« ElőzőTovább »
questions is, of course, that conspicuous Puritan, the Latin secretary to Oliver Cromwell, John Milton.
In a letter to an Italian friend, Milton writes: 'God has instilled into me, if into anyone, a vehement love of the beautiful. Not with so much labor is Ceres said to have sought her daughter Proserpine, as it is my habit day and night to seek for this idea of the beautiful . . . through all the forms and faces of things.' With some now nearly obsolete notions of precedence, Milton did place God before the arts. But was he hostile to the arts? The two most important sorts of people in the state, he declares, are, first, those who make the social existence of the citizens 'just and holy,' and, second, those who make it 'splendid and beautiful.' He insists that the very stability of the state depends upon the splendor and excellence of its public institutions and the splendid and excellent expression of its social life — depends, in short, as, I have insisted, upon the cooperation of the Puritans and the artists, upon the integrity of the national genius.
These iron men are said to have been devoid of tenderness and sympathy in personal relations. But this does not agree with the testimony of Bradford, who records it in his history that, in the first winter at Plymouth, when half the colony had died and most of the rest were sick, Myles Standish and Brewster, and the four or five others who were well, watched over and waited on the rest with the loving tenderness and the unflinching fidelity of a mother.
These people had fortitude; but was it due to callousness? Were they really, as Macaulay intimates, insensible to their own sufferings and the sufferings of others? Hear the cry of John Bunyan when prison separates him from his family: 'The parting with my wife and poor children hath often been to me in this place as the pulling the flesh
from my bone; and that not only because I am somewhat too fond of these great mercies, but also because I should have often brought to my mind the many hardships, miseries, and wants that my poor family was like to meet with, should I be taken from them, especially my poor blind child, who lay nearer my heart than all I had besides. O the thought of the hardship I thought my blind one might go under, would break my heart to pieces.'
Finally, these iron men are grievously charged with a lack of romantic feeling and the daring necessary to act upon it. Much depends upon what you mean by romance. If you mean by romance, a life of excitement and perilous adventure, there are duller records than that of the English Puritans. Not without some risk to themselves, not without at least an occasional thrill, did these pious villagers decapitate the King of England, overturn the throne of the Archbishop of Canterbury, pull- up stakes and settle in Holland, sail the uncharted Atlantic in a cockleshell, and set up a kingdom for Christ in the howling wilderness. I don't think that dwellers in Gopher Prairie or Greenwich Village have a right to call that life precisely humdrum.
Add to this the fact that the more fervent Puritans were daily engaged in a terrifically exciting adventure with Jehovah. Some women of to-day would think it tolerably interesting, I should suppose, to be married to a man like Cotton Mather, who rose every day after breakfast, went into his study, put, as he said, his sinful mouth in the dust of his study floor, and, while the tears streamed from his eyes, conversed directly with angels, with 'joy unspeakable and full of glory.' if a Puritan wife was pious, she was engaged in a true 'eternal triangle'; when Winthrop left home, his wife was committed by him to the arms of her heavenly lover. If she were not pious, she stole the records of his conversation with angels, and went, like Mather's wife, into magnificent fits of jealousy against the Lord of Hosts. The resulting atmosphere may not have been ideal; but it is not to be described as 'sullen gloom'; it was not humdrum like a Dreiser novel; it was tense with the excitement of living on the perilous edge of Paradise.
Did these Puritan husbands lack charm, or devotion to their women? I find that theory hard to reconcile with the fact that so many of them had three wives. Most of us modern men feel that we have charm enough, if we can obtain and retain one, now that higher education of women has made them so exacting in their standards and so expensive to maintain. Now, Cotton Mather had three wives; and when he was forty or so, in the short interim between number two and number three, he received a proposal of marriage from a girl of twenty, who was, he thought, the wittiest and the prettiest girl in the colony. I conclude inevitably that there was something very attractive in Cotton Mather. Call it charm; call it what you will; he possessed that which the Ladies' Home Journal would describe as' What women admire in men.'
As a further illustration of the 'sullen gloom of their domestic habits,' take the case of John Winthrop, the pious Puritan governor of Massachusetts. After a truly religious courtship, he married his wife, about 1618, against the wishes of her friends. We have some letters of the early years of their life together, in which he addresses her as 'My dear wife,' 'My sweet wife,' and 'My dear wife, my chief joy in this world.' Well, that is nothing; at first, we all do that.
But ten years later Winthrop prepared to visit New England, without his family, to found a colony. While
waiting for his ship to sail, he writes still to his wife by every possible messenger, merely to tell her that she is his chief joy in all the world; and before he leaves England he arranges with her that, as long as he is away, every week on Tuesday and Friday at five o'clock he and she will think of each other wherever they are, and commune in spirit. When one has been married ten or twelve long years, that is more extraordinary. It shows, I think, romantic feeling equal to that in Miss Lulu Bett, or Poor W.htte, or Moon-Calf.
