Meditation and Imagination


Cleopatra[Note: This is taken from Hamilton Wright Mabie’s Books and Culture.]

There is a book in the British Museum which would have, for many people, a greater value than any other single volume in the world; it is a copy of Florio’s translation of Montaigne, and it bears Shakespeare’s autograph on a flyleaf. There are other books which must have had the same ownership; among them were Holinshed’s “Chronicles” and North’s translation of Plutarch. Shakespeare would have laid posterity under still greater obligations, if that were possible, if in some autobiographic mood he had told us how he read these books; for never, surely, were books read with greater insight and with more complete absorption. Indeed, the fruits of this reading were so rich and ripe that the books from which their juices came seem but dry husks and shells in comparison. The reader drained the writer dry of every particle of suggestiveness, and then recreated the material in new and imperishable forms. The process of reproduction was individual, and is not to be shared by others; it was the expression of that rare and inexplicable personal energy which we call genius; but the process of absorption may be shared by all who care to submit to the discipline which it involves. It is clear that Shakespeare read in such a way as to possess what he read; he not only remembered it, but he incorporated it into himself. No other kind of reading could have brought the East out of its grave, with its rich and languorous atmosphere steeping the senses in the charm of Cleopatra, or recalled the massive and powerfully organized life of Rome about the person of the great Caesar. Shakespeare read his books with such insight and imagination that they became part of himself; and so far as this process is concerned, the reader of to-day can follow in his steps.

The majority of people have not learned this secret; they read for information or for refreshment; they do not read for enrichment. Feeding one’s nature at all the sources of life, browsing at will on all the uplands of knowledge and thought, do not bear the fruit of acquirement only; they put us into personal possession of the vitality, the truth, and the beauty about us. A man may know the plays of Shakespeare accurately as regards their order, form, construction, and language, and yet remain almost without knowledge of what Shakespeare was at heart, and of his significance in the history of the human soul. It is this deeper knowledge, however, which is essential for culture; for culture is such an appropriation of knowledge that it becomes a part of ourselves. It is no longer something added by the memory; it is something possessed by the soul. A pedant is formed by his memory; a man of culture is formed by the habit of meditation, and by the constant use of the imagination. An alert and curious man goes through the world taking note of all that passes under his eyes, and collects a great mass of information, which is in no sense incorporated into his own mind, but remains a definite territory outside his own nature, which he has annexed. A man of receptive mind and heart, on the other hand, meditating on what he sees, and getting at its meaning by the divining-rod of the imagination, discovers the law behind the phenomena, the truth behind the fact, the vital force which flows through all things, and gives them their significance. The first man gains information; the second gains culture. The pedant pours out an endless succession of facts with a monotonous uniformity of emphasis, and exhausts while he instructs; the man of culture gives us a few facts, luminous in their relation to one another, and freshens and stimulates by bringing us into contact with ideas and with life.

To get at the heart of books we must live with and in them; we must make them our constant companions; we must turn them over and over in thought, slowly penetrating their innermost meaning; and when we possess their thought we must work it into our own thought. The reading of a real book ought to be an event in one’s history; it ought to enlarge the vision, deepen the base of conviction, and add to the reader whatever knowledge, insight, beauty, and power it contains. It is possible to spend years of study on what may be called the externals of the “Divine Comedy,” and remain unaffected in nature by this contact with one of the masterpieces of the spirit of man as well as of the art of literature. It is also possible to so absorb Dante’s thought and so saturate one’s self with the life of the poem as to add to one’s individual capital of thought and experience all that the poet discerned in that deep heart of his and wrought out of that intense and tragic experience. But this permanent and personal possession can be acquired by those alone who brood over the poem and recreate it within themselves by the play of the imagination upon it. A visitor was shown into Mr. Lowell’s room one evening not many years ago, and found him barricaded behind rows of open books; they covered the table and were spread out on the floor in an irregular but magic circle. “Still studying Dante?” said the intruder into the workshop of as true a man of culture as we have known on this continent. “Yes,” was the prompt reply; “always studying Dante.”

A man’s intellectual character is determined by what he habitually thinks about. The mind cannot always be consciously directed to definite ends; it has hours of relaxation. There are many hours in the life of the most strenuous and arduous man when the mind goes its own way and thinks its own thoughts. These times of relaxation, when the mind follows its own bent, are perhaps the most fruitful and significant periods in a rich and noble intellectual life. The real nature, the deeper instincts of the man, come out in these moments, as essential refinement and genuine breeding are revealed when the man is off guard and acts and speaks instinctively. It is possible to be mentally active and intellectually poor and sterile; to drive the mind along certain courses of work, but to have no deep life of thought behind these calculated activities. The life of the mind is rich and fruitful only when thought, released from specific tasks, flies at once to great themes as its natural objects of interest and love, its natural sources of refreshment and strength. Under all our definite activities there runs a stream of meditation; and the character of that meditation determines our wealth or our poverty, our productiveness or our sterility.

