The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (Holmes, 1858)/Chapter VII
[This particular record is noteworthy principally for containing a paper by my friend, the Professor, with a poem or two annexed or intercalated. I would suggest to young persons that they should pass over it for the present, and read, instead of it, that story about the young man who was in love with the young lady, and in great trouble for something like nine pages, but happily married on the tenth page or thereabouts, which, I take it for granted, will be contained in the periodical where this is found, unless it differ from all other publications of the kind. Perhaps, if such young people will lay the number aside, and take it up ten years, or a little more, from the present time, they may find something in it for their advantage. They can’t possibly understand it all now.]
My friend, the Professor, began talking with me one day in a dreary sort of way. I couldn’t get at the difficulty for a good while, but at last it turned out that somebody had been calling him an old man. - He didn’t mind his students calling him the old man, he said. That was a technical expression, and he thought that he remembered hearing it applied to himself when he was about twenty-five. It may be considered as a familiar and sometimes endearing appellation. An Irishwoman calls her husband “the old man,” and he returns the caressing expression by speaking of her as “the old woman.” But now, said he, just suppose a case like one of these. A young stranger is overheard talking of you as a very nice old gentleman. A friendly and genial critic speaks of your green old age as illustrating the truth of some axiom you had uttered with reference to that period of life. What I call an old man is a person with a smooth, shining crown and a fringe of scattered white hairs, seen in the streets on sunshiny days, stooping as he walks, bearing a cane, moving cautiously and slowly; telling old stories, smiling at present follies, living in a narrow world of dry habits; one that remains waking when others have dropped asleep, and keeps a little night-lamp-flame of life burning year after year, if the lamp is not upset, and there is only a careful hand held round it to prevent the puffs of wind from blowing the flame out. That’s what I call an old man.
Now, said the Professor, you don’t mean to tell me that I have got to that yet? Why, bless you, I am several years short of the time when - [I knew what was coming, and could hardly keep from laughing; twenty years ago he used to quote it as one of those absurd speeches men of genius will make, and now he is going to argue from it] - several years short of the time when Balzac says that men are - most - you know - dangerous to - the hearts of - in short, most to be dreaded by duennas that have charge of susceptible females. - What age is that? said I, statistically. - Fifty-two years, answered the Professor. - Balzac ought to know, said I, if it is true that Goethe said of him that each of his stories must have been dug out of a woman’s heart. But fifty-two is a high figure.
Stand in the light of the window, Professor, said I. - The Professor took up the desired position. - You have white hairs, I said. - Had ’em any time these twenty years, said the Professor. - And the crow’s-foot, - pes anserinus, rather. - The Professor smiled, as I wanted him to, and the folds radiated like the ridges of a half-opened fan, from the outer corner of the eyes to the temples. - And the calipers said I. - What are the calipers? he asked, curiously. - Why, the parenthesis, said I. - Parenthesis? said the Professor; what’s that? - Why, look in the glass when you are disposed to laugh, and see if your mouth isn’t framed in a couple of crescent lines, - so, my boy ( ). - It’s all nonsense, said the Professor; just look at my biceps; - and he began pulling off his coat to show me his arm. Be careful, said I; you can’t bear exposure to the air, at your time of life, as you could once. - I will box with you, said the Professor, row with you, walk with you, ride with you, swim with you, or sit at table with you, for fifty dollars a side. - Pluck survives stamina, I answered.
The Professor went off a little out of humor. A few weeks afterwards he came in, looking very good-natured, and brought me a paper, which I have here, and from which I shall read you some portions, if you don’t object. He had been thinking the matter over, he said, - had read Cicero “De Senectute,” and made up his mind to meet old age half way. These were some of his reflections that he had written down; so here you have.
THE PROFESSOR’S PAPER.
There is no doubt when old age begins. The human body is a furnace which keeps in blast three-score years and ten, more or less. It burns about three hundred pounds of carbon a year, (besides other fuel,) when in fair working order, according to a great chemist’s estimate. When the fire slackens, life declines; when it goes out, we are dead.
It has been shown by some noted French experimenters, that the amount of combustion increases up to about the thirtieth year, remains stationary to about forty-five, and then diminishes. This last is the point where old age starts from. The great fact of physical life is the perpetual commerce with the elements, and the fire is the measure of it.
About this time of life, if food is plenty where you live, - for that, you know, regulates matrimony, - you may be expecting to find yourself a grandfather some fine morning; a kind of domestic felicity that gives one a cool shiver of delight to think of, as among the not remotely possible events.
I don’t mind much those slipshod lines Dr. Johnson wrote to Thrale, telling her about life’s declining from thirty-five; the furnace is in full blast for ten years longer, as I have said. The Romans came very near the mark; their age of enlistment reached from seventeen to forty-six years.
