The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 105/Reviews and Literary Notices
REVIEWS AND LITERARY NOTICES.
The merits of this book are popular and obvious, consisting in a strain of liberal, enlightened sentiment, an ingenious and original cast of thought, and a painstaking lucidity of style which leaves the writer's meaning even prosaically plain. There is a good deal of absurd and even puerile exegesis in its pages, which makes you wonder how so much sentimentality can co-exist with so much ability; but the book is vitiated for all purposes beyond mere literary entertainment by one grand defect, which is the guarded theologic obscurity the writer keeps up, or the attempt he makes to estimate Christianity apart from all question of the truth or falsity of Christ's personal pretensions towards God. The author may have reached in his own mind the most definite theologic convictions, but he sedulously withholds them from his reader; and the consequence is, that the book awakens and satisfies no intellectual interest in the latter, but remains at best a curious literary speculation. For what men have always been moved by in Christianity is not so much the superiority of its moral inculcations to those of other faiths, as its uncompromising pretension to be a final or absolute religion. If Christ be only the eminently good and wise and philanthropic man the author describes him to be, deliberating, legislating, for the improvement of man's morals, he may be very admirable, but nothing can be inferred from that circumstance to the deeper inquiry. If he claim no essentially different significance to our regard, on God's part, than that claimed by Zoroaster, Confucius, Mahomet, Hildebrand, Luther, Wesley, he is to be sure still entitled to all the respect inherent in such an office; but then there is no a priori reason why his teaching and influence should not be superseded in process of time by that of any at present unmentionable Anne Lee, Joanna Southcote, or Joe Smith. And what the human mind craves, above all things else, is repose towards God,—is not to remain a helpless sport to every fanatic sot that comes up from the abyss of human vanity, and claims to hold it captive by the assumption of a new Divine mission.
The objection to the mythic view of Christ's significance, which is that maintained by Strauss, is, that it violates men's faith in the integrity of history as a veracious outcome of the providential love and wisdom which are extant and operative in human affairs. And the objection to what has been called the Troubadour view of the same subject, which is that represented by M. Renan, is, that it outrages men's faith in human character, regarded, if not as habitually, still as occasionally capable of heroic or consistent veracity. We may safely argue, then, that neither Strauss nor Renan will possess any long vitality to human thought. They are both fascinating reading;—the one for his profound sincerity, or his conviction of a worth in Christianity so broadly human and impersonal as to exempt it from the obligations of a literal historic doctrine; the other for his profound insincerity, so to speak, or an egotism so subtile, so capacious and frank, as permits him to take up the grandest character in history into the hollow of his hand, and turn him about there for critical inspection and definite adjustment to the race, with absolutely no more reverence nor reticence than a buyer of grain shows to a handful of wheat, as he pours it dexterously from hand to hand, and blows the chaff in the seller's face. But both writers alike are left behind us in the library, and are not subsequently brought to mind by anything we encounter in the fields or the streets.
The author of Ecce Homo does no dishonor to the Christian history as history, however foolishly he expatiates at times upon its incidents and implications; much less to the simple and perfect integrity of Christ as a man, but no more than Strauss or Renan does he meet the supreme want of the popular understanding, which is to know wherein Christianity has the right it claims to be regarded as a final or complete revelation of the Divine name upon the earth. We think, moreover, that the reason of the omission is the same in every case, being the sheer and contented indifference which each of the writers feels to the question of a revelation in the abstract or general, regarded as a sine qua non of any sympathetic or rational intercourse which may be considered as possible between God and man. We should not be so presumptuous as to invite our readers' attention to the discussion of so grave a philosophic topic as the one here referred to, in the limited space at our command; but surely it may be said, without any danger of misunderstanding from the most cursory reader, that if creation were the absolute or unconditioned verity which thoughtless people deem it, there could be no ratio between Creator and creature, hence no intercourse or intimacy, inasmuch as the one is being itself, and the other does not even exist or seem to be but by him. In order that creation should be a rational product of Divine power, in order that the creature should be a being of reason, endowed with the responsibility of his own actions, it is imperative that the Creator disown his essential infinitude and diminish himself to the creature's dimensions; that he hide or obscure his own perfection in the creature's imperfection, to the extent even of rendering it fairly problematic whether or not an infinite being really exist, so putting man, as it were, upon the spontaneous search and demand for such a being, and in that measure developing his rational possibilities. And if this be so,—if creation philosophically involve a descending movement on the Creator's part proportionate to the ascending one contemplated on the creature's part,—then it follows that creation is not a simple, but a complex process, involving equally a Divine action and a human reaction, or the due adjustment of means and ends; and that no writer, consequently, can long satisfy the intellect in the sphere of religious thought, who either jauntily or ignorantly overlooks this philosophic necessity. This, however, is what Messrs. Strauss and Renan and the author of Ecce Homo agree to do; and this is what makes their several books, whatever subjective differences characterize them to a literary regard, alike objectively unprofitable as instruments of intellectual progress.
