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An essay by George William Curtis

Thoreau And My Lady Cavaliere

Title:     Thoreau And My Lady Cavaliere
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

The last time that the Easy Chair saw that remarkable man, Henry Thoreau, he came quietly into Mr. Emerson's study to get a volume of Pliny's letters. Expecting to see no one, and accustomed to attend without distraction to the business in hand, he was as quietly going out, when the host spoke to him, and without surprise, and with unsmiling courtesy, Thoreau greeted his friends. He seated himself, maintaining the same habitual erect posture, which made it seem impossible that he could ever lounge or slouch, and that made Hawthorne speak of him as "cast-iron," and immediately he began to talk in the strain so familiar to his friends. It was a staccato style of speech, every word coming separately and distinctly, as if preserving the same cool isolation in the sentence that the speaker did in society; but the words were singularly apt and choice, and Thoreau had always something to say. His knowledge was original. He was a Fine-ear and a Sharp-eye in the woods and fields; and he added to his knowledge of nature the wisdom of the most ancient times and of the best literature. His manner and matter both reproved trifling, but in the most impersonal manner. It was like the reproof of Pan's statue. There seemed never to be any loosening of the intellectual tension, and a call from Thoreau in the highest sense "meant business."

On the morning of which we are speaking the talk fell upon the Indians, with whom he had a profound sympathy, and of whose life and ways and nature he apparently had an instinctive knowledge. In the slightly contemptuous inference against civilization which his remarks left, rather than in any positively scornful tone, there was something which rather humorously suggested the man who spoke lightly of the equator, but with the difference that there would have been if the light speaking had left a horrible suspicion of that excellent circle. For Thoreau so ingeniously traced our obligations to the aborigines that the claims of civilization for what is really essential palpably dwindled. He dropped all manner of curious and delightful information as he went on, and it was sad to see in the hollow cheek and the large, unnaturally lustrous eye the signs of the disease that very soon removed him from among us. Those who remember him, and were familiar with his truly heroic and virtuous life, or those who perceive in his works that spirit of sweetness and content which made him at the last say that he was as happy to be sick as to be well, will apply to him the words of his own poem in the first number of the _Dial_:

"Say not that Caesar was victorious,
With toil and strife who stormed the House of Fame;
In other sense this youth was glorious,
Himself a kingdom wheresoe'er he came."

His talk of the Indians left an impression entirely unlike that of the Cooper novel and the red man of the theatre. It was untouched by romance or sentimentality. It made them a grave, manly race, intimately familiar with nature, with a lofty scorn of feebleness. The sylvan shade and the leafy realm and Arden and pastoral poetry were wholly wanting in the picture he drew, quite as much as the theory that they are vermin to be exterminated as fast as possible. He said that the pioneers of civilization, as it is called, among the Indians are purveyors of every kind of mischief. We graft the sound native stock with a sour fruit, then denounce it bitterly and cut it down. What was most admirable in Daniel Boone, he said, was his Indian nature and sympathy; and the least admirable part was his hold, such as it was, upon civilization. He seemed to imply that if Boone could only have succeeded in becoming an Indian altogether, it would have been a truly memorable triumph. Thoreau acknowledged that the Indian was not only doomed, but, as he gravely said, damned, because his enemies were his historians; and he could only say, "Ah, if we lions had painted the picture!"

The sylvan idea of Daniel Boone would probably have been very rudely shattered could he have been actually seen; and Thoreau's Indian was certainly not visible in the stories of men of his time who had passed weeks among the Indians upon the plains. The pioneers, like Boone, are not romantic; their life is a hard toil and struggle; they are ignorant, rude, and even repulsive. This is natural, because their real work is that of the subsoil plough and the harrow. They lay the strong foundations. Without them, no soft waving field of golden harvest, no velvet lawn, no Palladian villa, no flower of art and culture--in a word, no progress, as we call it--however the shade of Thoreau may implacably smile. So when the Lady Cavaliere whispered from under her beaded veil, "Don't speak of it, but I am tired to death of reformers," it was only the artist's impatience of the ploughman; it was Rupert and his men not only sneering at Praise God Bare-bones, and singing their mock prayer in the Lenten litany,

"That it may please thee to suppose
Our actions are as good as those
That gull the people through the nose,"

but heartily believing Cromwell and his men to be canting hypocrites.

And yet the Lady Cavaliere is too well informed not to know that it was not the silken chivalry who planted the king's standard and defended it with all heroism, in whose praise the poets sang, who are still the heroes of romance, and whose life had the charm of grace and ease and accomplishment and _savoir faire_, that saved England and a great deal more. The lady has sauntered through the palaces where the Vandyck portrait of the king hangs upon the walls, the handsome, melancholy Stuart. She looked at it secretly, perhaps, with something of the same feeling that men think of the hapless Mary, as we call her. What a gentleman! how refined! how sad! how agreeable to the fancy! Yes, dear lady, and what a liar! how false-hearted! who would have had his own foolish way whatever happened to other men! He would have gratified your taste to the utmost; you would never have said under your breath, "How I hate reformers!" he would have, perhaps, carried your imagination and taste against your conscience and judgment. And it is for that very reason--because taste and imagination are so subtly seductive--that it is essential to challenge them. St. Anthony did not mind the devil as a dragon; but the devil as a siren--ah! how hard St. Anthony had to pray!

