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A Defense of Enthusiasm Henry Theodore Tuckerman

A Defense of Enthusiasm

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There is yet another principle which seems to me but faintly recognized in the New England philosophy of life, however it may be occasionally cultivated as a department of literature; and yet it is one which we should deem essentially dear to man, a glorious endowment, a crowning grace of humanity. It is that principle through which we commune with all that is lovely and grand in the universe, which mellows the pictures of memory into pensive beauty, and irradiates the visions of hope with unearthly brightness; which elevates our social experience by the glow of fancy, and exhibits scenes of perfection to the soul that the senses can never realize. It is the poetical principle. If this precious gift could be wholly annihilated amid the commonplace and the actual, we should lose the interest of life. The dull routine of daily experience, the tame reality of things, would weigh like a heavy and permanent cloud upon our hearts. But the office of this divine spirit is to throw a redeeming grace around the objects and the scenes of being. It is the breeze that lifts the weeds on the highway of time and brings to view the violets beneath. It is the holy water which, sprinkled on the Mosaic pavement of life, makes vivid its brilliant tints. It is the mystic harp upon whose strings the confused murmur of toil, gladness, and grief, loses itself in music. But it performs a yet higher function than that of consolation. It is through the poetical principle that we form images of excellence, a notion of progress that quickens every other faculty to rich endeavor. All great men are so, chiefly through unceasing effort to realize in action, or embody in art, sentiments of deep interest or ideas of beauty. As colors exist in rays of light, so does the ideal in the soul, and life is the mighty prism which refracts it. Shelley maintains that it is only through the imagination that we can overleap the barriers of self and become identified with the universal and the distant, and, therefore, that this principle is the true fountain of benevolent affections and virtue. I know it is sometimes said that the era of romance has passed, that with the pastoral, classic, and chivalrous periods of the world, the poetic element died out. But this is manifestly a great error. The forms of society have greatly changed, and the methods of poetical development are much modified, but the principle itself is essential to humanity. No! mechanical as is the spirit of the age, and wide as is the empire of utility, as long as the stars appear nightly in the firmament, and golden clouds gather around the departing sun; as long as we can greet the innocent smile of infancy and the gentle eye of woman; as long as this earth is visited by visions of glory and dreams of love and hopes of heaven; while life is encircled by mystery, brightened by affection, and solemnized by death, so long will the poetical spirit be abroad, with its fervent aspirations and deep spells of enchantment. Again, it is often urged that the poetical spirit belongs appropriately to a certain epoch of life, and that its influence naturally ceases with youth. But this can only be the case through self-apostasy. The poetical element was evidently intended to mingle with the whole of human experience; not only to glow in the breast of youth, but to dignify the thought of manhood, and make venerable the aspect of age. Its purpose clearly is to relieve the sternness of necessity, to lighten the burden of toil, and throw sacredness and hope even around suffering--as the old painters were wont to depict groups of cherubs above their martyrdoms. Nor can I believe that the agency of this principle is so confined and temporary as many suppose. It is true our contemplation of the beautiful is of short duration, our flights into the ideal world brief and occasional. We can but bend in passing at the altar of beauty, and pluck a flower hastily by the wayside;--but may there not be an instinct which eagerly appropriates even those transitory associations? May they not be unconsciously absorbed into the essence of our life, and gradually refine and exalt the spirit within us? I cannot think that such rich provision for the poetic sympathies is intended for any casual or indifferent end. Rather let us believe there is a mystic language in the flowers, and a deep meaning in the stars, that the transparency of the winter air and the long sweetness of summer twilight pass, with imperceptible power, over the soul; rather let us cherish the thought that the absorbing emotions of love, the sweet excitement of adventure and the impassioned solemnity of grief, with a kind of spiritual chemistry, combine and purify the inward elements into nobler action and more perfect results. Of the poetical principle, the philosophy of life in New England makes little account. Emblems of the past do not invite our gaze down the vistas of time. Reverence is seldom awakened by any object, custom, or association. The new, the equal, the attainable, constantly deaden our faith in infinite possibilities. Life rarely seems miraculous, and the commonplace abounds. There is much to excite, and little to chasten and awe. We need to see the blessedness of a rational conservatism, as well as the inspiring call for reform. There are venerable and lovely agencies in this existence of ours which it is sacrilege to scorn. The wisdom of our renowned leaders in all departments is too restless and conscious to be desirable; and it would be better for our boasted "march of mind," if, like the quaint British essayist, a few more "were dragged along in the procession." An extravagant spirit of utility invades every scene of life however sequestered. We attempt not to brighten the grim features of care, or relieve the burdens of responsibility. The daughter of a distinguished law professor in Europe was in the habit of lecturing in her father's absence. To guard against the fascination of her charms, which it was feared would divert the attention of the students, a curtain was drawn before the fair teacher, from behind which she imparted her instructions. Thus do we carefully keep out of sight the poetical and veil the spirit of beauty, that we may worship undisturbed at the shrine of the practical. We ever seek the light of knowledge; but are content that no fertilizing warmth lend vitality to its beams.

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A Defense of Enthusiasm
Henry Theodore Tuckerman

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