Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes

Every Man His Own Boswell

"All generous minds have a horror of what are commonly called 'facts.' They are the brute beasts of the intellectual domain. Who does not know fellows that always have an ill-conditioned fact or two that they lead after them into decent company like so many bulldogs, ready to let them slip at every ingenious suggestion, or convenient generalisation, or pleasant fancy? I allow no 'facts' at this table."

I continued, for I was in the talking vein, "This business of conversation is a very serious matter. There are men that it weakens one to talk with an hour more than a day's fasting would do. They are the talkers that have what may be called jerky minds. After a jolting half-hour with one of these jerky companions talking with a dull friend affords great relief. It is like taking the cat in your lap after holding a squirrel."

"Do not dull people bore you?" said one of the lady boarders.

"Madam," said I, "all men are bores except when we want them. Talking is like playing on the harp; there is as much in laying the hand on the strings to stop the vibrations as in twanging them to bring out the music. There is this, too, about talking," I continued; "it shapes our thoughts for us; the waves of conversation roll them as the surf rolls the pebbles on the shore. Writing or printing is like shooting with a rifle; you may hit your reader's mind, or miss it, but talking is like playing at a mark with the pipe of an engine—if it is within reach, and you have time enough, you can't help hitting it."

The company agreed that this last illustration was of superior excellence.

The Ageing of Ideas

"I want to make a literary confession now, which I believe nobody has made before me. I never wrote a 'good' line in my life, but the moment after it was written it seemed a hundred years old. The rapidity with which ideas grow old in our memories is in a direct ratio to the squares of their importance. A great calamity, for instance, is as old as the trilobites an hour after it has happened. It stains backward through all the leaves we have turned over in the book of life, before its blot of tears or of blood is dry on the page we are turning."

I wish I had not said all this then and there. The pale schoolmistress, in her mourning dress, was looking at me with a wild sort of expression; and all at once she melted away from her seat like an image of snow; a sling shot could not have brought her down better. God forgive me!

The Confusion of Personality

"We must remember that talking is one of the fine arts—the noblest, the most important, and the most difficult. It is not easy at the best for two persons talking together to make the most of each other's thoughts, there are so many of them."

The company looked as if they wanted an explanation.

"When John and Thomas, for instance, are talking together," I continued, "it is natural that among the six there should be more or less confusion and misapprehension."

Our landlady turned pale. No doubt she thought there was a screw loose in my intellect, and that it involved the probable loss of a boarder. Everybody looked up, and the old gentleman opposite slid the carving-knife to one side, as it were, carelessly.

"I think," I said, "I can make it plain that there are at least six personalities distinctly to be recognised as taking part in that dialogue between John and Thomas.

THREE JOHNS

1. The real John; known only to his Maker.

2. John's ideal John; never the real one, and often very unlike him.

3. Thomas's ideal John; never the real John, nor John's John, but often very unlike either.

THREE THOMASES

1. The real Thomas.

2. Thomas's ideal Thomas.

3. John's ideal Thomas.

"It follows that until a man can be found who knows himself as his Maker knows him, or who sees himself as others see him, there must be at least six persons engaged in every dialogue between two. No wonder two disputants often get angry when there are six of them talking and listening all at the same time."

A very unphilosophical application of the above remarks was made by a young fellow, answering to the name of John, who sits near me at table. A certain basket of peaches, a rare vegetable, little known to boarding-houses, was on its way to me viā this unlettered Johannes. He appropriated the three that remained in the basket, remarking that there was just one apiece for him. I convinced him that his practical inference was hasty and illogical—but in the meantime he had eaten the peaches.

More on Books

"Some of you boarders ask me why I don't write a novel, or something of that kind. Well, there are several reasons against it. In the first place I should tell all my secrets, and I maintain that verse is the proper medium for such revelations. Again, I am terribly afraid I should show up all my friends, and I am afraid all my friends would not bear showing up very well. And sometimes I have thought I might be too dull to write such a story as I should wish to write. And, finally, I think it is very likely I shall write a story one of these days.

"I saw you smiled when I spoke about the possibility of my being too dull to write a good story. When one arrives at the full and final conclusion that he or she is really dull, it is one of the most tranquillising and blessed convictions that can enter a mortal's mind.

"How sweetly and honestly one said to me the other day, 'I hate books!' I did not recognise in him inferiority of literary taste half so distinctly as I did simplicity of character, and fearless acknowledgment of his inaptitude for scholarship. In fact, I think there are a great many who read, with a mark to keep their place, that really 'hate books,' but never had the wit to find it out, or the manliness to own it."

Dual Consciousness

I am so pleased with my boarding-house that I intend to remain here, perhaps for years.

