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Renewal of Inspiration

There comes a time in the experience of perhaps every stated purveyor of intellectual food when the stock he has long been drawing upon seems finally exhausted. There is not a grain left in the barns where he had garnered up the harvests of the past; there is not a head of wheat to be found in the fields where he had always been able to glean something; if he shakes the tree of knowledge in the hope of a nut to crack or a frozen-thaw to munch, nothing comes down but a shower of withered leaves. His condition is what, in the parlance of his vocation, he calls being out of a subject, and it is what may happen to him equally whether he is preaching twice a Sunday from the pulpit, or writing leaders every day for a prominent journal, or merely contributing a monthly essay to a magazine. As the day or hour or moment approaches when he must give forth something from his destitution, he envies the hungriest of his auditors or readers who do not yet know that there is nothing in him to appease their famine. There is only the barren will to give which only a miracle can transform into a vitalizing bounty.

Yet is not this miracle always wrought? When did a pulpit ever fail of a sermon, or a journal of a leading article, or a magazine of its stated essay? The fact might argue the very contrary of the appearance and convince the desperate purveyor that what he mistook for hopeless need was choice which mocked him with a myriad alternatives. From cover to cover the Scripture is full of texts; every day brings forth its increase of incident; the moral and social and æsthetical world is open on every side to polite inquiry and teems with inspiring suggestion. If ever the preacher or editor or essayist fancies he has exhausted these resources, he may well pause and ask whether it is not himself that he has exhausted. There may be wanting the eye to see the riches which lie near or far, rather than the riches which are always inviting the eye.

A curious trait of the psychology of this matter is that it is oftener the young eye than the old which lacks the visual force. When Eugenio was beginning author and used to talk with other adolescent immortals of the joyful and sorrowful mysteries of their high calling, the dearth of subjects was the cause of much misgiving and even despair among them. Upon a certain occasion one of that divine company, so much diviner than any of the sort now, made bold to affirm: "I feel that I have got my technique perfect. I believe that my poetic art will stand the test of any experiment in the handling of verse, and now all that I want is a subject." It seemed a great hardship to the others, and they felt it the more keenly because every one of them was more or less in the same case. They might have none of them so frankly owned their fitness for their work as the one who had spoken, but they were all as deeply aware of it; and if any subject had appeared above the horizon there could have been no question among them except as to which should first mount his winged steed and ride it down. It did not occur to any of them that the want of a subject was the defect of their art, and that until they were equipped with the eye that never fails to see occasion for song all round the heavens they were not yet the champions of poetry which they fancied themselves. He who had uttered their common belief sufficiently proved afterward, in the range of things he did, that he had ultimately come into possession of the highest of the poetic gifts, the poetic vision of life, and that he had completed his art at a point where it had been most imperfect before, when he supposed it so perfect. As soon as he ceased looking for subjects, which were mainly the conventional themes of verse, the real and vital subjects began looking for him.

Eugenio himself, on his lower level, had something of the same experience. When he first began those inventions in prose which long seemed to him worthy of the best that his kindest friends said of them, he had great trouble in contriving facts sufficiently wonderful for the characters who were to deal with them, and characters high and noble enough to deal with the great and exalted facts. On one hand or the other his scheme was always giving out. The mirage of fancy which painted itself so alluringly before him faded on his advance and left him planted heavy-footed in the desert sands. In other words, he was always getting out of a subject. In the intervals between his last fiction and his next, when his friends supposed he was purposely letting his mind lie fallow (and perhaps willingly acquiesced in the rest they were sharing with him), he was really in an anguish of inquiry for something on which to employ his powers; he was in a state of excruciating activity of which the incessant agitation of the atoms in the physical world is but a faint image; his repose was the mask of violent vibrations, of volcanic emotions, which required months to clear themselves in the realization of some ideal altogether disproportioned to the expenditure of energy which had been tacitly taking place. At these periods it seemed to him that his lot had been cast in a world where he was himself about the only interesting fact, and from which every attractive subject had been removed before he came into it.

