I am musing upon a fine book written by a teacher and prolific author, Leroy Armstrong. He is introducing the reader to the life and the work of John Greenleaf Whittier, the old Quaker poet who was once one of the most beloved writers in America. He directs our attention to “Snow-Bound,” which he says is “still the most popular long poem written by an American author,” a judgment that makes sense only on the supposition that plenty of ordinary people read poetry, and love it well enough to remember it and pass it along to their children.
“A study of ‘Snow-Bound,’ ” says Armstrong, “reveals a great deal of Whittier’s inner life. In the father, ‘a prompt, decisive man,’ we find the source of Whittier’s resolute courage. We see in the son the mother’s gentleness, kindness, and faith in God and man.” Whittier and his beloved younger sister Elizabeth never married, but Armstrong points our attention to a stanza that shows their love for one another most touchingly. “Nowhere in literature,” he says, “can be found a clearer expression of belief in the realities of a blessed hereafter than this stanza affords.” He concludes by noting that Whittier wrote the whole poem as a memorial to Elizabeth, “similar to Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ upon the death of Arthur Hallam.”
That seems a just judgment. In the stanza he refers to, Whittier observes how all the lovely creatures of springtime roundabout him remind him of his loneliness:
But still I wait with ear and eye
For something gone which should be nigh,
A loss in all familiar things,
In flower that blooms, and bird that sings.
But his hope lies in what dwells beyond change:
And yet, dear heart! remembering thee,
Am I not richer than of old?
Safe in thy immortality,
What change can reach the wealth I hold?
What chance can mar the pearl and gold
Thy love hath left in trust with me?
Whittier ends that stanza imagining the moment when he shall awake from his own life’s sleep, and see Elizabeth waiting for him, beckoning him and welcoming him with her hand. In a series of helpful notes and questions he appends to the poem, Armstrong asks his reader why Whittier used the word pearl, instructing him to turn to Matthew 13:43-46.
I open the book again, nearer the middle, and see that Armstrong has included another one of the most notable poems of the American nineteenth century, William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis.” He introduces it with a brief and charming anecdote. It seems that Bryant wrote the poem, a religious and philosophical meditation upon death, when he was an eighteen-year-old boy. He put it in his father’s desk and told no one about it. Six years later, his father found it and was stunned by it. He sent it to the North American Review, and for a while the editors would not print it, because they thought it far beyond the capacities of any mere boy. But the fact was proved, and Bryant’s reputation was established. “No one else,” Armstrong concludes, “has ever shown more beautifully and clearly that death is natural—a part of God’s plan—and hence is not to be feared.”
And indeed the final lines of Bryant’s poem are calm, resolute, and manly:
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
That last image, of a man lying down to rest, pulling the covers over his shoulder—quiet, simple, what anyone would do—is worthy of immortal memory. Tennyson himself could not have written better.
I shouldn’t give the impression that the book is filled with religious poetry. It is filled with great literature, of all kinds. Julius Caesar is there. So is Edward Everett Hale’s justly esteemed story of patriotism, “The Man Without a Country.” Byron is there, and Hugo on friendship among nations, and Ruskin on good books. There’s an excerpt from James Blaine’s eulogy upon the death of President Garfield, along with other works inspired by the Civil War, in a spirit of mutual forgiveness. Hawthorne’s story “The Great Stone Face” is there, and Kipling’s “Wee Willie Winkie.” The touchstones are love of country, nobility of thought, magnanimity, and piety.
So we have James Russell Lowell’s “The Vision of Sir Launfal,” a once proud knight who went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to behold the Holy Grail. Launfal never saw that chalice, but he did, against his inclinations, give bread and wine to a leper; and later, feeling that his quest had failed, he saw that same poor man “shining and tall and fair and straight.” He speaks to the knight:
“Lo, it is I, be not afraid!
In many climes, without avail,
Thou hast spent thy life for the Holy Grail;
Behold, it is here, —the cup which thou
Didst fill at the streamlet for me now;
This crust is My body broken for thee,
This water His blood that died on the tree;
The Holy Supper is kept, indeed,
In whatso we share with another’s need:
Not what we give, but what we share,—
For the gift without the giver is bare;
Who gives himself with his alms feeds three,—
Himself, his hungering neighbor, and Me.”
Sentimental? Or rather a just and keen observation, that, as Max Scheler says, what we really want is not that there should simply be more food in the world, but more love in the world, a giver and a gift, rather than just a commodity?
Why am I discussing this eloquent old book? It is because of the particular audience to which this wise and amiable man was writing. They must have been open to mature judgment, to read, apropos of a satire by Joseph Addison, that “each man can bear his own burden better than he could that of his neighbors; that imagination is at the bottom of many of our troubles; and that we are more anxious to be rid of physical deformities than of deformities of the mind and heart.” Who were they?
I picked up this book at a junk shop. There’s a note folded in it. It is a handwritten invitation: “Dear Mrs. Montgomery: You are cordially invited to attend an exhibit given by the 8a class of 1926 June 18, from 10:30 to 12:00 o’clock, Room 8 of the Ynez School.” It’s no accident, that note. On the inside of the front cover, two girls, evidently sisters, have written their names: Virginia Montgomery, Ynez School, Grade 8B, and Marjorie M. Montgomery, Ynez School, 8th grade, 13 years. There’s also the mark of an inked stamp:
Department of Public Education
County of Los Angeles
State of California
Alhambra City School District
Did a pious schoolbook somehow sneak its way past the constitutional censors? Hardly.
It’s why I call this a Message from Another World. This book is the Eighth Year Literature Reader. It is eighth, that is, in the California State Series. Its frontispiece reads, in capital letters, “Approved by the State Board of Education.” Indeed, Mr. Armstrong was the editor of several other literature books in the same series. The copyright date is 1917. The holder of the copyright? “The People of the State of California.”
That was then.
We could come up with a list of reasons why that book could not now be published. We could note that there are no vampires in it, or vampire killers, or sentimental sodomites, or adolescent participants in murder games, or witches, or teenage rebels against a rule-bound dystopia, or the political platitudes of a Preferred Victim, or sound scientific advice on how to dabble in squalor without catching the clap. All of that might be true, but it is beside the point. The main reason why that book could not now be published is that there is no one who could write it and no one who would read it. We need not wait for our cultural high priests to declare it anathema. Not now, anyway.
Of course it is complete nonsense to suppose that millions of well-read and civic-minded people, for over a hundred years, were all idiots, and idiots in the same way; that the sensus civium was quite mad, and that such textbooks as these could afterwards be drummed out of the schools by a law that the fathers of those citizens had written, and that those citizens themselves had honored, and that had seemed clear to everyone. But the damage has been done, and the Deconstitution has deconstituted us, teaching even the best of us to be embarrassed by piety, honor, purity, and faith. We hide our lamps under a bushel, because we have been taught to believe that that is where lamps belong. Our blasphemies are raucously public. Only our prayers are private.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “A Country School” was painted by Henry Edward Lamson (circa 1890).