It was remarked lately by an ingenious writer, that "it never seems to occur to some people, who deliver upon the books they read very unhesitating judgments, that they may be wanting, either by congenital defect, or defect of experience, or defect of reproductive memory, in the qualifications which are necessary for judging fairly of any particular book." To poetry this remark applies with especial force.
By poetry we do not understand mere verse, but any form of literary composition which reproduces in the mind certain emotions which, in the absence of an epithet less vague, we shall call poetical. These emotions may be a compound of the sensuous and the purely intellectual, or they may partake much more of the one than of the other. (The rigorous metaphysician will please not begin to carp at our definition.) These emotions may be excited by an odor, the state of the atmosphere, a strain of music, a form of words, or by a single word; and, as they result largely from association, it is obvious that what may be poetry to some minds may not be poetry to others,—may not be poetry to the same mind at different periods of life or in different moods. The most sympathetic, most catholic, most receptive mind will always be the best qualified to detect and appreciate poetry under all its various forms, and would as soon think of denying the devotional faculty to a man of differing creed, as of denying the poetical to one whose theory or habit of expression may chance to differ from its own. Goethe was so apt to discover something good in poems which others dismissed as wholly worthless, that it was said of him, "his commendation is a brevet of mediocrity." Perhaps it was his "many-sidedness" that made him so accurate a "detective" in criticism.
According to Wordsworth, "poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity." A good definition so far as it goes. But Wordsworth could see only one side of the shield. He was notoriously so deficient in the faculty of humor, that even Sydney Smith was unintelligible to him. Few specimens of what can be called wit can be found in his writings. He could not see that there is a poetry of wit as well as of sentiment,—of the intellect as well as of the emotions. No wonder he could not enjoy Pope, and had little relish for Horace. And yet how grand is Wordsworth in his own peculiar sphere!
Those narrow views of the province of poetry, which roused the indignation of Byron, and which would exclude such writers as Goldsmith, Pope, Campbell, Scott, Praed, Moore, and Saxe from the rank of poets, are not unfrequently reproduced in our own day. We do not perceive that they spring from a liberal or philosophical consideration of the subject. Poetry, ποίησις, or "making," creation, or re-creation, does not address itself to any single group of those faculties of our complex nature, the gratification of which brings a sense of the agreeable, the exhilarating, or the elevating. As well might we deny to didactic verse the name of poetry, as to those vers de société in which a profound truth may be found in a comic mask, or the foibles which scolding could not reach may be reflected in the mirror held up in gayety of heart. As well might we deny that a waltz is music, and claim the name of music only for a funeral march or a nocturne, as deny that Shakespeare's description of Queen Mab is as much poetry as the stately words in which Prospero compares the vanishing of his insubstantial pageant to that of
"The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself."
