« PreviousContinue »
always the danger of confusing opportunity with gift. The final justification of democracy lies in its ability to clear the way for superiority; but it is often interpreted as signifying equality of endowment and skill. If, in the long run, democracy lowers instead of advancing the standards of character and achievement, it will be the most disastrous of political failures. Equality of opportunity for the sake of preparing the way for the highest and finest individualities will bring us, perhaps, as near a perfect social order as we can hope to attain. Poe was such a personality; a man whose gifts were of the most individual kind, whose tastes were fastidious, whose genius was full of a distinction which involved and expressed remoteness from average standards, detachment from the rush and turmoil of practical tasks. A nation at work with grimed hands is a noble spectacle; but if such a people is to get anything out of life after it has secured comfortable conditions, it must not only make room for poets and scholars and thinkers, but it must reserve for them its highest rewards.
Without the presence of the superior man, the "paradise of the average man," as this country has been called, would become a purgatory to all those who care chiefly, not for success, but for freedom and power and beauty. One of the greatest privileges of the average man is to recognize and honor the superior man, because the superior man makes it worth while to belong to the race by giving life a dignity and splendor which constitute a common capital for all who live. The respect paid to men like Washington and Lincoln, Marshall and Lee, Poe and Hawthorne, affords a true measure of civilization in a community. Such men invest life for the average man with romance and beauty. Failure to recognize and honor superiority of character, gift, and achievement is the peculiar peril of democracies, which often confuse the aristocracy of the divine order in the world with the aristocracy of arbitrary and artificial origin. So long as the saints shine in their righteousness it will be idle to attempt to conceal their superiority; in the order of the spiritual life the best survive. Of these best was Poe; a man whose faults are sufficiently obvious, because they bore their fruit in his career, but the quality of whose genius and art was of the finest, if not of the greatest. In expressing the idealism of the American mind, this rare and subtle workman made images of such exquisite shape and molding that by their very perfection they win us away from lesser and meaner ways of work. By the fineness of his craftsmanship he revealed the artistic potentialities of the American spirit.
Of a proud and sensitive nature, reared among a proud and sensitive people, Poe found in the region of pure ideality the material which expressed most clearly his genius, and received most perfectly the impress of his craftsmanship. In the themes with which he dealt, and in the manner in which he treated them, he went far to eradicate the provincialism of taste which was the bane of his time and section—the bane, indeed, of the whole country. Poe's very detachment in artistic interest from the world about him was a positive gain for the emancipation of the imagination of the young country, so recently a province of the Old World. His criticism was almost entirely free from that narrow localism which values a writer because he belongs to a section, and not because his work belongs to literature. He brought into the field of criticism large knowledge of the best that had been done in literature, and clear perception of the principles of the art of writing. His touch on his contemporaries who won the easy successes which are always within reach in untrained communities was often caustic, as it had need to be; but the instinct which made him the enemy of inferior work gave him also the power of recognizing the work of the artist, even when it came from unknown hands. He discerned the reality of imagination in Hawthorne and Tennyson as clearly as he saw the vulgarity and crudity of much of the popular writing of his time.
By critical intention, therefore, as well as by virtue of the possession of genius, which is never provincial, Poe emancipated himself, and went far to emancipate American literature, from the narrow spirit, the partial judgment, and the inferior standards of a people not yet familiar with the best that has been thought and said in the world. To the claims of local pride he opposed the sovereign claims of art; against the practice of the halfinspired and the wholly untrained he set the practice of the masters. When the intellectual history of the country is written, he will appear as one of its foremost liberators.