Change is apt to present itself first in its unhandsome aspect. You would much rather hear a lute in the moonlight upon the lawn, and behold! a coarse plough and a frightful harrow. Yet, so lutes and lawns begin. You like the smooth music of a silken court, the picturesque ceremony, the poetic tradition, the perfume, the splendor, and lo! a troop in jerkin pricking to the fray in horrible earnest, and blood, and ghastly wounds, and torture, and merciful death! Yet, so courts and ceremonies are instituted. One of the hardest battles that reform has to fight is this battle in the air--so to speak: this contest with taste and imagination that cling to the myriad-hued moss and the delicate vine fringe upon the ogre's castle, and that find the donjon so much more picturesque than the house.

A cause is seen through its pioneers, and taste and imagination are confused and confounded in the medium. A nature like Falkland's could not see liberty clearly even through John Pym--how much less through nasal psalm-singing butchers and brewers building a scaffold for the king. So, in our own time, the great question that so sorely rent us was seen by taste and imagination in the form of delicate, highly-cultured women, of a superficial tranquil elegance of society, of patriarchal tradition, of easy knowledge of the world, and the smooth habit of society upon the one hand; and upon the other, often in the form of a queer medley of grotesque people, each more extravagant than the other, and uttering the wildest sentiments in the most absurd rhetoric. The Lady Cavaliere has not forgotten that the last retreat of the doomed system was the salon and the boudoir, where taste is law, and where decorous immorality is not unwelcome.

By-and-by, when the reform is established and has become traditional, its pioneers become heroic and poetic. The Norman robber is then discovered to be a kind of blue-blooded gentleman, or at least the sturdy, aboriginal father of gentlemen. The rough and half-savage Boone is the ideal frontiersman, with a smack of Arden and the sylvan realm. And as for the coarse-toothed harrow--as my Lady Cavaliere sits upon the porch and sees the peacock unfolding his glory upon the soft, thick sward, do you see that my lady wears a delicate trinket around her swan neck, and lo! it is a harrow exquisitely wrought in gold.

The feeling with which she breathed through her beaded veil her dislike of pioneer reformers is as old as human nature. But it was not the sigh of wisdom, but of weariness, in my lady. There is a certain insight even in gentle youth which does not recoil from the pioneer, and foresees the soft sward springing under the harrow as it tears the heavy clods. Those in whom youth abides never outgrow that precious insight and foresight. One such, not less fair than my Lady Cavaliere, of the most tranquil and undemonstrative behavior, has long been to how many good causes one of the most valuable and efficient friends. She has not cared that Daniel Boone should recede into poetic distance before he seemed to her a hero. In his cabin as he smoked, in the hard winter day as he felled the forest tree, in the rough, unhandsome experience of every hour, he has been to her the forerunner of refinement and plenty and ease. If taste and imagination shrink from the squalor of the frontier, she remembers the greater squalor and the darker tragedy of the city slum. If the long-haired, shambling, shrill fanatic upon the platform be a contemptuous jest to my Lady Cavaliere, this fairer lady remembers John clad in goat-skins and crying in the wilderness. I wish, she says, that mankind might sit at a sumptuous table, but I shall not scoff at the wooden spoon that feeds its hunger. She hangs one picture upon her wall: it is Christ sitting at meat with publicans and sinners. And so season after season, year after year, she carries her sympathy, her hope, her steady faith to all the pioneers. She is not a poet, but the world is to her enchanted. Under the sharp voice of the reformer she hears the music of the harmony which he discordantly foretells. With the distorted eyes of the ill-disciplined, ignorant enthusiast she beholds the symmetry of the future towards which he looks. In turn, the reformer and the enthusiast behold in her and vaguely comprehend the outward charm of beauty and grace and high condition which they blindly announce. It is as if Daniel Boone, shaggy and savage, suddenly saw his cabin and his rude clearing glorified: a stately, hospitable mansion, overlooking a placid landscape of rounded groves and blooming gardens and distant parks, murmuring with the song of birds and all domestic sounds. Her service to a good cause is more than eloquence, more than devotion--it is the perpetual presence of its ideal.

There were plenty of Lords and Ladies Cavaliere who were tired to death of that solemn enthusiast and bore, Columbus. But when he saw the shore of San Salvador he must have recalled that he had long ago seen it in the patient faith of any unknown friend who had always hoped for him and believed with him. The Lady Cavaliere who thinks Daniel Boone in early Kentucky, or Christopher Columbus pacing the shore and ceaselessly looking westward, the most romantic of figures, does not know that she sneered at both when she whispered, "I am tired to death of reformers."

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Thoreau And My Lady Cavaliere