What is the use of fighting against the seasons, or the tides, or the movements of the planetary bodies, or this ebb in the wave of life that flows through us? We are old fellows from the moment the fire begins to go out. Let us always behave like gentlemen when we are introduced to new acquaintance.
Incipit Allegoria Senectutis.
Old Age, this is Mr. Professor; Mr. Professor, this is Old Age.
Old Age. - Mr. Professor, I hope to see you well. I have known you for some time, though I think you did not know me. Shall we walk down the street together?
Professor (drawing back a little). - We can talk more quietly, perhaps, in my study. Will you tell me how it is you seem to be acquainted with everybody you are introduced to, though he evidently considers you an entire stranger?
Old Age. - I make it a rule never to force myself upon a person’s recognition until I have known him at least five years.
Professor. - Do you mean to say that you have known me so long as that?
Old Age. I do. I left my card on you longer ago than that, but I am afraid you never read it; yet I see you have it with you.
Professor. - Where?
Old Age. - There, between your eyebrows, - three straight lines running up and down; all the probate courts know that token, - “Old Age, his mark.” Put your forefinger on the inner end of one eyebrow, and your middle finger on the inner end of the other eyebrow; now separate the fingers, and you will smooth out my sign-manual; that’s the way you used to look before I left my card on you.
Professor. - What message do people generally send back when you first call on them?
Old Age. - Not at home. Then I leave a card and go. Next year I call; get the same answer; leave another card. So for five or six, - sometimes ten years or more. At last, if they don’t let me in, I break in through the front door or the windows.
We talked together in this way some time. Then Old Age said again, - Come, let us walk down the street together, - and offered me a cane, an eyeglass, a tippet, and a pair of over-shoes. - No, much obliged to you, said I. I don’t want those things, and I had a little rather talk with you here, privately, in my study. So I dressed myself up in a jaunty way and walked out alone; - got a fall, caught a cold, was laid up with a lumbago, and had time to think over this whole matter.
Explicit Allegoria Senectutis.
We have settled when old age begins. Like all Nature’s processes, it is gentle and gradual in its approaches, strewed with illusions, and all its little griefs soothed by natural sedatives. But the iron hand is not less irresistible because it wears the velvet glove. The button-wood throws off its bark in large flakes, which one may find lying at its foot, pushed out, and at last pushed off, by that tranquil movement from beneath, which is too slow to be seen, but too powerful to be arrested. One finds them always, but one rarely sees them fall. So it is our youth drops from us, - scales off, sapless and lifeless, and lays bare the tender and immature fresh growth of old age. Looked at collectively, the changes of old age appear as a series of personal insults and indignities, terminating at last in death, which Sir Thomas Browne has called “the very disgrace and ignominy of our nature.”
My lady’s cheek can boast no more The cranberry white and pink it wore; And where her shining locks divide, The parting line is all too wide -
No, no, - this will never do. Talk about men, if you will, but spare the poor women.
We have a brief description of seven stages of life by a remarkably good observer. It is very presumptuous to attempt to add to it, yet I have been struck with the fact that life admits of a natural analysis into no less than fifteen distinct periods. Taking the five primary divisions, infancy, childhood, youth, manhood, old age, each of these has its own three periods of immaturity, complete development, and decline. I recognize on old baby at once, - with its “pipe and mug,” (a stick of candy and a porringer,) - so does everybody; and an old child shedding its milk-teeth is only a little prototype of the old man shedding his permanent ones. Fifty or thereabouts is only the childhood, as it were, of old age; the graybeard youngster must be weaned from his late suppers now. So you will see that you have to make fifteen stages at any rate, and that it would not be hard to make twenty-five; five primary, each with five secondary divisions.
The infancy and childhood of commencing old age have the same ingenuous simplicity and delightful unconsciousness about them as the first stage of the earlier periods of life shows. The great delusion of mankind is in supposing that to be individual and exceptional which is universal and according to law. A person is always startled when he hears himself seriously called an old man for the first time.
Nature gets us out of youth into manhood, as sailors are hurried on board of vessels, - in a state of intoxication. We are hustled into maturity reeling with our passions and imaginations, and we have drifted far away from port before we awake out of our illusions. But to carry us out of maturity into old age, without our knowing where we are going, she drugs us with strong opiates, and so we stagger along with wide open eyes that see nothing until snow enough has fallen on our heads to rouse our comatose brains out of their stupid trances.