He could never tell just how or when all this changed, and a little ray, very faint and thin at first, stole in upon his darkness and broadened to an effulgence which showed his narrow circle a boundless universe thronged with the most available passions, interests, motives, situations, catastrophes and dénouements, and characters eagerly fitting themselves with the most appropriate circumstances. As nearly as he could make out, his liberation to this delightful cosmos took place through his gradual perception that human nature was of a vast equality in the important things, and had its difference only in trifles. He had but to take other men in the same liberal spirit that he took himself to find them all heroes; he had but to take women at their own estimate to find them all heroines, if not divinely beautiful, then interesting, fascinating, irresistibly better than beautiful. The situation was something like this; it will not do to give away his whole secret; but the reader needs only a hint in order to understand how in his new mind Eugenio was overwhelmed with subjects.

After this illumination of his the only anxiety he had was concerning his ability to produce all the masterpieces he felt himself capable of in the short time allotted to the longest-lived writer. He was aware of a duty to the material he had discovered, and this indeed sometimes weighed upon him. However, he took courage from the hope that others would seize his point of view and be able to carry on the work of producing masterpieces indefinitely. They could never use up all the subjects, any more than men can exhaust the elements of the aluminium which abound in every piece of the common earth; but, in their constant reliance upon every-day life as the true and only source of surprise and delight in art, they could never be in the terrible despair which had afflicted him from time to time before his illumination.

Doubtless there is an overruling Providence in this matter which we may not distrust without accusing the order which has not yet failed in the due succession of the seasons and the days and nights. While we are saying it is never going to rain, it rains; or when it seems as if nature were finally frozen up, a thaw begins; when we feel that the dark will not end, the dawn is already streaking the east. If the preacher thinks that the old texts are no longer applicable to life, there is suddenly reported an outbreak of vice in the city which puts him in mind of Sodom and Gomorrah; or the opportune flight of a defaulter furnishes material for a homily which searches the consciences of half the congregation with the words of the commandment against stealing. The journalist wakes in heavy-eyed despair, but he finds from the papers on his breakfast-table that there has been a revolution in South America, or that the Socialists have been doing something in Belgium almost too bad even for Socialists as the capitalists imagine them, and his heart rises again. Even the poor magazine essayist, who has lived through the long month in dread of the hour when his copy shall be due, is not forbidden his reprieve. He may not have anything to say, but he certainly has something to say it about. The world is always as interesting to-day as it was yesterday, and probably to-morrow will not be so dull as it promises.

One reason for the disability of the essayist, as distinguished from the preacher or the journalist, is that he does not give himself range enough. Expecting to keep scrupulously to one subject, he cannot put his hand on a theme which he is sure will hold out under him to the end. Once it was not so. The essayists of antiquity were the most vagariously garrulous people imaginable. There was not one of them who, to our small acquaintance with them, kept to his proposition or ended anywhere in sight of it. Aristotle, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Plutarch, they talk of anything but the matter in hand, after mentioning it; and when you come down to the moderns, for instance, to such a modern as Montaigne, you find him wandering all over the place. He has no sooner stated his subject than he begins to talk about something else; it reminds him (like Lincoln) of a story which has nothing to do with it; and that story reminds him of another, and so on, till the original thesis is left flapping in the breeze somewhere at the vanishing-point in the tortuous perspective and vainly signalling the essayist back. It was the same, or nearly the same, with the English essayists quite down to the beginning of the last century, when they began to cease being. The writers in the Spectator, the Guardian, the Tatler, the Rambler, and the rest, contrived to keep a loose allegiance to the stated topic, because they treated it so very briefly, and were explicitly off to something else in the next page or two with a fresh text. But if we come to such delightful masters of the art as Lamb and Leigh Hunt and De Quincey and Hazlitt, it will not be easy, opening at any chance point, to make out what they are talking about. They are apparently talking about everything else in the world but the business they started with. But they are always talking delightfully, and that is the great matter with any sort of talker.

When the reviewers began to supplant the essayists, they were even more contemptuously indifferent to the obligations of constancy. Their text was nominally some book, but almost as soon as they had named it they shut it and went off on the subject of it, perhaps, or perhaps not. It was for the most part lucky for the author that they did so, for their main affair with the author was to cuff him soundly for his ignorance and impudence, and then leave him and not return to him except for a few supplementary cuffs at the close, just to show that they had not forgotten him. Macaulay was a notorious offender in this sort; though why do we say offender? Was not he always delightful? He was and he is, though we no longer think him a fine critic; and he meant to be just, or as just as any one could be with a man whom one differed from in the early Victorian period.

