Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of John Burroughs > Text of Gleanings

An essay by John Burroughs


Title:     Gleanings
Author: John Burroughs [More Titles by Burroughs]

I do not believe that one poet can or does efface another, as Arnold suggests. As every gas is a vacuum to every other gas, so every new poet is a vacuum to every other poet. Wordsworth told Arnold that for many years his poems did not bring him enough to buy his shoestrings. The reading public had to acquire a taste for him. Whitman said, "I am willing to wait for the growth of the taste of myself." A man who likes a poet of real worth is going to continue to like him, no matter what new man appears. He may not read him over and over, but he goes back to him when the mood is upon him. We listen to the same music over and over. We take the same walk over and over. We read Shakespeare over and over, and we go back to the best in Wordsworth over and over. We get in Tennyson what we do not get in Wordsworth, and we as truly get in Wordsworth what we do not get in Tennyson. Tennyson was sumptuous and aristocratic. Byron found his audience, but he did not rob Wordsworth.

It seems to me that the preeminence of Wordsworth lies in the fact that he deals so entirely with concrete things--men and objects in nature--and floods or saturates them with moral meanings. There is no straining, no hair-splitting, no contortions of the oracle, but it all comes as naturally as the sunrise or the sunset.

* * * * *

Things not beautiful in themselves, or when seen near at hand, may and do give us the sense of beauty when seen at a distance, or in mass. Who has not stood on a mountain-top, and seen before him a wild, disorderly landscape that has nevertheless awakened in him the emotion of the beautiful? or that has given him the emotion of the sublime? Wordsworth's "Daffodils," "Three Years She Grew," "The Solitary Reaper," "The Rainbow," "The Butterfly," and many others are merely beautiful. These lines from Whitman give one the emotion of the sublime:

"I open my scuttle at night and see the far-sprinkled systems,
And all I see multiplied as high as I can cipher edge but the rim of
the farther systems.

"Wider and wider they spread, expanding, always expanding,
Outward and outward and forever outward.

"My sun has his sun and round him obediently wheels,
He joins with his partners a group of superior circuit,
And greater sets follow, making specks of the greatest inside them."

All men may slake their thirst at the same spring of water, but all men cannot be thrilled or soothed by beholding the same objects of nature. A beautiful child captivates every one, a beautiful woman ravishes all eyes. On my way to the Imperial Valley, I recently drove across a range of California mountains that had many striking features. A lady asked me if I did not think them beautiful. I said, "No, they are hideous, but the hideous may be interesting."

The snow is beautiful to many persons, but it is not so to me. It is the color of death. I could stand our northern winters very well if I could always see the face of the brown or ruddy earth. The snow, I know, blankets the fields; and Emerson's poem on the snowstorm is fine; at the same time, I would rather not be obliged to look at the white fields.

* * * * *

We are the first great people without a past in the European sense. We are of yesterday. We do not strike our roots down deep into the geology of long-gone ages. We are easily transplanted. We are a mixture of all peoples as the other nations of the world are not. Only yesterday we were foreigners ourselves. Then we made the first experiment on a large scale of a democratic or self-governing people. The masses, and not a privileged few, give the tone and complexion to things in this country. We have not yet had time to develop a truly national literature or art. We have produced but one poet of the highest order. Whitman is autochthonous. He had no precursor. He is a new type of man appearing in this field.

* * * * *

"What think ye of Whitman?" This is the question I feel like putting, and sometimes do put, to each young poet I meet. If he thinks poorly of Whitman, I think poorly of him. I do not expect great things of him, and so far my test holds good. William Winter thought poorly of Whitman, Aldrich thought poorly of him, and what lasting thing has either of them done in poetry? The memorable things of Aldrich are in prose. Stedman showed more appreciation of him, and Stedman wrote two or three things that will keep. His "Osawatomie Brown ... he shoved his ramrod down" is sure of immortality. Higginson could not stand Whitman, and had his little fling at him whenever he got the chance. Who reads Higginson now? Emerson, who far outranks any other New England poet, was fairly swept off his feet by the first appearance of "Leaves of Grass." Whittier, I am told, threw the book in the fire. Whittier's fame has not gone far beyond New England. The scholarly and academic Lowell could not tolerate Whitman, and if Lowell has ever written any true poetry, I have not seen it. What Longfellow thought of him, I do not know. Thoreau saw his greatness at a glance and went to see him. In England, I am told, Tennyson used to read him aloud in select company. I know that the two poets corresponded. We catch a glimpse of Swinburne's spasmodic insight in his first burst of enthusiasm over him, and then of his weakness in recanting. Swinburne's friend and house-mate, Watts Dunton, never could endure him, but what has he done? So it has gone and still is going, though now the acceptance of Whitman has become the fashion.

I have always patted myself on the back for seeing the greatness of Whitman from the first day that I read a line of his. I was bewildered and disturbed by some things, but I saw enough to satisfy me of his greatness.

Whitman had the same faith in himself that Kepler had in his work. Whitman said:

"Whether I come to my own to-day, or in ten thousand, or ten million years, I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait."

