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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Constancy to an Ideal
By John Weiss (1818–1879)
 
From ‘American Religion’

THE IDEAL is not a phrase in high repute among practical people, who suspect it of excusing some immediate incapacity, like that which would recommend clouds to the selectmen for a new style of pavement, or a balloon’s aimless whirling instead of some direct and planted way of locomotion. There may be an upper westward current; but in the mean time the rail gets over the ground by all the points of the compass. The Ideal will possibly carry a person off by some aerial route to Paris; but if he would return to Boston he must alight. This shrewdness is furthered too by the feeling that the phrase is chiefly the property of poets, who are exercised only in expression, and cannot be counted on for work. The influence which imaginative expression exerts upon a people is undervalued because it does not enrich the instant, but passes into the temperament by slow absorption, and appears at length in quality. Men cannot wait for that. There is work on hand that is to be done with what quality exists, or not at all. A man of business cannot see that the poem which he read over-night affected, unless to perturb, his next day’s operations. He will do better with his leisure next time by getting well posted from the commercial columns. He rises more buoyantly upon stocks; the pathos that wrings his heart is when they fall, and his streamers are no longer gayly afloat. The expression of music and art serves him only for enjoyment; and he has this advantage over the idealist, that nobody can calculate the subtile orbit of influence, nor show how the song and symphony make blood. It is only by accident if one or two men in a generation have their heart or stomach so exposed that the physicians can observe its function. But if every brain were unroofed, there is no Asmodeus skilled to detect tones and colors jostling its atoms into more spiritual companionship. One must be a part of the violin’s grain to know how the vibrations of the strings record themselves in the dead wood of the instrument,—not dead, indeed, if it is capable of assimilating rhythm.  1
  But there are two kinds of the Ideal: one tends toward expression; the other animates all kinds of labor, and secures results. When a practical man says that he can do without the Ideal, he does not understand his own business. When a prosaic moralist says the same, and takes a contract to reform or to establish, he throws up the material that he must work in. It is intangible, but has a pressure of so many pounds to the inch, and he stands drenched in it while he pretends he does not breathe.  2
  There is some ideal stimulus in every kind of work, none the less definite because the worker appears to be unconscious of it. A gang of men with sledge-hammers go fastening ties westward toward a Golden Gate. There is expectation in every stroke: not a man of them but proposes to arrive somewhere by that track on which he is hammering. Family bread, affection, independence, enlargement: these invisible yearnings give the gold-glimmer to his Sacramento. He is an idealist while he is faithful to his work. And the country which hires his labor, and affects only to be wanting to reach the Pacific thereby, is stimulated by more than all the spices of the Orient. There is no such ideality on earth as that which compels a nation to expand all its powers of intelligence, and to reach eventually the Rights of Man.  3
  Something is to be overcome wherever the ideal road is traveled. The effort may be stamped with the coarsest realism; but the ideality is in the effort. We do not know the outlets of everything that we perform, nor the subtile connection between our simplest acts and our loftiest attainments. It sometimes seems a great way from the body to the soul; but a very slight deed may bridge over the abyss of that ocular deception. The soul is waiting close at hand to receive the benefit of our least integrity. So that very ordinary things may be the essentials to secure our spiritual advance,—begrimed and sturdy engineers who rapidly pontoon for us a formidable-looking current, and let us transport our whole splendid equipment to the opposite shore. The Indian knows that a buffalo trail will take him surest to water. The American condescends to follow the Indian, and his cities rise opposite to ferries and at the confluences of streams. Then at length the buffalo pilots thither the silent steps of Religion and Liberty.  4
  When Frederick the Great said he always noticed that Providence favored the heaviest battalion, he only stated in a sarcasm what God in history states religiously: that he is on the side of valor, foresight, self-control, wheresoever and on whatsoever objects these great qualities of an overcoming man are exercised. God, having no human pride, does not regard the nature of the object, but its intrinsic difficulties and its drift towards some beauty. An ideal object is one, however material, that gives the world a whole-souled man. And it is on this principle that natural forces seem to have selected their men and nations through the whole of history. It is the forecasting that molds and reconstructs a raw popular material, till it is able to occupy, or to create, some important position, to assert a truth, to breast a flood of tyranny, to be caught in some way by the drift and amplitude of the Divine order. If people have settled in spots toward which the streams of the past converge in order to find the outlet of civil and religious liberty, or if their ethical quality slowly selects spots that invite either the friendship or hostility of reigning ideas, and suggest rude engineering to arrange a battlefield, they are certain to be subjected to the training which shall best prepare them for their great effort. This training consists in overcoming something, no matter how physical or how remote in character from the future issue.  5
