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THE PAST, AND THE PRESENT.
By RICHARD H. Dana.
"Oh! that he were thus pervaded
With the Past! were thus persuaded
That distinguished divine, John Owen, said long ago, “ The world is at present in a mighty hurry, and being in many places cast off from all foundations of steadfastness, it makes the minds of men giddy with its revolutions, and disorderly in the expectations of them.”
If this was a truth in the days of Owen, it is equally a truth now; if men in his time tore themselves violently off from old associations, and went wild after change, no less are they ridding themselves of all that is old, and quite as wild are they after alteration, in our day.
There is nothing new under the sun, said Solomon. Men seemn resolved upon bringing the time speedily about, when they may look around them, and reversing the declaration of the wise man, be able to say, There is nothing old under the sun!
What a spirit is there in that word old! Who would live in a world where there was nothing old ? Experience would not, could not; nor sedateness, nor reflection slow and thoughtful. Fancy might, perhaps; but not imagination, that deeper power of the soul. And could the heart let go all its old attachments, and yet live? And hope, even beautiful hope, though the future may be its nourisher, is the child of the past, and waits by the bed of weariness or
A woman-saint, who bare an angel's face,
And how large would be the discourse of reason, looking before, and never after ? What would prospect be to us, without retrospect? A strange land without a guide. And
what is the present to us, without a lingering feeling for the past? A state of self-complacency, strangely blended with restlessness, and an impatient desire to be something we are not, no matter what, to gain something we have not, no matter how.
If this be indeed the age of change, it may be well to stop awhile, and ask ourselves, whether all we have cast behind us, is quite so useless as we have presumed? Whether that which we may have retained, is only to be tolerated for a time, and soon to be thrown by as worthless ? Whether the present, in comparison with the old and despised past, is every thing, and compared with the vague but exciting future, nothing ?
It is not, however, my present purpose, to go into the question of the relative merits of past and present times; but to speak, first, of the influence which a respect for the past
has upon the mind; and, then, of the influence which an exclusive attention to the present has upon
it. I must not be understood as confining myself to the remote, when I speak of the past; but as coming down and including both that which has more lately gone by us and taken its place in the memory, and sometimes even that which may still remain with us, but bearing the marks of age and the aspect of the past. This subject lies broad and deep in human nature; but all I can now do, is to set down a few of those thoughts which such a subject must call up in every reflecting mind, and to give utterance to only a part of those feelings which grow from it, and which are dear to me, because of my inward conviction of their truth.
The question naturally arises, in the outset, Is change, in itself considered, a good, or an evil?
Existence may be so unvaried, as to bring a sluggishness into the feelings, and a sleepiness over the intellect; uniformity may settle down into dulness, and content be the mere absence of sensibility. There may also be a pertinacious adherence to what is old, growing out of a morose pride in it, rather than out of a kindly love of it; a sulky rejection of the new, merely because it is new, and not from a heartsense that “the old is better :"—there may be a more surly dislike of the one, than of considerate esteem, or mellowed affection for the other. Age sometimes bears youth a grudge, because not possessing that of which youth is full-buoyancy of spirits, hopefulness, and health.
Nevertheless, after all that may be said about old-fashioned notions, obstinate prejudices, a brutish indifference to improvement, or a provoking unbelief in it, there is no less of clearheadedness, and quite as much of true-heartedness in this clinging to things as they were, as will be found at work in our eagerness after so-called improvements, in other words, change.
Through a long acquaintance with any thing, no matter how insignificant in itself, it becomes imperceptibly inwrought with our accustomed associations of feelings and thoughts, and, thus, partakes of their common life, and by sharing in it, adds to it. How much is there in the term, wonted' to a thing! We cannot utter it without being conscious of a gentle stirring among the affections. It is something that took life early in our hearts, and grew up, unobserved, it may be, branching in among our gentler feelings and quieter meditations, till the whole shoots up into a beautiful tree-top; and when the air of some outward circumstance comes upon it, how easily it moves back and forth, altogether? and what a melody there is in its low murmur? Look at it! Listen to it; for I know you are not so lost in the present, as to be no longer able to see it, to hear it, ay, to feel it.
Having thus grown up in and with us, it is become a part of ourselves, or rather, may it not be said ? is become very self; not the whole self, but so in and of self as to take away the thought of parts or portions, and thus has acted in the way of increment, without breaking up the integrity of the man. Nay, the unity of the character is the more perfect for it, for where unity does exist, its perfectness will be according to its intensity, and its intensity will be according to that which goes to make up its one simple element of living consciousness :—the more life, the more perfect oneness.
