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The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 107/Yesterday

< The Atlantic Monthly‎ | Volume 18‎ | Number 107

YESTERDAY.

There is a gleam of ultramarine,—which, most of all tints, say the painters, possesses the quality of light in itself,—banished to the farthest horizon of the ocean, where it lies all day, a line of infinite richness, not to be drawn by Apelles, and in its compression of expanse—leagues of sloping sea and summer calm being written in that single line—suggestive of more depth than plummet or diver can ever reach. Such an enchantment of color deepens the farther and interior horizon with most men,—whether it is the atmosphere of one's own identity still warming and enriching it, or whether the orbed course of time has dropped the earthy part away, and left only the sunbeams falling there. But Leonardo da Vinci supposed that the sky owed its blue to the darkness of vast space behind the white lens of sunlit air; and perhaps where the sea presents through the extent of its depth, as it slips over into other hemispheres, tangents with the illumined atmosphere beyond, it affords a finer filter for these blue rays, and thenceforth hoards in its heart the wealth and beauty of tint found in that line of ultramarine. Thus too, perhaps, in the eyes of these fortunate men, every year of their deepening past presents only a purer strain for such sunshine as is theirs, until it becomes indeed

"The light that never was, on sea or land."

The child's conjecture of the future is one of some great, bright, busy thing beyond the hills or over the river. But the thought is not definite: having nothing to remember, he has nothing by which to model his idea.

The man looks back at the past in much the same manner, to be sure,—always with something between,—if not the river or the hills, at least a breath of mist out of which rises the vision he invokes; but the vision has a shape, precise and clear.

If it is sadness that he seeks, sadness comes, dark as the nun of the Penseroso, without a glimmer of the countless and daily trifles of fairer aspect that made her actual presence possible to suffer,—comes to flatter his memory with assurance of strength in having endured so much and yet survived, or to stab him with her phantom poniards freshly and fiercely as ever,—no diffused affair, but a positive shape of melancholy.

But if the phase to be recalled is of a cheerful sort, how completely likewise does it assert its essence,—a sunbeam falling through that past from beginning to end. All the vexatious annoyances of the period that then seemed to counterbalance pleasure are lost to view, and only the rosy face of an experience that was happiness itself smiles upon him. What matter the myriad frets that then beset him in the flesh? They were superficial substance,—burrs that fell; he was happy in spite of them; he does not remember them; he sees nothing but the complete content; he in fact possesses his experience only in the ideal.

It is the dropping out of detail that accomplishes this in one case and the other. In either, the point of view alone is fixed. The rest is variable, and depends, it may be, on the nature of that subtile and volatile ether through which each man gazes.

That the latter, the brighter vision, predominates, is as true as that sunny days outnumber rainy ones. Though Argemone, rather than remember, may have blotted out her memory; or though Viviani, after fifty years of renowned practice in his profession, may be unable to look back at it without a shudder,—then endowed with youth, health, energy, ambition,—now lacking these, the recollection of the suffering he has seen overwhelming his sensitive nature blackly and heavily as clods of burial might do;—yet they are but those points of shadow that throw the fact into prominence. It has been said that pain, remembered, is delight. This is true only of physical pain. Mental agony ever remains agony; for it is the body that perishes and the affections of the body. Still, with most men the past is an illuminated region, forever throwing the present into the shade. In the Zend Avesta, a farsang is defined to be the space within which a long-sighted man can see a camel and distinguish whether it be white or black; but the milestones of the memory are even less arbitrary than this: no matter how far the glance flies, in those distances every man's camel is white. Thus the backward view is ever of

"Summits soft and fair,
Clad in colors of the air,
Which to those who journey near
Barren, brown, and rough appear."

The maidens of to-day are not so beautiful as the maidens were when our young senses could drink in their beauty; the St. Michael pears have died out; the blight has got possession of the roses. When we married, a white one climbed up the house-side and thrust its snowy sprays in at the casement of the wedding-chamber. Find us such climbers now! A young girl once on the beach, watching her father's ship slip away on the wind, had her glance caught by a sparkle in the sand; and there lay a treasure at her feet, a heap of crimson crystals, a mine of jewels. What wealth! What possibilities! No more going to sea! No more watching ships out of sight! She gathered a double-handful of the splendid cubes as earnest, and ran back to the house with them. Such assurance having been displayed, there was no hesitation. The man-servant followed her swift guidance to the shore again, with shovel and sack and a train of the whole household,—but the tide had come in, and the place was not there. Day after day was search made for that mass of garnets, but always in vain. It was one of those deposits that Hugh Miller somewhere speaks of, as disclosed by one tide and hidden by another. But all her life long, though she wore jewels and scattered gold, no gem rivalled the blood-red lustre of that sudden sparkle in the sands; and no wealth equalled the fabulous dreams that were born of it. It was to her as precious and irreparable as to the poet the Lost Bower.

