It was at Nuremberg that we struck the inundation of music-
mad strangers that was rolling down upon Bayreuth. It had been
long since we had seen such multitudes of excited and struggling
It took a good half-hour to pack them and pair them into
the train--and it was the longest train we have yet seen in
Europe. Nuremberg had been witnessing this sort of experience a
couple of times a day for about two weeks. It gives one an
impressive sense of the magnitude of this biennial pilgrimage.
For a pilgrimage is what it is. The devotees come from the very
ends of the earth to worship their prophet in his own Kaaba in
his own Mecca.
If you are living in New York or San Francisco or Chicago or
anywhere else in America, and you conclude, by the middle of May,
that you would like to attend the Bayreuth opera two months and a
half later, you must use the cable and get about it immediately
or you will get no seats, and you must cable for lodgings, too.
Then if you are lucky you will get seats in the last row and
lodgings in the fringe of the town. If you stop to write you
will get nothing. There were plenty of people in Nuremberg when
we passed through who had come on pilgrimage without first
securing seats and lodgings. They had found neither in Bayreuth;
they had walked Bayreuth streets a while in sorrow, then had gone
to Nuremberg and found neither beds nor standing room, and had
walked those quaint streets all night, waiting for the hotels to
open and empty their guests into trains, and so make room for
these, their defeated brethren and sisters in the faith. They
had endured from thirty to forty hours' railroading on the
continent of Europe--with all which that implies of worry,
fatigue, and financial impoverishment--and all they had got and
all they were to get for it was handiness and accuracy in kicking
themselves, acquired by practice in the back streets of the two
towns when other people were in bed; for back they must go over
that unspeakable journey with their pious mission unfulfilled.
These humiliated outcasts had the frowsy and unbrushed and
apologetic look of wet cats, and their eyes were glazed with
drowsiness, their bodies were adroop from crown to sole, and all
kind-hearted people refrained from asking them if they had been
to Bayreuth and failed to connect, as knowing they would lie.
We reached here (Bayreuth) about mid-afternoon of a rainy
Saturday. We were of the wise, and had secured lodgings and
opera seats months in advance.
I am not a musical critic, and did not come here to write
essays about the operas and deliver judgment upon their merits.
The little children of Bayreuth could do that with a finer
sympathy and a broader intelligence than I. I only care to bring
four or five pilgrims to the operas, pilgrims able to appreciate
them and enjoy them. What I write about the performance to put
in my odd time would be offered to the public as merely a cat's
view of a king, and not of didactic value.
Next day, which was Sunday, we left for the opera-house--
that is to say, the Wagner temple--a little after the middle of
the afternoon. The great building stands all by itself, grand
and lonely, on a high ground outside the town. We were warned
that if we arrived after four o'clock we should be obliged to pay
two dollars and a half extra by way of fine. We saved that; and
it may be remarked here that this is the only opportunity that
Europe offers of saving money. There was a big crowd in the
grounds about the building, and the ladies' dresses took the sun
with fine effect. I do not mean to intimate that the ladies were
in full dress, for that was not so. The dresses were pretty, but
neither sex was in evening dress.
The interior of the building is simple--severely so; but
there is no occasion for color and decoration, since the people
sit in the dark. The auditorium has the shape of a keystone,
with the stage at the narrow end. There is an aisle on each
side, but no aisle in the body of the house. Each row of seats
extends in an unbroken curve from one side of the house to the
other. There are seven entrance doors on each side of the
theater and four at the butt, eighteen doors to admit and emit
1,650 persons. The number of the particular door by which you
are to enter the house or leave it is printed on your ticket, and
you can use no door but that one. Thus, crowding and confusion
are impossible. Not so many as a hundred people use any one
door. This is better than having the usual (and useless)
elaborate fireproof arrangements. It is the model theater of the
world. It can be emptied while the second hand of a watch makes
its circuit. It would be entirely safe, even if it were built of
If your seat is near the center of a row and you enter late
you must work your way along a rank of about twenty-five ladies
and gentlemen to get to it. Yet this causes no trouble, for
everybody stands up until all the seats are full, and the filling
is accomplished in a very few minutes. Then all sit down, and
you have a solid mass of fifteen hundred heads, making a steep
cellar-door slant from the rear of the house down to the stage.
All the lights were turned low, so low that the congregation
sat in a deep and solemn gloom. The funereal rustling of dresses
and the low buzz of conversation began to die swiftly down, and
presently not the ghost of a sound was left. This profound and
increasingly impressive stillness endured for some time--the best
preparation for music, spectacle, or speech conceivable. I should
think our show people would have invented or imported that simple
and impressive device for securing and solidifying the attention
of an audience long ago; instead of which there continue to this
day to open a performance against a deadly competition in the
form of noise, confusion, and a scattered interest.
