next him. I judge so mainly by
his silence and by a certain rapt and serious look on his face, as if
he were thinking of something that had happened, or that might
happen, or that ought to happen,--or how beautiful her young life
looked, or how hardly Nature had dealt with him, or something which
struck him silent, at any rate. I made several conversational
openings for him, but he did not fire up as he often does. I even
went so far as to indulge in, a fling at the State House, which, as
we all know, is in truth a very imposing structure, covering less
ground than St. Peter's, but of similar general effect. The little
man looked up, but did not reply to my taunt. He said to the young
lady, however, that the State House was the Parthenon of our
Acropolis, which seemed to please her, for she smiled, and he
reddened a little,--so I thought. I don't think it right to watch
persons who are the subjects of special infirmity,--but we all do it.
I see that they have crowded the chairs a little at that end of the
table, to make room for another newcomer of the lady sort. A well-
mounted, middle-aged preparation, wearing her hair without a cap,--
pretty wide in the parting, though,--contours vaguely hinted,--
features very quiet,--says little as yet, but seems to keep her eye
on the young lady, as if having some responsibility for her
My record is a blank for some days after this. In the mean time I
have contrived to make out the person and the story of our young
lady, who, according to appearances, ought to furnish us a heroine
for a boarding-house romance before a year is out. It is very
curious that she should prove connected with a person many of us have
heard of. Yet, curious as it is, I have been a hundred times struck
with the circumstance that the most remote facts are constantly
striking each other; just as vessels starting from ports thousands of
miles apart pass close to each other in the naked breadth of the
ocean, nay, sometimes even touch, in the dark, with a crack of
timbers, a gurgling of water, a cry of startled sleepers,--a cry
mysteriously echoed in warning dreams, as the wife of some Gloucester
fisherman, some coasting skipper, wakes with a shriek, calls the name
of her husband, and sinks back to uneasy slumbers upon her lonely
Oh, these mysterious meetings! Leaving all the vague, waste, endless
spaces of the washing desert, the ocean-steamer and the fishing-smack
sail straight towards each other as if they ran in grooves ploughed
for them in the waters from the beginning of creation! Not only
things and events, but our own thoughts, are so full of these
surprises, that, if there were a reader in my parish who did not
recognize the familiar occurrence of what I am now going to mention,
I should think it a case for the missionaries of the Society for the
Propagation of Intelligence among the Comfortable Classes.
There are about as many twins in the births of thought as of
children. For the first time in your lives you learn some fact or
come across some idea. Within an hour, a day, a week, that same fact
or idea strikes you from another quarter. It seems as if it had
passed into space and bounded back upon you as an echo from the blank
wall that shuts in the world of thought. Yet no possible connection
exists between the two channels by which the thought or the fact
arrived. Let me give an infinitesimal illustration.
One of the Boys mentioned, the other evening, in the course of a very
pleasant poem he read us, a little trick of the Commons-table
boarders, which I, nourished at the parental board, had never heard
of. Young fellows being always hungry--Allow me to stop dead-short,
in order to utter an aphorism which has been forming itself in one of
the blank interior spaces of my intelligence, like a crystal in the
cavity of a geode.
Aphorism by the Professor.
In order to know whether a human being is young or old, offer it food
of different kinds at short intervals. If young, it will eat
anything at any hour of the day or night. If old, it observes stated
periods, and you might as well attempt to regulate the time of
highwater to suit a fishing-party as to change these periods.
The crucial experiment is this. Offer a bulky and boggy bun to the
suspected individual just ten minutes before dinner. If this is
eagerly accepted and devoured, the fact of youth is established. If
the subject of the question starts back and expresses surprise and
incredulity, as if you could not possibly be in earnest, the fact of
maturity is no less clear.
--Excuse me,--I return to my story of the Commons-table.--Young
fellows being always hungry, and tea and dry toast being the meagre
fare of the evening meal, it was a trick of some of the Boys to
impale a slice of meat upon a fork, at dinner-time, and stick the
fork holding it beneath the table, so that they could get it at tea-
time. The dragons that guarded this table of the Hesperides found
out the trick at last, and kept a sharp look-out for missing forks;--
they knew where to find one, if it was not in its place.--Now the
odd thing was, that, after waiting so many years to hear of this
college trick, I should hear it mentioned a second time within the
same twenty-four hours by a college youth of the present generation.
Strange, but true. And so it has happened to me and to every person,
often and often, to be hit in rapid succession by these twinned facts
or thoughts, as if they were linked like chain-shot.
I was going to leave the simple reader to wonder over this, taking it
as an unexplained marvel. I think, however, I will turn over a
furrow of subsoil in it.--The explanation is, of course, that in a
great many thoughts there must be a few coincidences, and these
instantly arrest our attention. Now we shall probably never have the
least idea of the enormous number of impressions which pass through
our consciousness, until in some future life we see the photographic
record of our thoughts and the stereoscopic picture of our actions.
There go more pieces to make up a conscious life or a living body
than you think for. Why, some of you were surprised when a friend of
mine told you there were fifty-eight separate pieces in a fiddle.
How many "swimming glands"--solid, organized, regularly formed,
rounded disks taking an active part in all your vital processes, part
and parcel, each one of them, of your corporeal being--do you suppose
are whirled along, like pebbles in a stream, with the blood which
warms your frame and colors your cheeks?--A noted German physiologist
spread out a minute drop of blood, under the microscope, in narrow