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Jena, May 14th.
Dear Mr. Anstruther,—Of course I am full of contradictions. Did you expect me to be full of anything else? And I have no doubt whatever that in every letter I say exactly the opposite from what I said in the last one. But you must not mind this and make it an occasion for reproof. I do not pretend to think quite the same even two days running; if I did I would be stagnant, and the very essence of life is to be fluid, to pass perpetually on. So please do not hold me responsible for convictions that I have changed by the time they get to you, and above all things don't bring them up against me and ask me to prove them. I don't want to prove them. I don't want to prove anything. My attitude toward life is one of open-mouthed wonder and delight, and the open-mouthed cannot talk. You write, too, plaintively, that some of the things I say hurt you. I am sorry. Sorry, I mean, that you should be so soft. Can you not, then, bear anything? But I will smooth my tongue if you prefer it smooth, and send you envelopes filled with only sugar; talk to you about the parks, the London season, the Foreign Office—all things of which I know nothing—and, patting you at short intervals on the back, tell you you are admirable. You say there is a bitter flavor about some of my remarks. I have not felt bitter. Perhaps a little shrewish; a little like, not a mild exhorting elder sister, but an irritated aunt. You see I am interested enough in you to be fidgety when I hear you groan. What, I ask myself uneasily, can be the matter with this apparently healthy, well-cared-for young man? And then, forced to the conclusion by unmistakable symptoms that there is nothing the matter except a surfeit of good things, I have perhaps pounced upon you with something of the zeal of an aunt moved to anger, and given you a spiritual slapping. You sighed for a sister—you are always sighing for something—and asked me to be one; well, I have apparently gone beyond the sister in decision and authority, and developed something of the acerbity of an aunt.
So you are down at Clinches. How beautiful it must be there this month. I think of it as a harmony in gray and amethyst, remembering your description of it the first time you went there; a harmony in a minor key, that captured you wholly by its tender subtleties. When I think of you inheriting such a place later on through your wife I do from my heart feel that your engagement is an excellent thing. She must indeed be happy in the knowledge that she can give you so much that is absolutely worth having. It is beautiful, beautiful to give; one of the very most beautiful things in life. I quarrel with my poverty only because I can give so little, so seldom, and then never more than ridiculous small trumperies. To make up for them I try to give as much of myself as possible, gifts of sympathy, helpfulness, kindness. Don't laugh, but I am practicing on my step-mother. It is easy to pour out love on Papa; so easy, so effortless, that I do not feel as if it could be worth much; but I have made up my mind, not without something of a grim determination that seems to have little enough to do with love, to give my step-mother as much of me, my affections, my services, as she can do with. Perhaps she won't be able to do with much. Anyhow all she wants she shall have. You know I have often wished I had been a man, able to pull on my boots and go out into the wide world without let or hindrance; but for one thing I am glad to be a woman, and that one thing is that the woman gives. It is so far less wonderful to take. The man is always taking, the woman always giving; and giving so wonderfully, in the face sometimes of dreadful disaster, of shipwreck, of death—which explains perhaps her longer persistence in clinging to the skirts of a worn-out passion; for is not the tenderer feeling on the side of the one who gave and blessed? Always, always on that side? Mixing into what was sensual some of the dear divineness of the mother-love? I think I could never grow wholly indifferent to a person to whom I had given much. He or she would not, could not, be the same to me as other people. Time would pass, and the growing number of the days blunt the first sharp edge of feeling; but the memory of what I had given would bind us together in a friendship for ever unlike any other.
I have not thanked you for the book you sent me. It was very kind indeed of you to wish me to share the pleasure you have had in reading it. But see how unfortunately contrary I am: I don't care about it. And just the passages you marked are the ones I care about least. I do not hold with markings in books. Whenever I have come across mine after a lapse of years I have marvelled at the distance travelled since I marked, and shut up the book and murmured, 'Little fool.' I can't imagine why you thought I should like this book. It has given me rather a surprised shock that you should know me so little, and that I should know you so little as to think you knew me better. Really all the explanations and pointings in the world will not show a person the exact position of his neighbor's soul. It is astonishing enough that the book was printed, but how infinitely more astonishing that people like you should admire it. What is the matter with me that I cannot admire it? Why am I missing things that ought to give me pleasure? You do not, then, see that it is dull? I do. I see it and feel it in every bone, and it makes them ache. It is dull and bad because it is so dreary, so hopelessly dreary. Life is not like that. Life is only like that to cowards who are temporarily indisposed. I do not care to look at it through a sick creature's jaundiced eyes and shudder with him at what he sees. If he cannot see better why not keep quiet, and let us braver folk march along with our heads in the air, held so high that we cannot bother to look at every slimy creepiness that crawls across our path? And did you not notice how he keeps on telling his friends in his letters not to mind when he is dead? Unnecessary advice, one would suppose; I can more easily imagine the friends gasping with an infinite relief. Persons who are everlastingly claiming pity, sympathy, condolences, are very wearing. Surely all talk about one's death is selfish and bad? That is why, though there is so much that is lovely in them, the faint breath of corruption hanging about Christina Rossetti's poetry makes me turn my head the other way. What a constant cry it is that she wants to die, that she hopes to die, that she's going to die, shall die, can die, must die, and that nobody is to weep for her but that there are to be elaborate and moving arrangements of lilies and roses and winding-sheets. And at least in one place she gives directions as to the proper use of green grass and wet dewdrops upon her grave—implying that dewdrops are sometimes dry. I think the only decent attitude toward one's death is to be silent. Talk about it puts other people in such an awkward position. What is one to say to persons who sigh and tell us that they will no doubt soon be in heaven? One's instinct is politely to murmur, 'Oh no,' and then they are angry. 