Finally, out of darkness and distance and mystery soft rich
notes rose upon the stillness, and from his grave the dead
magician began to weave his spells about his disciples and steep
their souls in his enchantments. There was something strangely
impressive in the fancy which kept intruding itself that the
composer was conscious in his grave of what was going on here,
and that these divine souls were the clothing of thoughts which
were at this moment passing through his brain, and not recognized
and familiar ones which had issued from it at some former time.
The entire overture, long as it was, was played to a dark
house with the curtain down. It was exquisite; it was delicious.
But straightway thereafter, or course, came the singing, and it
does seem to me that nothing can make a Wagner opera absolutely
perfect and satisfactory to the untutored but to leave out the
vocal parts. I wish I could see a Wagner opera done in pantomime
once. Then one would have the lovely orchestration unvexed to
listen to and bathe his spirit in, and the bewildering beautiful
scenery to intoxicate his eyes with, and the dumb acting couldn't
mar these pleasures, because there isn't often anything in the
Wagner opera that one would call by such a violent name as
acting; as a rule all you would see would be a couple of silent
people, one of them standing still, the other catching flies. Of
course I do not really mean that he would be catching flies; I
only mean that the usual operatic gestures which consist in
reaching first one hand out into the air and then the other might
suggest the sport I speak of if the operator attended strictly to
business and uttered no sound.
This present opera was "Parsifal." Madame Wagner does not
permit its representation anywhere but in Bayreuth. The first
act of the three occupied two hours, and I enjoyed that in spite
of the singing.
I trust that I know as well as anybody that singing is one
of the most entrancing and bewitching and moving and eloquent of
all the vehicles invented by man for the conveying of feeling;
but it seems to me that the chief virtue in song is melody, air,
tune, rhythm, or what you please to call it, and that when this
feature is absent what remains is a picture with the color left
out. I was not able to detect in the vocal parts of "Parsifal"
anything that might with confidence be called rhythm or tune or
melody; one person performed at a time--and a long time, too--
often in a noble, and always in a high-toned, voice; but he only
pulled out long notes, then some short ones, then another long
one, then a sharp, quick, peremptory bark or two--and so on and
so on; and when he was done you saw that the information which he
had conveyed had not compensated for the disturbance. Not
always, but pretty often. If two of them would but put in a duet
occasionally and blend the voices; but no, they don't do that.
The great master, who knew so well how to make a hundred
instruments rejoice in unison and pour out their souls in mingled
and melodious tides of delicious sound, deals only in barren
solos when he puts in the vocal parts. It may be that he was
deep, and only added the singing to his operas for the sake of
the contrast it would make with the music. Singing! It does
seem the wrong name to apply to it. Strictly described, it is a
practicing of difficult and unpleasant intervals, mainly. An
ignorant person gets tired of listening to gymnastic intervals in
the long run, no matter how pleasant they may be. In "Parsifal"
there is a hermit named Gurnemanz who stands on the stage in one
spot and practices by the hour, while first one and then another
character of the cast endures what he can of it and then retires
During the evening there was an intermission of three-
quarters of an hour after the first act and one an hour long
after the second. In both instances the theater was totally
emptied. People who had previously engaged tables in the one
sole eating-house were able to put in their time very
satisfactorily; the other thousand went hungry. The opera was
concluded at ten in the evening or a little later. When we
reached home we had been gone more than seven hours. Seven hours
at five dollars a ticket is almost too much for the money.
While browsing about the front yard among the crowd between
the acts I encountered twelve or fifteen friends from different
parts of America, and those of them who were most familiar with
Wagner said that "Parsifal" seldom pleased at first, but that
after one had heard it several times it was almost sure to become
a favorite. It seemed impossible, but it was true, for the
statement came from people whose word was not to be doubted.
And I gathered some further information. On the ground I
found part of a German musical magazine, and in it a letter
written by Uhlic thirty-three years ago, in which he defends the
scorned and abused Wagner against people like me, who found fault
with the comprehensive absence of what our kind regards as
singing. Uhlic says Wagner despised "JENE PLAPPERUDE MUSIC," and
therefore "runs, trills, and SCHNORKEL are discarded by him." I
don't know what a SCHNORKEL is, but now that I know it has been
left out of these operas I never have missed so much in my life.
And Uhlic further says that Wagner's song is true: that it is
"simply emphasized intoned speech." That certainly describes it
--in "Parsifal" and some of the operas; and if I understand
Uhlic's elaborate German he apologizes for the beautiful airs in
"Tannh:auser." Very well; now that Wagner and I understand each
other, perhaps we shall get along better, and I shall stop
calling Waggner, on the American plan, and thereafter call him
Waggner as per German custom, for I feel entirely friendly now.
The minute we get reconciled to a person, how willing we are to
throw aside little needless puctilios and pronounce his name
Of course I came home wondering why people should come from
all corners of America to hear these operas, when we have lately
had a season or two of them in New York with these same singers
in the several parts, and possibly this same orchestra. I
resolved to think that out at all hazards.