The new volume of poems by Mr. Saxe is, in many respects, an improvement on all that he has given us hitherto. There is more versatility in the style, a freer and firmer touch in the handling. Like our best humorists, he shows that the founts of tears and of laughter lie close together; for his power of pathos is almost as marked as that of fun. As good specimens of what he has accomplished in the minor key, we may instance "The Expected Ship," "The Story of Life," and "Pan Immortal." But it is in his faculty of turning upon us the whimsical and humorous side of a fact or a character that Saxe especially excels. The lines entitled "The Superfluous Man" are an illustration of what we mean. In some learned treatise the author stumbles on the following somewhat startling reflection: "It is ascertained by inspection of the registers of many countries, that the uniform proportion of male to female births is as 21 to 20: accordingly, in respect to marriage, every 21st man is naturally superfluous." Here is hint enough to set Saxe's bright vein of humor flowing. The Superfluous Man becomes a concrete embodiment, and sings his discovery of the cause of his forlorn single lot and his hopeless predicament. It flashes upon him that he is that 21st man alluded to by the profound statistician. He is under a natural ban,—for he's a superfluous man. There's no use fighting 'gainst nature's inflexible plan. There's never a woman for him,—for he's a superfluous man. The whole conception and execution of the poem afford a fine example of the manner in which a genuine artist may inform a subtile and an extravagant whim with life, humor, and consistency.
"The Mourner a la Mode" contains some good instances of the neatness and felicity with which the author floods a whole stanza with humor by a single epithet.
"What tears of vicarious woe,
That else might have sullied her face,
Were kindly permitted to flow
In ripples of ebony lace
While even her fan, in its play,
Had quite a lugubrious scope,
And seemed to be waving away
The ghost of the angel of Hope!"
The sentiments of a young lover on finding that the object of his adoration had an excellent appetite, and was always punctual at lunch and dinner, are expressed with a Sheridan-like sparkle in the concluding stanza of "The Beauty of Ballston."
"Ah me! of so much loveliness
It had been sweet to be the winner;
I know she loved me only less—
The merest fraction—than her dinner;
'T was hard to lose so fair a prize,
But then (I thought) 't were vastly harder
To have before my jealous eyes
A constant rival in my larder!"
There is one practical consideration in regard to the poetry of Saxe, which may excite the distrust of those critics who, with Horace, hate the profane multitude. Fortunately or unfortunately for his reputation, Saxe's poems are popular, and—not to put too fine a point of it—sell. His books have a regular market value, and this value increases rather than diminishes with years. This is, we confess, rather a suspicious circumstance. Did Milton sell? Did Wordsworth sell? Must not the fame that is instantaneous prove hollow and ephemeral? Are we not acquainted with a certain volume of poems that shall be nameless, the whole edition of which lies untouched and unclaimed on the publisher's shelves? And are we not perfectly well aware that those poems—well, we can wait. If Mr. Saxe would only put forth a volume that should prove, in a mercantile sense, a failure, we think he would be surprised to find how happily he would hit certain critics who can now see little in his writings to justify their success. Let him once join the fraternity of unappreciated geniuses, and he will find compensation,—though not, perhaps, in the form of what some vulgar fellow has called "solid pudding."
Travellers who have merely visited the classic scenes of Greece and Italy, or at the best have "browsed about" the ruinous sites of Tyre and Carthage, must have a mortifying sense of the newness of such recent settlements, in reading of Mr. Porter's journey through Bashan, and sojourn in Bozrah, Salcah, Edrei, and the other cities of the Rephaim. As Chicago is to Athens, so is Athens to these mighty and wonderful cities of doom and eld, which are marvellous, not alone for their antiquity, (so remote that one looks into it dizzily and doubtfully, as a depth into which it is not wholly safe to peer,) but also for the perfection in which they stand and have stood amid the desolation of unnumbered ages. A Cockney clergyman travelling through Eastern Syria, with his Ezekiel in his hand, arrives at nightfall before the gates of a town which was a flourishing metropolis in the days of Moses, and takes up his lodging in a house built by some newly-married giant, say five or six thousand years ago. It is in perfect repair, "the walls are sound, the roofs unbroken, the doors and even window-shutters"—being of solid basalt monoliths, incapable of decay or destruction—"are in their places." In the town whose dumb streets no foot but the Bedouin's has trodden for centuries and centuries, there are hundreds of such houses as this; and in a province not larger than Rhode Island there are a hundred such towns. According to Mr. Porter, the language of Scripture, which the strongest powers of deglutition have sometimes rejected as that of Eastern hyperbole, is literally verified at every step in the land of Bashan. The facts, he says, would not stand the arithmetic of Bishop Colenso for an instant; yet from the summit of the castle of Salcah (capital of his late gigantic Majesty, King Og) he counted thirty utterly deserted and perfectly habitable towns; so that he finds no difficulty in believing the bulletin of Jair in which the Israelite general declares he took in the province of Argob sixty great cities "fenced with high walls, gates, and bars, besides unwalled towns a great many." Nor is the fulfilment of prophecy in regard to this kingdom, populous and prosperous beyond any other known to history, less literal or less startling.
