Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
A Quakers’ Meeting
By Charles Lamb (1775–1834)
From the ‘Essays of Elia’

  STILL-BORN Silence! thou that art
Flood-gate of the deeper heart!
Offspring of a heavenly kind!
Frost o’ the mouth, and thaw o’ the mind!
Secrecy’s confidant, and he
Who makes religion mystery!
Admiration’s speaking’st tongue!
Leave, thy desert shades among,
Reverend hermits’ hallowed cells,
Where retired Devotion dwells!
With thy enthusiasms come,
Seize our tongues, and strike us dumb!

READER, wouldst thou know what true peace and quiet mean; wouldst thou find a refuge from the noises and clamors of the multitude; wouldst thou enjoy at once solitude and society; wouldst thou possess the depth of thine own spirit in stillness, without being shut out from the consolatory faces of thy species;—wouldst thou be alone and yet accompanied; solitary, yet not desolate; singular, yet not without some to keep thee in countenance; a unit in aggregate, a simple in composite;—come with me into a Quakers’ Meeting.  1
  Dost thou love silence deep as that “before the winds were made”? Go not out into the wilderness, descend not into the profundities of the earth; shut not up thy casements, nor pour wax into the little cells of thy ears, with little-faithed, self-mistrusting Ulysses. Retire with me into a Quakers’ Meeting.  2
  For a man to refrain even from good words and to hold his peace, it is commendable; but for a multitude it is great mastery.  3
  What is the stillness of the desert compared with this place? what the uncommunicating muteness of fishes? Here the goddess reigns and revels. “Boreas, and Cesias, and Argestes loud,” do not with their interconfounding uproars more augment the brawl, nor the waves of the blown Baltic with their clubbed sounds, than their opposite (Silence, her sacred self) is multiplied and rendered more intense by numbers and by sympathy. She too hath her deeps that call unto deeps. Negation itself hath a positive more and less, and closed eyes would seem to obscure the great obscurity of midnight.  4
  There are wounds which an imperfect solitude cannot heal. By imperfect I mean that which a man enjoyeth by himself. The perfect is that which he can sometimes attain in crowds, but nowhere so absolutely as in a Quakers’ Meeting. Those first hermits did certainly understand this principle when they retired into Egyptian solitudes, not singly but in shoals, to enjoy one another’s want of conversation. The Carthusian is bound to his brethren by this agreeing spirit of incommunicativeness. In secular occasions, what so pleasant as to be reading a book through a long winter evening with a friend sitting by,—say a wife,—he or she too (if that be probable) reading another, without interruption or oral communication? Can there be no sympathy without the gabble of words? Away with this inhuman, shy, single, shade-and-cavern-haunting solitariness. Give me, Master Zimmermann, a sympathetic solitude.  5
  To pace alone in the cloisters or side aisles of some cathedral time-stricken,
  “Or under hanging mountains,
Or by the fall of fountains,”
is but a vulgar luxury compared with that which those enjoy who come together for the purposes of more complete, abstracted solitude. This is the loneliness “to be felt.” The Abbey Church of Westminster hath nothing so solemn, so spirit-soothing, as the naked walls and benches of a Quakers’ Meeting. Here are no tombs, no inscriptions—
          “sands, ignoble things,
Dropt from the ruined sides of kings;”
but here is something which throws Antiquity herself into the foreground: SILENCE, eldest of things—language of old Night—primitive Discourser—to which the insolent decays of moldering grandeur have but arrived by a violent, and as we may say unnatural progression.
  “How reverend is the view of these hushed heads
Looking tranquillity!”
  Nothing-plotting, naught-caballing, unmischievous synod! convocation without intrigue! parliament without debate! what a lesson dost thou read to council and to consistory! If my pen treat of you lightly,—as haply it will wander,—yet my spirit hath gravely felt the wisdom of your custom, when, sitting among you in deepest peace, which some outwelling tears would rather confirm than disturb, I have reverted to the times of your beginnings, and the sowings of the seed by Fox and Dewesbury. I have witnessed that which brought before my eyes your heroic tranquillity, inflexible to the rude jests and serious violences of the insolent soldiery, republican or royalist, sent to molest you,—for ye sate betwixt the fires of two persecutions, the outcast and offscouring of Church and Presbytery. I have seen the reeling sea-ruffian, who had wandered into your receptacle with the avowed intention of disturbing your quiet, from the very spirit of the place receive in a moment a new heart, and presently sit among ye as a lamb amidst lambs. And I remember Penn before his accusers, and Fox in the bail-dock, where he was lifted up in spirit, as he tells us, and “the judge and the jury became as dead men under his feet.”  7