TUESDAY.--Yesterday they played the only operatic favorite I
have ever had--an opera which has always driven me mad with
ignorant delight whenever I have heard it--"Tannh:auser." I
heard it first when I was a youth; I heard it last in the last
German season in New York. I was busy yesterday and I did not
intend to go, knowing I should have another "Tannh:auser"
opportunity in a few days; but after five o'clock I found myself
free and walked out to the opera-house and arrived about the
beginning of the second act. My opera ticket admitted me to the
grounds in front, past the policeman and the chain, and I thought
I would take a rest on a bench for an hour and two and wait for
the third act.
In a moment or so the first bugles blew, and the multitude
began to crumble apart and melt into the theater. I will explain
that this bugle-call is one of the pretty features here. You
see, the theater is empty, and hundreds of the audience are a
good way off in the feeding-house; the first bugle-call is blown
about a quarter of an hour before time for the curtain to rise.
This company of buglers, in uniform, march out with military step
and send out over the landscape a few bars of the theme of the
approaching act, piercing the distances with the gracious notes;
then they march to the other entrance and repeat. Presently they
do this over again. Yesterday only about two hundred people were
still left in front of the house when the second call was blown;
in another half-minute they would have been in the house, but
then a thing happened which delayed them--the only solitary thing
in this world which could be relied on with certainty to
accomplish it, I suppose--an imperial princess appeared in the
balcony above them. They stopped dead in their tracks and began
to gaze in a stupor of gratitude and satisfaction. The lady
presently saw that she must disappear or the doors would be
closed upon these worshipers, so she returned to her box. This
daughter-in-law of an emperor was pretty; she had a kind face;
she was without airs; she is known to be full of common human
sympathies. There are many kinds of princesses, but this kind is
the most harmful of all, for wherever they go they reconcile
people to monarchy and set back the clock of progress. The
valuable princes, the desirable princes, are the czars and their
sort. By their mere dumb presence in the world they cover with
derision every argument that can be invented in favor of royalty
by the most ingenious casuist. In his time the husband of this
princess was valuable. He led a degraded life, he ended it with
his own hand in circumstances and surroundings of a hideous sort,
and was buried like a god.
In the opera-house there is a long loft back of the
audience, a kind of open gallery, in which princes are displayed.
It is sacred to them; it is the holy of holies. As soon as the
filling of the house is about complete the standing multitude
turn and fix their eyes upon the princely layout and gaze mutely
and longingly and adoringly and regretfully like sinners looking
into heaven. They become rapt, unconscious, steeped in worship.
There is no spectacle anywhere that is more pathetic than this.
It is worth crossing many oceans to see. It is somehow not the
same gaze that people rivet upon a Victor Hugo, or Niagara, or
the bones of the mastodon, or the guillotine of the Revolution,
or the great pyramid, or distant Vesuvius smoking in the sky, or
any man long celebrated to you by his genius and achievements, or
thing long celebrated to you by the praises of books and
pictures--no, that gaze is only the gaze of intense curiosity,
interest, wonder, engaged in drinking delicious deep draughts
that taste good all the way down and appease and satisfy the
thirst of a lifetime. Satisfy it--that is the word. Hugo and
the mastodon will still have a degree of intense interest
thereafter when encountered, but never anything approaching the
ecstasy of that first view. The interest of a prince is
different. It may be envy, it may be worship, doubtless it is a
mixture of both--and it does not satisfy its thirst with one
view, or even noticeably diminish it. Perhaps the essence of the
thing is the value which men attach to a valuable something which
has come by luck and not been earned. A dollar picked up in the
road is more satisfaction to you than the ninety-and-nine which
you had to work for, and money won at faro or in stocks snuggles
into your heart in the same way. A prince picks up grandeur,
power, and a permanent holiday and gratis support by a pure
accident, the accident of birth, and he stands always before the
grieved eye of poverty and obscurity a monumental representative
of luck. And then--supremest value of all-his is the only high
fortune on the earth which is secure. The commercial millionaire
may become a beggar; the illustrious statesman can make a vital
mistake and be dropped and forgotten; the illustrious general can
lose a decisive battle and with it the consideration of men; but
once a prince always a prince--that is to say, an imitation god,
and neither hard fortune nor an infamous character nor an addled
brain nor the speech of an ass can undeify him. By common
consent of all the nations and all the ages the most valuable
thing in this world is the homage of men, whether deserved or
undeserved. It follows without doubt or question, then, that the
most desirable position possible is that of a prince. And I
think it also follows that the so-called usurpations with which
history is littered are the most excusable misdemeanors which men
have committed. To usurp a usurpation--that is all it amounts
to, isn't it?
A prince is not to us what he is to a European, of course.
We have not been taught to regard him as a god, and so one good
look at him is likely to so nearly appease our curiosity as to
make him an object of no greater interest the next time. We want
a fresh one. But it is not so with the European. I am quite
sure of it. The same old one will answer; he never stales.
Eighteen years ago I was in London and I called at an
Englishman's house on a bleak and foggy and dismal December
afternoon to visit his wife and married daughter by appointment.