"Do thoughts have regular cycles? Take this: All at once a conviction flashes through us that we have been in the same precise circumstances as at the present instant once or many times before."

When I mentioned this the Schoolmistress said she knew the feeling well, and didn't like to experience it; it made her think she was a ghost, sometimes.

The young fellow whom they call John said he knew all about it. He had just lighted a cheroot the other day when a tremendous conviction came over him that he had done just that same thing ever so many times before.

"How do I account for it? Well, some think that one of the hemispheres of the brain hangs fire, and the small interval between the perceptions of the nimble and the sluggish half seems an indefinitely long period, and therefore the second perception appears to be the copy of another, ever so old."

The Race of Life

"Nothing strikes one more in the race of life than to see how many give out in the first half of the course. 'Commencement day' always reminds me of the start of the 'Derby.' Here we are at Cambridge and a class is first 'graduating.' Poor Harry! he was to have been there, but he has paid forfeit.

"Ten years gone. First turn in the race. A few broken down; two or three bolted. 'Cassock,' a black colt, seems to be ahead of the rest. 'Meteor' has pulled up.

"Twenty years. Second corner turned. 'Cassock' has dropped from the front, and 'Judex,' an iron-grey, has the lead. But look! how they have thinned out! Down flat—five—six—how many? They will not get up again in this race be very sure!

"Thirty years. Third corner turned. 'Dives,' bright sorrel, ridden by the fellow in a yellow jacket, begins to make play fast—is getting to be the favourite with many. But who is that other one that now shows close up to the front? Don't you remember the quiet brown colt 'Asteroid,' with the star in his forehead? That is he; he is one of the sort that lasts. 'Cassock' is now taking it easily in a gentle trot.

"Forty years. More dropping off, but places much as before.

"Fifty years. Race over. All that are on the course are coming in at a walk; no more running. Who is ahead? Ahead? What! and the winning-post a slab of white or gray stone standing out from that turf where there is no more jockeying, or straining for victory! Well, the world marks their places in its betting-book; but be sure that these matter very little, if they have run as well as they knew how!

"I will read you a few lines, if you do not object, suggested by looking at a section of one of those chambered shells to which is given the name of Pearly Nautilus.

THE CHAMBERED NAUTILUS
This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
Sails the unshadowed main—
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the siren sings,
And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.
Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim, dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed—
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!
Year after year beheld the silent toilThat spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year's dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last found home, and knew the old no more.
Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathed horn!
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:
Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea!

Sensibility and Scholarship

"Every person's feelings have a front-door and a side-door by which they may be entered. The front-door is on the street. The side-door opens at once into the sacred chambers. There is almost always at least one key to this side-door. This is carried for years hidden in a mother's bosom. Be very careful to whom you entrust one of these keys of the side-door. Some of those who come in at the side-door have a scale of your whole nervous system, and can play on all the gamut of your sensibilities in semi-tones. Married life is the school in which the most accomplished artists in this department are found. Be very careful to whom you give the side-door key.

"The world's great men have not commonly been great scholars, nor its great scholars great men. The Hebrew patriarchs had small libraries, if any; yet they represent to our imaginations a very complete idea of manhood, and I think if we could ask Abraham to dine with us men of letters next Saturday we should feel honoured by his company."

A Growing Romance

"I should like to make a few intimate revelations relating especially to my early life, if I thought you would like to hear them."

The schoolmistress turned in her chair and said, "If we should like to hear them—we should love to."

So I drew my chair a shade nearer her, and went on to speak of voices that had bewitched me.

"I wish you could hear my sister's voice," said the schoolmistress.

"If it is like yours it must be a pleasant one," said I.

Lately she has been walking early and has brought back roses in her cheeks. I love the damask rose best of all flowers.

Our talk had been of trees, and I had been comparing the American and the English elms in the walk we call the Mall. "Will you walk out and look at those elms with me after breakfast?" I said to the schoolmistress.

I am not going to tell lies about it, and say that she blushed. On the contrary, she turned a little bit pale, but smiled brightly, and said, "Yes, with pleasure." So she went to fetch her bonnet, and the old gentleman opposite followed her with his eyes, and said he wished he was a young fellow.

 "This is the shortest way," she said, as we came to the corner.

"Then we won't take it," said I.

When we reached the school-room door the damask roses were so much heightened in colour by exercise that I felt sure it would be useful to her to take a stroll like this every morning.

I have been low-spirited and listless lately. It is coffee, I think. I notice that I tell my secrets too easily when I am downhearted. There are inscriptions on our hearts never seen except at dead low-tide. And there is a woman's footstep on the sand at the side of my deepest ocean-buried inscription.