  I know of nothing, for example, more striking than the way in which the Dutch people were prepared to maintain liberty of thought and worship. A poor Frisian race was selected and kept for centuries up to its knees in the marshes through which the Rhine emptied and lost itself. Here it lived in continual conflict with the Northern Ocean, forced literally to hold the tide at arm’s length, while a few acres of dry land might yield a scanty subsistence. Here circumstance kept them half submerged, till instead of obeying a natural impulse to emigrate to solid and more congenial land, they acquired a liking for their amphibious position. The struggle piqued them into staying and seeing it out. For centuries they appeared to be doing nothing but building and repairing dikes, when really they were constructing a national will and persistency which was a dike for tyranny to lash in vain. By keeping out the water they trained themselves to keep out the more insidious tide of bigotry and spiritual death. What a homely and inglorious school for a great republic, that taught her how to watch patiently by tending dikes and ditches; how to close a breach against ruin by standing with succor in the mid-tide when the sea-wall crumbled; how to convert almost continual defeat into victory, by keeping hold of a drowned position, cultivating acres that had just been drenched with salt, flowing back again upon depopulated districts, and holding the old line against the sea! All these stubborn traits appeared afterward clothed in noble forms of moral and mental life: still there was the old breakwater running through the national temper, and the will of the people was like one of the ancestral Frisians, who could stand in a flood all day and not be chilled. The wisdom was vindicated which compelled them first to make a soil for ideal liberty to flourish in. And as nations are prepared for great destinies, so are men: the constitution must catch free and vigorous movements in some mode of life fatal to indolence and vulgarity, the will must be roused and learn how to handle the helm, no matter how rude the objects of the voyage are….  6
  The poets and men of expression have not then monopolized the Ideal. We must be poetical enough to detect it in the moral uses of the ordinary life we lead, that is so pathetic with the struggles of constancy against physical and mental circumstances. No matter how sensitive a young person’s heart may be, like a bare nerve in the weather, flattered by the soft touch of music and colors, pared into gracious action by the chisel that builds the statue’s symmetry, twitched by the finger of tragedy till the fount of tears is opened,—his ideal life does not begin till he turns away from these to take up his own instrument of work, to chip a conscience out of school-keeping, type-setting, engineering, cooking, and housework, to quarry some vital activity of a free people. Because he himself is to become a poem, fairer than any that was ever written, by overcoming indolence and a bad disposition in favor of some immediate exigency. That is the story of his siege of Troy, his wandering of Ulysses, his Paradise Regained. The ideal of his constancy is the moral sense, which some personal deficiency or poverty inflames till it becomes his pillar of fire in the wilderness. It does not shape him so much to remember the Odyssey, as it does to tie himself to his own mast and sail past the Sirens; or to go through Circe’s den not only unsullied but a liberator of his comrades. When we see the course of nature breeding in such schools its human genius, we may know how closely allied are conscience and superior talents. Underneath the slow grinding, suddenly a facet flashes. It is true you may grind at a sea-shore pebble till nothing comes of it but sand; but before you begin to grind, all stones appear of similar texture. The real ideality is hid in this persevering against the most humiliating and prosaic conditions, such as the Creator maintained through chaos and his scarcely less chaotic creatures of the early epochs. A million or two years of coarse persistency vanquish matter, and Shakespeare supplants the saurian. Why should he not in every man and woman? for conscience can become Shakespearean underneath a hod of mortar that mounts round by round to top the house. Young people must learn that their creative and inspiring impulse is not derived from high art, but from accommodation to low requirements in a high vein to make them serve, to extort from them such exquisite tones as the Russian did out of his bits of wood cut from different trees, till he converted the forest into a harmonicon; and that other obscure inventor, who coaxed a heap of various stones to yield up its separate notes, and to fall into place in perfect octaves….  7
  We have all seen many persons who appear to us quite ruined. Perhaps there is a better judge of that; but if it be true, the fact is not so revolting to us as the shock is which it gives to our natural preferences. The most deeply compromised person will prefer to think that health has not become impossible for him; he shares the instinct of nature which struggles desperately to make its growth shapely under gnarled conditions. A man clings to his share of a divine ideal of recuperation. No number of damaged structures can vote down our feeling that supreme Good aspires through man to become expressed and organized; it shakes its signals of direction through the densest fog that we can exhale. We see the light discolored, but do not mistake it for darkness; we observe whence it comes, and trust to its hints regarding our safety. On various principles of judgment, preachers declare these men and those women to be abandoned. The epithet remands God back to chaos. The poet grants us a better glimpse of the hold on life than innocence possesses:—
  “I helped a man to die, some few weeks since,
Warped even from his go-cart to one end—
The living on princes’ smiles, reflected from
A mighty herd of favorites. No mean trick
He left untried; and truly well-nigh wormed
All traces of God’s finger out of him.
Then died, grown old: and just an hour before—
Having lain long with blank and soulless eyes—
He sate up suddenly, and with natural voice
Said that in spite of thick air and closed doors
God told him it was June; and he knew well,
Without such telling, harebells grew in June;
And all that kings could ever give or take
Would not be precious as those blooms to him.”
