« IndietroContinua »
which the reporters on Cuban ships have made us familiar, set up to catch, through whatever storm or shine, a world of sounds, coming from afar; and which, with ear-tubes (like our lines of type) are judiciously adjusted to hold and treasure only those sweet or strong notes, which carry in them comfort or wisdom ?
Just what rules of progression and of selection may have governed the providers of this enwrapment of literary treasures it is not needful to set forth; indeed, methinks one should enjoy it all the more, knowing only that love and respect and care and a good sound conscience have gone to the choosings. I do not want to foreknow by what elaborate scheme of search the seeker after floral beauties is to govern his steps : 'twould weaken interest if he said loudly and presumingly, “I shall go only into such or such well-known fields, or grand domains," and so miss of a hundred quiet haunts which a more plodding and modest wanderer might love better. By all odds, I have a happier confidence in those seekers for the jewels of thought or feeling who do not scorn broad thoroughfares — known of all men — along whose dusty and beaten waysides many poor souls (as needs must be) gather up their most delightsome treasures.
Keep your doors shut, you mincers of phrase and misers of learning! Slaver as you will, over your fleshpots of Egypt: there grow outside of your palaces, and your shaven terraces,
-pot-herbs, daisies, small-fruit, red roses, — that we love and will evermore cherish, though all the critics in the world gird at us with their pedagogic rods !
In all those early records, which every explorer and every flower gatherer on the fields of literature must broach, there are gods and demigods, fairies, spirits of evil and of good a Jupiter, a Pan, a Vulcan, an Eros, - these, or somewhat to correspond with these. So, too, there are courts of paradise, where celestial beatitudes reign; and pits of darkness, where Evil wallows in some one of its many lairs. Long before Christian records begin, there are in letters - Coptic, Babylonic, Semitic (how shall we describe them ?)— records of great and benign influences that shot rays of joy, of hope, of warning over the minds and thought of created beings, and soothed or darkened their journey along the multitudinous ways of life. Always a “great white throne” has arisen out of the dimness that veiled the beginnings, — which was the eternal symbol of what was good and what was true, — and always this great throne (perhaps by reason of its vastness and solidity) cast a shadow - its negative, its opposite which represented the bad. These are the eternal combatants; these cry out, now with hope and now with warning, from all the history and all earnest utterance of a bewildered and struggling humanity. Traditions, myths, fantasies, give their twists to the great story (as different narrators will vary the wordings or lights and shadows of a tale), but always the great counter-currents of dark and white dominate the record ; and literature, in its largest sense, is the weaving or unwinding of those counter-threads — white or black — which guide the march or feed the courage of all those who toil amid the pitfalls where darkness frowns, toward the Delectable Mountains where brightness reigns.
First things are not always the best things : and I can conceive that there may be those ease-loving readers who will falter as they glimpse the pale lights which in such chronologic fasciculus of letters — filter through Vedic hymns, or the teachings of the Upanishads — notwithstanding the wordy aids and enlightenments of a Müller or Monier-Williams. Nor does the light upon Hindu or Persian fable and Hebraic wisdom beam only through the kindly words of translators and expositors: the poetic work of many a modern has found its excuse and its warmest glow in the adornment and illustration of misty Orientalisms- as the reader of these volumes will find. What should one ask for better than the masculine measure and swing of Matthew Arnold's verse to put a glory upon the old Persian tradition of Sohrab and Rustam ? And who with an easier pace, or a more amiable and sugared dalliance, than Sir Edwin Arnold's, can set us upon the track of the domesticities of Buddha — all laid bare in the multiplied and prettily refracted “Light of Asia”?
Even Tubal Cain — first of forgers and workers in metal who belongs to Bible story by so short a genealogy as would shock a colonial dame - finds in our record a blazon of firesparks and an echo of booming hammers in one little verselet of Charles Mackay.
Miss Yonge, too, who forty years since made all good young women bow to her “Heir of Redclyffe," has done us a pleasant service in stretching the broidery of her affluent and engaging narrative over many a rescript of religious motif, dating from Bethlehem, and in revision of such Plutarchian stories as that of “ Damon and Pythias.'
