By Way of Illustration

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

illustration from Tennyson work

The peculiar quality which culture imparts is beyond the comprehension of a child, and yet it is something so definite and engaging that a child may recognize its presence and feel its attraction. One of the special pieces of good fortune which fell to my boyhood was companionship with a man whose note of distinction, while not entirely clear to me, threw a spell over me. I knew other men of greater force and of larger scholarship; but no one else gave me such an impression of balance, ripeness, and fineness of quality. I not only felt a peculiarly searching influence flowing from one who graciously put himself on my level of intelligence, but I felt also an impulse to emulate a nature which satisfied my imagination completely. Other men of ability whose conversation I heard filled me with admiration; this man made the world larger and richer to my boyish thought. There was no didacticism on his part; there was, on the contrary, a simplicity so great that I felt entirely at home with him; but he was so thoroughly a citizen of the world that I caught a glimpse of the world in his most casual talk. I got a sense of the largeness and richness of life from him. I did not know what it was which laid such hold on my mind, but I saw later that it was the remarkable culture of the man,—a culture made possible by many fortunate conditions of wealth, station, travel, and education, and expressing itself in a peculiar largeness of vision and sweetness of spirit. In this man's friendship I was for the moment lifted out of my own crudity into that vast movement and experience in which all the races have shared.

I am often reminded of this early impulse and enthusiasm, but there are occasions when its significance and value become especially clear to me. It was brought forcibly to my mind several years ago by an hour or two of talk with one who, as truly as any other American, stands as a representative man of culture; one, that is, whose large scholarship has been so completely absorbed that it has enriched the very texture of his mind, and given him the gift of sharing the experience of the race. It was on an evening when a play of Sophocles was to be rendered by the students of a certain university in which the tradition of culture has never wholly died out, and I led the talk along the lines of the play. I was rewarded by an hour of such delight as comes only from the best kind of talk, and I felt anew the peculiar charm and power of culture. For what I got that enriched me and prepared me for real comprehension of one of the greatest works of art in all literature was not information, but atmosphere. I saw rising about me the vanished life, which the dramatist knew so well that its secrets of conviction and temperament were all open to him; in architecture, poetry, religion, politics, and manners, it was quietly rebuilded for me in such wise that my own imagination was stirred to meet the talker half-way, and to fill in the outlines of a picture so swiftly and skillfully sketched. When I went to the play I went as a contemporary of its writer might have gone. I did not need to enter into it, for it had already entered into me. A man of scholarship could have set the period before me in a mass of facts; a man of culture alone could give me power to share, for an evening at least, its spirit and life.

These personal illustrations will be pardoned, because they bring out in the most concrete way that special quality which marks the possession of culture in the deepest sense. That quality allies it very closely with genius itself, in certain aspects of that rare and inexplicable gift. For one of the most characteristic qualities of genius is its power of divination, of sharing alien or diverse experiences. It is this peculiar insight which puts the great dramatists in possession of the secrets of so many temperaments, the springs of so many different personalities, the atmosphere of such remote periods of time,—which, in a way, gives them power to make the dead live again; for Shakespeare can stand at the tomb of Cleopatra and evoke not the shade, but the passionate woman herself out of the dust in which she sleeps. There has been, perhaps, no more luminous example of the faculty of sharing the experience of a past age, of entering into the thought and feeling of a vanished race, than the peculiar divination and rehabilitation of certain extinct phases of emotion and thought which one finds in the pages of Walter Pater. In those pages there are, it is true, occasional lapses from a perfectly sound method; there is at times a loss of simplicity, a cloying sweetness in the style of this accomplished writer. These are, however, the perils of a very sensitive temperament, an intense feeling for beauty, and a certain seclusion from the affairs of life. That which characterizes Mr. Pater at all times is his power of putting himself amid conditions that are not only extinct, but obscure and elusive; of winding himself back, as it were, into the primitive Greek consciousness and recovering for the moment the world as the Greeks saw, or, rather, felt it. It is an easy matter to mass the facts about any given period; it is a very different and a very difficult matter to set those facts in vital relations to each other, to see them in true prospective. And the difficulties are immensely increased when the period is not only remote, but deficient in definite registry of thought and feeling; when the record of what it believed and felt does not exist by itself, but must be deciphered from those works of art in which is preserved the final form of thought and feeling, and in which are gathered and merged a great mass of ideas and emotions.