  Reader, if you are not acquainted with it, I would recommend to you above all church narratives to read Sewel’s ‘History of the Quakers.’ It is in folio, and is the abstract of the Journals of Fox and the primitive Friends. It is far more edifying and affecting than anything you will read of Wesley and his colleagues. Here is nothing to stagger you, nothing to make you mistrust; no suspicion of alloy, no drop or dreg of the worldly or ambitious spirit. You will here read the true story of that much-injured, ridiculed man (who perhaps hath been a byword in your mouth), James Naylor: what dreadful sufferings, with what patience he endured, even to the boring through of his tongue with red-hot irons, without a murmur; and with what strength of mind, when the delusion he had fallen into, which they stigmatized as blasphemy, had given way to clearer thoughts, he could renounce his error, in a strain of the beautifulest humility, yet keep his first grounds, and be a Quaker still!—so different from the practice of your common converts from enthusiasm, who, when they apostatize, apostatize all, and think they can never get far enough from the society of their former errors, even to the renunciation of some saving truths with which they had been mingled, not implicated.  8
  Get the writings of John Woolman by heart, and love the early Quakers.  9
  How far the followers of these good men in our days have kept to the primitive spirit, or in what proportion they have substituted formality for it, the Judge of Spirits can alone determine. I have seen faces in their assemblies, upon which the dove sate visibly brooding. Others again I have watched, when my thoughts should have been better engaged, in which I could possibly detect nothing but a blank inanity. But quiet was in all, and the disposition to unanimity, and the absence of the fierce controversial workings. If the spiritual pretensions of the Quakers have abated, at least they make few pretenses. Hypocrites they certainly are not in their preaching. It is seldom indeed that you shall see one get up amongst them to hold forth. Only now and then a trembling female, generally ancient, voice is heard,—you cannot guess from what part of the meeting it proceeds,—with a low buzzing musical sound laying out a few words which “she thought might suit the condition of some present,” with a quaking diffidence which leaves no possibility of supposing that anything of female vanity was mixed up where the tones were so full of tenderness and a restraining modesty. The men, for what I have observed, speak seldomer.  10
  Once only, and it was some years ago, I witnessed a sample of the old Foxian orgasm. It was a man of giant stature, who, as Wordsworth phrases it, might have danced “from head to foot equipt in iron mail.” His frame was of iron too. But he was malleable. I saw him shake all over with the spirit—I dare not say of delusion. The strivings of the outer man were unutterable: he seemed not to speak, but to be spoken from. I saw the strong man bowed down, and his knees to fail; his joints all seemed loosening: it was a figure to set off against Paul preaching. The words he uttered were few and sound: he was evidently resisting his will—keeping down his own word-wisdom with more mighty effort than the world’s orators strain for theirs. “He had been a wit in his youth,” he told us with expressions of a sober remorse. And it was not till long after the impression had begun to wear away that I was enabled, with something like a smile, to recall the striking incongruity of the confession—understanding the term in its worldly acceptation—with the frame and physiognomy of the person before me. His brow would have scared away the Levities—the Jocos Risus-que—faster than the Loves fled the face of Dis at Enna. By wit, even in his youth, I will be sworn he understood something far within the limits of an allowable liberty.  11
  More frequently the meeting is broken up without a word having been spoken. But the mind has been fed. You go away with a sermon not made with hands. You have been in the milder caverns of Trophonius, or as in some den where that fiercest and savagest of all wild creatures, the Tongue, that unruly member, has strangely lain tied up and captive. You have bathed with stillness. Oh, when the spirit is sore fretted, even tired to sickness of the janglings and nonsense-noises of the world, what a balm and a solace it is to go and seat yourself for a quiet half-hour upon some undisputed corner of a bench among the gentle Quakers!  12
  Their garb and stillness conjoined present a uniformity tranquil and herd-like, as in the pasture,—“forty feeding like one.”  13
  The very garments of a Quaker seem incapable of receiving a soil, and cleanliness in them to be something more than the absence of its contrary. Every Quakeress is a lily; and when they come up in bands to their Whitsun-conferences, whitening the easterly streets of the metropolis, from all parts of the United Kingdom, they show like troops of the Shining Ones.  14

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