These names float us out upon those classic tides which are surging through many pages of these volumes, and which will surge through the thought of scholarly men and women for a great many decades to come.
What large or open-minded reader does not, odd whiles, want to steep himself -- were it only for a half-hour in the old Greek tales of Helen, Ajax, and Achilles ? No Spanish fights in these lusty days of ours will make the Trojan stories and war gods grow dim. Such glimpses of Homeric battle as filtrate through those pages of Pope or the English prose of Conington, in this - our mosaic of letters - are, I should say, the least quantum of classicism which will put a reader well “up” in the sort of war news that is good for centuries. Translation counts for more in our Greek or Latin foregatherings, than in those misty Orientalisms, where a happy wordist by a mere sniff at the roses of Bendemeer will load their petals with sententious talk, and crowd the “Gulistan” of Sadi with poetic dreams and the veiled wisdom of the prophets. There is more need in Epictetus or in Marcus Aurelius to pin ourselves to the line; and so of the poetry and legends which cry out for the simplicities in which they were bred-except indeed (as in Swinburne's “Atalanta ") a man can immerse a Greek tradition in musical and imaginative felicities of his own, and so float it to a fame of its own. Many another bit of translated classicism sings its own Saxon way; and will wear its English warble-away from the Greek — for many a year.
Ovid himself would, I think, have nodded approval of the fashion in which Dryden has dashed into his dulcet and daring couplets the old story of Ganymede and of the hirsute Polyphemus; while Professor Conington, in his repeat of Dido's sufferings, has narrated in very significant prose all the woes of wanderers and of widows.
And what a beautiful byplay of modern lights and shadows is thrown upon all that classic period - whether Attic or Roman - which is represented in this large mosaic! There is Shakespeare, with the great Achilles “lolling” on his couch, or striding giant-wise over the lines of Troilus and Cressida ; and Chaucer with his Englished Cresseide strewing a fire into those loves and jealousies which makes the story wholly his own. Walter Landor thrusts a British sword into the hand of Menelaus, and a Saxon bitterness into his vengeful speech; while poor Keats, catching first the Homeric story in the language “loud and bold” of a brother Britisher, brilliantly confesses
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
And what shall be said of those American interpretations of the fable of the Golden Fleece, or of the witching work of Circe, drawn from the “ Wonder Book” of Hawthorne, to illumine these pages ? For myself, I hardly ever give a halfhour to the refreshment of one of his stories about Jason, or about the Gorgon, but I have a regret that the same master had not remodeled for us all the Parallel Lives of great Greeks and Romans, and so given to us a Puritan Plutarch.
As the classic din recedes, or loses itself in that other din which belongs to the downfall of Rome and the struggles of Christianism against Paganism, - all made noisy and brilliant by the pen that wrought the startling and overnaked scenes of "Quo Vadis," - the Horatian odes fall away from notice; and so do stories of the brave Horatius and of the rueful Virginia. Then, in our easy-going chronology, the great brazen gates swing open upon mediæval times.
But here there be Christian preludes or interludes which take on Latin form. The “ Dies Iræ,” very properly, gets its place in vivid translation on these pages; and a certain Bernard de Morlaix (by the gracious aid of a warm-blooded English hymnologist, who made music for “Jerusalem, the Golden ") has place in our record; and his Christian exultation wells up serenely through Latin “longs and shorts," as he dwells, in beatific vision, on
The home of fadeless splendor
Of flowers that fear no thorn,
Who here as exiles mourn.
Shall we loiter here for a scaling of the walls of Jerusalem on the wonderful rhetorical ladders of Gibbon, or shall we put back to the Levantine seas, in the days when the old blind Doge Dandolo officered his whole fleet of Venetian galleys, and laid low the power and the pride of Byzantium ? We can find a rich story of both in the ensuing volumes — either at the hand of that august historian of the Roman Empire whom we