Finally, I will present an extract from a letter of this same John Winthrop to this same wife, written in 1637, when they had been married twenty years. It is an informal note, written hurriedly, in the rush of business: —
I was unwillingly hindered from coming to thee, nor am I like to see thee before the last day of this weeke: therefore I shall want a band or two: and cuffs. I pray thee also send me six or seven leaves of tobacco dried and powdered. Have care of thyself this cold weather, and speak to the folks to keep the goats well out of the garden. . . . If any letters be come for me, send them by this bearer. I will trouble thee no further. The Lord bless and keep thee, my sweet wife, and all our family; and send us a comfortable meeting. So I kiss thee and love thee ever and rest Thy faithful husband,
If, three hundred years after my death, it is proved by documentary evidence that twenty years after my marriage I still, in a familiar note, mixed up love and kisses with my collars and tobacco — if this is proved, I say, I shall feel very much surprised if the historian of that day speaks of the 'sullen gloom of my domestic habits.'
But now, three hundred years after Winthrop's time, what is actually being said about the Puritans? In spite of abundant evidences such as I have exhibited, our recent Pilgrim celebration was a rather melancholy affair. From the numerous commemoratory articles which I have read, I gather that there are only three distinct opinions about the Puritan now current — every one of them erroneous.
The first, held by a small apologetic group of historians and Mayflower descendants, is, that the Puritan was a misguided man of good intentions. Since he was a forefather and has long been dead, he should be spoken of respectfully; and it is proper from time to time to drop upon his grave a few dried immortelles. The second opinion is, that the Puritan was an unqualified pest, but that he is dead and well dead, and will trouble us no more forever. The third, and by far the most prevalent, is, that the Puritan was once a pest, but has now become a menace; that he is more alive than ever, more baleful, more dangerous.
This opinion is propagated in part by old New Englanders like Mr. Brooks Adams, who have turned upon their ancestors with a vengeful fury, crying, 'Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.' And I noticed only the other day that Mr. Robert Herrick was speaking remorsefully of Puritanism as an 'ancestral blight' in his veins. But the opinion is still more actively propagated by a literary group which comes out flatfootedly against the living Puritan as the enemy of freedom, of science, of beauty, of romance; as a being with unbreakable belief in his own bleak and narrow views; a Philistine, a hypocrite, a tyrant, of savage cruelty of attack, with a lust for barbarous persecution, and of intolerable dirty-mindedness.
Despite the 'plank' of universal sympathy in the rather hastily constructed literary platform of these young people, it is manifest that they are out to destroy the credit of the Puritan in America. We are not exceptionally rich in spiritual traditions. It would be a pity, by a persistent campaign of abuse, to ruin the credit of any good ones. One of the primary functions, indeed, of scholarship and letters is to connect us with the great traditions and to inspire us with the confidence and power which result from such a connection. Puritanism, rightly understood, is one of the vital, progressive, and enriching human traditions. It is a tradition peculiarly necessary to the health and the stability and the safe forward movement of a democratic society. When I consider from what antiquity it has come down to us and what vicissitudes it has survived, I do not fear its extermination; but I resent the misapprehension of its character and the aspersion of its name. Perhaps our insight into its true nature may be strengthened and our respect renewed, if we revisit its source and review its operations at some periods a little remote from the dust and diatribes of contemporary journalism.
A good many ages before Rome was founded, or Athens, or ancient Troy, or Babylon, or Nineveh, there was an umbrageous banyan tree in India, in whose wide-spreading top and populous branches red and blue baboons, chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-outangs, and a missing group of anthropoid apes had chattered and fought and flirted and feasted and intoxicated themselves on cocoanut wine for a thousand years. At some date which I can't fix with accuracy, the clatter and mess and wrangling of arboreal simian society began to pall on the heart of one of the anthropoid apes. He was not happy. He was afflicted with ennui. He felt stirring somewhere in theregionof his diaphragm a yearning and capacity for a new life. His ideas were vague; but he resolved to make a break for freedom and try an experiment. He crawled nervously out to the end of his branch, followed by a few of his friends, hesitated a moment; then exclaimed abruptly,' Here's where I get off,' dropped to the ground, lighted on his feet, and amid a pelting of decayed fruit and cocoanut shells and derisive shouts of 'precisian' and 'hypocrite,' walked off on his hind-legs into another quarter of the jungle and founded the human race. That was the first Puritan.