There is one mark of age that strikes me more than any of the physical ones; - I mean the formation of Habits. An old man who shrinks into himself falls into ways that become as positive and as much beyond the reach of outside influences as if they were governed by clock-work. The animal functions, as the physiologists call them, in distinction from the organic, tend, in the process of deterioration to which age and neglect united gradually lead them, to assume the periodical or rhythmical type of movement. Every man’s heart (this organ belongs, you know, to the organic system) has a regular mode of action; but I know a great many men whose brains, and all their voluntary existence flowing from their brains, have a systole and diastole as regular as that of the heart itself. Habit is the approximation of the animal system to the organic. It is a confession of failure in the highest function of being, which involves a perpetual self-determination, in full view of all existing circumstances. But habit, you see, is an action in present circumstances from past motives. It is substituting a vis a tergo for the evolution of living force.
When a man, instead of burning up three hundred pounds of carbon a year, has got down to two hundred and fifty, it is plain enough he must economize force somewhere. Now habit is a labor-saving invention which enables a man to get along with less fuel, - that is all; for fuel is force, you know, just as much in the page I am writing for you as in the locomotive or the legs that carry it to you. Carbon is the same thing, whether you call it wood, or coal, or bread and cheese. A reverend gentleman demurred to this statement, - as if, because combustion is asserted to be the sine qua non of thought, therefore thought is alleged to be a purely chemical process. Facts of chemistry are one thing, I told him, and facts of consciousness another. It can be proved to him, by a very simple analysis of some of his spare elements, that every Sunday, when he does his duty faithfully, he uses up more phosphorus out of his brain and nerves than on ordinary days. But then he had his choice whether to do his duty, or to neglect it, and save his phosphorus and other combustibles.
It follows from all this that the formation of habits ought naturally to be, as it is, the special characteristic of age. As for the muscular powers, they pass their maximum long before the time when the true decline of life begins, if we may judge by the experience of the ring. A man is “stale,” I think, in their language, soon after thirty, - often, no doubt, much earlier, as gentlemen of the pugilistic profession are exceedingly apt to keep their vital fire burning with the blower up.
- So far without Tully. But in the mean time I have been reading the treatise, “De Senectute.” It is not long, but a leisurely performance. The old gentleman was sixty-three years of age when he addressed it to his friend T. Pomponius Atticus, Eq., a person of distinction, some two or three years older. We read it when we are schoolboys, forget all about it for thirty years, and then take it up again by a natural instinct, - provided always that we read Latin as we drink water, without stopping to taste it, as all of us who ever learned it at school or college ought to do.
Cato is the chief speaker in the dialogue. A good deal of it is what would be called in vulgar phrase “slow.” It unpacks and unfolds incidental illustrations which a modern writer would look at the back of, and toss each to its pigeon-hole. I think ancient classics and ancient people are alike in the tendency to this kind of expansion.
An old doctor came to me once (this is literal fact) with some contrivance or other for people with broken kneepans. As the patient would be confined for a good while, he might find it dull work to sit with his hands in his lap. Reading, the ingenious inventor suggested, would be an agreeable mode of passing the time. He mentioned, in his written account of his contrivance, various works that might amuse the weary hour. I remember only three, - Don Quixote, Tom Jones, and Watts on the Mind.
It is not generally understood that Cicero’s essay was delivered as a lyceum lecture, (concio popularis,) at the Temple of Mercury. The journals (papyri) of the day (“Tempora Quotidiana,” - “Tribuinus Quirinalis,” - “Praeco Romanus,” and the rest) gave abstracts of it, one of which I have translated and modernized, as being a substitute for the analysis I intended to make.
IV. Kal. Mart. . . . .
The lecture at the Temple of Mercury, last evening, was well attended by the élite of our great city. Two hundred thousand sestertia were thought to have been represented in the house. The doors were besieged by a mob of shabby fellows, (illotum vulgus,) who were at length quieted after two or three had been somewhat roughly handled (gladio jugulati). The speaker was the well-known Mark Tully, Eq., - the subject Old Age. Mr. T. has a lean and scraggy person, with a very unpleasant excrescence upon his nasal feature, from which his nickname of chick-pea (Cicero) is said by some to be derived. As a lecturer is public property, we may remark, that his outer garment (toga) was of cheap stuff and somewhat worn, and that his general style and appearance of dress and manner (habitus, vestitusque) were somewhat provincial.
The lecture consisted of an imaginary dialogue between Cato and Laelius. We found the first portion rather heavy, and retired a few moments for refreshment (pocula quaedam vini). - All want to reach old age, says Cato, and grumble when they get it; therefore they are donkeys. - The lecturer will allow us to say that he is the donkey; we know we shall grumble at old age, but we want to live through youth and manhood, in spite of the troubles we shall groan over. - There was considerable prosing as to what old age can do and can’t. - True, but not new. Certainly, old folks can’t jump, - break the necks of their thigh-bones, (femorum cervices,) if they do; can’t crack nuts with their teeth; can’t climb a greased pole (malum inunctum scandere non possunt); but they can tell old stories and give you good advice; if they know what you have made up your mind to do when you ask them. - All this is well enough, but won’t set the Tiber on fire (Tiberim accendere nequaquam potest.)