Kepler said: "The die is cast; the book is written, to be read either now or by posterity. I care not which. It may well wait a century for a reader, since God has waited six thousand years for an observer like myself."

* * * * *

Judging from fragments of his letters that I have seen, Henry James was unquestionably hypersensitive. In his dislike of publicity he was extreme to the point of abnormality; it made him ill to see his name in print, except under just the right conditions. He wanted all things veiled and softened. He fled his country, abjured it completely. The publicity of it, of everything in America--its climate, its day, its night, the garish sun, its fierce, blazing light, the manner of its people, its politics, its customs--fairly made him cringe. During his last visit here he tried lecturing, but soon gave it up. He fled to veiled and ripened and cushioned England--not to the country, but to smoky London; and there his hypersensitive soul found peace and ease. He became a British subject, washed himself completely of every vestige of Americanism. This predilection of his probably accounts for the obscurity or tantalizing indirectness of his writings. The last story I read of his was called "One More Turn of the Screw," but what the screw was, or what the turn was, or whether anybody got pinched or squeezed, or what it was all about, I have not the slightest idea. He wrote about his visit here, his trip to Boston, to Albany, to New York, but which town he was writing about you could not infer from the context. He had the gift of a rich, choice vocabulary, but he wove it into impenetrable, though silken, veils that concealed more than they revealed. When replying to his correspondents on the typewriter, he would even apologize for "the fierce legibility of the type."

* * * * *

The contrast between the "singing-robes and the overalls of Journalism" is true and striking. Good and true writing no magazine or newspaper editor will blue-pencil. But "fine" writing is a different thing--a style that is conscious of itself, a style in which the thought is commonplace and the language studied and ornate, every judicious editor will blue-pencil. Downrightness and sententiousness are prime qualities; brevity, concreteness, spontaneity--in fact, all forms of genuine expression--help make literature. You know the genuine from the spurious, gold from pinchbeck, that's the rub. The secret of sound writing is not in the language, but in the mind or personality behind the language. The dull writer and the inspired writer use, or may use, the same words, and the product will be gold in the one and lead in the other.

* * * * *

Dana's book ["Two Years Before the Mast"] is a classic because it took no thought of being a classic. It is a plain, unvarnished tale, not loaded up with tedious descriptions. It is all action, a perpetual drama in which the sea, the winds, the seamen, the sails--mainsail, main royal, foresail--play the principal parts.

There is no book depicting life on the sea to compare with it. Lately I have again tried to find the secret of its charm. In the first place, it is a plain, unvarnished tale, no attempt at fine writing in it. All is action from cover to cover. It is full of thrilling, dramatic scenes. In fact, it is almost a perpetual drama in which the sea, the winds, the storms, the sails, and the sailors play their parts. Each sail, from the smallest to the greatest, has its own character and its own part to play; sometimes many of them, sometimes few are upon the stage at once. Occasionally all the canvas was piled on at once, and then what a sight the ship was to behold! Scudding under bare poles was dramatic also.

The life on board ship in those times--its humor, its tedium, its dangers, its hardships--was never before so vividly portrayed. The tyranny and cruelty of sea-captains, the absolute despotism of that little world of the ship's deck, stand out in strong relief. Dana had a memory like a phonographic record. Unless he took copious notes on this journey, it is incredible how he could have made it so complete, so specific is the life of each day. The reader craves more light on one point--the size of the ship, her length and tonnage. In setting out on the homeward journey they took aboard a dozen sheep, four bullocks, a dozen or more pigs, three or four dozen of poultry, thousands of dressed and cured hides, as well as fodder and feed for the cattle and poultry and pigs. The vessel seemed elastic; they could always find room for a few thousand more hides, if the need arose. The hides were folded up like the leaves of a book, and they invented curious machinery to press in a hundred hides where one could not be forced by hand. By this means the forty thousand hides were easily disposed of as part of the home cargo.

The ship becomes a living being to the sailors. The Alert was so loaded, her cargo so _steved_ in, that she was stiff as a man in a strait-jacket. But the old sailors said: "Stand by. You'll see her work herself loose in a week or two, and then she'll walk up to Cape Horn like a race-horse."

It is curious how the sailors can't work together without a song. "A song is as necessary to a sailor as the drum and fife are to the soldier. They can't pull in time, or pull with a will, without it." Some songs were much more effective than others. "Two or three songs would be tried, one after the other, with no effect--not an inch could be got upon the tackles, when a new song struck up seemed to hit the humor of the moment and drove the tackles two blocks at once. 'Heave round, hearty!' 'Captain gone ashore!' and the like, might do for common pulls, but in an emergency, when we wanted a heavy, raise-the-dead pull, which would start the beams of the ship, there was nothing like 'Time for us to go!' 'Round the corner,' or 'Hurrah! Hurrah! my hearty bullies!'"