'Surely not,' also has its pitfalls. Cheery words, of the order in speech that a slap on the shoulder is in the sphere of physical expression, only seem to deepen the determined gloom. And if it is some one you love who thinks he will soon be dead and tells you so, the cruelty is very great. When death really comes, is not what the ordinary decent dier wants quiet, that he may leave himself utterly in the hands of God? There should be no massing of temporarily broken-hearted onlookers about his bed, no leave-takings and eager gatherings-up of last words, no revellings of relatives in the voluptuousness of woe, no futile exhortations, using up the last poor breaths, not to weep to persons who would consider it highly improper to leave off doing it, and no administration of tardy blessings. Any blessings the dier has to invoke should have been invoked and done with long ago. In this last hour, at least, can one not be left alone? Do you remember Pater's strange feeling about death? Perhaps you do not, for you told me once you did not care about him. Well, it runs through his books, through all their serenity and sunlight, through exquisite descriptions of summer, of beautiful places, of heat and life and youth and all things lovely, like a musty black riband, very poor, very mean, very rotten, that yet must bind these gracious flowers of light at last together, bruising them into one piteous mass of corruption. It is all very morbid: the fair outward surface of daily life, the gay, flower-starred crust of earth, and just underneath horrible tainted things, things forlorn and pitiful, things which we who still walk on the wholesome grass must soon join, changing our life in the roomy sunshine into something infinitely dependent and helpless, something that can only dimly live if those strong friends of ours in the bright world will spare us a thought, a remembrance, a few minutes from their plenty for sitting beside us, room in their hearts for yet a little love and sorrow. 'Dead cheek by dead cheek, and the rain soaking down upon one from above....' Does not that sound hopeless? After reading these things, sweet with the tainted sweetness of decay, of, ruin, of the past, the gone, it is like having fresh spring water dashed over one on a languid afternoon to remember Walt Whitman's brave attitude toward 'delicate death,' 'the sacred knowledge of death,' 'lovely, soothing death,' 'cool, enfolding death,' 'strong deliveress,' 'vast and well-veiled death,' 'the body gratefully nestling close to death,' 'sane and sacred death.' That is the spirit that makes one brave and fearless, that makes one live beautifully and well, that sends one marching straight ahead with limbs that do not tremble and head held high. Is it not natural to love such writers best? Writers who fill one with glad courage and make one proud of the path one has chosen to walk in?
And yet you do not like Walt Whitman. I remember quite well my chill of disappointment when you told me so. At first, hearing it, I thought I must be wrong to like him, but thank heaven I soon got my balance again, and presently was solaced by the reflection that it was at least as likely you were wrong not to. You told me it was not poetry. That upset me for a few days, and then I found I didn't care. I couldn't argue with you on the spot and prove anything, because the only esprit I have is that tiresome esprit d'escalier, so brilliant when it is too late, so constant in its habit of leaving its possessor in the dreadful condition—or is it a place?—called the lurch; but, poetry or not, I knew I must always love him. You, I suppose, have cultivated your taste in regard to things of secondary importance to such a pitch of sensitiveness that unless the outer shell is flawless you cannot, for sheer intellectual discomfort, look at the wonders that often lie within. I, who have not been educated, am so filled with elementary joy when some one shows me the light in this world of many shadows that I do not stop to consider what were the words he used while my eyes followed his pointing finger. You see, I try to console myself for having an unpruned intelligence. I know I am unpruned, and that at the most you pruned people, all trim and trained from the first, do but bear with me indulgently. But I must think with the apparatus I possess, and I think at this moment that perhaps what you really most want is a prolonged dose of Walt Whitman, a close study of him for several hours every day, shut up with no other book, quite alone with him in an empty country place. Listen to this—you shall listen:
O we can wait no longer,
We too take ship, O soul;
Joyous we too launch out on trackless seas,
Fearless for unknown shores on waves of ecstasy to sail,
Amid the wafting winds (thou pressing me to thee, I thee
to me, O soul).
Carolling free, singing our song of God,
Chanting our chant of pleasant exploration,
O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther sail I
Well, how do you feel now? Can any one, can you, can even you read that without such a tingling in all your limbs, such a fresh rush of life and energy through your whole body that you simply must jump up and, shaking off the dreary nonsense that has been fooling you, turn your back on diseased self-questionings and run straight out to work at your salvation in the sun?
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