But Macaulay certainly did not keep harking back to his text, if ever he returned to it at all. His instinct was that a preacher's concern was with his text, but not an essayist's or a reviewer's, and he was right enough. The essayist certainly has no such obligation or necessity. His reader can leave him at any moment, unless he is very interesting, and it does not matter where they part company. In fact, it might be argued that the modern fidelity to its subject is one of the chief evidences or causes of the essay's decay. The essayist tries to make a mechanical conscience perform the duty of that fine spiritual freedom in which the essay once had its highest effect with the reader, and in his dull loyalty to the stated thesis he is superficial as well as tiresome.

The true subject is not one subject only, but many. It is like that pungent bulb whose odorous energy increases with exfoliation, and remains a potent fragrance in the air after the bulb has substantially ceased to be under the fingers. The error of the modern essayist is to suppose that he can ever have a single subject in hand; he has a score, he has a hundred, as his elders and betters all know; and what he mistakes for his destitution is really his superfluity. If he will be honest (as he may with difficulty be), must not he recognize that what seems a search for one theme is a hesitation between many pressing forward for his choice? If he will make this admission we believe he will be nearer the fact, and he will be a much more respectable figure than he could feel himself in blindly fumbling about for a single thesis. Life is never, and in nothing, the famine, perhaps, that we imagine it. Much more probably it is a surfeit, and what we suppose are the pangs of hunger are really the miseries of repletion. More people are suffering from too much than from too little. Especially are the good things here in a demoralizing profusion. Ask any large employer of labor, and he will tell you that what ails the working-classes is an excess of pianos and buggies and opera-boxes. Ask any workman what ails his employer, and he will say that it is the ownership of the earth, with a mortgage on planetary space. Both are probably right, or at least one is as right as the other.

When we have with difficulty made our selection from the divine redundancy of the ideal world, and so far as we could have reduced ourselves to the penury of a sole possession, why do not we turn our eyes to the example of Nature in not only bringing forth a hundred or a thousand fold of the kind of seed planted, but in accompanying its growth with that of an endless variety of other plants, all coming to bear in a like profusion? Observe that wise husbandwoman (this is not the contradiction in terms it seems), how when her business is apparently a hay harvest, she mingles myriads of daisies and milkweed and wild carrot and redtop with the grass, and lets her fancy riot all round the meadow in a broidery of blackberries and asters and dogroses and goldenrod. She never works without playing; and she plays even while man is working—plays so graciously and winningly that it takes the heart with joy. Who has ever looked upon an old-world wheat-field, where poppies and vetches are frolicking among the ears, and begrudged Nature her pastime? No one, we will venture, but the owner of the field, who is perhaps also too much of a philosopher to grieve over it. In the ideal world it is much the same. There, too, art having chosen a kind brings it to bear with all the other kinds which have been lurking in the unconscious soil of the mind and only waiting tilth for any purpose before springing up in company with the selected seed. This is what makes the poets and novelists and dramatists so much more profitable reading than the moralists. From whom, indeed, has the vital wisdom of the race been garnered? Not from those hard, ethical masters who have sought to narrow culture to the business of growing precepts, but from the genial teachers who have inculcated amusement and breathed into the unwary mind some inspiration which escaped as unconsciously from themselves. Which philosopher or sage of them all has instructed mankind a hundredth part as much as Shakespeare, who supposed himself to be merely providing diversion for the patrons of the Globe Theatre?

It follows, if not directly, then a long way about, from what we have been saying, that the real artist is never at a loss for a subject. His trouble is too many themes, not too few; and, having chosen among them, his error will be in an iron sequence rather than in a desultory progression. He is to arrive, if at all, laden with the spoil of the wayside, and bringing with him the odor of the wild flowers carpeting or roofing the by-paths; if he is a little bothered by the flowering brambles which have affectionately caught at him in his course, that does not greatly matter; or, at least, it is better than coming back to his starting-point in boots covered with the mud of the high-road or coat powdered with its dust. The sauntering ease, the excursive delays, will be natural to the poet or the novelist, who is born to them; but the essayist must in a manner make them his own, if he would be an artist and survive among the masters, which there has been some doubt of his doing. It should be his care to shun every appearance of continuity; only in the practice of the fitful, the capricious, the desultory, can he hope to emulate the effects of the creative. With any other ideal he cannot hope to be fit company for the high minds who have furnished mankind with quotations. But for the prevalence of the qualities which we have been urging the essayist to cultivate, in the essays of Bacon, it is not probable that any one would ever have fancied that Bacon wrote Shakespeare.

William Dean Howells