There were some clever things enough, (dicta hand inepta,) a few of which are worth reporting. - Old people are accused of being forgetful; but they never forget where they have put their money. - Nobody is so old he doesn’t think he can live a year. - The lecturer quoted an ancient maxim, - Grow old early, if you would be old long, - but disputed it. - Authority, he thought, was the chief privilege of age. - It is not great to have money, but fine to govern those that have it. - Old age begins at forty-six years, according to the common opinion. - It is not every kind of old age or of wine that grows sour with time. - Some excellent remarks were made on immortality, but mainly borrowed from and credited to Plato. - Several pleasing anecdotes were told. - Old Milo, champion of the heavy weights in his day, looked at his arms and whimpered, “They are dead.” Not so dead as you, you old fool, - says Cato; - you never were good for anything but for your shoulders and flanks. - Pisistratus asked Solon what made him dare to be so obstinate. Old age, said Solon.
The lecture was on the whole acceptable, and a credit to our culture and civilization. - The reporter goes on to state that there will be no lecture next week, on account of the expected combat between the bear and the barbarian. Betting (sponsio) two to one (duo ad unum) on the bear.
- After all, the most encouraging things I find in the treatise, “De Senectute,” are the stories of men who have found new occupations when growing old, or kept up their common pursuits in the extreme period of life. Cato learned Greek when he was old, and speaks of wishing to learn the fiddle, or some such instrument, (fidibus,) after the example of Socrates. Solon learned something new, every day, in his old age, as he gloried to proclaim. Cyrus pointed out with pride and pleasure the trees he had planted with his own hand. [I remember a pillar on the Duke of Northumberland’s estate at Alnwick, with an inscription in similar words, if not the same. That, like other country pleasures, never wears out. None is too rich, none too poor, none too young, none too old to enjoy it.] There is a New England story I have heard more to the point, however, than any of Cicero’s. A young farmer was urged to set out some apple-trees. - No, said he, they are too long growing, and I don’t want to plant for other people. The young farmer’s father was spoken to about it, but he, with better reason, alleged that apple-trees were slow and life was fleeting. At last some one mentioned it to the old grandfather of the young farmer. He had nothing else to do, - so he stuck in some trees. He lived long enough to drink barrels of cider made from the apples that grew on those trees.
As for myself, after visiting a friend lately, - [Do remember all the time that this is the Professor’s paper.] - I satisfied myself that I had better concede the fact that - my contemporaries are not so young as they have been, - and that, - awkward as it is, - science and history agree in telling me that I can claim the immunities and must own the humiliations of the early stage of senility. Ah! but we have all gone down the hill together. The dandies of my time have split their waistbands and taken to high-low shoes. The beauties of my recollections - where are they? They have run the gantlet of the years as well as I. First the years pelted them with red roses till their cheeks were all on fire. By and by they began throwing white roses, and that morning flush passed away. At last one of the years threw a snow-ball, and after that no year let the poor girls pass without throwing snow-balls. And then came rougher missiles, - ice and stones; and from time to time an arrow whistled, and down went one of the poor girls. So there are but few left; and we don’t call those few girls, but -
Ah, me! Here am I groaning just as the old Greek sighed Aï, aï! and the old Roman, Eheu! I have no doubt we should die of shame and grief at the indignities offered us by age, if it were not that we see so many others as badly or worse off than ourselves. We always compare ourselves with our contemporaries.
[I was interrupted in my reading just here. Before I began at the next breakfast, I read them these verses; - I hope you will like them, and get a useful lesson from them.]
THE LAST BLOSSOM.
Though young no more, we still would dream
Of beauty’s dear deluding wiles;
The leagues of life to graybeards seem
Shorter than boyhood’s lingering miles.
Who knows a woman’s wild caprice?
It played with Goethe’s silvered hair,
And many a Holy Father’s “niece”
Has softly smoothed the papal chair.
When sixty bids us sigh in vain
To melt the heart of sweet sixteen,
We think upon those ladies twain
Who loved so well the tough old Dean.
We see the Patriarch’s wintry face,
The maid of Egypt’s dusky glow,
And dream that Youth and Age embrace,
As April violets fill with snow.
Tranced in her Lord’s Olympian smile
His lotus-loving Memphian lies, -
The musky daughter of the Nile
With plaited hair and almond eyes.
Might we but share one wild caress
Ere life’s autumnal blossoms fall,
And Earth’s brown, clinging lips impress
The long cold kiss that waits us all!
My bosom heaves, remembering yet
The morning of that blissful day
When Rose, the flower of spring, I met,
And gave my raptured soul away.