I waited half an hour and then they arrived, frozen. They
explained that they had been delayed by an unlooked-for
circumstance: while passing in the neighborhood of Marlborough
House they saw a crowd gathering and were told that the Prince of
Wales was about to drive out, so they stopped to get a sight of
him. They had waited half an hour on the sidewalk, freezing with
the crowd, but were disappointed at last--the Prince had changed
his mind. I said, with a good deal of surprise, "Is it possible
that you two have lived in London all your lives and have never
seen the Prince of Wales?"
Apparently it was their turn to be surprised, for they
exclaimed: "What an idea! Why, we have seen him hundreds of
They had seem him hundreds of times, yet they had waited
half an hour in the gloom and the bitter cold, in the midst of a
jam of patients from the same asylum, on the chance of seeing him
again. It was a stupefying statement, but one is obliged to
believe the English, even when they say a thing like that. I
fumbled around for a remark, and got out this one:
"I can't understand it at all. If I had never seen General
Grant I doubt if I would do that even to get a sight of him."
With a slight emphasis on the last word.
Their blank faces showed that they wondered where the
parallel came in. Then they said, blankly: "Of course not. He
is only a President."
It is doubtless a fact that a prince is a permanent
interest, an interest not subject to deterioration. The general
who was never defeated, the general who never held a council of
war, the only general who ever commanded a connected battle-front
twelve hundred miles long, the smith who welded together the
broken parts of a great republic and re-established it where it
is quite likely to outlast all the monarchies present and to
come, was really a person of no serious consequence to these
people. To them, with their training, my General was only a man,
after all, while their Prince was clearly much more than that--a
being of a wholly unsimilar construction and constitution, and
being of no more blood and kinship with men than are the serene
eternal lights of the firmament with the poor dull tallow candles
of commerce that sputter and die and leave nothing behind but a
pinch of ashes and a stink.
I saw the last act of "Tannh:auser." I sat in the gloom and
the deep stillness, waiting--one minute, two minutes, I do not
know exactly how long--then the soft music of the hidden
orchestra began to breathe its rich, long sighs out from under
the distant stage, and by and by the drop-curtain parted in the
middle and was drawn softly aside, disclosing the twilighted wood
and a wayside shrine, with a white-robed girl praying and a man
standing near. Presently that noble chorus of men's voices was
heard approaching, and from that moment until the closing of the
curtain it was music, just music--music to make one drunk with
pleasure, music to make one take scrip and staff and beg his way
round the globe to hear it.
To such as are intending to come here in the Wagner season
next year I wish to say, bring your dinner-pail with you. If you
do, you will never cease to be thankful. If you do not, you will
find it a hard fight to save yourself from famishing in Bayreuth.
Bayreuth is merely a large village, and has no very large hotels
or eating-houses. The principal inns are the Golden Anchor and
the Sun. At either of these places you can get an excellent
meal--no, I mean you can go there and see other people get it.
There is no charge for this. The town is littered with
restaurants, but they are small and bad, and they are overdriven
with custom. You must secure a table hours beforehand, and often
when you arrive you will find somebody occupying it. We have had
this experience. We have had a daily scramble for life; and when
I say we, I include shoals of people. I have the impression that
the only people who do not have to scramble are the veterans--the
disciples who have been here before and know the ropes. I think
they arrive about a week before the first opera, and engage all
the tables for the season. My tribe had tried all kinds of
places--some outside of the town, a mile or two--and have
captured only nibblings and odds and ends, never in any instance
a complete and satisfying meal. Digestible? No, the reverse.
These odds and ends are going to serve as souvenirs of Bayreuth,
and in that regard their value is not to be overestimated.
Photographs fade, bric-a-brac gets lost, busts of Wagner get
broken, but once you absorb a Bayreuth-restaurant meal it is your
possession and your property until the time comes to embalm the
rest of you. Some of these pilgrims here become, in effect,
cabinets; cabinets of souvenirs of Bayreuth. It is believed
among scientists that you could examine the crop of a dead
Bayreuth pilgrim anywhere in the earth and tell where he came
from. But I like this ballast. I think a "Hermitage" scrap-up
at eight in the evening, when all the famine-breeders have been
there and laid in their mementoes and gone, is the quietest thing
you can lay on your keelson except gravel.