"Thus saith the Lord God of Israel: They shall eat their bread with carefulness, and drink their water with astonishment, that her land may be desolate from all that is therein, because of the violence of all that dwell therein. And the cities that are inhabited shall be laid waste, and the land shall be desolate."
Everywhere Mr. Porter witnessed the end predicted by Ezekiel: a nation might dwell in these enchanted cities, but they are all empty and silent as the desert. Their architecture, however, is eloquent in witness of the successive changes through which they have passed in reaching the state of final desolation foretold of the prophet. The dwellings, so ponderous and so simple, are the work of the original Rephaim, or giants, from whom the Israelites conquered the land, and the masonry is of these first conquerors. The Greeks have left the proof of their presence in the temples and inscriptions, and the Romans in the structure of the roads; while the Saracens have added mosques, and the Turks solitude and danger,—for the whole land is infested with robbers. But while Jewish masonry has crumbled to dust, while Roman roads are weed-grown, and the temples of the gods and the mosques of Mahomet mingle their ruins, the dwellings of the Rephaim stand intact and everlasting, as if the earth had loved her mighty first-born too well to suffer the memory of their greatness to perish from her face.
It must be acknowledged that Mr. Porter has not done the best that could be done for the country through which he travels. With a style extremely graphic at times, he seems wanting in those arts of composition by which he could convey to his readers an impression of things at once vivid and comprehensive. He visits the cities of Bashan, one after another, and tells us repeatedly that they are desolate, and in perfect repair, and quotes the proper text of Scripture in which their desolation is foretold, and their number and strength not exaggerated. Yet he fails, with all this, to describe any one place completely, and is of opinion that he should weary his reader in recounting, at Bozrah, for example, "the wonders of art and architecture, and the curiosities of votive tablet, and dedicatory inscription on altar, tomb, church, and temple"; whereas we must confess that nothing would have pleased us better than to hear about all these things, with ever so much minuteness, and that we should have been willing to take two passages of prophecy instead of twenty, if we might have had the omitted description in the place of them. But Mr. Porter being made as he is, we are glad to get out of him what we can, and have to thank him for a full account of at least one of the houses of the Rephaim, in which he passed a night.
"The walls were perfect, nearly five feet thick, built of large blocks of hewn stones, without lime or cement of any kind. The roof was formed of large slabs of the same black basalt, lying as regularly, and jointed as closely as if the workmen had only just completed them. They measured twelve feet in length, eighteen inches in breadth, and six inches in thickness. The ends rested on a plain stone cornice, projecting about a foot from each side wall. The chamber was twenty feet long, twelve wide, and ten high. The outer door was a slab of stone, four and a half feet high, four wide, and eight inches thick. It hung upon pivots formed of projecting parts of the slab, working in sockets in the lintel and threshold; and though so massive, I was able to open and shut it with ease. At one end of the room was a small window with a stone shutter. An inner door, also of stone, but of finer workmanship, and not quite so heavy as the other, admitted to a chamber of the same size and appearance. From it a much larger door communicated with a third chamber, to which there was a descent by a flight of stone steps. This was a spacious hall, equal in width to the two rooms, and about twenty-five feet long by twenty high. A semicircular arch was thrown across it, supporting the stone roof; and a gate, so large that camels could pass in and out, opened on the street. The gate was of stone, and in its place; but some rubbish had accumulated on the threshold, and it appeared to have been open for ages. Here our horses were comfortably installed. Such were the internal arrangements of this strange old mansion. It had only one story; and its simple, massive style of architecture gave evidence of a very remote antiquity."
