« ElőzőTovább »
not the accomplishments of the mind which belong to older communities, she certainly has the attraction of a warm and unsophisticated heart. The former will come with the lapse of years, and happy will she be if the latter be not proportionably destroyed.
What is true of our city when compared with her seniors on this continent, is true of our whole country when compared with the nations of the old world. Our national literature is in its infancy. We have no vast libraries where profound investigations can be made. We have no such race of men as scholars by profession. We are essentially a practical people. We are too busy in improving our physical condition to take much interest in any thing else. So much is it so, that no sooner does a man of genius appear among us, than he is bought up and set to work in the drudgery of politics or commerce, or poverty drives him to waste his divine powers in some prison-house, grinding out the vile meal of every day life, or to perish in making sport for the lords of the Philistines. Poetry, that great awakener of the intellect of a people, has scarcely appeared amongst us. Though certainly a sensitive and imaginative people, our native poets have found but little encouragement. Our community of language with England has probably operated against us in this respect. The task of competing with Shakspeare and Byron seems too gigantic to afford any hope of success. These two bards alone seem to despairing genius to have exhausted human nature, the common field of imaginative composition, and to have left nothing to be said. But it is not so. When the cry was raised that the world had grown old, and the human mind in these latter days had become exhausted and effete, Byron arose and confuted the calumny. So it will be here. The human mind is always equal to itself. Some poet will yet arise among us worthy to describe our noble scenery, and breathing the spirit of our free institutions. How many mute inglorious Miltons have already descended to the tomb we do not know, many doubtless who might have written their names on the same tablet with the most renowned of the old world. But in a population of twenty millions, soon to be swelled to fifty, renewing itself three times a century, it is impossible that the combination of genius, industry, and opportunity, which developes the consummate poet, should not at length occur, and when he does appear, he will be received
not to doubtful disputation, but welcomed with gratitude, and reverence, and joy.
We must, we shall have a national literature. We already number several of the best writers of the English prose, and some of the deepest and most philosophical thinkers who have ever used our mother tongue. Here thought stands the best chance of being original. I sometimes think that it is not so great a disadvantage that our philosophers cannot immure themselves in libraries, and bury themselves in books. We see man under new aspects, to which the records of the past furnish no parallel. We cannot see man as he is, through the medium of what he has been, even were that medium not as it is, misty and obscure. The burning of the Alexandrian library was not so great a loss perhaps as it has been sometimes described. All wisdom does not lie in the past, and if scholars, instead of consuming their lives in learning by what names the Greeks and Romans called this and that, would go forth into the world and use their own eyes, and ears, and understandings, as these very men did whose works they study with so much reverence, they would be wiser in the end.
I am not wanting however, I would be understood, in reverence for the past. But I must
value it for what it has, and not for what it has not. I value antiquity for its facts, but for its opinions I cannot entertain any profound respect. There is a fallacy in the very language, when we speak of antiquity as being venerable and authoritative because it has the advantage of age and maturity, and therefore likely to have arrived at the perfection of wisdom. The very opposite is the fact. We are the old age and the maturity of the world, rather than the generations that have preceded us. The mature man does not refer to the opinions of his youth with any special reverence, merely because they were his opinions. He feels that a wider experience, and deeper reflection have compelled him to change many of them. Just so it is in the progress of the world. The profoundest wisdom can come only from the widest induction of particulars. It is irrational then to adopt the conclusions of even wiser men than ourselves, who lived long ago, when the materials from which we may make up an independent judgment are multiplied a hundred fold. Plato had a profound and a far reaching intellect, improved by much observation and deep reflection. But his opinions on politics are now of very little value, because the condition of the world has totally changed since his day. Since his times we have had the additional experience of many ages. All that he could possibly know of that science must have been derived from the few small states of Greece, and from a little knowledge of Egypt and Chaldea. The records of the past, to which he had access, were only a few uncertain traditions extending a few ages into the realms of barbarism and utter night. What could he know of the working of a republican government under all possible circumstances, when all that he could have learned of it was derived from a few little communities which a man might travel over in a day. The line of his wisdom would extend but a little way to sound the deep problems which are involved in the operations of a free government, extending over a territory greater than were in his times the whole domains of civilization, penetrated and bound together by canals and rail roads, and above all enlightened by the emanations of ten thousand printing presses.