THURSDAY.--They keep two teams of singers in stock for the
chief roles, and one of these is composed of the most renowned
artists in the world, with Materna and Alvary in the lead. I
suppose a double team is necessary; doubtless a single team would
die of exhaustion in a week, for all the plays last from four in
the afternoon till ten at night. Nearly all the labor falls upon
the half-dozen head singers, and apparently they are required to
furnish all the noise they can for the money. If they feel a
soft, whispery, mysterious feeling they are required to open out
and let the public know it. Operas are given only on Sundays,
Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, with three days of ostensible
rest per week, and two teams to do the four operas; but the
ostensible rest is devoted largely to rehearsing. It is said
that the off days are devoted to rehearsing from some time in the
morning till ten at night. Are there two orchestras also? It is
quite likely, since there are one hundred and ten names in the
Yesterday the opera was "Tristan and Isolde." I have seen
all sorts of audiences--at theaters, operas, concerts, lectures,
sermons, funerals--but none which was twin to the Wagner audience
of Bayreuth for fixed and reverential attention. Absolute
attention and petrified retention to the end of an act of the
attitude assumed at the beginning of it. You detect no movement
in the solid mass of heads and shoulders. You seem to sit with
the dead in the gloom of a tomb. You know that they are being
stirred to their profoundest depths; that there are times when
they want to rise and wave handkerchiefs and shout their
approbation, and times when tears are running down their faces,
and it would be a relief to free their pent emotions in sobs or
screams; yet you hear not one utterance till the curtain swings
together and the closing strains have slowly faded out and died;
then the dead rise with one impulse and shake the building with
their applause. Every seat is full in the first act; there is
not a vacant one in the last. If a man would be conspicuous, let
him come here and retire from the house in the midst of an act.
It would make him celebrated.
This audience reminds me of nothing I have ever seen and of
nothing I have read about except the city in the Arabian tale
where all the inhabitants have been turned to brass and the
traveler finds them after centuries mute, motionless, and still
retaining the attitudes which they last knew in life. Here the
Wagner audience dress as they please, and sit in the dark and
worship in silence. At the Metropolitan in New York they sit in
a glare, and wear their showiest harness; they hum airs, they
squeak fans, they titter, and they gabble all the time. In some
of the boxes the conversation and laughter are so loud as to
divide the attention of the house with the stage. In large
measure the Metropolitan is a show-case for rich fashionables who
are not trained in Wagnerian music and have no reverence for it,
but who like to promote art and show their clothes.
Can that be an agreeable atmosphere to persons in whom this
music produces a sort of divine ecstasy and to whom its creator
is a very deity, his stage a temple, the works of his brain and
hands consecrated things, and the partaking of them with eye and
ear a sacred solemnity? Manifestly, no. Then, perhaps the
temporary expatriation, the tedious traversing of seas and
continents, the pilgrimage to Bayreuth stands explained. These
devotees would worship in an atmosphere of devotion. It is only
here that they can find it without fleck or blemish or any
worldly pollution. In this remote village there are no sights to
see, there is no newspaper to intrude the worries of the distant
world, there is nothing going on, it is always Sunday. The
pilgrim wends to his temple out of town, sits out his moving
service, returns to his bed with his heart and soul and his body
exhausted by long hours of tremendous emotion, and he is in no
fit condition to do anything but to lie torpid and slowly gather
back life and strength for the next service. This opera of
"Tristan and Isolde" last night broke the hearts of all witnesses
who were of the faith, and I know of some who have heard of many
who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away. I feel
strongly out of place here. Sometimes I feel like the sane
person in a community of the mad; sometimes I feel like the one
blind man where all others see; the one groping savage in the
college of the learned, and always, during service, I feel like a
heretic in heaven.
But by no means do I ever overlook or minify the fact that
this is one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I
have never seen anything like this before. I have never seen
anything so great and fine and real as this devotion.
FRIDAY.--Yesterday's opera was "Parsifal" again. The others
went and they show marked advance in appreciation; but I went
hunting for relics and reminders of the Margravine Wilhelmina,
she of the imperishable "Memoirs." I am properly grateful to her
for her (unconscious) satire upon monarchy and nobility, and
therefore nothing which her hand touched or her eye looked upon
is indifferent to me. I am her pilgrim; the rest of this
multitude here are Wagner's.
TUESDAY.--I have seen my last two operas; my season is
ended, and we cross over into Bohemia this afternoon. I was
supposing that my musical regeneration was accomplished and
perfected, because I enjoyed both of these operas, singing and
all, and, moreover, one of them was "Parsifal," but the experts
have disenchanted me. They say:
"Singing! That wasn't singing; that was the wailing,
screeching of third-rate obscurities, palmed off on us in the
interest of economy."
Well, I ought to have recognized the sign--the old, sure
sign that has never failed me in matters of art. Whenever I
enjoy anything in art it means that it is mighty poor. The
private knowledge of this fact has saved me from going to pieces
with enthusiasm in front of many and many a chromo. However, my
base instinct does bring me profit sometimes; I was the only man
out of thirty-two hundred who got his money back on those two operas.
WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS
Is it true that the sun of a man's mentality touches noon at
forty and then begins to wane toward setting? Doctor Osler is
charged with saying so. Maybe he said it, maybe he didn't; I
don't know which it is. But if he said it, I can point him to a
case which proves his rule. Proves it by being an exception to
it. To this place I nominate Mr. Howells.
