Louise Imogen Guiney

The under dog

What a pity a memoir cannot be written without regard to its alleged incidents! Annalists are naturally the slaves of what happens; and that glows between them and the eternal, like gorgeous-colored minister glass, a spurious man-made heaven. A written Life may be true to fact and false to law, even as a lived life may be so. It is utterly impossible for the most philosophic among us to know, to judge, or even to speculate, in behalf of any but himself. A word, a risk, a blunder, the breadth of a hair, the difference betwixt the two Kings of Brentford, lifts the obscure into apparent greatness, or forbids the potentially greater to descend to that table-land where there is no mist, where human senses come into play, and where he may become a subject for the approbation of history. In whatsoever degree a creature is burdened with conscience and stiffened with will, his course must be continuously deflected by countless little secret interior collisions and readjustments, which have final cumulative influence on what we call his character and his achievement. The means to this end are nowhere discoverable, unless in a perfect autobiography, and under the eye of the perfect reader. Fate must have her joke sometimes, as well as the least of us, and she suffers cheap energy to fill the newspapers for a lustrum, and genius to await identification at the morgue. These are truisms, but here is truth: in nine hundred and ninety-nine instances out of a thousand, it is folly to name any success or failure as such; for either is a mystery, and the fairest evidences by which we can form an opinion of it are altogether and irremediably fallacious. Now, what has often used up and ended a man’s vital force, is some constraint much more significant than that of early death, a constraint sought and willingly undergone. His own moral weakness stopped Coleridge; but Erasmus might have uttered with Sidney:

My life melts with too much thinking.

Socrates, it will be remembered “corrupted the Athenian youth.” Not one of them he moulded or breathed upon, except the transient pupil Alcibiades, turned his hand cordially to the practical, or ramped in the civic china-shop. What ghost is it which certain minds see upon the way, and which lessens their destined momentum? Something extra-rational, we may be sure: something with an august enchantment. They act under the impulse of an heroic fickleness, and forsake a known and very good result for “the things that are more excellent.” The spectators can only wonder; the crucial third act has passed swiftly and in silence behind the curtain, and the rest of the drama sounds perverted and confused. A mere secular enthusiasm may have the power to draw a career to itself, absorb and devour it, and keep it shut forever from the chance of distinction in selfish and pleasant ways. But what shall be said for those who have become impassioned of the supernatural, beholding it in amaze, as Hubert the hunter beheld the holy sign between the antlered brows in the Aquitanian forest: a sight enough to stay them and carry them out of themselves, and change what was their prospect, because “the former things are passed away?” What of the allegiance to a cause, the spousal of hunger and thirst, the wilderness, and the scaffold, in the hope, never ultimately in vain, of awakening and bettering the world? “If the law require you to be the agent of injustice to another,” wrote Thoreau, in his good manful essay on John Brown, “then I say to you, break the law. Let your life be a friction to stop the machine.” Even thus have many gone under, of whom no audiences have heard, but whose love and wisdom feed the race, century after century. In our reckoning of the saints, we lose sight of half their meaning; for we cannot guess accurately which of them has lost most, humanly and aesthetically, nor how much any one individual has lost, by his chosen concentration on matters in which there is no general competition, and where there can be no established canons of criticism. Some saints, in a double sense, follow their vocations; they attain their only legitimate development in the cloister. But others are saints at a sacrifice. An infinite number of men and women, painfully approximating moral perfection, lose, either gradually, or at once and forever, in that supreme compensation, their aptitude for common affairs. Ejiciebas eas, et intrabas fro eis omne voluptate dulcior, says the son of Monica’s tears, himself gloriously stricken out from the pagan roll of honor.

Such as these have outgrown their own existence; they become Impalpable to the general apprehension; they have sold the mess of pottage again for the birthright of the sons of God. And God, in the audacious old phrase, has “destroyed” them. What they bade fair to be, or what they could have done, before they were crippled by vigils and visions, rolls back into the impossible and the unimagined. We have no clue to alienated souls: we can compute with those solely, who, as we say, get along and amount to something; and we seldom perceive what purely fortuitous reputations, what mere bright flotsam and jetsam, accidentally uppermost, are those whom we set first in a fixed place, and cry up as exemplars in art, trade, and policy. For what might have been is not this crass world’s concern: her absent have no rights. The spiritual man is likely to be possessed of a divine indolence; would he strive, he is hampered and thwarted by the remembrance, or the forecast, of whiter ideals in Paradise. It is sometimes urged as a reproach against the courteous Latin notions that they lag behind in modern progressiveness; that they do not, like the Border lads, “march forward in order.” The reproach is, at bottom, a delicate and exquisite compliment. With genius in their blood, and beauty never far from their hand, what wonder if they continue to be careless about rapid transit?

I have seen higher, holier things than these,
And therefore must to these refuse my heart.

The endearing fable of elf-shot or bewitched children, little goose-girls waylaid on the hillside by fairies in green and silver, and enticed away, and set free after a while, though with the dream and blight ever upon them, is, like most fables, deep as immortality. The mystic has already gone too far, and seen too much; he is useless at the plough: he is, as it were, one citizen less. The fine lines just quoted are from an expert in inaction, the poet who, among all others with an equal equipment in English letters, may be named pre-eminently as a failure: Arthur Hugh Clough. Let his lovers proclaim as much with gentle irony. Most poets, it may be, are heroes spoiled; they know somewhat of the unknown, and suffer from it; the usual measure of their esoteric worth must still be the measure of their mundane impracticability: like Hamlet, they have seen spirits, and forswear deeds for phrases. Artists and thinkers, in fact, must outwardly follow the profession of the queen bee, not as yet with honor, nor by general request. But they are omens; they are, let us hope, the type and the race, the segregated non-cohesive thing, the protest which counts. The noblest of them is least in love with civilization and its awards; but what they have not hoarded for themselves, strangers hoard for them; and because success is most truly to them a thing foregone, therefore they prevail forever. If they have not “made a living,” they have, in the opinion of a young Governor of Massachusetts, a philosopher not of the Franklin breed,—”made a life.”

(1893)

MLA Citation

Guiney, Louise Imogen. “The under dog.” 1893. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 27 Nov 2008. 12 Dec 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/guiney/under_dog/>.

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