Flung from her eyes of purest blue,
A lasso, with its leaping chain
Light as a loop of larkspurs, flew
O’er sense and spirit, heart and brain.
Thou com’st to cheer my waning age,
Sweet vision, waited for so long!
Dove that would seek the poet’s cage
Lured by the magic breath of song!
She blushes! Ah, reluctant maid,
Love’s drapeau rouge the truth has told!
O’er girlhood’s yielding barricade
Floats the great Leveller’s crimson fold!
Come to my arms! - love heeds not years
No frost the bud of passion knows. -
Ha! what is this my frenzy hears?
A voice behind me uttered, - Rose!
Sweet was her smile, - but not for me;
Alas, when woman looks too kind,
Just turn your foolish head and see, -
Some youth is walking close behind!
As to giving up because the almanac or the Family-Bible says that it is about time to do it, I have no intention of doing any such thing. I grant you that I burn less carbon than some years ago. I see people of my standing really good for nothing, decrepit, effete, la lèvre inférieure déjà pendante, with what little life they have left mainly concentrated in their epigastrium. But as the disease of old age is epidemic, endemic, and sporadic, and everybody that lives long enough is sure to catch it, I am going to say, for the encouragement of such as need it, how I treat the malady in my own case.
First. As I feel, that, when I have anything to do, there is less time for it than when I was younger, I find that I give my attention more thoroughly, and use my time more economically than ever before; so that I can learn anything twice as easily as in my earlier days. I am not, therefore, afraid to attack a new study. I took up a difficult language a very few years ago with good success, and think of mathematics and metaphysics by-and-by.
Secondly. I have opened my eyes to a good many neglected privileges and pleasures within my reach, and requiring only a little courage to enjoy them. You may well suppose it pleased me to find that old Cato was thinking of learning to play the fiddle, when I had deliberately taken it up in my old age, and satisfied myself that I could get much comfort, if not much music, out of it.
Thirdly. I have found that some of those active exercises, which are commonly thought to belong to young folks only, may be enjoyed at a much later period.
A young friend has lately written an admirable article in one of the journals, entitled, “Saints and their Bodies.” Approving of his general doctrines, and grateful for his records of personal experience, I cannot refuse to add my own experimental confirmation of his eulogy of one particular form of active exercise and amusement, namely, boating. For the past nine years, I have rowed about, during a good part of the summer, on fresh or salt water. My present fleet on the river Charles consists of three row-boats. 1. A small flat-bottomed skiff of the shape of a flat-iron, kept mainly to lend to boys. 2. A fancy “dory” for two pairs of sculls, in which I sometimes go out with my young folks. 3. My own particular water-sulky, a “skeleton” or “shell” race-boat, twenty-two feet long, with huge outriggers, which boat I pull with ten-foot sculls, - alone, of course, as it holds but one, and tips him out, if he doesn’t mind what he is about. In this I glide around the Back Bay, down the stream, up the Charles to Cambridge and Watertown, up the Mystic, round the wharves, in the wake of steamboats which leave a swell after them delightful to rock upon; I linger under the bridges, - those “caterpillar bridges,” as my brother professor so happily called them; rub against the black sides of old wood-schooners; cool down under the overhanging stern of some tall Indiaman; stretch across to the Navy-Yard, where the sentinel warns me off from the Ohio, - just as if I should hurt her by lying in her shadow; then strike out into the harbor, where the water gets clear and the air smells of the ocean, - till all at once I remember, that, if a west wind blows up of a sudden, I shall drift along past the islands, out of sight of the dear old State-house, - plate, tumbler, knife and fork all waiting at home, but no chair drawn up at the table, - all the dear people waiting, waiting, waiting, while the boat is sliding, sliding, sliding into the great desert, where there is no tree and no fountain. As I don’t want my wreck to be washed up on one of the beaches in company with devil’s-aprons, bladder-weeds, dead horse-shoes, and bleached crab-shells, I turn about and flap my long narrow wings for home. When the tide is running out swiftly, I have a splendid fight to get through the bridges, but always make it a rule to beat, - though I have been jammed up into pretty tight places at times, and was caught once between a vessel swinging round and the pier, until our bones (the boat’s, that is) cracked as if we had been in the jaws of Behemoth. Then back to my moorings at the foot of the Common, off with the rowing-dress, dash under the green translucent wave, return to the garb of civilization, walk through my Garden, take a look at my elms on the Common, and, reaching my habitat, in consideration of my advanced period of life, indulge in the Elysian abandonment of a huge recumbent chair.
When I have established a pair of well-pronounced feathering-calluses on my thumbs, when I am in training so that I can do my fifteen miles at a stretch without coming to grief in any way, when I can perform my mile in eight minutes or a little less, then I feel as if I had old Time’s head in chancery, and could give it to him at my leisure.