I read his VENETIAN DAYS about forty years ago. I compare
it with his paper on Machiavelli in a late number of HARPER, and
I cannot find that his English has suffered any impairment. For
forty years his English has been to me a continual delight and
astonishment. In the sustained exhibition of certain great
qualities--clearness, compression, verbal exactness, and unforced
and seemingly unconscious felicity of phrasing--he is, in my
belief, without his peer in the English-writing world. SUSTAINED.
I entrench myself behind that protecting word. There are others
who exhibit those great qualities as greatly as he does, but only
by intervaled distributions of rich moonlight, with stretches of
veiled and dimmer landscape between; whereas Howells's moon sails
cloudless skies all night and all the nights.
In the matter of verbal exactness Mr. Howells has no superior,
I suppose. He seems to be almost always able to find that
elusive and shifty grain of gold, the RIGHT WORD. Others have
to put up with approximations, more or less frequently; he
has better luck. To me, the others are miners working with the
gold-pan--of necessity some of the gold washes over and escapes;
whereas, in my fancy, he is quicksilver raiding down a riffle--no
grain of the metal stands much chance of eluding him. A powerful
agent is the right word: it lights the reader's way and makes it
plain; a close approximation to it will answer, and much
traveling is done in a well-enough fashion by its help, but we do
not welcome it and applaud it and rejoice in it as we do when THE
right one blazes out on us. Whenever we come upon one of those
intensely right words in a book or a newspaper the resulting
effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt:
it tingles exquisitely around through the walls of the mouth and
tastes as tart and crisp and good as the autumn-butter that
creams the sumac-berry. One has no time to examine the word and
vote upon its rank and standing, the automatic recognition of its
supremacy is so immediate. There is a plenty of acceptable
literature which deals largely in approximations, but it may be
likened to a fine landscape seen through the rain; the right word
would dismiss the rain, then you would see it better. It doesn't
rain when Howells is at work.
And where does he get the easy and effortless flow of his
speech? and its cadenced and undulating rhythm? and its
architectural felicities of construction, its graces of
expression, its pemmican quality of compression, and all that?
Born to him, no doubt. All in shining good order in the
beginning, all extraordinary; and all just as shining, just as
extraordinary today, after forty years of diligent wear and tear
and use. He passed his fortieth year long and long ago; but I
think his English of today--his perfect English, I wish to say --
can throw down the glove before his English of that antique time
and not be afraid.
I will got back to the paper on Machiavelli now, and ask the
reader to examine this passage from it which I append. I do not
mean examine it in a bird's-eye way; I mean search it, study it.
And, of course, read it aloud. I may be wrong, still it is my
conviction that one cannot get out of finely wrought literature
all that is in it by reading it mutely:
Mr. Dyer is rather of the opinion, first luminously
suggested by Macaulay, that Machiavelli was in earnest, but must
not be judged as a political moralist of our time and race would
be judged. He thinks that Machiavelli was in earnest, as none
but an idealist can be, and he is the first to imagine him an
idealist immersed in realities, who involuntarily transmutes the
events under his eye into something like the visionary issues of
reverie. The Machiavelli whom he depicts does not cease to be
politically a republican and socially a just man because he holds
up an atrocious despot like Caesar Borgia as a mirror for rulers.
What Machiavelli beheld round him in Italy was a civic disorder
in which there was oppression without statecraft, and revolt
without patriotism. When a miscreant like Borgia appeared upon
the scene and reduced both tyrants and rebels to an apparent
quiescence, he might very well seem to such a dreamer the savior
of society whom a certain sort of dreamers are always looking
for. Machiavelli was no less honest when he honored the
diabolical force than Carlyle was when at different times he
extolled the strong man who destroys liberty in creating order.
But Carlyle has only just ceased to be mistaken for a reformer,
while it is still Machiavelli's hard fate to be so trammeled in
his material that his name stands for whatever is most malevolent
and perfidious in human nature.
You see how easy and flowing it is; how unvexed by ruggednesses,
clumsinesses, broken meters; how simple and--so far as you or I
can make out--unstudied; how clear, how limpid, how understandable,
how unconfused by cross-currents, eddies, undertows; how seemingly
unadorned, yet is all adornment, like the lily-of-the-valley;
and how compressed, how compact, without a complacency-signal
hung out anywhere to call attention to it.
There are twenty-three lines in the quoted passage. After reading
it several times aloud, one perceives that a good deal of matter
is crowded into that small space. I think it is a model
of compactness. When I take its materials apart and work them
over and put them together in my way, I find I cannot crowd the
result back into the same hole, there not being room enough. I
find it a case of a woman packing a man's trunk: he can get the
things out, but he can't ever get them back again.
The proffered paragraph is a just and fair sample; the rest
of the article is as compact as it is; there are no waste words.
The sample is just in other ways: limpid, fluent, graceful, and
rhythmical as it is, it holds no superiority in these respects
over the rest of the essay. Also, the choice phrasing noticeable
in the sample is not lonely; there is a plenty of its kin
distributed through the other paragraphs. This is claiming much
when that kin must face the challenge of a phrase like the one in
the middle sentence: "an idealist immersed in realities who
involuntarily transmutes the events under his eye into something
like the visionary issues of reverie." With a hundred words to
do it with, the literary artisan could catch that airy thought
and tie it down and reduce it to a concrete condition, visible,
substantial, understandable and all right, like a cabbage; but
the artist does it with twenty, and the result is a flower.