"I affirm that since I lost it
Never bower has seemed so fair;
Never garden-creeper crossed it,
With so deft and brave an air;
Never bird sang in the summer, as I saw and heard them there."

This light of other days is unfailingly, by its owners, carried over to every child they meet. As if the caterpillar were in better estate than the butterfly, each boy is seeing his best days. Yet there is not a child in the world but is pursued by cares. His desk-mate's marbles oppress him more than will forcemeat-balls and turtle-soup when he becomes an alderman; there are lessons to learn, terrible threats of telling the teacher to brave, and many a smart to suffer. Childhood is beautiful in truth, but not therefore blest,—that is, for the little bodiless cherubs of the canvas. It was one of Origen's fancies that the coats of skins given to Adam and Eve on their expulsion from Paradise were their corporeal textures, and that in Eden they had neither flesh nor blood, bones nor nerves. The opening soul, that puts back petal after petal till the fructifying heart of it is bare to all the sweet influences of the universe, is something lovely for older eyes to see,—perhaps no lovelier than the lawful development of later lives to larger eyes than ours,—perhaps no lovelier than that we are to undergo. The first moment when the force of beauty strikes a child's perceptions would be an ineffable one, if he had anything to compare it with or measure it by; but as it is, even though it pierce him through and through with rapture, he is not aware of that rapture till after-years reproduce it for him and sweeten the sensation with full knowledge. The child is so dear to the parents, because it is their own beings bound together in one; the baby is so beautiful to all, because so sacred and mysterious. Where was this life a moment since? Whither will it fleet a moment hence? He may be a fiend or an archangel by and by, as he and Fate together please; but now his little skin is like a blush rose-leaf, and his little kisses are so tender and so dear! yet it is as an object of nature that he charms, not in his identity as a sufferer of either pain or pleasure. Childhood, by these blind worshippers of yesterday, is simply so vaunted and so valued because it is seen again in the ideal: the detail is lost in distance; the fair fact alone remains.

But yesterday has its uses, of more value than its idolatries. Though too often with its aerial distances and borrowed hues it is a mere pleasure region, instead of that great reservoir from which we might draw fountains of inexhaustible treasure, yet, if we cultivated our present from our past, homage to it might be as much to the purpose at least as the Gheber's worship of the sun. The past is an atmosphere weighing over each man's life. The skilful farmer with his subsoil-plough lets down the wealthy air of the actual atmosphere into his furrows, deeper than it ever went before; the greedy loam sucks in the nitrogen there, and one day he finds his mould stored with ammonia, the great fertilizer, worth many a harvest. Are they numerous who thus enrich the present with the disengaged agents of the past, the chemic powers obtained from that superincumbent atmosphere ever elastically stretching over them? Let our farmer scatter pulverized marble upon his soil forever,—crude carbonate of lime,—and it remains unassimilated; but let him powder burnt bones there, and his crop uses it to golden advantage,—now merely the phosphate of lime, but material that has passed through the operations of animal life, of organism. With whatever manure he work his land, be it wood-ashes or guano or compost, he knows that that which has received the action of organic tissues fattens it the best; and so a wise man may fertilize to-day better with the facts of an experience that he has once lived through, than with any vague and unorganized dreams. But the fool has never lived;—life, said Bichat, is the totality of the functions;—his past has endured no more organization than his future has; he never understood it; he can make no use of it; so he deifies it, and burns the flying moment like a joss-stick before the wooden image in which he has caricatured all its sweet and beneficent capabilities;—as if it were likely that one moment of his existence could be of any more weight than another.