I do not deny the attraction of walking. I have bored this ancient city through and through in my daily travels, until I know it as an old inhabitant of a Cheshire knows his cheese. Why, it was I who, in the course of these rambles, discovered that remarkable avenue called Myrtle Street, stretching in one long line from east of the Reservoir to a precipitous and rudely paved cliff which looks down on the grim abode of Science, and beyond it to the far hills; a promenade so delicious in its repose, so cheerfully varied with glimpses down the northern slope into busy Cambridge Street with its iron river of the horse-railroad, and wheeled barges gliding back and forward over it, - so delightfully closing at its western extremity in sunny courts and passages where I know peace, and beauty, and virtue, and serene old age must be perpetual tenants, - so alluring to all who desire to take their daily stroll, in the words of Dr. Watts, -
“Alike unknowing and unknown,” -
that nothing but a sense of duty would have prompted me to reveal the secret of its existence. I concede, therefore, that walking is an immeasurably fine invention, of which old age ought constantly to avail itself.
Saddle-leather is in some respects even preferable to sole-leather. The principal objection to it is of a financial character. But you may be sure that Bacon and Sydenham did not recommend it for nothing. One’s hepar, or, in vulgar language, liver, - a ponderous organ, weighing some three or four pounds, - goes up and down like the dasher of a churn in the midst of the other vital arrangements, at every step of a trotting horse. The brains also are shaken up like coppers in a money-box. Riding is good, for those that are born with a silver-mounted bridle in their hand, and can ride as much and as often as they like, without thinking all the time they hear that steady grinding sound as the horse’s jaws triturate with calm lateral movement the bank-bills and promises to pay upon which it is notorious that the profligate animal in question feeds day and night.
Instead, however, of considering these kinds of exercise in this empirical way, I will devote a brief space to an examination of them in a more scientific form.
The pleasure of exercise is due first to a purely physical impression, and secondly to a sense of power in action. The first source of pleasure varies of course with our condition and the state of the surrounding circumstances; the second with the amount and kind of power, and the extent and kind of action. In all forms of active exercise there are three powers simultaneously in action, - the will, the muscles, and the intellect. Each of these predominates in different kinds of exercise. In walking, the will and muscles are so accustomed to work together and perform their task with so little expenditure of force, that the intellect is left comparatively free. The mental pleasure in walking, as such, is in the sense of power over all our moving machinery. But in riding, I have the additional pleasure of governing another will, and my muscles extend to the tips of the animal’s ears and to his four hoofs, instead of stopping at my hands and feet. Now in this extension of my volition and my physical frame into another animal, my tyrannical instincts and my desire for heroic strength are at once gratified. When the horse ceases to have a will of his own and his muscles require no special attention on your part, then you may live on horseback as Wesley did, and write sermons or take naps, as you like. But you will observe, that, in riding on horseback, you always have a feeling, that, after all, it is not you that do the work, but the animal, and this prevents the satisfaction from being complete.
Now let us look at the conditions of rowing. I won’t suppose you to be disgracing yourself in one of those miserable tubs, tugging in which is to rowing the true boat what riding a cow is to bestriding an Arab. You know the Esquimaux kayak, (if that is the name of it,) don’t you? Look at that model of one over my door. Sharp, rather? - On the contrary, it is a lubber to the one you and I must have; a Dutch fish-wife to Psyche, contrasted with what I will tell you about. - Our boat, then, is something of the shape of a pickerel, as you look down upon his back, he lying in the sunshine just where the sharp edge of the water cuts in among the lily-pads. It is a kind of a giant pod, as one may say, - tight everywhere, except in a little place in the middle, where you sit. Its length is from seven to ten yards, and as it is only from sixteen to thirty inches wide in its widest part, you understand why you want those “outriggers,” or projecting iron frames with the rowlocks in which the oars play. My rowlocks are five feet apart; double the greatest width of the boat.
Here you are, then, afloat with a body a rod and a half long, with arms, or wings, as you may choose to call them, stretching more than twenty feet from tip to tip; every volition of yours extending as perfectly into them as if your spinal cord ran down the centre strip of your boat, and the nerves of your arms tingled as far as the broad blades of your oars, - oars of spruce, balanced, leathered, and ringed under your own special direction. This, in sober earnest, is the nearest approach to flying that man has ever made or perhaps ever will make. As the hawk sails without flapping his pinions, so you drift with the tide when you will, in the most luxurious form of locomotion indulged to an embodied spirit. But if your blood wants rousing, turn round that stake in the river, which you see a mile from here; and when you come in in sixteen minutes, (if you do, for we are old boys, and not champion scullers, you remember,) then say if you begin to feel a little warmed up or not! You can row easily and gently all day, and you can row yourself blind and black in the face in ten minutes, just as you like. It has been long agreed that there is no way in which a man can accomplish so much labor with his muscles as in rowing. It is in the boat, then, that man finds the largest extension of his volitional and muscular existence; and yet he may tax both of them so slightly, in that most delicious of exercises, that he shall mentally write his sermon, or his poem, or recall the remarks he has made in company and put them in form for the public, as well as in his easy-chair.