Mr. Porter does not tell us whether all the dwellings of the Rephaim are constructed after one plan, as, for instance, the houses of Pompeii were, or whether there was variety in the architecture, and on many other points of inquiry he is equally unsatisfactory. His strength is in his one great fact,—that these cities are older than any known to profane history, and that they yet exist undecayed and undecaying. The charm of such a fact is so great, that we recur again and again to his pages, with a forever unappeased famine for more knowledge, which we hope some garrulous and gossipful traveller will soon arise to satisfy.
Of him—the beneficent future tourist—we shall willingly accept any number of fables, if only he will add something more filling than Mr. Porter has given us. It is true that this tourist will not have a mere pleasure excursion, but will undergo much to merit the gratitude of his readers. The land of Bashan is nomadically inhabited by a race of men much fiercer than its ancient bulls; and Bedouins beset the movements of the traveller, to pillage and slay wherever they are strong enough to overcome his escort of Druses. Mr. Porter tells much of the perils he incurred, and even of actual attacks made upon him by fanatical Mussulmans while he sketched the wonders of the world's youth among which they dwelt. For the present his book has a value unique and very great: the scenes through which he passes have been heretofore unvisited by travel, and the interest attaching to them is intense and universal. The literal verification of many passages of Scripture supposed more or less allegorical, must have its weight with all liberal thinkers; and, as a contribution to the means of religious inquiry, this work will be earnestly received.
Professor Fisher, in allowing the subject of this biography to tell the story of his life, restricts himself very self-denyingly to here and there a line of introduction or comment. We have ample passages from Professor Silliman's journal, and from an autobiographical memoir written during his last years, as well as extracts from his letters and the letters addressed to him. It is an easy and pleasant way of writing personal history, and it would be an easy and pleasant way of reading it, if life were as long as art. But we fear that the popular usefulness of this work—and the biography of the eminent man who did so much to popularize science should be in the hands of all—must be impaired by its magnitude; and we are disposed to regret that Professor Fisher did not think fit to reject that part of the correspondence which contributes nothing to the movement of the narrative or the development of character, and condense much of that material which has only a value reflected from the interest already felt in Professor Silliman. These are faults in a work from which we have risen with a clear sense of the beauty and goodness, as well as the greatness, of the eminent scientist. It is admirable to see how his career, begun in another century and another phase of civilization, ended in what was best and most enlightened and liberal in our own time. A man could hardly have started from better things, or been subject at important points of his progress to better influences. Benjamin Silliman was of Revolutionary stock, which had its roots in the soil of the Reformation. The Connecticut Puritan came of Tuscan Puritans, who fled their city of Lucca, and finally passed from Switzerland through Holland to our shores. Brain and heart in him were thus imbued with an unfaltering love of freedom, chastised by religious fervor; and when he became a man, he married with a race of kindred origin in faith, sentiment, and principles. He advanced with his times in a patriotic devotion to democracy and equality, but he seems to have always kept, together with great simplicity of character, the impression of early teaching and associations, and something of old-time stateliness and formality. His youth, like his age, was very sober, modest, and discreet. The ties which united him to his family were strong; and he loved his mother, who long survived his father, with the reverent affection of the past generation. He inherited certain theological principles from his parents, and never swerved from them for a moment. Some friendships came down to him from his father which he always honored; and the institution of learning with which he maintained a life-long connection was in his early days the object of a regard mixed with awe, and always of pride and devotion. He used to think President Styles the greatest of human beings; and one reads with a kind of dismay, that he was once fined sixpence for kicking a football into the President's door-yard.
There was in this grave youth the making of many kinds of greatness. He who became so eminent in science could have been a great jurist, for he had the tranquillity and perseverance necessary to legal success; he could have been a great statesman, for his political views were clear and just and far-reaching; he wrote some of the most popular books of travels in his day, and he could have shone in literature; while he appears to have been conscious of the direction in which a sole weakness lay, and with early wisdom forsook the muse of poetry. He tells us that it was no instinctive preference which led him to the study and pursuit of the natural sciences, but the persuasion of Dr. Dwight, who was President of Yale in Silliman's twenty-third year, and who opened this career to him by offering him the Professorship of Chemistry, then about to be established. At that time Silliman was studying law; but, once convinced that he can be of greater use to himself and others in the way proposed, he enters it and never looks back; goes to Philadelphia to hear the learnedest professors of that day; goes to Europe for the culture unattainable in this country; overcomes poverty in himself and in Yale; will not be tempted from New Haven by the offer of the Presidency of the University of South Carolina, but devotes himself to a generous study of science, to the diffusion of scientific knowledge, and the promotion of the greatness of the institution to which he belongs. His devotion is not blind, however: he finds time to write attractive accounts of his voyages to Europe, to concern himself in religious affairs, to sympathize and cooperate with whatever is noble and good in political movements. He lives long enough to enjoy his fame, to see Yale prosperous and great, and his country about to triumph forever over the evil of slavery, which he had hated and combated. It was a noble life,—simple, pure, and illustrious,—and its history is full of instruction and encouragement.