This instinctive action of the mind, although largely unconscious, is by no means irresponsible; it may be directed and controlled; it may be turned, by such control, into a Pactolian stream, enriching us while we rest and ennobling us while we play. For the mind may be trained to meditate on great themes instead of giving itself up to idle reverie; when it is released from work it may concern itself with the highest things as readily as with those which are insignificant and paltry. Whoever can command his meditations in the streets, along the country roads, on the train, in the hours of relaxation, can enrich himself for all time without effort or fatigue; for it is as easy and restful to think about great things as about small ones. A certain lover of books made this discovery years ago, and has turned it to account with great profit to himself. He thought he discovered in the faces of certain great writers a meditative quality full of repose and suggestive of a constant companionship with the highest themes. It seemed to him that these thinkers, who had done so much to liberate his own thought, must have dwelt habitually with noble ideas; that in every leisure hour they must have turned instinctively to those deep things which concern most closely the life of men. The vast majority of men are so absorbed in dealing with material that they appear to be untouched by the general questions of life; but these general questions are the habitual concern of the men who think. In such men the mind, released from specific tasks, turns at once and by preference to these great themes, and by quiet meditation feeds and enriches the very soul of the thinker. And the quality of this meditation determines whether the nature shall be productive or sterile; whether a man shall be merely a logician, or a creative force in the world. Following this hint, this lover of books persistently trained himself, in his leisure hours, to think over the books he was reading; to meditate on particular passages, and, in the case of dramas and novels, to look at characters from different sides. It was not easy at first, and it was distinctively work; but it became instinctive at last, and consequently it became play. The stream of thought, once set in a given direction, flows now of its own gravitation; and reverie, instead of being idle and meaningless, has become rich and fruitful. If one subjects “The Tempest,” for instance, to this process, he soon learns it by heart; first he feels its beauty; then he gets whatever definite information there is in it; as he reflects, its constructive unity grows clear to him, and he sees its quality as a piece of art; and finally its rich and noble disclosure of the poet’s conception of life grows upon him until the play belongs to him almost as much as it belonged to Shakespeare. This process of meditation habitually brought to bear on one’s reading lays bare the very heart of the book in hand, and puts one in complete possession of it.

This process of meditation, if it is to bear its richest fruit, must be accompanied by a constant play of the imagination, than which there is no faculty more readily cultivated or more constantly neglected. Some readers see only a flat surface as they read; others find the book a door into a real world, and forget that they are dealing with a book. The real readers get beyond the book, into the life which it describes. They see the island in “The Tempest;” they hear the tumult of the storm; they mingle with the little company who, on that magical stage, reflect all the passions of men and are brought under the spell of the highest powers of man’s spirit. It is a significant fact that in the lives of men of genius the reading of two or three books has often provoked an immediate and striking expansion of thought and power. Samuel Johnson, a clumsy boy in his father’s bookshop, searching for apples, came upon Petrarch, and was destined henceforth to be a man of letters. John Keats, apprenticed to an apothecary, read Spenser’s “Epithalamium” one golden afternoon in company with his friend, Cowden Clarke, and from that hour was a poet by the grace of God. In both cases the readers read with the imagination, or their own natures would not have kindled with so sudden a flash. The torch is passed on to those only whose hands are outstretched to receive it. To read with the imagination, one must take time to let the figures reform in his own mind; he must see them with great distinctness and realize them with great definiteness. Benjamin Franklin tells us, in that Autobiography which was one of our earliest and remains one of our most genuine pieces of writing, that when he discovered his need of a larger vocabulary he took some of the tales which he found in an odd volume of the “Spectator” and turned them into verse; “and after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order before I began to form the full sentences and complete the paper.” Such a patient recasting of material for the ends of verbal exactness and accuracy suggests ways in which the imagination may deal with characters and scenes in order to stimulate and foster its own activity. It is well to recall at frequent intervals the story we read in some dramatist, poet, or novelist, in order that the imagination may set it before us again in all its rich vitality. It is well also as we read to insist on seeing the picture as well as the words. It is as easy to see the bloodless duke before the portrait of “My Last Duchess,” in Browning’s little masterpiece, to take in all the accessories and carry away with us a vivid and lasting impression, as it is to follow with the eye the succession of words. In this way we possess the poem, and make it serve the ends of culture.