The sentiment which a generation feels for another long antecedent to itself, is not utterly dissimilar from this. Its individuals being regarded with the veneration due to parents and due to the dead, it is forgotten that they were men, and men whose lessons were necessarily no wiser than those of the men among us; men, too, of no surpassing humility, since they presumed to prescribe inviolable laws to ages far wiser than themselves. Yet though the philosophy of the Greek and Roman were lost, would it need more than the years of a generation to replace what scarcely can exceed the introspection of a single experience? If their art were lost, does not the ideal of humanity remain the same so long as the nature of humanity endures? But of the seven sciences of antiquity, two alone deserve the name,—their arithmetic and their geometry. Their music was a cumbrous and complicated machinery, and the others were exercises of wit and pleasure and superstition. It is true that the Egyptian excelled, that the Arabian delved somewhat into the secrets of nature; but who venerates those people, and who spends all that season in study of their language that he should spend in putting oxygen into his blood and lime into his bones? The sensuous Greek loved beauty; he did not care to puzzle his brain when he could please it instead. Euclid and Apollonius, indeed, carried the positive science of mathematics to great height, but physical science is the growth of comparative to-day; with habits of thought hampered by priesthoods and systems, the efforts of antiquity were like abortive shoots,—it is within the last four centuries that the strong stem has sprung up, and the plant has flowered. Neither do our youth study the classics for their science; and yet is not the pursuit of science nobler than all other pursuits, since it leads its followers into the mysteries of the creation and into the purposes of God? Small is the profit to be found in recital of the fancies of heathen ages or the warfares of savage tribes. But so far is the mere breath of the ancients exalted above this sacred search, that a university will turn out proficients who write Greek verses by the ream, but cannot spell their own speech; who can name you the winning athletes of the first Olympiad, but are unable to state the constituents of the gas that lights their page, and never dream, as the chemist does, that these "sunbeams absorbed by vegetation in the primordial ages of the earth, and buried in its depths as vegetable fossils through immeasurable eras of time, until system upon system of slowly formed rocks has been piled above, come forth at last, at the disenchanting touch of science, and turn the night of civilized man into day." They can paint to you the blush of Rhodope or Phryne, till you see the delicious color blend and mingle on the ivory of their tablets; but until, like Agassiz, we can all of us deduce the fish from the scale, and from that blush alone deduce the human race, we are no nearer the Divine intentions in the creation of man, for all such lore as that. An author has somewhere asked, What signify our telegraphs, our anæsthetics, our railways? What signifies our knowledge of the earth's structure, of the stars' courses? Are we any the more or less men? But certainly he is the more a man, he comes nearer to God's meaning in a man, who conquers matter, circumstance, time, and space. That one who sees the universe move round him understandingly, and fathoms in some degree the wonder and the beauty of the eternal laws, must be a pleasanter object to his Creator than any other who, merely employing pleasure, makes a fetich of his luxuries, his Aldines and Elzevirs, and, dying, goes into the unknown world no wiser concerning the ends and aims of this one than when he entered it. Rather than periods that decay and sin might bring again, should one remember the wonderful history of the natural world when the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. Rather should one read the record of the rain, it seems,—the story of the weather some morning, cycles since, with the way the wind was blowing written in the slanting drip of the rain-drops caught and petrified on the old red sandstone,—marks of the Maker as he passed, one day, a million years ago,—than decipher on the scroll of any palimpsest, under the light-headed visions of an anchorite, some half-erased ode of Anacreon.

But, after all, this veneration for the ancients—who personally might be forgiven for their misfortune in having lived when the world was young, were not one so slavish before them—is only because again one looks at the ideal,—looks through that magical Claude Lorraine glass which makes even the commonest landscape picturesque. We forget the dirty days of straw-strewn floors, and see the leather hangings stamped with gold; we forget the fearful feet of sandal shoon, but see the dust of a Triumph rising in clouds of glory. We look at that past, feeling something like gods, too.

"The gods are happy:
They turn on all sides
Their shining eyes,
And see, below them,
The earth and men."

We cannot consider those things happening remotely from us on the earth's surface, even now, without suffering them to partake somewhat of the property of by-gone days. It makes little difference whether the distance be that of meridians or of eras. When at sunrise we fancy some foreign friend beholding dawn upon the silver summits of the Alps, we are forced directly to remember that with him day is at the noon, and his sunrise has vanished with those of all the yesterdays,—so that even our friend becomes a being of the past; or when, bathed in the mellow air of an autumn afternoon, the sunshine falling on us like the light of a happy smile, and all the vaporous vistas melting in clouded sapphire, it occurs to us that possibly it is snowing on the Mackenzie River, and night has already darkened down over the wide and awful ice-fields,—then distance seems a paradox, and time and occasion mere phantasmagoria; there are no beings but ourselves, there is no moment but the present; all circumstance of the world becomes apparent to us only like pictures thrown into the perspective of the past. It requires the comprehensive vision of the poet to catch the light of existing scenes as they shift along the globe, and harmonize them with the instant;—whether he view