I dare not publicly name the rare joys, the infinite delights, that intoxicate me on some sweet June morning, when the river and bay are smooth as a sheet of beryl-green silk, and I run along ripping it up with my knife-edged shell of a boat, the rent closing after me like those wounds of angels which Milton tells of, but the seam still shining for many a long rood behind me. To lie still over the Flats, where the waters are shallow, and see the crabs crawling and the sculpins gliding busily and silently beneath the boat, - to rustle in through the long harsh grass that leads up some tranquil creek, - to take shelter from the sunbeams under one of the thousand-footed bridges, and look down its interminable colonnades, crusted with green and oozy growths, studded with minute barnacles, and belted with rings of dark muscles, while overhead streams and thunders that other river whose every wave is a human soul flowing to eternity as the river below flows to the ocean, - lying there moored unseen, in loneliness so profound that the columns of Tadmor in the Desert could not seem more remote from life, - the cool breeze on one’s forehead, the stream whispering against the half-sunken pillars, - why should I tell of these things, that I should live to see my beloved haunts invaded and the waves blackened with boats as with a swarm of water-beetles? What a city of idiots we must be not to have covered this glorious bay with gondolas and wherries, as we have just learned to cover the ice in winter with skaters!
I am satisfied that such a set of black-coated, stiff-jointed, soft-muscled, paste-complexioned youth as we can boast in our Atlantic cities never before sprang from loins of Anglo-Saxon lineage. Of the females that are the mates of these males I do not here speak. I preached my sermon from the lay-pulpit on this matter a good while ago. Of course, if you heard it, you know my belief is that the total climatic influences here are getting up a number of new patterns of humanity, some of which are not an improvement on the old model. Clipper-built, sharp in the bows, long in the spars, slender to look at, and fast to go, the ship, which is the great organ of our national life of relation, is but a reproduction of the typical form which the elements impress upon its builder. All this we cannot help; but we can make the best of these influences, such as they are. We have a few good boatmen, - no good horsemen that I hear of, - I cannot speak for cricketing, - but as for any great athletic feat performed by a gentleman in these latitudes, society would drop a man who should run round the Common in five minutes. Some of our amateur fencers, single-stick players, and boxers, we have no reason to be ashamed of. Boxing is rough play, but not too rough for a hearty young fellow. Anything is better than this white-blooded degeneration to which we all tend.
I dropped into a gentlemen’s sparring exhibition only last evening. It did my heart good to see that there were a few young and youngish youths left who could take care of their own heads in case of emergency. It is a fine sight, that of a gentleman resolving himself into the primitive constituents of his humanity. Here is a delicate young man now, with an intellectual countenance, a slight figure, a sub-pallid complexion, a most unassuming deportment, a mild adolescent in fact, that any Hiram or Jonathan from between the ploughtails would of course expect to handle with perfect ease. Oh, he is taking off his gold-bowed spectacles! Ah, he is divesting himself of his cravat! Why, he is stripping off his coat! Well, here he is, sure enough, in a tight silk shirt, and with two things that look like batter puddings in the place of his fists. Now see that other fellow with another pair of batter puddings, - the big one with the broad shoulders; he will certainly knock the little man’s head off, if he strikes him. Feinting, dodging, stopping, hitting, countering, - little man’s head not off yet. You might as well try to jump upon your own shadow as to hit the little man’s intellectual features. He needn’t have taken off the gold-bowed spectacles at all. Quick, cautious, shifty, nimble, cool, he catches all the fierce lunges or gets out of their reach, till his turn comes, and then, whack goes one of the batter puddings against the big one’s ribs, and bang goes the other into the big one’s face, and, staggering, shuffling, slipping, tripping, collapsing, sprawling, down goes the big one in a miscellaneous bundle. - If my young friend, whose excellent article I have referred to, could only introduce the manly art of self-defence among the clergy, I am satisfied that we should have better sermons and an infinitely less quarrelsome church-militant. A bout with the gloves would let off the ill-nature, and cure the indigestion, which, united, have embroiled their subject in a bitter controversy. We should then often hear that a point of difference between an infallible and a heretic, instead of being vehemently discussed in a series of newspaper articles, had been settled by a friendly contest in several rounds, at the close of which the parties shook hands and appeared cordially reconciled,
But boxing you and I are too old for, I am afraid. I was for a moment tempted, by the contagion of muscular electricity last evening, to try the gloves with the Benicia Boy, who looked in as a friend to the noble art; but remembering that he had twice my weight and half my age, besides the advantage of his training, I sat still and said nothing.
