Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Don Quixote, the Ideal of Knighthood
By Henry Giles (18091882)
[Born in County Wexford, Ireland, 1809. Died at Hyde Park, Mass., 1882. From Illustrations of Genius. 1854.]
APPRECIATED in his entireness, the knight is a glorious inhabitant of the imagination world. He appears everywhere in fine relations to humanity. In his worst mistakes he is lovable; and there is much more in him of what is admirable than of what is laughable. He is kind in his home, and in his neighborhood he is respected. With men he is frank and brave; with women he is refined and more than courteous. Of high bearing and of jealous dignity, he does not shun the humble; and, though no abuser of the rich, if a side is to be taken, he takes it with the poor. Filled with thoughts which, though out of season and out of place, are yet as sublime as they are benevolent, he lives always in sight of good intentions: he is delighted in the joy of all around him; it gives him pleasure to promote and to increase it; he designs to exalt his friends; he designs to bless the world; and if, while walking in this trance of generous visions, he comes into rude collision with stern actuality,if in this collision he gets wounded and bruised,he does not complain or whine, but is as cheerful as he is patient. He is innocent of heart; pure in his thoughts; in principles, of invincible integrity; in actions, of stainless honesty and honor; in speech, of virgin delicacy and of gracious elegance. Don Quixote really never falls in our respect. He is never degraded by his mischances. He is always elevated, and elevated in spite of the most ridiculous situations. He does not for a moment forget his personal dignity; for in his most infatuated actions there is a spirit of grandeur. Look, for example, at the nobleness of his ideas on his supposed vocation. Knight errantry, he contends, is equal to poetry, and something beyond it. It is a science, also, which comprehends all or most of the other sciences. The knight must be learned in the law, experienced in distributive and commutative justice, to assign each man his own. He must be conversant with divinity, to explain clearly and distinctly the Christian faith which he professes. He must be skilled in medicine, that he may know diseases and how to cure them. He must be an astronomer, that he may be able always to ascertain time and place by looking at the stars. He must be adorned with all the theological and cardinal virtues; he must have faith in God; he must be constant in love; he must be chaste in his thoughts, modest in his words, liberal in good works, valiant in exploits, patient in toils, charitable to the needy; and steadfastly he must adhere to truth, even at the expense of life. The poor knight, he again observes, can only manifest his rank by his virtues. He must be well bred, courteous, kind, and obliging; not proud, not arrogant, no murmurer; above all, he must be charitable. Since, my Sancho, he exclaims, in another place, we seek a Christian reward, let our works be conformable to the religion we profess. In slaying giants, we must destroy pride and arrogance; we must vanquish envy by generosity; wrath, by a serene and humble spirit; gluttony and sloth, by temperance and vigilance; licentiousness, by chastity; and indolence, by traversing the world in search of every honorable opportunity of renown. Cervantes has, in spirit, made his hero according to the standard which his hero here applies to knighthood. Richly endowed in moral qualities, he is not less richly endowed intellectually. He is a man of culture. He is also a man of geniusof genius with all its intensities and sympathies. His faculties are not balanced, but they are uncommon; and, when not disturbed by his disorder, they exhibit every sort of mental power. His memory is quick and retentive; his imagination strong, brilliant, and graceful; his intellect active and acute. His genius has an eloquence that does it justice in perfect speechspeech that answers to every play of emotion and to every mood of thought: that is, grave for deliberate wisdom, musical for poetic fancy, simple for easy talk, gathering force as needed from gentleness to vehemence; it rises as the sentiment rises, from familiar aphorism to lofty declaration. Thus it singularly happens, that, while Cervantes was scourging fictitious errants out of the world, he was presenting an ideal of the truest knighthood that has ever been in it; indeed, that must always be in it, until manly principles and disinterested affections cease to have existence. Such knighthood must last and live while minds of high design and hearts of wise embrace last and live. No weapon of ridicule can harm it; the sharpest arrows of the most burning wit are shivered and quenched against its panoply of virtue .
Comparing the emotions that I have now with those which Don Quixote had once excited, I am made aware that years have been doing their work upon my mind. In youth we revel in the mirth of this story; we laugh at the exploits of the knight; we laugh at the misfortunes of the squire; we have no reverence for the chivalrous but bare-boned imitation of Beltenebros; the famous recoverer of Mambrinos helmet; we extend no pity to the corpulent embodiment of proverbs that rises beside him; we enjoy with all our hearts the capers which the merry lodgers of the inn compel him to perform in the air without aid of tight-rope or slack-rope; his flounderings are to us most exhilarating fun; and, in imagination, we ourselves take hold upon the blanket. But, when time has taught us more sober lessons,when we learn that we too have dreamed, that we too have had our bufferings and blanketings,we think differently. When we learn that we likewise have often put the shapings of fancy for the substance of truth, the coinage of the brain for the creation of reality, the vision in the wish for the fulfilment in the fact, laughter is changed into reflection and musing takes the place of gayety. There is hidden meaning in these wondrous imaginings of Cervantes; and experience, after many days, does not fail to show it. We have gleanings from them of lifes purpose. We are here to do, and not to dream; we are here to endure as much as to enjoy; and, through doing and endurance, to growto grow in all that elevates the soul, in all that crowns it with genuine dignity, in all that clothes it at the same time with honor and humility, in all that renders it more gentle as it becomes more commanding. In the same manner we have gleamings of lifes nature. Life is not all meditation; it is not all business; it is not all in the ideal; it is not all in the actual; and that life is best in which these several elements are best united. The ideal separate from the actual becomes mysticism or extravagance; the actual separate from the ideal degenerates into the sensual or into the sordid. It is in the proportioned combination of the ideal with the actual that life is highest; it is in this proportioned combination that life presents the finest union of enthusiasm and reflection, the finest harmony of beauty and of power.