So it is, that the past, resolved within us into the principle of self, and thence, taking form early in us, becomes a constituent of our inward growth; and our enlargement has an all-pervading unity, and our variety is harmony. There is consistency in the man; and there has so long been a blending of thoughts and feelings, that they are, as it were, elemented of one, and the result is a whole man.
Hence comes strong individuality; for the growth being mainly from within, it partakes of the character of that from which it springs, and all the nourishment it absorbs from without, is transformed into this individuality, and then trans
fused through it, to invigorate and expand it, but not to change it. The branches of this spiritual tree may grow broader and stronger, but will keep their old shapes; its leaves may be fresher, but you will not be shocked by an unnatural putting forth of various sorts upon the same boughs. With variety there will be a singleness of kind; for they are of one family, the children of their common parent trunk—not adopted ones; and thus all will be beautiful congruity.
As this spirit of the past gives congruity and oneness to the character, all that share in this oneness must, as I have said, in partaking of it, add so much to its life, and not lie like detached masses upon the mind to be moved by it, but, on the contrary, be converted into the living energy of the mind itself, and so, be an increase of that mind's moving power. The past gives intensity to the living principle in still
One, who is not dead to old associations, never has his thoughts go back to the past, without a softening emotion of the soul. There is something in the past (I will not stop here to inquire what it is) which moves our better affections and makes us thoughtful, in a manner that neither the present nor the future ever does. Nor are these thoughts and affections confined to that which once had life. The commonest material object to which we had once been used, has this same moving power over us.
Even Pope, whose nature seems to have had less of this character than almost any other poet of high rank, said, with great simplicity of sadness, That he did not care to see an old post dug up. Now, just in proportion to our interest in the past and what is old, will be this life of the mind. And it has this characteristic; the intellect is vivified and kept alive by the suffused, mild warmth of the affections, and is all over tinted by them. Here, the principle of love is the spring of the mind's action. But we cannot have our affections drawn out towards a material object, in its mere material character. To have our affections excited towards it, to have our thoughts gather about it, we must impart to it affection and thought, and thus bring it into sympathy with ourselves: We must quicken its insensibility, and infuse into it consciousness and life.
Even where a material object is not endeared to us from a long acquaintance with it; for instance, where we take it up for the first time, and find it to be some little relique of one whom we loved, and a thousand emotions towards the departed are immediately awakened in us; even here, with all
this power of association and remembrance upon us, which one would think enough to draw us off from the thing itself that put them in motion, even here, that trifle which has called up this train of recollections, is not a mere thing to us; but becomes instinct with life from our feelings, and the soul converses with it, as with a being conscious of what had once passed between us and the departed object of our regard. Here, again, we see the soul, as if surcharged with life, giving out life to the commonest material objects around it. A cross-beam in an old ceiling, a decayed post, an old walking-stick, are endowed by us with feeling, and sentiment, and power of converse, and every thing around us becomes life, life: we move amid nothing but living things. As in Ezekiel's vision, “When the living creatures went, the wheels went with them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up—for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheel.”
If it be the nature of this spirit of the past, moving within us, to give out life to material things, we must remember, that the very act whereby the mind imparts life and consciousness, is an increase of the intensity of that mind's own life—that the emanations from this spiritual sun do but raise in it a light still brighter, and a more cheering warmth; and that it is also the blessed constitution of our spiritual natures, that to whatsoever we give, from the same we shall receive seven fold, and that the poorest thing on earth towards which our hearts go out, shall make us rich returns.
That this spiritualizing power belongs in a peculiar manner to “the retrospective virtues," as Wordsworth calls them, no one doubts, who has read his own heart, and along with it, the hearts of others. And we may, with Godwin, say of the man who is so endowed, " The world is a thousand times more populous, than to the man to whom every thing that is not flesh and blood, is nothing."
Beside the intensity thus given to the life of the mind, beside this power by which, when it looks out upon the world, inert, material things, start up into consciousness and life, endowed with associations and affections like the mind's self; this state of affectionate thoughtfulness multiplies the mind's inward enjoyments from itself, and there is born a countless progeny, beautiful and like the first parent emotion of the soul. For, as Butler profoundly remarks, “ Human nature is so constituted, that every good affection implies a