This is especially true of the more subtle and elusive Greek myths, which were in no case creations of the individual imagination or of definite periods of time, but which were fed by many tributaries, very slowly taking shape out of general but shadowy impressions, widely diffused but vague ideas, deeply felt but obscure emotions. To get at the heart of one of these stories one must be able not only to enter into the thought of the unknown poets who made their contributions to the myth, but must also be able to disentangle the threads of idea and feeling so deftly woven together, and follow each back to its shadowy beginning. To do this, one must have not only knowledge, but sympathy and imagination,—those closely related qualities which get at the soul of knowledge and make it live again; those qualities which the man of culture shares in no small measure with the man of genius. In his studies of such myths as those which gather about Dionysus and Demeter this is precisely what Mr. Pater did. He not only marked out distinctly the courses of the main streams, but he followed back the rivulets to their fountain-heads; he not only mastered the thought of an extinct people, but, what is much more difficult, he put off his knowledge and put on their ignorance; he not only entered into their thought about the world of nature which surrounded them, but he entered into their feeling about it. Very lightly touched and charming is, for instance, his description of the habits and haunts and worship of Demeter, the current impressions of her service and place in the life of the world:—

"Demeter haunts the fields in spring, when the young lambs are dropped; she visits the barns in autumn; she takes part in mowing and binding up the corn, and is the goddess of sheaves. She presides over the pleasant, significant details of the farm, the threshing-floor, and the full granary, and stands beside the woman baking bread at the oven. With these fancies are connected certain simple rites, the half-understood local observance and the half-believed local legend reacting capriciously on each other. They leave her a fragment of bread and a morsel of meat at the crossroads to take on her journey; and perhaps some real Demeter carries them away, as she wanders through the country. The incidents of their yearly labor become to them acts of worship; they seek her blessing through many expressive names, and almost catch sight of her at dawn or evening, in the nooks of the fragrant fields. She lays a finger on the grass at the roadside, and some new flower comes up. All the picturesque implements of country life are hers; the poppy also, emblem of an exhaustless fertility, and full of mysterious juices for the alleviation of pain. The country-woman who puts her child to sleep in the great, cradle-like basket for winnowing the corn remembers Demeter Kourotrophos, the mother of corn and children alike, and makes it a little coat out of the dress worn by its father at his initiation into her mysteries.... She lies on the ground out-of-doors on summer nights, and becomes wet with the dew. She grows young again every spring, yet is of great age, the wrinkled woman of the Homeric hymn, who becomes the nurse of Demophoon."

This bit of description moves with so light a foot that one forgets, as true art always makes one forget, the mass of hard and scattered materials which lie back of it, materials which would not have yielded their secret of unity and vitality save to imagination and sympathy; to knowledge which has ripened into culture. But the recovery of such a story, the reconstruction of such a figure, are not affected by description alone; one must penetrate to the heart of the myth, and master the significance of the woman transformed by idealization into a beneficent and much laboring goddess. We must go with Mr. Pater a step farther if we would understand how a man of culture divines the deeper experiences of an alien race:—

"Three profound ethical conceptions, three impressive sacred figures, have now defined themselves for the Greek imagination, condensed from all the traditions which have now been traced, from the hymns of the poets, from the instinctive and unformulated mysticism of primitive minds. Demeter is become the divine, sorrowing mother. Kore, the goddess of summer, is become Persephone, the goddess of death, still associated with the forms and odors of flowers and fruit, yet as one risen from the dead also, presenting one side of her ambiguous nature to men's gloomier fancies. Thirdly, there is the image of Demeter enthroned, chastened by sorrow, and somewhat advanced in age, blessing the earth in her joy at the return of Kore. The myth has now entered upon the third phase of its life, in which it becomes the property of those more elevated spirits, who, in the decline of the Greek religion, pick and choose and modify, with perfect freedom of mind, whatever in it may seem adapted to minister to their culture. In this way the myths of the Greek religion become parts of an ideal, visible embodiments of the susceptibilities and intentions of the nobler kind of souls; and it is to this latest phase of mythological development that the highest Greek sculpture allies itself."

This illustration of the divination by which the man of culture possesses himself of a half-forgotten and obscurely recorded experience and rehabilitates and interprets it, is so complete that it makes amplification superfluous.



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