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older, one acquires more and more the painful consciousness of the difference between what ought to be done and what can be done, and sits down more quietly when one gets the wrong side of fifty, to let others start up to do for us things we cannot do for ourselves.
JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL
(1819–1891) DON'T think a view of the universe from the I
stocks of any creed a very satisfactory one. But I continue to shut my eyes resolutely in certain speculative directions, and am willing to find solace in certain intimations that seem to me from a region higher than my reason.
When they tell me that I can't know certain things, I am apt to wonder how they can be sure of that, and whether there may not be things which they can't know. . . . As I can't be certain, I won't be positive, and wouldn't drop some chapters of the Old Testament, even, for all the science that ever undertook to tell me what it doesn't know. They go about to prove to me from a lot of nasty savages that conscience is a purely artificial product, as if that wasn't the very wonder of it. What odds whether it is the thing or the aptitude that is innate ? What race of beasts ever got one up in all their leisurely æons ? 2
Life does seem sometimes a hard thing to bear, and all that makes it bearable is to occupy the mind with the nobler moods of contemplation—not shutting 1 From speech at the Lotus Club, New York, February 1874.
2 From letter to Leslie Stephen, May 15, 1876.
our eyes to what is mean and ugly, but striving to interpret it rightly. However we explain it, whether as implanted by God or the result of long and laborious evolution, there is something in the flesh that is superior to the flesh, something that can in finer moments abolish matter and pain, and it is to this we must cleave. I do not see how even loss of mind tells against a belief in this superior thing—for is the mind really dying in the same way as the body dies ? or is it only that the tools it works with are worn out or bent or broken? 1
I think the evolutionists will have to make a fetich of their protoplasm before long. Such a mush seems to me a poor substitute for the Rock of Ages—by which I understand a certain set of higher instincts which mankind have found solid under their feet in all weathers.2
Alas! in this world we do not cast off our hair shirts. At best we turn them or put on clean ones that haven't lost their bite by wear.
If one is good for anything, the world is not a place to be happy in—though, thank God, there are better things than being happy.3
.. Thank God, I am as young as ever. There is an exhaustless fund of inexperience somewhere about me, a Fortunatus-purse that keeps me so. I have had my share of bitter experiences like the rest, but they have left no black drop behind them in my bloodpour me faire envisager la vie en noir.4 1 From letter to Miss Grace Norton, August 16, 1879.
2 From letter to same, September 12, 1879.
4 From letter to R. W. Gilder, October 9, 1890.
WALT WHITMAN (1819–1892)
campaigns to come, Weave in red blood, weave sinews in like ropes, the
senses, sight, weave in, Weave lasting sure, weave day and night the weft, the
warp, incessant weave, tire not, (We know not what the use, O Life, nor know the aim,
the end, nor really ought we know, But know the work, the need goes on, and shall go on,
the death-envelop'd march of peace as well as
war goes on), For great campaigns of peace the same the wiry threads
We know not why or what, yet weave, forever weave.
Thanks in old age—thanks ere I go,
life, mere life, For precious ever-lingering memories (of you, my
mother dear-you, father-you, brothers, sisters,
friends), For all my days--not those of peace alone—the days
of war the same, For gentle words, caresses, gifts from foreign lands, For shelter, wine, and meat-for sweet appreciation,
1 “Weave in, my Hardy Life.”
(You distant, dim unknown-or young or old-count
less, unspecified, readers belov'd, We never met, and ne'er shall meet-and yet our souls
embrace, long, close and long); For beings, groups, love, deeds, words, books — for
colours, forms, For all brave, strong men — devoted, hardy men
who've forward sprung in freedom's help, all
years, all lands, For braver, stronger, more devoted men—(a special laurel ere I
to life's war's chosen ones, The cannoneers of song and thought—the great artil
lerists — the foremost leaders, captains of the
soul) : As soldier from an ended war return'd -as traveller
out of myriads, to the long procession retro
spective, Thanks—joyful thanks !—a soldier's, traveller's thanks.1
The two old, simple problems ever intertwined,
JOHN RUSKIN (1819–1900) THERE THERE is no wealth but life. Life, including all
its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest
1 " Thanks in Old Age.”
number of noble and happy human beings; that man is the richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others. 1
Other symbols have been given often to show the evanescence and slightness of our lives—the foam upon the water, the grass on the housetop, the vapour that vanishes away; yet none of these are images of true human life. That life, when it is real, is not evanescent; is not slight; does not vanish away. Every noble life leaves the fibre of it interwoven for ever in the work of the world; by so much, evermore, the strength of the human race has gained; more stubborn in the root, higher towards heaven in the branch; and “as a teil tree, and as an oak—whose substance is in them when they cast their leaves—so the holy seed is in the midst thereof." 2
I do not at all understand the feelings of religious people about death. All my own sorrow is absolutely infidel, and part of the general failure and meanness of my heart.—Were I a Catholic, I do not think I should ever feel sorrow in any deep sense—but only a constant brightening of days as I drew nearer companionship—perhaps not with those I had cared for in this world and certainly with others besides them. My own longing, and what trust I have, is only for my own people. But I have been putting chords of music lately, such as I can, to Herrick's “ Comfort”.
1 From Unto this Last (“ Ad Valorem ”).
2 From Proserpina, chap. iii.