Few footprints of the great remain in the sand before the ever-flowing tide. Long ago it washed out Homer's. Curiosity follows him in vain; Greece and Asia perplex us with a rival Stratford-upon-Avon. The rank of Aristophanes is only conjectured from his gift to two poor players in Athens. The age made no sign when Shakespeare, its noblest son, passed away.
The fame of a battlefield grows with its years; Napoleon storming the Bridge of Lodi, and Wellington surveying the towers of Salamanca, affect us with fainter emotions than Brutus reading in his tent at Philippi, or Richard bearing down with the English chivalry upon the white armies of Saladin.
Joy and grief are never far apart. In the same street the shutters of one house are closed, while the curtains of the next are brushed by shadow of the dance. A wedding-party returns from church, and a funeral winds to its door. The smiles and the sadness of life are the tragi-comedy of Shakespeare. Gladness and sighs brighten and dim the mirror he beholds.
What philosopher of the schoolroom, with the mental dowry of four summers, ever questions the power of the wand that opened the dark eyes of the beautiful princess, or subtracts a single inch from the stride of seven leagues?
Association is the delight of the heart, not less than of poetry. Alison observes that an autumn sunset, with its crimson clouds, glimmering trunks of trees, and wavering tints upon the grass, seems scarcely capable of embellishment. But if in this calm and beautiful glow the chime of a distant bell steal over the fields, the bosom heaves with the sensation that Dante so tenderly describes.
Of many large volumes the index is the best portion and the usefullest. A glance through the casement gives whatever knowledge of the interior is needful. An epitome is only a book shortened; and as a general rule, the worth increases as the size lessens.
Romance is the truth of imagination and boyhood. Homer's horses clear the world at a bound. The child's eye needs no horizon to its prospect. The oriental tale is not too vast. Pearls dropping from trees are only falling leaves in autumn. The palace that grew up in a night merely awakens a wish to live in it. The impossibilities of fifty years are the commonplaces of five.
Poetry deserves the honor it obtains as the eldest offspring of literature, and the fairest. It is the fruitfulness of many plants growing into one flower and sowing itself over the world in shapes of beauty and color, which differ with the soil that receives and the sun that ripens the seed. In Persia, it comes up the rose of Hafiz; in England, the many-blossomed tree of Shakespeare.
The drama embraces and applies all the beauties and decorations of poetry. The sister arts attend and adorn it. Painting, architecture, and music are her handmaids. The costliest lights of a people's intellect burn at her show. All ages welcome her.
History presents the pleasantest features of poetry and fiction,--the majesty of the epic, the moving accidents of the drama, the surprises and moral of the romance. Wallace is a ruder Hector; Robinson Crusoe is not stranger that Croesus; the Knights of Ashby never burnish the page of Scott with richer lights of lance and armor than the Carthaginians, winding down the Alps, cast upon Livy.
Taste is not stationary. It grows every day, and is improved by cultivation, as a good temper is refined by religion. In its most advanced state it takes the title of judgment. Hume quotes Fontenelle's ingenious distinction between the common watch that tells the hours, and the delicately constructed one that marks the seconds and smallest differences of time.
Many books belong to sunshine, and should be read out of doors. Clover, violets, and hedge roses breathe from their leaves; they are most lovable in cool lanes, along field paths, or upon stiles overhung by hawthorn, while the blackbird pipes, and the nightingale bathes its brown feathers in the twilight copse.
The gloomy recess of an ecclesiastical library is like a harbor, into which a far-traveling curiosity has sailed with its freight, and cast anchor. The ponderous tomes are bales of the mind's merchandise. Odors of distant countries and times steal from the red leaves, the swelling ridges of vellum, and the titles in tarnished gold.
How deep is the magic of sound may be learned by breaking some sweet verses into prose. The operation has been compared to gathering dew-drops, which shine like jewels upon the flower, but run into water in the hand. The elements remain, but the sparkle is gone.
A book becomes a mirror, with the author's face shining over it. Talent only gives an imperfect image,--the broken glimmer of a countenance. But the features of genius remain unruffled. Time guards the shadow. Beauty, the spiritual, Venus,--whose children are the Tassos, the Spensers, the Bacons,--breathes, the magic of her love, and fixes the face forever.
The amplest knowledge has the largest faith. Ignorance is always incredulous. Tell an English cottager that the belfries of Swedish churches are crimson, and his own white steeple furnishes him with a contradiction.
From numberless books the fluttering reader, idle and inconstant, bears away the bloom that only clings to the outer leaf; but genius has its nectaries, delicate glands, and secrecies of sweetness, and upon these the thoughtful mind must settle in its labor, before the choice perfume of fancy and wisdom is drawn forth.