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BY THE AUTHOR OF JOHN JENKINS,' 'EDITING AND OTHER MATTERS,' ETC.
As I begin this article, I feel the vast difference between conceiving and executing an intellectual project. Who can do justice to his first vivid impressions of a subject ? Whose pen can flee like the courser before the wind, and keep pace with the rapid evolutions of thought ? When some time has transpired since we experienced those impressions, the effort to recall them seems like bidding. the bloom back to the faded rose. Can
revive the lustre of the meteor's track? Neither can you call back the brilliancy with which a novel thought streamed across your intellectual horizon. The mind's delirious whirl, in the moment of conception, is intensely exciting ; but we sit down to write with a placid brow and blood, the demeanor of which would be pronounced exemplary by a jury of ascetics. The difference between the freshness of conception and the coolness of execution, is like the difference between the gay and beautiful coquette of eighteen, and the superannuated miss who has just arrived at the knowledge of the solemn truth that she is marketless. The other night
As I lay on my bed,
Lay dreaming at my ease,' my mind took hold of the subject' on which I am about writing, and in a very few minutes, I had compassed all the mysteries of the topic with an ease, and grace, and truth, which I feel I may not hope to
recall as I write. But with Dr. Johnson for my mentor, (the Doctor told Boswell a man could write at any time, provided he went at it doggedly,) I will essay the task.
There is an old proverb, which teacheth that familiarity breeds contempt. This, like many other 'fragments of former wisdom,' as D'Israeli denominates these sayings, contains scarcely enough truth to leaven it. Indeed, like many of the same family which Charles Lamb has shown up, in most cases to which it would seem applicable, it is a profound fib. Familiarity with the doings of many of our species may, with great propriety, inspire us with contempt for them; but it is also an indispensable preliminary to friendship, love, admiration, and a host of other feelings. But let us have done with general remarks, and come at once to individual instances.
Lying in bed of a boisterous, windy night, within ear-shot of the roar of the sea-gods, one's imagination is very apt to take advantage of the occasion, to fancy how the night fares with those who, like Lear, are exposed to the ‘pelting of the pitiless storm.' The angry sea, with its wild garniture of foam and billows, heaves and tosses before the mind, and we see a ship reeling dreadfully to and fro, while the waters make a complete breach over her decks, and the tempest strains and splits the bellying canvass into tatters. One is quite apt, just then, to conclude that brave mariners' have a bard time of it, and to expend a very large and very useless, amount of sympathy in their behalf. But what care they for the demons who are shrieking above and beneath them? They are accustomed to such scenes, and familiarity contemns the dangers of sky and sea. Our imaginations cause us lúbbers, who are blanketted and wrapped up to the chin, more shuddering than the storm awakens in the breasts of the honest tars, who, “high upon the giddy mast,' sway as securely as doth the young bird in its leafy nest, when the winds shiver its native bough. So also may the same hardihood be affirmned of the soldier. We are not given to fancy much fun on a field of battle, when the bullets are whizzing like hail, smiting to the earth the form of many a good fellow. But how is it with your old campaigner ? Does he quake, and is his step unsteady? No! It is his vocation, and after the first round, the blood courseth merrily on its 'winding way through his veins. He hath no dread of grim carnage; and it seemeth to him more fitting to die of a bullet than a doctor, and to send the soul to its long home to the music of artillery, a better way of shuffling off its mortal coil,' than to have it forced out of its fleshy tabernacle by a fever, while surrounded by the dolorous faces of one's kindred. Habit blunts the sense of danger, as well as the sensibility which hath controversy with mint-juleps, and of the sailor, the seaman, and the toper, it may be said, that famiJiarity hath bred contempt for what appears to us lookers on to be most imminent peril.