  8
  Does not that precious cherishing snatch a new June from the collapse of the body, as a wrecker disentangles a still living babe from the last freezing strain of a drowned mother? We can only bid our imagination frame, in the interest of the universe, at least a remonstrance against the destruction of the babe. For we must always presume that the faintest pulse is a possible chance for the heart to recover its full beat….  9
  The world could transact nothing, and no race could ever develop its special felicity, if the ideal of goodness ever deserted its infelicitous men and women….  10
  In our first unchartered moments, when we discover that Nature can be a bit of a spendthrift, we have a companion better than all with whom we sport, and the inner sense reaches for its hand: as when a youth, blindfolded for a game, threads by some glimmer of seeing or of mere attraction the whole romping scene, and pursues the beauty who one day shall be his. Heaven is never in despair: it has watched too many generations, and profited by their prevailing goodness, not to perceive that if dissoluteness be out of order, so is cynicism and a skeptical temper about ordinary people, if not more hostile to an ideal life. So the young persons launch their divine gifts upon a stream that is fretted with rapids near its head; some make the portages, others try the shoot: the stream more tranquil always lies below. There are eddies that carry them into indulgences of social and material pleasure. The parents generally dissuade with a great deal of wise shaking of the head, as much as to say, “We’ve tried all that, and seen the folly of it.” It is an ideal instinct that prompts the children to reply, “Well, we would like to see the folly of it too.” How lucky it is that nobody can decant his old wine into the new bottles! So the youth gets his promotion from the nursery to school, to occupation, to love and marriage, to the successive disciplines; and his knowledge of one period never makes him equal to the next one, which always has some surprising element that tests him on a new side. We have to go storming parallel after parallel. Up we run impetuously, with glad acclaim, and plant our colors: before the wind takes them, we perceive an inner line that we had not suspected. Headlong we go at that too, only to find that the busy antagonist has thrown up another; and that also has to be assailed. It is plot and counterplot, mine and countermine: reality works, while the Ideal catches a nap leaning upon its weapon; till as we sink, and the colors falter on the last breach, we find that death is only a resource and desperate ambush of a foe that is sullenly retreating; and to-morrow the Ideal, light-armed, with marching rations and the packs all left behind, will buoyantly pursue.  11
  What a hint of personal immortality is this relative imperfection of our experiences! They suggest the absolute perfection which is the plan of every soul; like the crumbled scale or bone that taught the naturalist the structure, shape, and habits, of an extinct fish whose fossil even no man had ever seen. One day a fossil is found to justify, in the minutest particulars, the infallibility of the scientific imagination. Our partial experiences contain the history of souls not yet completed; and they are guarantees given to us directly by the divine imagination, the earnest of the spirit, that the whole plan must include all the time and opportunity needed to fill out the spiritual form. Eternity is in pledge to our successive disappointments. Every morning we go down to the edge of it like the fishermen of rock-bound coasts, and put off upon it as they do, to fight for their little gains, and satisfy the hunger that is as prompt to return as the morning. All day we trawl and hunt by various devices for our shy sustenance; and the fruitful infinite stretches all around us, so deep and coy that everything is hidden, so deep that everything is contained. Our day sinks into its storm or calm. Over it our day breaks with wants that never are appeased.  12
  What do we care for the expense that this spendthrift, our good-will for God, subjects us to? If anything is to be melted for a beautiful casting, men keep the flame up, and throw in all the fuel in the neighborhood. There is nothing too precious to go towards making a soul limpid and symmetrical. Bernard Palissy, at the end of twenty years spent in vain attempts to create a white enamel for his pottery, found nothing left but the house he lived in, and the fences around it. Not a billet of wood, for love or money, to keep up the furnace with. The palings were ripped down and thrown in,—the enamel had not melted. There was a crashing in the house: the children were in dismay; the wife, assisted doubtless by such female friends as had dropped in to comfort her, became loud in her reproaches. Bernard was breaking up the tables and carrying them off, legs and bodies, to the all-consuming fire. Still the enamel did not melt! There was more crashing and hammering in the house: Bernard was tearing up the floors to use the planks as firewood. Frantic with despair, the wife rushes off to raise the town against him. She was starved out by his pertinacity; he was fed by his idea. And while she was gone, the anxieties and poverty of twenty years flowed in the clear coating that became the rage of kings and connoisseurs.  13
  Throw everything into the fire of the Ideal!—the incumbrances of society and pleasure, the frivolous amusements, the small-talk and idling, the clique feelings and constraints, the conveniences that make our life a curse, the ornaments that dress us in a weight to crush us to the dust. Throw fruitless regrets and memories, and all the things we are most vain about, into the devouring flame. We are clay in the hands of the potter. Let all our rubbish melt to make it impervious to the weather, not subject to decay, much sought for by the King.  14
 
 
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