I have made a movement and change of base,
I find myself thrown amidst a mild, pleasant society, really intellectual,
Conversing in earnest on profound subjects, in a kind and conciliatory manner,
It is all first-rate, good and smart.
I do not despise the intellectual—far from it—it has its uses,
But too constrained and bookish for a free old hawk like me,
I have very little faculty or liking for a book which requires the observance of rules of logic—
I have a damned ill-regulated mind.
I waste no ink, nor my throat, on the ever-deploying armies of professors, authors, lawyers, teachers,
Of them we expect that they be very learned and nothing more.
Erudition is low among the glories of humanity,
There is something in vast erudition melancholy and fruitless as an Arctic sea,
With most men it is a slow dream, dreamed in a moving fog,
For my part when I meet anyone of erudition I want to get away—it terrifies me.
What I object to in so much that we call education, culture, scholarship, is that it seems to invest its avatars with contempt for elemental qualities in character. The most learned scholars are often the most melancholy men in the world. There is something lacking—something cold, a failure to satisfy the deepest emotions of the soul—a want of living glow, fondness, warmth, which the old exaltés and poets supply, and which the keenest modern philosophers so far do not.
When I was a young man one of my placards for everyday contemplation was this:
To guard lest I settle into the mood of the scholars, critics,
To not take a severe view of things,
Growling at the universe in general and all its particulars,
(I think I have mainly succeeded in holding myself in check, if check were needed.)
I consider it the bane of the universities, colleges, that they withhold, withdraw, men from direct, drastic contact with life. All our intellectual people obey the authorities, settle disputes by the old tests, keep out of rain and sun, retreat to the shelter of houses and schools—unmistakably genteel persons, travelled, college-learned, used to being served by servants, conversing without heat or vulgarity, supported on chairs, or walking through handsomely-carpeted parlors, or along shelves bearing well-bound volumes.
As between a university course and a struggle of the right sort in the quick of everyday life, the life course would beat the university course every time. The best things escape, skip, the universities. The university is only contemporary at best; it goes, but not in advance. It is never prophetic; often, indeed, has its eyes set in the back of its head.
The theories of the schools and governments and religions, all have something noble and true, all and every one of them. But knowledge and sciences, however important, are branches, radiations only, each one relative. Not the best that ever was built or ever will be built on earth can stand as the final destination of man.
The ambition for universal knowledge always is a vain ambition, already carried to extravagant lengths and tainting the schools; no philosophy possibly can, in deepest analysis, explain the universe.
Mocking all the textbooks and professor’s expositions and proofs and diagrams,
Stand or lie millions of all the most beautiful and common facts—
The fact is greater than anything we can say about the fact.
A single glance mocks all the investigations of man,
And all the instruments and books of the earth and all reasoning,
The least insect, the eyesight, motion, baffle us,
To glance with an eye or show a bean in its pod confounds the learning of all times.
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till I look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Books are the leaven of the bread of life, the stairs of humanity,
The cables that hold to us, as to a shore, the freighted supply ship of the past,
Important as helping one’s personal qualities, and the use and power of a man.
I would read, read, read—it’s a good habit to get into;
All my own tastes are towards books you can easily handle—put in your pocket—
To put a book in your pocket and off to the seashore or the forest, that is an ideal pleasure,
I know I did my best reading when I was alone that way.
I don’t know but in reading the best method is to simply let the mind caper about and do as it chooses—or as it don’t choose, as it must.
My reading is wholly without plan; the first thing at hand, that is what I pick up,
I read by fits and starts—fragments—no sequence, no order, no nothing.
I never try to create interest for myself in a book,
If the interest don’t come of its own account I drop my experiment—
I would no more force my reading than my writing.
I read a book in which I have a special interest three times or more—
Once to get its capital features,
Then after some delay I go at it again for its atmosphere, spirit, and so on; that’s reading number two,
Then comes number three: I read finally for conclusions,
I will only come at an opinion of the book by very patient waiting.
I have to read, but after all that has never been the chief thing with me. Books are like men—the best of them have flaws. (Thank God for the flaws!) What they are all doing in books, poems, sermons is strain to make an impression—everything loved that will dazzle the beholder, everything hated that will not.
Books won’t say what we must have said. Try all that books may, they can’t say it. Less than a thousandth part—a thousandth thousandth part—of things written, prepared, studied, gets into print. All that goes to the making of what is published is unknown—ever must be unknown. And it is a vast sea of itself. Oh the tragedy and pathos of it!
It is marvellous what capacity books have for destroying as well as making a man;
The best man in the world is the man who has absorbed great books, made the most of them,
Yet remains unspoiled—remains a man.
(I sometimes find myself more interested in book making than in book writing. The way books are made, that always excites my curiosity.)
There is something better than any and all books,
And that is the real stuff whereof they are the artificial transcript and portraiture.
There are plenty who do not own books,
But all men and women possess in fee simple the curbless and bottomless mine itself,
Of whence books are but the dust and scraps.
To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.
Book learning is good, all book knowledge is, but a man may be of great excellence and effect with very little of it,
Because you are no scholar and never saw your name in print, do you give in that you are any less immortal?
Powerful unlearned persons are also grand,
Powerful persons, and the first inventors and poets of the earth, never come from the depths of the schools—never.
The greatest writers are well pleased and at their ease among the unlearned,
Are received by common men and women familiarly, do not hold out obscure,
But come welcome to table, bed, leisure, by day and night.
I care less and less for books as books—more and more for people as people.
When a university course convinces like a slumbering woman and child convince,
When I can touch the body of books by night or by day, and when they touch my body back again,
I intend to reach them my hand, and make as much of them as I do of men and women like you.
Who are you that wanted only a book to join you in your nonsense?
Who are you that wanted only to be told what you knew before?
Who are you, blabbing by rote, years, pages, languages, reminiscences?
Will you grub and chatter all your life,
Unwitting that you do not know how to speak properly a single word?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?
Which is the theory or book that is not diseased?
You shall no longer feed on the spectres in books,
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it,
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
(Oh damnation! damnation! Thy other name is school-teaching.)
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are,
I subject all the teachings of the schools, and all dicta and authority, to the tests of myself,
And I encourage you to subject the same to the tests of yourself.
I conn’d old times, I sat studying at the feet of the great masters,
Studied the new and antique, the Greek and Germanic systems,
The lore of Plato, and Socrates greater than Plato—
Now if eligible, O that the great masters might return and study me,
That I eat and drink is spectacle enough for the great authors and schools.
Writing and talk do not prove me,
In libraries I lie as one dumb, a gawk, or unborn, or dead.
No shutter’d room or school can commune with me,
But roughs and little children better than they,
Breathing the open airs—never, never the odor of libraries!
Shut not your doors to me proud libraries,
For that which was lacking on all your well-fill’d shelves, yet needed most, I bring.
I am a student, free, of a library—it is limitless and eternally open to me,
The books written in numberless tongues, always perfect and alive—
These forms, the least insect or animal, I read every page, and enjoy the meaning of the same.
Beginning my studies, the first step pleas’d me so much—
The mere fact of consciousness, the power of motion, the senses, eyesight, love—
The first step I say awed me and pleas’d me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wish’d to go any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.
From my voice proceeds another voice eternally curious of the harmony of things with man.
NEXT: THE UNIVERSE