I am not going to say which I like best, the seashore or the mountains. The one where your place is, is the best for you; but this difference there is—you can domesticate mountains. The sea is feline. It licks your feet, its huge flanks purr very pleasantly for you; but it will crack your bones and eat you for all that, and wipe the crimsoned foam from its jaws as if nothing had happened. The mountains have a grand, stupid, lovable tranquillity; the sea has a fascinating, treacherous intelligence.

"If I thought I should ever see the Alps!" said the schoolmistress.

"Perhaps you might some time or other," I said.

"It is not very likely," she answered.

Tableau. Chamouni. Mont Blanc in full view. Figures in the foreground, two of them standing apart; one of them a gentleman—oh—ah—yes!—the other a lady, leaning on his shoulder. (The reader will understand this was an internal, private, subjective diorama, seen for one instant on the background of my own consciousness.)

*****

I can't say just how many walks she and I had taken together. I found the effect of going out every morning was decidedly favourable on her health. I am afraid I did the greater part of the talking. Better too few words from the woman we love than too many; while she is silent, Nature is working for her; while she talks she works for herself. Love is sparingly soluble in the words of men, therefore they speak much of it; but one syllable of woman's speech can dissolve more of it than a man's heart can hold.

Nature's Patient Advance

I don't know anything sweeter than the leaking in of Nature through all the cracks in the walls and floors of cities. You heap a million tons of hewn rocks on a square mile or so of earth which was green once. The trees look down from the hill-tops and ask each other, as they stand on tiptoe, "What are these people about?" And the small herbs look up and whisper back, "We will go and see." So the small herbs pack themselves up in the least possible bundles, and wait until the night wind steals to them and whispers, "Come with me." Then they go softly with it into the great city—one to a cleft in the pavement, one to a spout on the roof, one to a seam in the marble over a rich gentleman's bones, and one to the grave without a stone, where nothing but a man is buried—and there they grow, looking down on the generations of men from mouldy roofs, looking up from between the less-trodden pavements, looking out through iron cemetery railings.

Listen to them when there is only a light breath stirring, and you will hear them saying to each other, "Wait awhile." The words run along the telegraph of those narrow green lines that border the roads leading from the city, until they reach the slope of the hills, and the trees repeat in low murmurs, "Wait awhile." By and by the flow of life in the streets ebbs, and the old leafy inhabitants—the smaller tribes always in front—saunter in, one by one, very careless seemingly, but very tenacious, until they swarm so that the great stones gape from each other with the crowding of their roots, and the feldspar begins to be picked out of the granite to find them food. At last the trees take up their solemn line of march, and never rest until they have camped in the market-place. Wait long enough, and you will find an old doting oak hugging in its yellow underground arms a huge worn block that was the cornerstone of the State-house. Oh, so patient she is, this imperturbable Nature!

The Long Path

It was in talking of life that the schoolmistress and I came nearest together. I thought I knew something about that. The schoolmistress had tried life, too. Once in a while one meets with a single soul greater than all the living pageant that passes before it. This was one of them. Fortune had left her, sorrow had baptised her. Yet as I looked upon her tranquil face, gradually regaining a cheerfulness that was often sprightly, as she became interested in the various matters we talked about and places we visited, I saw that eye and lip and every shifting lineament were made for love.

I never addressed a word of love to the schoolmistress in the course of these pleasant walks. It seemed as if we talked of everything but love on that particular morning. There was, perhaps, a little more timidity and hesitancy on my part than I have commonly shown among our people at the boarding-house. In fact, I considered myself the master at the breakfast-table; but somehow I could not command myself just then so well as usual. The truth is, I had secured a passage to Liverpool in the steamer which was to leave at noon—with the condition of being released if circumstances occurred to detain me. The schoolmistress knew nothing about this, of course, as yet.

It was on the Common that we were walking. The boulevard of the Common, you know, has various branches leading from it in different directions. One of these runs across the whole length of the Common. We called it the "long path," and were fond of it.

I felt very weak indeed—though of a tolerably robust habit—as we came opposite to the head of this path on that morning. I think I tried to speak twice, without making myself distinctly audible. At last I got out the question, "Will you take the long path with me?" "Certainly," said the schoolmistress, "with much pleasure." "Think," I said, "before you answer. If you take the long path with me now, I shall interpret it that we are to part no more."

The schoolmistress stepped back with a sudden movement, as if an arrow had struck her. One of the long granite blocks used as seats was hard by—the one you may still see close by the gingko-tree. "Pray sit down," I said.

"No, no," she answered softly; "I will walk the long path with you!"

The old gentleman who sits opposite met us walking, arm-in-arm, about the middle of the long path, and said very charmingly to us, "Good-morning, my dears!"