Слике страница
PDF
ePub

out these deep things, and relate them, are Dante and Milton. There are none who for earnestness of thought, for mastery of word, can be classed with these. I am not at present, mind you, speaking of persons set apart in any priestly or pastoral office, to deliver creeds to us, or doctrines; but of men who try to discover and set forth, as far as by human intellect is possible, the facts of the other world. Divines may perhaps teach us how to arrive there, but only these two poets have in any powerful manner striven to discover, or in any definite words professed to tell, what we shall see and become there, or how those upper and nether worlds are, and have been, inhabited.

And what have they told us ? Milton's account of the most important event in his whole system of the universe, the fall of the angels, is evidently unbelievable to himself; and the more so, that it is wholly founded on, and in a great part spoiled and degraded from, Hesiod's account of the decisive war of the younger gods with the Titans. The rest of his poem is a picturesque drama, in which every artifice of invention is visibly and consciously employed, not a single fact being for an instant conceived as tenable by any living faith. Dante's conception is far more intense, and, by himself, for the time, not to be escaped from ; it is indeed a vision, but a vision only, and that one of the wildest that ever entranced a soul—a dream in which every grotesque type or phantasy of heathen tradition is renewed and adorned ; and the destinies of the Christian Church, under their most sacred symbols, become literally subordinate to the praise, and are only to be understood by the aid, of one dear Florentine maiden.

Do you know, as I strive more sternly with this strange lethargy and trance in myself, and awake to the meaning and power of life, it seems daily more amazing to me that men such as these should dare to play with the most precious truths, (or the most deadly untruths,) by which the whole human race listening to them could be informed, or deceived ;-all the world their audiences for ever, with pleased ear and passionate heart ;-and yet, to this submissive infinitude of souls, and evermore succeeding and succeeding multitude, hungry for bread of life, they do but play upon .sweetly modulated pipes ; with pompous nomenclature adorn the councils of hell; touch a troubadour's guitar to the courses of the suns; and fill the openings of eternity, before which prophets have veiled their faces, and which angels desire to look into, with idle puppets of their scholastic imagination, and melancholy lights of frantic faith, in their lost mortal love.

Is not this a mystery of life? But more. We have to remember that these two great teachers were both of them warped in their temper and thwarted in their search for truth. They were men of intellectual war, unable, through darkness of controversy, or stress of personal grief, to discern where their own ambition modified their utterances of the moral law; or their own agony mingled with their anger at its violation. But greater men than these have beenmen, innocent hearted—too great for contest. Men, like Homer and Shakespeare, of so unrecognized personality, that it disappears in future ages, and becomes ghostly, like the tradition of a lost heathen god. Men, therefore, to whose unoffended, uncondemning sight, the whole of human nature reveals itself in a pathetic weakness, with which they will not strive, or in mournful and transitory strength, which they dare not praise. And all Pagan and Christian civilization thus becomes subject to them. It does not matter how little, or how much, any of us have read, either of Homer or Shakespeare: everything round us, in substance, or in thought, has been moulded by them. All Greek gentlemen were educated under Homer. All Roman gentlemen, by Greek literature. All Italian, and French, and English gentlemen, by Roman literature, and by its principles. Of the scope of Shakespeare, I will say only, that the intellectual measure of every man since born, in the domains of creative thought, may be assigned to him, according to the degree in which he has been taught by Shakespeare. Well, what do these two men, centres of mortal intelligence, deliver to us of conviction, respecting what it most behoves that intelligence to grasp. What is their hope ; their crown of rejoicing? what manner of exhortation have they for us, or of rebuke ? what lies next their own hearts, and dictates their undying words? Have they any peace to promise to our unrest-any redemption to our misery?

Take Homer first, and think if there is any sadder image of human fate than the great Homeric story. The main features in the character of Achilles are its intense desire of justice, and its 'tenderness of affection. And in that bitter song of the Iliad, this man, though aided continually by the wisest of the gods, and burning with the desire of justice in his heart, becomes yet, through ill-governed passion, the most unjust of men; and, full of the deepest tenderness in his heart, becomes yet, through ill-governed passion, the most cruel of men; intense alike in love and in friendship, he loses, first, his mistress, and then his friend; for the sake of the one he surrenders to death the armies of his own land; for the sake of the other, he surrenders all. Will a man lay down his life for his friend? Yea-even for his dead friend, this Achilles, though goddess-born, and goddess-taught, gives up his kingdom, his country, and his life-casts alike the innocent and guilty, with himself, into one gulf of slaughter, and dies at last by the hand of the basest of his adversaries. Is not this a mystery of life?

But what, then, is the message to us of our own poet, and searcher of hearts, after fifteen hundred years of Christian faith have been numbered over the graves of men ? Are his words more cheerful than the heathen's—is his hope more near-his trust more sure—his reading of fate more happy? Ah, no! He differs from the Heathen poet chiefly in this that he recognizes, for deliverance, no gods nigh at hand ; and that, by petty chance-by momentary folly—by broken message—by fool's tyranny-cor traitor's snare, the strongest and most righteous are brought to their ruin, and perish without word of hope. With necessary truth of insight, he indeed ascribes the power and modesty of habitual devotion, to the gentle and the just. The death-bed of Katharine is bright with vision of angels; and the great soldier-king, standing by his few dead, acknowledges the presence of the hand, that can save alike, by many or by few. But from those, who with deepest spirit, meditate, and with deepest passion, mourn, there are no such words as these; nor in their hearts such consolations. Instead of the perpetual sense of the helpfnl presence of the Deity, which through all heathen tradition is the source of heroic strength, in battle, in exile, and in the valley of the shadow of death, we find only in the great Christian poet, the consciousness of a moral law, through which “ the gods are just, and of our pleasant vices make instruments to scourge us;" and of the resolved arbitration of the destinies, that conclude into precision of doom what we feebly and blindly began; and force us, when our indiscretion serves us, and our deepest plots do pall, to the confession, that “there's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.”

Is not this a mystery of life?

Now observe : about this human life that is to be, or that is, the wise religious men tell us nothing that we can trust; and the wise contemplative men, nothing that can give us peace. But there is yet a third class, to whom we may turn-the wise

« ПретходнаНастави »