* * * * *

The mind of the professional critic, like the professional logical mind, becomes possessed of certain rules which it adheres to on all occasions. There is a well-known legal mind in this country which is typical. A recent political opponent of the man says:

His is the type of mind which would have sided with King John against granting the Magna Charta; the type of mind which would have opposed the ratification of the Constitution of the United States because he would have found so many holes in it. His is the type of mind which would have opposed the Monroe Doctrine on the ground that it was dangerous. His is the type of mind which would have opposed the Emancipation Proclamation on the ground of taking away property without due process of law. His is the type of mind which would have opposed Cleveland's Venezuela message to England on the ground that it was unprecedented. His is the type of mind which did its best in 1912 to oppose Theodore Roosevelt's effort to make the Republican Party progressive.

Such a mind would have no use for Roosevelt, for instance, because Roosevelt was not bound by precedents, but made precedents of his own. The typical critical mind, such as Arnold's, would deny the title of philosopher to a man who has no constructive talent, who could not build up his own philosophy into a system. He would deny another the title of poet because his verse has not the Miltonic qualities of simplicity, of sensuousness, of passion. Emerson was not a great man of letters, Arnold said, because he had not the genius and instinct for style; his prose had not the requisite wholeness of good tissue. Emerson's prose is certainly not Arnold's prose, but at its best it is just as effective.

* * * * *

It is a good idea of Santayana that "the function of poetry is to emotionalize philosophy."

How absurd, even repulsive, is the argument of "Paradise Lost"! yet here is great poetry, not in the matter, but in the manner.

"Though fallen on evil days, on evil days though fallen."
"To shun delights and live laborious days."

Common ideas, but what dignity in the expression!

* * * * *

Criticism is easy. When a writer has nothing else to do, he can criticize some other writer. But to create and originate is not so easy. One may say that appreciation is easy also. How many persons appreciate good literature who cannot produce it!

* * * * *

The rash and the audacious are not the same. Audacity means boldness, but to be rash often means to be imprudent or foolhardy. When a little dog attacks a big dog, as so often happens, his boldness becomes rashness. When Charles Kingsley attacked Newman, his boldness turned out to be rashness.

* * * * *

Little wonder that in his essay on "Books" Emerson recommends Thomas a Kempis's "Imitation of Christ." Substitute the word Nature for God and Christ and much of it will sound very Emersonian. Emerson was a kind of New England Thomas a Kempis. His spirit and attitude of mind were essentially the same, only directed to Nature and the modern world. Humble yourself, keep yourself in the background, and let the over-soul speak. "I desire no consolation which taketh from me compunction." "I love no contemplation which leads to pride." "For all that which is high is not holy, nor everything that is sweet, good." "I had rather feel contrition, than be skilled in the definition of it." "All Scripture ought to be read in the spirit in which it was written." How Emersonian all this sounds!

* * * * *

In a fat volume of forty thousand quotations from the literature of all times and countries, compiled by some patient and industrious person, at least half of it is not worth the paper on which it is printed. There seem to be more quotations in it from Shakespeare than from any other poet, which is as it should be. There seem to be more from Emerson than from any other American poet, which again is as it should be. Those from the great names of antiquity--the Bible, Sadi, Cicero, AEschylus, Euripides, Aristotle, and others--are all worth while, and the quotations from Bacon, Newton, Addison, Locke, Chaucer, Johnson, Carlyle, Huxley, Tennyson, Goethe are welcome. But the quotations from women writers and poets,--Mrs. Hemans, Mrs. Sigourney, Jean Ingelow, and others,--what are they worth? Who would expect anything profound from J. G. Holland or Chapin, O. W. Holmes, or Alger, or Alcott, or Helps, or Dickens, or Lewes, or Froude, or Lowell? I certainly should not.

Such a selection is good to leaf over. Your thought may be kindled or fanned here and there. The subjects are arranged alphabetically, and embrace nearly all themes of human interest from ability to zephyrs. There is very little from Whitman, and, I think, only one quotation from Thoreau.

* * * * *

The death of Howells gave me a shock. I had known him long, though not intimately. He was my senior by only one month. It had been two years or more since I had seen him. Last December I read his charming paper on "Eighty Years and After" and enjoyed it greatly. It is a masterpiece. No other American man of letters, past or present, could have done that. In fact, there has been no other American who achieved the all-round literary craftsmanship that Mr. Howells achieved. His equal in his own line we have never seen. His felicity on all occasions was a wonder. His works do not belong to the literature of power, but to the literature of charm, grace, felicity. His style is as flexible and as limpid as a mountain rill. Only among the French do we find such qualities in such perfection. Some of his writings--"Their Wedding Journey," for instance--are too photographic. We miss the lure of the imagination, such as Hawthorne gave to all his pictures of real things. Only one of Howells's volumes have I found too thin for me to finish--his "London Films" was too filmy for me. I had read Taine's "London Notes" and felt the force of a different type of mind. But Howells's "Eighty Years and After" will live as a classic. Oh, the felicity of his style! One of his later poems on growing old ("On a Bright Winter's Day" it is called) is a gem.

[The end]
John Burroughs's essay: Gleanings