Who that has been entranced when hanging over the pages of an admired author, does not feel a sense of awe, similar to that felt by Boswell, when he first met Johnson, when he has been presented to him for the first time? In imagination, the form of a distinguished and as yet upseen writer looms before us like a demi-god. We fancy him a being of marvellous dignity, endowed with wit and intellec
tual powers, which would cause us to shrink to very pigmies in his presence. It would be pleasant, we think, to look on the god-like brow, and to drink in some of the heavenly eloquence which proceeds from the lips of the oracle. But then how awful to lift up one's own tiny voice, and to speak of one's own accord in such an inspired atmosphere! If Plato would befriend us, as he did Perseus by the loan of his helmet, which would confer invisibility on us, the meeting with such a superior being would be truly edifying. But voluntarily to assume the responsibility of placing our own dwarfish proportions where the sun-like eye of genius can look us through and through, is too dreadful to think of. After various conflicts, and shifting of purposes, however, curiosity gets the whip-end of our timidity, and with a palpitating heart and tremulous knee, we approach the great man. Our bewilderment, for a while, is overwhelmingly great, and would utterly overpower us, but for some resemblance to humanity which the illustrious individual kindly condescends to put forth. We take courage, and look up, and are speedily disenchanted. Then how quickly do our dreams of supernatural gifts vanish! What gay somersets do our expectations throw! We look
upon the great man's brow, and it resembleth our own; his voice bath no peculiar music in its tones; and he even deigns to eat and blow his nose, much like other bipeds! We grow bold ; we breathe more freely; we open our eyes wide, not fearing immediate blindness, for our temerity, in looking at the intellectual luminary. Our ears are not ravished with notes sweeter than the false syren’s. Our minds are not left gazing into the dim distance, at the superior eagle-like thoughts of the genius. The scales fall from the eye; we behold but a man, a compound of strength and weaknesses like ourselves; and we begin to converse with him, without any dread of annibilation. Thus doth familiarity with one whose fame has filled the land, and whose praises are on every lip,.convince us that our awful conceptions relative to human greatness are roman. tic, and that a man of genius is but a modified combination of the very commonest materials that enter into the composition of mor
With what quaking of heart and trembling of nerves do we, for the first time, in fresb-lipped youth, make our obeisance at the shrine of beauty? A beautiful woman is the ne plus ultra of all spectacles, to the young and fervid heart. We invest such a being with all the winning attributes of soul and sense. In our visions, we hang entranced on each blue vein that is seen on her transparent brow; her eye is a world of wonder; her cheek and its quick transitions form a visible, though unintelligible, mystery to our speculations ; the lips of the enchantress are all that symmetry and music can fashion and fll; and her form is a combination of grace and loveliness. Such an one's mind we deem of too elevated a caste to harbor a thought akin to impurity; and her heart, like some of those blissful regions in South America, is never visited by storms, but is a spot where spring ever smiles, and flowers ever bloom. How incompatible the dross and defilement of common natures seem with such splendors! Our romantic visions reject the suspicion that dirt can defile such deity. We fancy her perfect. We think her heart is the home of nothing but gentle affections, heavenly hopes, and bland sympathies. Alas, that experience should throw a shadow over the young heart's gorgeous dream of lovely woman! Well, we meet with one in whom are blended all the brilliant hues of our imaginings. It is not surprising that with the recollections of our dreams clinging to us, we should hesitate and falter, when for the first time we approach one who is about to realize in substance all that has been bright and beautiful in our visions. We address her in tremulous tones, and she answers us with kindness. How we hate, just then, that misanthropy which can discover nothing celestial in man nor woman! But anon, ‘ a change comes over the spirit of our dreams. We have seen the brow of the beauty clouded, and heard, it may be silliness, it may be scorn, emanate from her lips. We investigate the reasons of her changed aspect. Our conclusion is, that she is not made altogether as the angels are. Gradually the imagined perfections fall from the idol of our hearts, and she appears to us beautiful, it is true, but given to associations which would deepen the deformity of ugliness. We withdraw our worship. We feel that we have been victims of a sweet delusion. We give our adoration to the stars, to flowers; to songs of birds, the glorious ocean, the everlasting mountains ; or we concentrate it on some beau ideal of the mind, which leads us afar from the world and its ways. Thus does the magic which, as we stood afar off, appeared the inalienable property of beauty, give way before acquaintance. Familiarity strips romance from what we idolized, and when truth has fully dawned upon our perceptions, we either laugh at our delusions, or mourn to think that we have been deceived.