"The Indian
Drifting, knife in hand,
His frail boat moored to
A floating isle thick matted
With large-leaved, low-creeping melon-plants,
And the dark cucumber.
He reaps and stows them,
Drifting,—drifting. Round him,
Round his green harvest-plot,
Flow the cool lake waves:
The mountains ring them";—

or whether, far across the continent, he chance to see

"The ferry
On the broad, clay-laden
Lone Chorasmian stream: thereon,
With snort and strain,
Two horses, strongly swimming, tow
The ferry-boat, with woven ropes
To either bow
Firm harnessed by the mane:—a chief
With shout and shaken spear
Stands at the prow, and guides them; but astern,
The cowering merchants, in long robes,
Sit pale beside their wealth
Of silk-bales and of balsam-drops,
Of gold and ivory,
Of turquoise-earth and amethyst,
Jasper and chalcedony,
And milk-barred onyx-stones.
The loaded boat swings groaning
In the yellow eddies.
The gods behold them,"—

the gods and the poets. But, except to these blest beholders, the inhabitants of the dead centuries are mere spectral shades; for it takes a poet's fancy to vitalize with warmth and breath again those things that, having apparently left no impress on their own generation, seem to have no more signification for this than the persons of the drama or the heroes of romance.

Yet, in a far inferior way, every man is a poet to himself. In the microcosm of his own small round, every one has the power to vivify old incident, every one raises bawbles of the desk and drawer, not only into life, but into life they never had. With the flower whose leaves are shed about the box, we can bring back the brilliant morning of its blossoming, desire and hope and joyous youth once more; with the letter laid away beside it rises the dear hand that rested on the sheet, and moved along the leaf with every line it penned: each trinket has its pretty past, pleasant or painful to recall as it may be. There is no trifle, however vulgar, but, looking at its previous page, it has a side in the ideal. When one at the theatre saw so many ringlets arranged as "waterfalls," he laughed and said, they undoubtedly belonged to the "dead-heads." But Belinda, who wears a waterfall, and at night puts it into a box, considers the remark a profanity, and confesses that she never adorns herself with this addition but she thinks of that girl in France who cherished her long locks, and combed them out with care until her marriage-day, when she put on a fair white cap, and sold them for her dowry. There are more poetic locks of hair, it must be said;—the keepsake of two lovers; the lock of Keats's hair, too sacred to touch, lying in its precious salvatory. But that is the ideal of the past belonging to Belinda's waterfall, a trivial, common thing enough, yet one that has a right to its ideal, nevertheless, if we accept the ecstasies of a noted writer upon its magic material. "In spinning and weaving," says he, "the ideal that we pursue is the hair of a woman. How far are the softest wools, the finest cottons, from reaching it! At what an enormous distance from this hair all our progress leaves us, and will forever leave us! We drag behind and watch with envy this supreme perfection that every day Nature realizes in her play. This hair, fine, strong, resistant, vibrant in light sonority, and, with all that, soft, warm, luminous, and electric,—it is the flower of the human flower. There are idle disputes concerning the merit of its color. What matter? The lustrous black contains and promises the flame. The blond displays it with the splendors of the Fleece of Gold. The brown, chatoyant in the sun, appropriates the sun itself, mingles it with its mirages, floats, undulates, varies ceaselessly in its brook-like reflections, by moments smiles in the light or glooms in the shade, deceives always, and, whatever you say of it, gives you the lie charmingly.—The chief effort of human industry has combined all methods in order to exalt cotton. Rare accord of capital, machinery, arts of design, and finally chemical science, has produced those beautiful results to which England herself renders homage in buying them. Alas! all that cannot disguise the original poverty of the ungrateful tissue which has been so much adorned. If woman, who clothes herself with it in vanity, and believes herself more beautiful because of it, would but let her hair fall and unroll its waves over the indigent richness of our most brilliant cloths, what must become of them! how humiliated would the vestment be!—It is necessary to confess that one thing alone sustains itself beside a woman's hair. A single fabricator can strive there. This fabricator is an insect,—the modest silkworm."

"A particular charm surrounds the works in silk," our author then goes on to say. "It ennobles all about it. In traversing our rudest districts, the valleys of the Ardèche, where all is rock, where the mulberry, the chestnut, seem to dispense with earth, to live on air and flint, where low houses of unmortared stone sadden the eyes with their gray tint, everywhere I saw at the door, under a kind of arcade, two or three charming girls, with brown skin, with white teeth, who smiled at the passer-by and spun gold. The passer-by, whirled on by the coach, said to them under his breath: 'What a pity, innocent fays, that this gold may not be for you! Instead of disguising it with a useless color, instead of disfiguring it by art, what would it not gain by remaining itself and upon these beautiful spinners! How much better than any grand dames would this royal tissue become yourselves!'"

