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An essay by John Burroughs

Short Studies In Contrasts

Title:     Short Studies In Contrasts
Author: John Burroughs [More Titles by Burroughs]


The clouds are transient, but the sky is permanent. The petals of a flowering plant are transient, the leaves and fruit are less so, and the roots the least transient of all. The dew on the grass is transient, as is the frost of an autumn morning. The snows and the rains abide longer. The splendors of summer and sunrise and sunset soon pass, but the glory of the day lasts. The rainbow vanishes in a few moments, but the prismatic effect of the drops of rain is a law of optics. Colors fade while texture is unimpaired.

Of course change marks everything, living or dead. Even the pole star in astronomic time will vanish. But consider things mundane only. How the rocks on the seacoast seem to defy and withstand the waves that beat against them! "Weak as is a breaking wave" is a line of Wordsworth's. Yet the waves remain after the rocks are gone. The sea knows no change as the land does. It and the sky are the two unchanging earth features.

In our own lives how transient are our moments of inspiration, our morning joy, our ecstasies of the spirit! Upon how much in the world of art, literature, invention, modes, may be written the word "perishable"! "All flesh is grass," says the old Book. Individuals, species, races, pass. Life alone remains and is immortal.


Positive and negative go hand in hand through the world. Victory and defeat, hope and despair, pleasure and pain. Man is positive, woman is negative in comparison. The day is positive, the night is negative. But it is a pleasure to remember that it is always day in the universe.

The shadow of the earth does not extend very far, nor the shadow of any other planet. Day is the great cosmic fact. The masses of men are negative to the few master and compelling minds. Cold is negative, heat is positive, though the difference is only one of degree. The negative side of life, the side of meditation, reflection, and reverie, is no less important than the side of action and performance. Youth is positive, age is negative. Age says No where it used to say Yes. It takes in sail. Life's hurry and heat are over, the judgment is calm, the passions subdued, the stress of effort relaxed. Our temper is less aggressive, events seem less imminent.

The morning is positive; in the evening we muse and dream and take our ease, we see our friends, we unstring the bow, we indulge our social instincts.

Optimism is positive, pessimism is negative. Fear, suspicion, distrust--are all negative.

On the seashore where I write[4] I see the ebbing tide, the exposed sand and rocks, the receding waves; and I know the sea is showing us its negative side; there is a lull in the battle. But wait a little and the mad assault of the waves upon the land will be renewed.

[Footnote 4: La Jolla, California.]



The palm is for friendship, hospitality, and good will; the fist is to smite the enemies of truth and justice.

How many men are like the clenched fist--pugnacious, disputatious, quarrelsome, always spoiling for a fight; a verbal fisticuff, if not a physical one, is their delight. Others are more conciliatory and peace-loving, not forgetting that a soft answer turneth away wrath. Roosevelt was the man of the clenched fist; not one to stir up strife, but a merciless hitter in what he believed a just cause. He always had the fighting edge, yet could be as tender and sympathetic as any one. This latter side of him is clearly shown in his recently published "Letters to His Children." Lincoln was, in contrast, the man with the open palm, tempering justice with kindness, and punishment with leniency. His War Secretary, Stanton, wielded the hard fist.



"More men know how to flatter," said Wendell Phillips, "than how to praise." To flatter is easy, to condemn is easy, but to praise judiciously and discriminatingly is not easy. Extravagant praise defeats itself, as does extravagant blame. A man is rarely overpraised during his own time by his own people. If he is an original, forceful character, he is much more likely to be overblamed than overpraised. He disturbs old ways and institutions. We require an exalted point of view to take in a great character, as we do to take in a great mountain.

We are likely to overpraise and overblame our presidents. Lincoln was greatly overblamed in his day, but we have made it up to his memory. President Wilson won the applause of both political parties during his first term, but how overwhelmingly did the tide turn against him before the end of his second term! All his high and heroic service (almost his martyrdom) in the cause of peace, and for the league to prevent war, were forgotten in a mad rush of the populace to the other extreme. But Wilson will assuredly come to his own in time, and take his place among the great presidents.

A little of the Scottish moderation is not so bad; it is always safe. A wise man will always prefer unjust blame to fulsome praise. Extremes in the estimation of a sound character are bound sooner or later to correct themselves. Wendell Phillips himself got more than his share of blame during the antislavery days, but the praise came in due time.


The difference between the two is seen in nothing more clearly than in the fact that so many educated persons can and do write fairly good verse, in fact, write most of the popular newspaper and magazine poetry, while only those who have a genius for poetry write real poems. Could mere talent have written Bryant's lines "To a Waterfowl"? or his "Thanatopsis"? or "June"? Or the small volume of selections of great poetry which Arnold made from the massive works of Wordsworth?

Talent could have produced a vast deal of Wordsworth's work--all the "Ecclesiastical Sonnets" and much of "The Excursion." Could talent have written Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass"? It could have produced all that Whitman wrote before that time--all his stories and poems. Give talent inspiration and it becomes genius. The grub is metamorphosed into the butterfly.

"To do what is impossible to Talent is the mark of Genius," says Amiel.

Talent may judge, Genius creates. Talent keeps the rules, Genius knows when to break them.

"You may know Genius," says the ironical Swift, "by this sign: All the dunces are against him."

There is fine talent in Everett's oration at Gettysburg, but what a different quality spoke in Lincoln's brief but immortal utterance on the same occasion! Is anything more than bright, alert talent shown in the mass of Lowell's work, save perhaps in his "Biglow Papers"? If he had a genius for poetry, though he wrote much, I cannot see it. His tone, as Emerson said, is always that of prose. The "Cathedral" is a _tour de force_. The line of his so often quoted--"What is so rare as a day in June?"--is a line of prose.