There is one other delicate point I wish to speak of with reference to old age. I refer to the use of dioptric media which correct the diminished refracting power of the humors of the eye, - in other words, spectacles. I don’t use them. All I ask is a large, fair type, a strong daylight or gas-light, and one yard of focal distance, and my eyes are as good as ever. But if your eyes fail, I can tell you something encouraging. There is now living in New York State an old gentleman who, perceiving his sight to fail, immediately took to exercising it on the finest print, and in this way fairly bullied Nature out of her foolish habit of taking liberties at five-and-forty, or thereabout. And now this old gentleman performs the most extraordinary feats with his pen, showing that his eyes must be a pair of microscopes. I should be afraid to say to you how much he writes in the compass of a half-dime, - whether the Psalms or the Gospels, or the Psalms and the Gospels, I won’t be positive.
But now let rue tell you this. If the time comes when you must lay down the fiddle and the bow, because your fingers are too stiff, and drop the ten-foot sculls, because your arms are too weak, and, after dallying awhile with eye-glasses, come at last to the undisguised reality of spectacles, - if the time comes when that fire of life we spoke of has burned so low that where its flames reverberated there is only the sombre stain of regret, and where its coals glowed, only the white ashes that cover the embers of memory, - don’t let your heart grow cold, and you may carry cheerfulness and love with you into the teens of your second century, if you can last so long. As our friend, the Poet, once said, in some of those old-fashioned heroics of his which he keeps for his private reading, -
Call him not old, whose visionary brain Holds o’er the past its undivided reign. For him in vain the envious seasons roll Who bears eternal summer in his soul. If yet the minstrel’s song, the poet’s lay, Spring with her birds, or children with their play, Or maiden’s smile, or heavenly dream of art Stir the few life-drops creeping round his heart, - Turn to the record where his years are told, - Count his gray hairs, - they cannot make him old!
End of the Professor’s paper.
[The above essay was not read at one time, but in several instalments, and accompanied by various comments from different persons at the table. The company were in the main attentive, with the exception of a little somnolence on the part of the old gentleman opposite at times, and a few sly, malicious questions about the “old boys” on the part of that forward young fellow who has figured occasionally, not always to his advantage, in these reports.
On Sunday mornings, in obedience to a feeling I am not ashamed of, I have always tried to give a more appropriate character to our conversation. I have never read them my sermon yet, and I don’t know that I shall, as some of them might take my convictions as a personal indignity to themselves. But having read our company so much of the Professor’s talk about age and other subjects connected with physical life, I took the next Sunday morning to repeat to them the following poem of his, which I have had by me some time. He calls it - I suppose, for his professional friends - THE ANATOMIST’S HYMN, but I shall name it - ]
THE LIVING TEMPLE.
Not in the world of light alone,
Where God has built his blazing throne,
Nor yet alone in earth below,
With belted seas that come and go,
And endless isles of sunlit green,
Is all thy Maker’s glory seen:
Look in upon thy wondrous frame, -
Eternal wisdom still the same!
The smooth, soft air with pulse-like waves
Flows murmuring through its hidden caves
Whose streams of brightening purple rush
Fired with a new and livelier blush,
While all their burden of decay
The ebbing current steals away,
And red with Nature’s flame they start
From the warm fountains of the heart.
No rest that throbbing slave may ask,
Forever quivering o’er his task,
While far and wide a crimson jet
Leaps forth to fill the woven net
Which in unnumbered crossing tides
The flood of burning life divides,
Then kindling each decaying part
Creeps back to find the throbbing heart.
But warmed with that uchanging flame
Behold the outward moving frame,
Its living marbles jointed strong
With glistening band and silvery thong,
And linked to reason’s guiding reins
By myriad rings in trembling chains,
Each graven with the threaded zone
Which claims it as the master’s own.
See how yon beam of seeming white
Is braided out of seven-hued light,
Yet in those lucid globes no ray
By any chance shall break astray.
Hark how the rolling surge of sound,
Arches and spirals circling round,
Wakes the hushed spirit through thine ear
With music it is heaven to hear.
Then mark the cloven sphere that holds
All thought in its mysterious folds,
That feels sensation’s faintest thrill
And flashes forth the sovereign will;
Think on the stormy world that dwells
Locked in its dim and clustering cells!
The lightning gleams of power it sheds
Along its hollow glassy threads!
O Father! grant thy love divine
To make these mystic temples thine!
When wasting age and wearying strife
Have sapped the leaning walls of life,
When darkness gathers over all,
And the last tottering pillars fall,
Take the poor dust thy mercy warms
And mould it into heavenly forms!