This is a work of fiction, in which the passion of love, so far from being the prime motive, as in other fictions, does not enter at all. The author seeks to reach, without other incident, one tragic event, and endeavors to make up for a want of adventure by the subtile analysis of character and the study of a civil problem. The novelty and courage of the attempt will attract the thoughtful reader, and will probably tempt him so far into the pages of the book, that he will find himself too deeply interested in its persons to part from them voluntarily. The national sin with which the author so pitilessly deals has been expiated by the whole nation, and is now no more; but its effects upon the guilty and guiltless victims, here alike so leniently treated, remain, and the question of slavery must always command attention till the question of reconstruction is settled.
In "Fifteen Days" the political influences of slavery are only very remotely considered, while the personal and social results of the system are examined with incisive acuteness united to a warmth of feeling which at last breaks forth into pathetic lament. Is not the tragedy, of which we discern the proportions only in looking back, indeed a fateful one? A young New-Englander, rich, handsome, generous, and thoroughly taught by books and by ample experience of the Old World and the New to honor men and freedom, passes a few days in a Slave State, in the midst of that cruel system which could progress only from bad to worse; to which reform was death, and which with the instinct of self-preservation punished all open attempts to ameliorate the relations of oppressor and oppressed, and permitted no kindness to exist but in the guise of severity or the tenderness of a good man for his beast; which boasted itself an aristocracy, and was an oligarchy of plebeian ignorance and meanness; which either dulled men's brains or chilled their hearts. In the presence of this system, Harry Dudley lingers long enough to rescue a slave and to die by the furious hand of the master,—a man in whose soul the best impulse was the love he bore his victim, and in whom the evil destiny of the drama triumphs.
From the conversation of Harry and the botanist, his friend, the author retrospectively develops in its full beauty a character illustrated in only one phase by the episode which the passages from Edward Colvil's journal cover, while she sketches with other touches, slight, but skilful, the people of a whole neighborhood, and the events of years. Doctor Borrow, the botanist, is made to pass, by insensible changes, from a learned indifference concerning slavery to eloquent and ardent argument against it, and thus to present the history of the process by which even science, the coldest element of our civilization, found itself at last unconsciously arrayed against a system long abhorrent to feeling. In the Doctor's talk with Westlake, we have a close and clear comparison of the origin and result of the civilizations of New England and the South, the high equality of the North and the mean aristocracy of the Slave States, and the Doctor's first perfect consciousness of loving the one and hating the other. The supposititious Mandingo's observations of the state of Europe at the time of opening the African slave-trade form a humorous protest against judgment of Africa by travellers' stories, and suggest more than a doubt whether the first men-stealers were better than their victims, and whether they conferred the boon of a higher civilization upon negroes by enslaving them. But the humor of the book, like its learning, is subordinated to the story, which is imbued with a sentiment not wanting in warmth because so noble and lofty. The friendship of Colvil and Dudley is less like the friendship between two men, than the affectionate tenderness of two women for each other; and the character of Dudley in its purity and elevation is sometimes elusive. The personality of Colvil is also rather shadowy; but the Doctor is human and tangible, and the other persons, however slightly indicated, are all real, and bear palpable witness, in their lives, to the influences of that system which, though cruel to the oppressed, wrought a ruin yet more terrible in the oppressor.
- Of course we have no disposition to deny M. Renan's right to reduce Christ and every other historic figure to the standard of the most modern critical art. We merely mean to say that this is all M. Renan does, and that the all is not much.