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An essay by Hamilton Wright Mabie

The Ultimate Test

Title:     The Ultimate Test
Author: Hamilton Wright Mabie [More Titles by Mabie]

"I have cut more than one field of oats and wheat," writes M. Charles Wagner, "cradled for long hours under the August sky to the slow cadence of the blade as it swung to and fro, laying low at every stroke the heavy yellow heads. I have heard the quail whistle in the distant fields beyond the golden waves of wheat and the woods that looked blue above the vines. I have thought of the clamours of mankind, of the oven-like cities, of the problems which perplex the age, and my insight has grown clearer. Yes, I am Positive that one of the great curatives of our evils, our maladies, social, moral, and intellectual, would be a return to the soil, a rehabilitation of the work of the fields." In these characteristically ardent words one of the noblest Frenchmen of the day has brought out a truth of general application. To come once more into personal relations with mother earth is to secure health of body and of mind; and with health comes clarity of vision. To touch the soil as a worker is to set all the confined energies of the body free, to incite all its functions to normal activity, to secure that physical harmony which results from a full and normal play of all the physical forces on an adequate object.

In like manner, true work of mind or technical skill brings peace, composure, sanity, to one to whom the proper outlet of his energy has been denied. To youth, possessed by an almost riotous vitality, with great but unused powers of endurance and of positive action, the finding of its task means concentration of energy instead of dissipations directness of action instead of indecision, conscious increase of power instead of deepened sense of inefficiency, and the happiness which rises like a pure spring from the depths of the soul when the whole nature is poised and harmonised. The torments of uncertainty, the waste and disorder of the period of ferment, give place to clear vision, free action, natural growth. There are few moments in life so intoxicating as those which follow the final discovery of the task one is appointed to perform. It is a true home-coming after weary and anxious wandering; it is the lifting of the fog off a perilous coast; it is the shining of the sun after days of shrouded sky.

The "storm and stress" period is always interesting because it predicts the appearance of a new power; and men instinctively love every evidence of the greatness of the race, as they instinctively crave the disclosure of new truth. In the reaction against the monotony of formalism and of that deadly conventionalism which is the peril of every accepted method in religion, art, education, or politics, men are ready to welcome any revolt, however extravagant. Too much life is always better than too little, and the absurdities of young genius are nobler than the selfish prudence of aged sagacity. The wild days at Weimar which Klopstock looked at askance, and not without good reason; the excess of passion and action in Schiller's "Robbers;" the turbulence of the young Romanticists, with long hair and red waistcoats, crowding the Theatre Francais to compel the acceptance of "Hernani,"--these stormy dawns of the new day in art are always captivating to the imagination. Their interest lies, however, not in their turbulence and disorder, but in their promise. If real achievements do not follow the early outbreak, the latter are soon forgotten; if they herald a new birth of power, they are fixed in the memory of a world which, however slow and cold, loves to feel the fresh impulse of the awakening human spirit. The wild days at Weimar were the prelude to a long life of sustained energy and of the highest productivity; "The Robbers" was soon distanced and eclipsed by the noble works of one of the noblest of modern spirits; and to the extravagance of the ardent French Romanticists of 1832 succeeded those great works in verse and prose which have made the last half-century memorable in French literary history.

It is the fruitage of work, not the wild play of undirected energy, which gives an epoch its decisive influence and a man his place and power. Both aspects of the "storm and stress" period need to be kept in mind. When it is tempted to condemn too sternly the extravagance of such a period, society will do well to recall how often this undirected or ill-directed play of energy has been the forerunner of a noble putting forth of creative power. And those who are involved in such an outpouring of new life, on the other hand, will do well to remember that extravagance is never the sign of art; that licence is never the liberty which sets free the creative force; that "storm and stress" is, at the best, only a promise of sound work; and that its importance and reality depend entirely upon the fruit it bears.

The decisive test, in other words, comes when a man deals, in patience and fidelity, with the task which is set before him. Up to this point his life, however rich and varied, has been a preparation; now comes that final trial of strength which is to bring into clear light whatever power is in him, be that power great or small. If work had no other quality, the fact that it settles a man's place among men would invest it with the highest dignity; for a man's place can be determined only by a complete unfolding and measurement of all the powers that are in him, and this process of development must have all the elements of the highest moral process. So great, indeed, is the importance of work from this point of view that it seems to involve, under the appearance of a provisional judgment, the weight and seriousness of a final judgment of men. Such a judgment, as every man knows who has the conscience either of a moralist or of an artist, is being hourly registered in the growth which is silently accomplished through the steady and skilful doing of one's work, or in the gradual but inevitable decline and decay which accompany and follow the slovenly, indifferent, or unfaithful performance of one's task.

We make or unmake ourselves by and through our work; marring our material and spiritual fortunes or discovering and possessing them at will. The idle talk about the play of chance in the world, the futile attempt to put on the broad back of circumstances that burden of responsibility which rests on our own shoulders, deceives no man in his saner moments. The outward fruits of success are not always within our reach, no matter how strenuous our struggles to pluck them; but that inward strength, of which all forms of outward prosperity are but visible evidences, lies within the grasp of every true worker. Fidelity, skill, energy--the noble putting forth of one's power in some worthy form of work--never fail of that unfolding of the whole man in harmonious strength which is the only ultimate and satisfying form of success.

[The end]
Hamilton Wright Mabie's essay: The Ultimate Test