Perhaps it was the dowry of one of these very maidens that Belinda wears; and all this would only go to show that to every meanest thing the past can lend a halo. When one person showed another the "entire costume of a Nubian woman, purchased as she wore it,"—a necklace of red beads, and two brass ear-rings simply, hanging on a nail,—how it brought up the whole scene, the wondrous ruins, the Nile, the lotos, and the palm-branch, the splendid sky soaring over all, the bronze-skinned creature shining in the sun! What a past the little glass bits had at their command, and what a more magnificent past hung yet behind them! Who would value a diamond, the product of any laboratory, were such a possibility, so much as that one which, by its own unknown and inscrutable process, defying philosopher and jeweller, has imprisoned the sunshine that moss or leaf or flower sucked in, ages since, and set its crystals in the darkness of the earth,—a drop of dew eternalized? What tree of swift and sudden springing, that grows like a gourd in the night to never so stately a height, could equal in our eyes the gnarled and may be stunted trunk that has thrown the flickering shadows of its leaves over the dying pillows alike of father, child, and grandchild? The ring upon the finger is crusted thick with memories, and, looking at it, far more than in the present do you live in the past. Perhaps it is for this that we are so jealous of events: we fear to have our memories impinged upon by pain. The woman whose lover has deserted her mourns not the man she must despise, but the love that has dropped out of her past, proving hollow and worthless. But she to whom he remains faithful borrows perpetually store of old love to enrich the daily feast; she gilds and glorifies the blest to-day with the light of that love transfigured in the past. And so, in other shapes and experiences, it is with all of us indeed; since into this fairy-land all can fly for refuge, can pick again their roses and ignore their thorns, can

"Change
Torment with ease, and soonest recompense
Dole with delight,"

Nor is this living in the past entirely the voluntary affair of pleasure and of memory. In another and more spiritual way it masters us. Never quite losing the vitality that once it had, with an elastic springiness it constantly rebounds, and the deed of yesterday reacts upon the deed of to-day. There is something solemn in the thought that thus the blemish or the grace of a day that long ago disappeared passes on with awfully increasing undulations into the demesne of the everlasting. And though the Judge of all may not cast each deed of other days and weigh them in the balance for us or against, yet what those deeds have made us, that we shall stand before him when,

"'Mid the dark, a gleam
Of yet another morning breaks;
And, like the hand which ends a dream,
Death, with the might of his sunbeam,
Touches the flesh, and the soul awakes!"

Yesterday, in truth,—looking though it may like a shadow and the phantom of itself,—is the only substance that we possess, the one immutable fact. To-day is but the asymptote of to-morrow, that curve perpetually drawing near, but never reaching the straight line flying into infinity. To-morrow, the great future, belongs to the heaven where it tends. Were it otherwise, seeing the indestructible elements, and the two great central forces forever at their work, we might fancy ourselves, in one form or another, continual here on the round world. For when Laplace, through the acceleration of the moon, dropping her ten seconds a hundred years towards us, discovered the change in the earth's orbit,—swinging as it does from ellipse to circle and back again to ellipse, vibrating like a mighty pendulum, the "horologe of eternity" itself, with tremendous oscillations, through the depths of space,—he taught us that the earth endures; and so that the clay with which we are clothed still makes a part of the great revolution. Yet, since the future is no possession of our own, but a dole and pittance, we know that the earth does not endure for us, but that when we shall have submitted to the conditions of eternal spirit, yesterday, to-morrow, and to-day must alike have ceased to exist, must have vanished like illusions; for eternity can be no mere duration of time, but rather some state of being past all our power of cognition.

And though we are to inherit eternity, yet have authority now only over the period that we have passed, with what wealth then are the aged furnished! Sweet must it be to sit with folded hands and dream life over once again. How rich we are, how happy! How dear is the old hand in ours! Years have added up the sum of all the felicity that we have known together, and carried it over to to-day. Those that have left our arms and gone out into other homes are still our own; but little sunny heads besides cluster round the knees as once before they did. Not only have we age and wisdom, but youth and gayety as well. On what light and jocund scenes we look! on what deep and dearer bliss! We see the meaning of our sorrows now, and bless them that they came. With such firm feet we have walked in the lighted way that we gaze back upon, how can we fear the Valley of the Shadow? Ah! none but they, indeed, who have threescore years and ten hived away in the past, can see the high design of Heaven in their lives, and from the wrong side of the pattern picture out the right.

"So at the last shall come old age,
Decrepit, as befits that stage.
How else wouldst thou retire apart
With the hoarded memories of thy heart,
And gather all to the very least
Of the fragments of life's earlier feast,
Let fall through eagerness to find
The crowning dainties yet behind?
Ponder on the entire past,
Laid together thus at last,
When the twilight helps to fuse
The first fresh with the faded hues,
And the outline of the whole,
As round Eve's shades their framework roll,
Grandly fronts for once thy soul!"

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.