Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
The Reading of Nature’s Enigma
By Hugh Miller (1802–1856)
From Testimony of the Rocks

THE READINGS already given, the conclusions already deduced, are as various as the hopes and fears, the habits of thought, and the cast of intellect, of the several interpreters who have set themselves—some, alas! with but little preparation and very imperfect knowledge—to declare in their order the details of this marvellous dream-like vision, and, with the dream, the “interpretation thereof.” One class of interpreters may well remind us of the dim-eyed old man—the genius of unbelief so poetically described by Coleridge—who, sitting in his cold and dreary cave, “talked much and vehemently concerning an infinite series of causes and effects, which he explained to be a string of blind men, the last of whom caught hold of the skirt of the one before him, he of the next, and so on, till they were all out of sight, and that they all walked infallibly straight, without making one false step, though they were all alike blind.” With these I must class those assertors of the development hypothesis who can see in the upward progress of being only the operation of an incomprehending and incomprehensible law, through which, in the course of unreckoned ages, the lower tribes and families have risen into the higher, and inferior into superior natures, and in virtue of which, in short, the animal creation has grown, in at least its nobler specimens, rather unwittingly, without thought or care on its own part, and without intelligence on the part of the operating law, from irrational to rational, and risen in the scale from the mere promptings of instinct to the highest exercise of reason,—from apes and baboons to Bacons and Newtons. The blind lead the blind;—the unseeing law operates on the unperceiving creatures; and they go, not together into the ditch, but direct onwards, straight as an arrow, and higher and higher at every step.
  Another class look with profound melancholy on that great city of the dead,—the burial-place of all that ever lived in the past,—which occupies with its ever-extending pavements of gravestones, and its ever-lengthening streets of tombs and sepulchres, every region opened up by the geologist. They see the onward procession of being as if but tipped with life, and nought but inanimate carcasses all behind,—dead individuals, dead species, dead genera, dead creations,—a universe of death; and ask whether the same annihilation which overtook in turn all the races of all the past, shall not one day overtake our own race also, and a time come when men and their works shall have no existence save stone-pervaded fossils locked up in the rock for ever. Nowhere do we find the doubts and fears of this class more admirably portrayed than in the words of perhaps the most thoughtful and suggestive of living poets:—

Are God and Nature then at strife,
    That Nature lends such evil dreams?
    So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;
*        *        *        *        *
“So careful of the type?” but no,
    From scarped cliff and quarried stone
    She cries, “A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.
“Thou makest thine appeal to me:
    I bring to life, I bring to death:
    The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.” And he, shall he,
Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
    Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
    Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,
Who trusted God was love indeed,
    And love Creation’s final law—
    Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—
Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
    Who battled for the True, the Just,
    Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?
No more? A monster then, a dream,
    A discord. Dragons of the prime,
    That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music matched with him.
O life as futile, then, as frail!
    O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
    What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.
  The sagacity of the poet here—that strange sagacity which seems so nearly akin to the prophetic spirit—suggests in this noble passage the true reading of the enigma. The appearance of man upon the scene of being constitutes a new era in creation; the operations of a new instinct come into play—that instinct which anticipates a life after the grave, and reposes in implicit faith upon a God alike just and good, who is the pledged “rewarder of all who diligently seek Him.” And in looking along the long line of being—ever rising in the scale from higher to yet higher manifestations, or abroad on the lower animals, whom instinct never deceives—can we hold that man, immeasurably higher in his place, and infinitely higher in his hopes and aspirations, than all that ever went before him, should be, notwithstanding, the one grand error in creation,—the one painful worker, in the midst of present trouble, for a state into which he is never to enter,—the befooled expectant of a happy future, which he is never to see? Assuredly no. He who keeps faith with all His humbler creatures—who gives to even the bee and the dormouse the winter for which they prepare—will to a certainty not break faith with man,—with man, alike the deputed lord of the present creation, and the chosen heir of all the future. We have been looking abroad on the old geologic burying-grounds, and deciphering the strange inscriptions on their tombs; but there are other burying-grounds, and other tombs—solitary churchyards among the hills, where the dust of the martyrs lie, and tombs that rise over the ashes of the wise and good; nor are there awanting, on even the monuments of the perished races, frequent hieroglyphics and symbols of high meaning, which darkly intimate to us that, while their burial-yards contain but the debris of the past, we are to regard the others as charged with the sown seed of the future.  3

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