Poe's work holds a first place in our literature, not by reason of its mass, its reality, its range, its spiritual or ethical significance, but by reason of its complete and beautiful individuality, the distinction of its form and workmanship, the purity of its art. With Hawthorne he shares the primacy among all who have enriched our literature with prose or verse; but, unlike his great contemporary, he has had to wait long for adequate and just recognition. His time of waiting is not yet over; for while the ethical insight of Hawthorne finds quick response where his artistic power alone would fail to move, Poe must be content with the suffrages of those who know that the art which he practised with such magical effect is in itself a kind of righteousness. "I could not afford to spare from my circle," wrote Emerson to a friend, "a poet, so long as he can offer so indisputable a token as a good poem of his relation to what is highest in Being." To those who understand that character is never perfect until it is harmonious, and truth never finally revealed until it is beautiful, Poe's significance is not obscured nor his work dimmed by the faults and misfortunes of his life. The obvious lessons of that pathetic career have been well learned; it is time to seek the deeper things for which this fatally endowed spirit stood; for the light is more than the medium through which it shines.
A SURVEY OF FOUR CENTURIES
[Address by Thomas Babington Macaulay, statesman, historian, essayist, poet (born in Rothley Temple, Leicestershire, October 25, 1800; died in Kensington, December 28, 1859), delivered before the University of Glasgow, March 21, 1849, in pursuance of his office as Lord Rector. The entry of March 22 in Macaulay's diary thus describes the event: "Another eventful and exciting day. I was much annoyed and anxious in consequence of hearing that there were great expectations of a fine oration from me at the Town Hall. I had broken rest, partly from the effect of the bustle which was over, and partly from the apprehension of the bustle which was to come. I turned over a few sentences in my head, but was ill-satisfied with them. Well or illsatisfied, however, I was forced to be ready when the Lord Provost called for me. I felt like a man going to be hanged; and as such a man generally does, plucked up courage to behave with decency. We went to the City Hall, which is a fine room and was crowded as full as it could hold. Nothing but huzzaing and clapping of hands. The Provost presented me with a handsome box, silver gilt, containing the freedom of the city, and made a very fine speech on the occasion. I returned thanks with sincere emotion, and I hope with propriety. What I said was very well received and I was vehemently applauded at the close. At half past two I took flight for Edinburgh, and, on arriving, drove straight from the station to Craig Crook. I had a pleasant, painful half hour with Jeffrey; perhaps the last. He was in almost hysterical excitement. His kindness and praise were quite overwhelming. The tears were in the eyes of both of us."]
Gentlemen :—My first duty is to return you my thanks for the honor which you have conferred on me. You well know that it was wholly unsolicited; and I can assure you that it was wholly unexpected. I may add that, if I had been invited to become a candidate for your suffrages, I should respectfully have declined the invitation. My predecessor, whom I am so happy as to be able to call my friend, declared from this place last year, in language which well became him, that he would not have come forward to displace so eminent a statesman as Lord John Russell. I can with equal truth affirm that I would not have come forward to displace so estimable a gentleman and so accomplished a scholar as Colonel Mure. But Colonel Mure felt last year that it was not for him, and I now feel that it is not for me, to question the propriety of your decision on a point of which, by the constitution of your body, you are the judges. I therefore gratefully accept the office to which I have been called, fully purposing to use whatever powers belong to it with a single view to the welfare and credit of your society.
I am not using a mere phrase of course, when I say that the feelings with which I bear a part in the ceremony of this day are such as I find it difficult to utter in words. I do not think it strange that, when that great master of eloquence, Edmund Burke, stood where I now stand, he faltered and remained mute. Doubtless the multitude of thoughts which rushed into his mind was such as even he could not easily arrange or express. In truth there are few spectacles more striking or affecting than that which a great historical place of education presents on a solemn public day. There is something strangely interesting in the contrast between the venerable antiquity of the body and the fresh and ardent youth of the great majority of the members. Recollections and hopes crowd upon us together. The past and the future are at once brought close to us. Our thoughts wander back to the time when the foundations of this ancient building were laid, and forward to the time when those whom it is our office to guide and to teach will be the guides and teachers of our posterity. On the present occasion we may, with peculiar propriety, give such thoughts their course. For it has chanced that my magistracy has fallen on a great secular epoch. This is the four hundredth year of the existence of your University. At such jubilees, jubilees of which no individual sees more than one, it is natural, and it is good, that a society like this, a society which survives all the transitory parts of which it is composed, a society which has a corporate existence and a perpetual succession,