The quoted phrase, like a thousand others that have come
from the same source, has the quality of certain scraps of verse
which take hold of us and stay in our memories, we do not
understand why, at first: all the words being the right words,
none of them is conspicuous, and so they all seem inconspicuous,
therefore we wonder what it is about them that makes their
message take hold.
The mossy marbles rest
On the lips that he has prest
In their bloom,
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
On the tomb.
It is like a dreamy strain of moving music, with no sharp
notes in it. The words are all "right" words, and all the same
size. We do not notice it at first. We get the effect, it goes
straight home to us, but we do not know why. It is when the
right words are conspicuous that they thunder:
The glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome!
When I got back from Howells old to Howells young I find him
arranging and clustering English words well, but not any better
than now. He is not more felicitous in concreting abstractions
now than he was in translating, then, the visions of the eyes of
flesh into words that reproduced their forms and colors:
In Venetian streets they give the fallen snow no rest. It
is at once shoveled into the canals by hundreds of half-naked
FACCHINI; and now in St. Mark's Place the music of innumerable
shovels smote upon my ear; and I saw the shivering legion of
poverty as it engaged the elements in a struggle for the
possession of the Piazza. But the snow continued to fall, and
through the twilight of the descending flakes all this toil and
encountered looked like that weary kind of effort in dreams, when
the most determined industry seems only to renew the task. The
lofty crest of the bell-tower was hidden in the folds of falling
snow, and I could no longer see the golden angel upon its summit.
But looked at across the Piazza, the beautiful outline of St.
Mark's Church was perfectly penciled in the air, and the shifting
threads of the snowfall were woven into a spell of novel
enchantment around the structure that always seemed to me too
exquisite in its fantastic loveliness to be anything but the
creation of magic. The tender snow had compassionated the
beautiful edifice for all the wrongs of time, and so hid the
stains and ugliness of decay that it looked as if just from the
hand of the builder--or, better said, just from the brain of the
architect. There was marvelous freshness in the colors of the
mosaics in the great arches of the facade, and all that gracious
harmony into which the temple rises, or marble scrolls and leafy
exuberance airily supporting the statues of the saints, was a
hundred times etherealized by the purity and whiteness of the
drifting flakes. The snow lay lightly on the golden gloves that
tremble like peacocks-crests above the vast domes, and plumed
them with softest white; it robed the saints in ermine; and it
danced over all its works, as if exulting in its beauty--beauty
which filled me with subtle, selfish yearning to keep such
evanescent loveliness for the little-while-longer of my whole
life, and with despair to think that even the poor lifeless
shadow of it could never be fairly reflected in picture or poem.
Through the wavering snowfall, the Saint Theodore upon one
of the granite pillars of the Piazzetta did not show so grim as
his wont is, and the winged lion on the other might have been a
winged lamb, so gentle and mild he looked by the tender light of
the storm. The towers of the island churches loomed faint and
far away in the dimness; the sailors in the rigging of the ships
that lay in the Basin wrought like phantoms among the shrouds;
the gondolas stole in and out of the opaque distance more
noiselessly and dreamily than ever; and a silence, almost
palpable, lay upon the mutest city in the world.
The spirit of Venice is there: of a city where Age and
Decay, fagged with distributing damage and repulsiveness among
the other cities of the planet in accordance with the policy and
business of their profession, come for rest and play between
seasons, and treat themselves to the luxury and relaxation of
sinking the shop and inventing and squandering charms all about,
instead of abolishing such as they find, as it their habit when
not on vacation.
In the working season they do business in Boston sometimes,
and a character in THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY takes accurate note
of pathetic effects wrought by them upon the aspects of a street
of once dignified and elegant homes whose occupants have moved
away and left them a prey to neglect and gradual ruin and
progressive degradation; a descent which reaches bottom at last,
when the street becomes a roost for humble professionals of the
faith-cure and fortune-telling sort.
What a queer, melancholy house, what a queer, melancholy
street! I don't think I was ever in a street before when quite
so many professional ladies, with English surnames, preferred
Madam to Mrs. on their door-plates. And the poor old place has
such a desperately conscious air of going to the deuce. Every
house seems to wince as you go by, and button itself up to the
chin for fear you should find out it had no shirt on--so to
speak. I don't know what's the reason, but these material tokens
of a social decay afflict me terribly; a tipsy woman isn't
dreadfuler than a haggard old house, that's once been a home, in
a street like this.
Mr. Howells's pictures are not mere stiff, hard, accurate
photographs; they are photographs with feeling in them, and
sentiment, photographs taken in a dream, one might say.
