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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Charles Eliot Norton (1827–1908)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
MR. LOWELL and Colonel Higginson have given us vivid pictures of the quiet suburban village of Cambridge, in which stood the Harvard College of the early nineteenth century. Here Charles Eliot Norton was born. By eight years the junior of Lowell and by four of Higginson, Professor Norton is the youngest member of a notable group, and will pass into the history of American letters at the close of the little file which includes the Autocrat,—and by all rights save that of birth, Longfellow as well.  1
  In the great rush to ever-changing Western habitations, Mr. Norton has throughout his threescore years and ten associated the word “home” with the ample roof and ancient elms of “Shady Hill,” where he was born November 16th, 1827. The years 1849–50, 1855–57, 1868–73, indeed, were spent in contented exile, beginning with a business voyage to India. From 1874 to 1898 he taught faithfully at Harvard; not, like his father, a pillar of orthodoxy in the Divinity School, but filling a collegiate chair as professor of the history of art.  2
  In one of the most impressive of his numerous essays on social questions, Mr. Norton deplores the lack of permanency, of the deep-struck local root, in our domestic and social life. The happiest illustration of his thesis stood close at hand. In all the land there were few homes so restful, so refined, so hospitable, as “Shady Hill.”  3
  This is, however, by no means a spot secluded from the busy world of men. More perhaps than any other American in our generation, Mr. Norton was ever a stern and fearless critic of everything in our social and intellectual life that fell short of his own highest ideals. This is one of the best uses to which brave and generous patriotism can devote itself. It is always easier to praise, or be silent, than to blame; to swim with the current than to stem the popular tide.  4
  The rapid material growth of our country, the successful strife with savage nature, the rush of immigration from every land, the fierce friction through which alone those motley forms of humanity can be merged in the new national type,—all these conditions have aided to mold many a heroic active career in America; but have made difficult, if not impossible, the “life contemplative.” Perhaps it is not desirable that the scholastic recluse should ever find it easy to live out his selfish existence among us. The most self-centered dreamer of the dream divine we have yet known—Emerson—declared that he did but
  “Go to the god of the wood
To fetch his word to men.”
Our danger is rather that we shall neglect altogether those periods of solitude and meditation which are as necessary to the mind and soul as slumber for the body. Yet those who best realize this truth—strong-winged spirits like Ruskin, Carlyle, Matthew Arnold—are oftenest tempted to disdain the contented average man or woman of their time, precisely because their own eyes are fixed on an ideal existence as yet but half attainable even by themselves.
  5
  There is a widespread tradition that each of the three great Englishmen just mentioned has regarded Mr. Norton as the foremost among American thinkers, scholars, or men of culture. In this last class, indeed, he was without doubt generally accorded the most prominent place, especially after the death of his two dearest friends, Lowell and Curtis. Mr. Norton had always seemed less optimistic than either of these two. He did not apparently share their buoyant confidence in the future of the race, and of our nation in particular. Nevertheless, remembering all that Hosea Biglow did to uplift and strengthen our patriotism, recalling how wisely, eloquently, and genially the Easy Chair pleaded for every social and political reform, we shall find decisive evidence of highest worth and general character even in this alone,—that Mr. Norton was the closest lifelong friend of each, the literary executor of both.  6
  Mr. Norton had not the technical training of an architect, sculptor, or painter. Indeed, though he preached sincerely the superior ethical value and expressiveness of the material arts, he was himself a man of books, a critic of thought and style. Far though he had journeyed from the Calvinistic creed of an earlier generation, he retained all the moral fibre of his Puritan ancestors.  7
  Professor Norton’s pathetic, almost despondent mental attitude toward the conditions of our day had perhaps been confirmed by his long devotion to the grim master-poet of Tuscany. For Italy his heartiest affection is expressed in his ‘Notes of Travel’ (1859). It is half a century since he published a translation of the ‘Vita Nuova,’ wherein Dante’s love poems were duly rendered in English rhymed verse. Mr. Norton and Mr. Lowell were the most faithful collaborators also upon the poet Longfellow’s careful rendering of Dante in blank verse. Nevertheless, when Professor Norton’s own translation of the ‘Divine Comedy,’ which he had interpreted to many successive classes of students, was finally printed (1891–2), it was wholly in prose. Of the faithful, lucid, somewhat calm and terse style employed in this rendering, an extended example has been offered already to readers of the LIBRARY. Of course a prose version of a poem, itself a highly elaborated masterpiece of rhythmical form, will not satisfy every reader; but all the thoughts of Dante are here transferred. It is earnestly to be hoped that the ‘Convito’ also will be given to the public in completed form. As originator, president, and soul of the Dante Society, Mr. Norton must be credited with most of the modest sum total thus far accomplished on American soil in Dantesque research and publication.  8
  In the direction of his professional teaching, Mr. Norton’s chief public volume is his ‘Church Building in the Middle Ages.’ Here by three noble examples—the cathedrals of Venice, Siena, and Florence—the author illustrates his favorite thesis. A poem, more perhaps than a picture or a statue, may be in large part the miracle of a moment, the fruit of creative genius manifested in a single man: into a supreme masterpiece of architecture the physical and moral character of a whole race is built, and therefore finds therein its fullest expression.  9
  Mr. Norton might also have counted as a great service to art the foundation of an “Archæological Institute of America,” which he served for many years as president and most active member. This society sent out the first American archæological expedition,—to Assos in Asia Minor, 1881–3,—founded the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and has just shared in the creation of the sister school in Rome. This movement has already gone far toward revolutionizing and giving fresh life to the study of classical antiquity in America. For a series of years also Mr. Norton shared with his friend Lowell the editorial work of the scholarly old North American Review: a publication which is still painfully missed, for it has no real successor.  10
  Amid all these heavy cares, shared by comparatively few helpers, Mr. Norton ever answered cheerfully in every crisis to the call of civic and patriotic duty. (The remarkable reappearance of the “scholar in politics” during the last two decades has indeed nowhere been more striking than at Harvard.) Lastly, this busy student, teacher, and author has responded no less patiently to every call, however unreasonable, on his personal sympathy. Many an old Harvard man will recall, with sincere remorse, how often his crude intellectual ambitions or moral perplexities were suffered to encroach on crowded hours and limited physical strength. Toward his chosen friends, death itself did not interrupt his devotion. Not only Lowell’s poetry and letters and Curtis’s speeches, but Emerson’s and Carlyle’s correspondence, found in Charles Eliot Norton a judicious and laborious editor.  11
  Altogether, it would be difficult to find a better example than this to illustrate the happy use of moderate wealth and of inherited scholarly tastes, for lifelong self-improvement and many-sided usefulness. The man of unwearying self-culture, moreover, sets an example of that ideal which all may in due measure attain. Mr. Norton continued his literary activities up to a short time before his death, which occurred in 1908.  12
 
 
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