It is almost invariably the case, that when our expectations have been high, we meet with disappointments. Truth laughs at our imaginings of human perfection. When romance seizes the pencil and draws with rainbow tints the picture of life, it bears but slight resemblance to the canvass which glows with the colors applied by that master artist, Experience. Genius and beauty appear to the dreamer in false lights: the one is hallowed by all that is glorious in thought, and the other wears all that is divine to the fancy. Of course when we meet with their possessors in society, they fail to sustain our expectation. There are unexpected weaknesses connected with the one, and the other is not without blemish. The real conflicts with the shadowy. The man may be greater, and the woman more beautiful, than we imagined, but as they are not as we dreamed them, we turn away unsatisfied. Familiarity lowers our estimate. We stand corrected by truth, and become philosophical, or cling to the starry forms which haunt our visions and become romantic. The effect is to rationalize or to idealize our natures.
Indeed, familiarity is fatal to romance. How many of the splendid imaginings and wild superstitions which poetized the human mind in the morning twilight of knowledge, have been banished from the earth! Science, like a Vandal conqueror, strides on in his career, and strews his path with the wrecks of an elder world. Romance and superstition, those nymphs of the world's morning, seek their caves, and call in their broods, as the sun of knowledge ascends in the heavens. The age of magicians, oracles, and soothsayers is numbered with the distant past. Mythology has yielded up its empire ; Olympus and Ida are no longer sacred; Näiads have forsaken İllyssus, and there are no nymphs in the Delphian vale. The horoscope has been falsified by astronomy. The telescope has banished fiction from the stars. Astrology, and its profound professors, the Rosicruscians, Paracelsus and his sidereal influences, are only summoned from their misty lombs to be laughed at. Alchemy is superseded; for we find the philosopher's stone in commerce, and an elixir vitæ in Hygeian pills ! Our rejuvenating fountain floweth from Burgundy. Lapland hags no longer cut up their pranks in the face of the stars, and pretty girls are our only dealers in witchcraft. Instead of seeing sylphs sailing on moonbeams, we see them, robed in satin, dancing in the garish light of ball-rooms. The moon has been proved to be — not green cheese. It is strongly suspected that the milkyway, instead of being the path by which the gods go to their homes, is nothing but an infinite assemblage of suns and systems of worlds. Neptune and the Nereids have been drowned.
The Hyperborean regions, instead of being wrapped for ever in the thick folds of darkness, are found to be the homes of eternal light, as the sun and moon and aurora very kindly attend alternately to their illumination. The pillars of Hercules are nothing but heaps of stone and dirt. The garden of the Hesperides is out here in glorious old Kentucky. These are but specimens of the changes which our familiarity with earth, sea, and sky has achieved. Hills and valleys, rivers and forests have been invaded by the votaries of science, and disenchanted and depopulated. Romance is adjusting her pinions on the mountain top, preparing to take her flight from earth for ever.
And whither shall the dreamy-eyed nymph flee? To the stars ; for while familiarity with the heavens has banished much of the fiction which rapt star-gazers used to dwell on and shudder at, yet it has made us ample recompense in affluent resources for speculation and thought. If the haunts of the human imagination are devastated on earth — if romance is homeless below — they may revel for ever in realms which the telescope has made visible to man. And in this way does science compensate us for all that he destroys. He tears down some of the temples in which men worshipped when the world was young, but for every one which crumbles before his power, ten others, a thousand fold more magnificent, spring up, as by enchantment, on its ruins. If Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars have been rendered useless in foretelling human destinies, the loss is abundantly made up to us by the rings of the first, the satellites of the second, and the belts of the third.
Does familiarity with the heavens breed contempt for their all-engrossing grandeur ? To the uninstructed eye, the stars seem but sparks of fire, glittering in the blue immensity above; while to the enlightened vision they are suns, surrounded by worlds, which are the homes of the heirs of immortality. Familiarity with them gives a boundless expanse to the regions of imagination, and imparts the quality of the fabled Phønix to our enthusiasm. Gaze upon Sirius, contemplate bis distance and his magnitude, and then say if he has lost any thing in glorious associations since it has been discovered that he is not merely an index to the rising of the Nile! There is