As concerns his humor, I will not try to say anything, yet I
would try, if I had the words that might approximately reach up
to its high place. I do not think any one else can play with
humorous fancies so gracefully and delicately and deliciously as
he does, nor has so many to play with, nor can come so near
making them look as if they were doing the playing themselves and
he was not aware that they were at it. For they are unobtrusive,
and quiet in their ways, and well conducted. His is a humor
which flows softly all around about and over and through the mesh
of the page, pervasive, refreshing, health-giving, and makes no
more show and no more noise than does the circulation of the
There is another thing which is contentingly noticeable in
Mr. Howells's books. That is his "stage directions"--those
artifices which authors employ to throw a kind of human
naturalness around a scene and a conversation, and help the
reader to see the one and get at meanings in the other which
might not be perceived if entrusted unexplained to the bare words
of the talk. Some authors overdo the stage directions, they
elaborate them quite beyond necessity; they spend so much time
and take up so much room in telling us how a person said a thing
and how he looked and acted when he said it that we get tired and
vexed and wish he hadn't said it all. Other authors' directions
are brief enough, but it is seldom that the brevity contains
either wit or information. Writers of this school go in rags, in
the matter of state directions; the majority of them having
nothing in stock but a cigar, a laugh, a blush, and a bursting
into tears. In their poverty they work these sorry things to the
bone. They say:
". . . replied Alfred, flipping the ash from his cigar."
(This explains nothing; it only wastes space.)
". . . responded Richard, with a laugh." (There was nothing
to laugh about; there never is. The writer puts it in from
habit--automatically; he is paying no attention to his work; or
he would see that there is nothing to laugh at; often, when a
remark is unusually and poignantly flat and silly, he tries to
deceive the reader by enlarging the stage direction and making
Richard break into "frenzies of uncontrollable laughter." This
makes the reader sad.)
". . . murmured Gladys, blushing." (This poor old shop-worn
blush is a tiresome thing. We get so we would rather Gladys
would fall out of the book and break her neck than do it again.
She is always doing it, and usually irrelevantly. Whenever it is
her turn to murmur she hangs out her blush; it is the only thing
she's got. In a little while we hate her, just as we do
". . . repeated Evelyn, bursting into tears." (This kind
keep a book damp all the time. They can't say a thing without
crying. They cry so much about nothing that by and by when they
have something to cry ABOUT they have gone dry; they sob, and
fetch nothing; we are not moved. We are only glad.)
They gavel me, these stale and overworked stage directions,
these carbon films that got burnt out long ago and cannot now
carry any faintest thread of light. It would be well if they
could be relieved from duty and flung out in the literary back
yard to rot and disappear along with the discarded and forgotten
"steeds" and "halidomes" and similar stage-properties once so
dear to our grandfathers. But I am friendly to Mr. Howells's
stage directions; more friendly to them than to any one else's, I
think. They are done with a competent and discriminating art,
and are faithful to the requirements of a state direction's
proper and lawful office, which is to inform. Sometimes they
convey a scene and its conditions so well that I believe I could
see the scene and get the spirit and meaning of the accompanying
dialogue if some one would read merely the stage directions to me
and leave out the talk. For instance, a scene like this, from
THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY:
". . . and she laid her arms with a beseeching gesture on
her father's shoulder."
". . . she answered, following his gesture with a glance."
". . . she said, laughing nervously."
". . . she asked, turning swiftly upon him that strange, searching glance."
". . . she answered, vaguely."
". . . she reluctantly admitted."
". . . but her voice died wearily away, and she stood looking
into his face with puzzled entreaty."
Mr. Howells does not repeat his forms, and does not need to;
he can invent fresh ones without limit. It is mainly the
repetition over and over again, by the third-rates, of worn and
commonplace and juiceless forms that makes their novels such a
weariness and vexation to us, I think. We do not mind one or two
deliveries of their wares, but as we turn the pages over and keep
on meeting them we presently get tired of them and wish they
would do other things for a change.
". . . replied Alfred, flipping the ash from his cigar."
". . . responded Richard, with a laugh."
". . . murmured Gladys, blushing."
". . . repeated Evelyn, bursting into tears."
". . . replied the Earl, flipping the ash from his cigar."
". . . responded the undertaker, with a laugh."
". . . murmured the chambermaid, blushing."
". . . repeated the burglar, bursting into tears."
". . . replied the conductor, flipping the ash from his cigar."
". . . responded Arkwright, with a laugh."
". . . murmured the chief of police, blushing."
". . . repeated the house-cat, bursting into tears."
And so on and so on; till at last it ceases to excite. I
always notice stage directions, because they fret me and keep me
trying to get out of their way, just as the automobiles do. At
first; then by and by they become monotonous and I get run over.
Mr. Howells has done much work, and the spirit of it is as
beautiful as the make of it. I have held him in admiration and
affection so many years that I know by the number of those years
that he is old now; but his heart isn't, nor his pen; and years
do not count. Let him have plenty of them; there is profit in
them for us.