The lines "To a Honey Bee" by John Russell McCarthy are the true gold of poetry. "To make of labor an eternal lust" could never have been struck off by mere talent.



Columbus discovered America; Edison invented the phonograph, the incandescent light, and many other things. If Columbus had not discovered America, some other voyager would have. If Harvey had not discovered the circulation of the blood, some one else would have. The wonder is that it was not discovered ages before. So far as I know, no one has yet discovered the function of the spleen, but doubtless in time some one will. It is only comparatively recently that the functions of other ductless glands have been discovered. What did we know about the thyroid gland a half-century ago? All the new discoveries in the heavens waited upon the new astronomic methods, and the end is not yet. Many things in nature are still like an unexplored land. New remedies for the ills of the human body doubtless remain to be found. In the mechanical world probably no new principle remains to be discovered. "Keely" frauds have had their day. In the chemical world, the list of primary elements will probably not be added to, though new combinations of these elements may be almost endless. In the biological world, new species of insects, birds, and mammals doubtless remain to be discovered. Our knowledge of the natural history of the globe is far from being complete.

But in regard to inventions the case is different. I find myself speculating on such a question as this: If Edison had never been born, should we ever have had the phonograph, or the incandescent light? If Graham Bell had died in infancy, should we ever have had the telephone? Or without Marconi should we have had the wireless, or without Morse, the telegraph? Or, to go back still farther, without Franklin should we ever have known the identity of lightning and electricity? Who taught us how to control electricity and make it do our work? One of the questions of Job was, "Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go, and say unto thee, Here we are?" Yes, we can. "We are ready to do your bidding," they seem to say, "to run your errands, to carry your burdens, to grind your grist, to light your houses, to destroy your enemies."

The new inventions that the future holds for us wait upon the new man. The discovery of radium--what a secret that was! But in all probability had not Curie and his wife discovered it, some other investigator would.

Shall we ever learn how to use the atomic energy that is locked up in matter? Or how to use the uniform temperature of the globe? Or the secret of the glow-worm and firefly--light without heat?

The laws of the conservation of energy and of the correlation of forces were discoveries. The art of aviation was both an invention and a discovery. The soaring hawks and eagles we have always been familiar with; the Wright brothers invented the machine that could do the trick.

"Necessity is the mother of invention." As our wants increase, new devices to meet them appear. How the diving-bell answered a real need! The motor-car also, and the flying-machine. The sewing-machine is a great time-saver; the little hooks in our shoes in place of eyelets are great time-savers; pins, and friction matches, and rubber overshoes, and scores on scores of other inventions answer to real needs. Necessity did not call the phonograph into being, nor the incandescent light, but the high explosives, dynamite and T. N. T. (trinitrotoluol) met real wants.

The Great War with its submarines stimulated inventors to devise weapons to cope with them. Always as man's hand and eyes and ears have needed reenforcing or extending, his wit has come to his rescue. In fact, his progress has been contingent upon this very fact. His necessities and his power of invention react upon one another; the more he invents, the more he wants, and the more he wants, the more he invents.



I was saying to myself, why do not all literary men go to the country to do their work, where they can have health, peace, and solitude? Then it occurred to me that there are many men of many minds, and that many need to be in the thick of life; they get more stimulus out of people than out of nature. The novelist especially needs to be in touch with multitudes of men and women. But the poet and the philosopher will usually prosper better in the country. A man like myself, who is an observer and of a meditative cast, does better in the country. Emerson, though city born and bred, finally settled in the country. Whitman, on the other hand, loved "populous pavements." But he was at home anywhere under the stars. He had no study, no library, no club, other than the street, the beach, the hilltop, and the marts of men. Mr. Howells was country-born, but came to the city for employment and remained there. Does not one wish that he had gone back to his Ohio boyhood home? It was easy for me to go back because I came of generations of farmer folk. The love of the red soil was in my blood. My native hills looked like the faces of my father and mother. I could never permanently separate myself from them. I have always had a kind of chronic homesickness. Two or three times a year I must revisit the old scenes. I have had a land-surveyor make a map of the home farm, and I have sketched in and colored all the different fields as I knew them in my youth. I keep the map hung up in my room here in California, and when I want to go home, I look at this map. I do not see the paper. I see fields and woods and stone walls and paths and roads and grazing cattle. In this field I used to help make hay; in this one I wore my fingers sore picking up stones for these stone walls; in this I planted corn and potatoes with my brothers. In these maple woods I helped make sugar in the spring; in these I killed my first ruffed grouse. In this field I did my first ploughing, with thoughts of an academy in a neighboring town at the end of every furrow. In this one I burned the dry and decayed stumps in the April days, with my younger brother, and a spark set his cap on fire. In this orchard I helped gather the apples in October. In this barn we husked the corn in the November nights. In this one Father sheared the sheep, and Mother picked the geese. My paternal grandfather cleared these fields and planted this orchard. I recall the hired man who worked for us during my time, and every dog my father had, and my adventures with them, hunting wood-chucks and coons. All these things and memories have been valuable assets in my life. But it is well that not all men have my strong local attachments. The new countries would never get settled. My forefathers would never have left Connecticut for the wilderness of the Catskills.

As a rule, however, we are a drifting, cosmopolitan people. We are easily transplanted; we do not strike our roots down into the geology of long-gone time.

I often wonder how so many people of the Old World can pull themselves up and migrate to America and never return. The Scots, certainly a home-loving race, do it, and do not seem to suffer from homesickness.

[The end]
John Burroughs's essay: Short Studies In Contrasts