In the beginning, he had only a narrow vision; for his eyes were set near together, as you will see if you examine his skull in the museum. He had a vision of a single principle, namely, that he was to go upright, instead of on all fours. But he gradually made that principle pervade all his life; for he resolutely refrained from doing anything that he could not do while going upright. As habit ultimately made the new posture easy and natural, he found that there were compensations in it; for he learned to do all sorts of things in the erect attitude that he could not do, even with the aid of his tail, while he went on all-fours. So he began to rejoice in what he called 'the new freedom.' But to the eyes of the denizens of the banyan tree, he looked very ridiculous. They called him stiff-necked, strait-laced, unbending, and inflexible. But when they swarmed into his little colony of come-outers, on all fours, and began to play their monkeytricks, he met them gravely and said: 'Walk upright, as the rest of us do, and you may stay and share alike with us. Otherwise, out you go.' And out some of them went, back to the banyan tree;
and there, with the chimpanzees and the red and blue baboons, they still chatter over their cocoanut wine, and emit from time to time a scream of simian rage, and declare their straightbacked relative a tyrant, a despot, and a persecutor of his good old four-footed cousins.
You may say that this is only a foolish fable. But it contains all the essential features of the eternal Puritan: namely, dissatisfaction with the past, courage to break sharply from it, a vision of a better life, readiness to accept a discipline in order to attain that better life, and a serious desire to make that better life prevail — a desire reflecting at once his sturdy individualism and his clear sense for the need of social solidarity. In these respects all true Puritans, in all ages and places of the world, are alike. Everyone is dissatisfied with the past; everyone has the courage necessary to revolt; everyone has a vision; everyone has a discipline; and everyone desires his vision of the better life to prevail.
How do they differ among themselves? They differ in respect to the breadth and the details of their vision. Their vision is determined by the width of their eyes and by the lights of their age. According to the laws of human development, some of the lights go out from time to time, or grow dim, and new lights appear, and the vision changes from age to age.
What does not change in the true Puritan is the passion for improvement. What does not change is the immortal urgent spirit that breaks from the old forms, follows the new vision, seriously seeks the discipline of the higher life. When you find a man who is quite satisfied with the past and with the routine and old clothes of his ancestors, who has not courage for revolt and adventure, who cannot accept the discipline and hardship of a new life, and who does not really care whether the new life prevails, you may be sure that he is not a Puritan.
But who are the Puritans? Aristotle recognized that there is an element of the Puritan in every man, when he declared that all things, by an intuition of their own nature, seek their perfection. He classified the desire for perfection as a fundamental human impulse. Still, we have to admit that in many men it must be classified as a victoriously suppressed desire. We can recognize men as Puritans only when they have released and expressed their desire for perfection.
Leopardi declared that Jesus was the first to condemn the world as evil, and to summon his followers to come out from it, in order to found a community of the pure in heart. But this is an historical error. Unquestionably Jesus was a Puritan in relation to a corrupt Jewish tradition and in relation to a corrupt and seriously adulterated pagan tradition. But every great religious and moral leader, Christian or pagan, has likewise been a Puritan: Socrates, Plato, Zeno, Confucius, Buddha. Every one of them denounced the world, asked his followers to renounce many of their instinctive ways, and to accept a rule and discipline of the better life — a rule involving a purification by the suppression of certain impulses and the liberation of others.
There is much talk of the austerities of the Puritan households of our forefathers, austerities which were largely matters of necessity. But two thousand years before these forefathers, there were Greek Stoics, and Roman Stoics, and Persian and Hindu ascetics, who were far more austere, and who practised the ascetic life from choice as the better life. There is talk as if Protestant Calvinism had suddenly in modern times introduced the novel idea of putting religious duty before gratification
of the senses. But a thousand years before Knox and Calvin, there were Roman Catholic monasteries and hermitages, where men and women, with a vision of a better life, mortified the flesh far more bitterly than the Calvinists ever dreamed of doing. If contempt of earthly beauty and earthly pleasure were the works of Puritanism, then the hermit saints of Catholicism who lived before Calvin should be recognized as the model Puritans. But the hermit saint lacks that passion for making his vision prevail, lacks that practical sense of the need for social solidarity, which are eminent characteristics of the true Puritan, both within and without the Roman Church.
In the early Middle Ages the Roman Church, which also had a strong sense of the need for social solidarity, strove resolutely to keep the Puritans, whom it was constantly developing, within its fold and to destroy those who escaped. If I follow the course of those who successfully left the fold, it is not because many did not remain within; it is because the course of those who came out led them more directly to America. In the fourteenth century, John Wycliffe, the first famous English Puritan, felt that the Roman Church had become hopelessly involved with the 'world' on the one hand, and with unnatural, and therefore unchristian, austerities on the other, and that, in both ways, it had lost the purity of the early Christian vision of the better life. To obtain freedom for the better life, he became convinced that one must come out from the Roman Church, and must substitute for the authority of the pope the authority of the Bible as interpreted by the best scholarship of the age. He revolted, as he thought, in behalf of a life, not merely more religious, but also more actively and practically moral, and intellectually more honest. For him, accepting certain traditional doc