A Biographical Appreciation of
Robert Green Ingersoll
HIS FACULTIES OF ARTISTIC AND INTELLECTUAL EXPRESSION
He who would rise to the full scope of Ingersoll’s art, in its varied manifestations — oratory, poetry, prose — must be familiar with the elements of things. He must be of no school or cult — must possess that elemental depth, that aversion to the provincial, that view of the universal, which invariably marks the mind of genius. In unison with the great eternal pulse of the universe must be the rhythm of his heart and brain.
But how are we to look upon the artistic side of Ingersoll? Shall he be viewed as an orator, as a poet, or as a rhetorician? I answer: As none of these, in particular; for he was far more than any or all of them: he was an idealist, — one of the purest and sublimest that has lived. Back of every expression, — poetic, oratorical, or philosophical, — was the ideal. This he worshiped. In the realm of art, he saw with faultless eye. So absolute was his devotion to the ideal; so keen, and yet so profound, his sense of symmetry, proportion, harmony, that he clothed his thoughts in the noblest garb, shrinking from the inapposite, the inelegant, as surely as the magnet repels a scrap of lead. This made his art supreme.
It is often remarked: “That man was a great sculptor,” “That man was a great painter,” when it should be said: “A great idealist chiseled that statue,” “A great idealist painted that picture.” Who can not chisel or paint? But how many who chisel or paint or write or speak do so at the command of the ideal?
Every writer and every speaker unconsciously produces a perfect likeness of his physical and mental being — of himself. It is called his style. Critics sometimes assert that the style of so- and-so is “artificial.” In the ultimate sense, this is erroneous. Should a writer employ a borrowed style, it would not be his style, any more than an apple artificially attached to a twig of an orange-tree would be an orange. And no matter how successful he might be in deceiving others as to the genuineness of his style, he could never succeed in deceiving himself.
We are here led to a most fitting comparison of two natural phenomena: the tree and its fruit — the author and his style. The analogy is unmistakable. Neither literally nor figuratively do men gather grapes from thorns, nor figs from thistles. No one would have expected Daniel Webster — the leonine head with brow overhanging cliff like the cavernous eyes and rugged lines below — to produce a Queen Mob. It required the slight figure, the girlish, sympathetic face, the intense blue eyes, the keen sensibilities. the rare ethereal vision, of Shelley.
Ingersoll, too, put his personality into his lines. His style, therefore, is not susceptible to comparison — it is utterly unique! Should one of his marvelous pages be found on the sands of the Sahara, its author would be instantly recognizable.
A vast majority of our race are substantially alike. They look alike, dress alike, act alike, think alike. Since they must inevitably, if unconsciously, infuse into their literary expression a part of their very selves, how can they but write alike? Indeed, not only is the latter what we are led, by reason and analogy, to expect: it is precisely what we establish by observation. Take the output in any branch of literature — contemporary periodical verse, for example. As far as individuality is concerned, the greater part of the periodical verse of the last decade, or of the preceding, could have been written by a single person. Between the styles (if “styles” there be) of almost any two of the scores of authors actually represented, there is less difference than between the styles of the garments of any two of those authors, despite the proverbial pecuniary vicissitudes of literary fortune. Ingersoll himself described, all too faithfully, this class of artists when he said: —
” * * * Most writers suppress individually. They wish to please the public. They flatter the stupid and pander to the prejudice of their readers. They write for the market, making books as other mechanics make shoes. They have no message, they bear no torch, they are simply the slaves of customers.
“The books they manufacture are handles by ‘the trade’; they are regarded as harmless. The pulpit does not object; the young person can read the monotonous pages without a blush — or a thought.
“On the title pages of these books you will find the imprint of the great publishers; on the rest of the pages, nothing. These books might be prescribed for insomnia.”
In striking contrast with the many writers just described stand the few who are the glory of literature not only, but of the human race, — the men and the women of genius. And, strange to say, or rather, natural to say, the former have always made, and are still making, with perhaps equal frequency, in reference to the latter, two contradictory assertions. About half of the mediocrities assert, that individuals of genius are the same as others; and this is perfectly natural, because mediocrity can scarcely be expected fully to comprehend its own limitations. A prisoner can see only the inner side of the confining wall — never the outer side nor the top. The other half of the mediocrities assert, that individuals of genius are absolutely different from others; and this, too, is perfect natural, for the same reason. The truth is, that the genius is the same as others in everything except that in which he is a genius; or, reversely, he differs from others in that only in which he is not a mediocrity.
Without speculating as to the ultimate cause of the difference distinguishing him (the futility of so speculating, in the present state of scientific knowledge, having been pointed in Chapter I), we may yet briefly concern ourselves with the difference itself. The genius, then, has implicit confidence in himself; the mediocrity, confidence in others. The genius has learned little, and has little to learn: the mediocrity may have learned a great deal, but has a great deal to learn. The genius does not “suppress individuality”: he expresses it. He does not “wish to please the public,” but himself, — his ideal. He does not “flatter the stupid”: he tries to arouse and enlighten them. He does not “pander to the prejudice” of his readers: he tries to destroy it. He does not “write for the market,” but for posterity. He has a “message”; he bears a “torch”; he is not a “slave,” but free. His books, though they may be “handled by ‘the trade,'” are not always “regarded as harmless”: they are often regarded as dangerous. To them, “the pulpit” does “object”; because, while “the young person” can read them “without a blush,” neither the young nor the old can read them without “a thought.”
So it was with Ingersoll and his works. And no one else in American literature, where the microcephalous deny him a place, has crowded more into a line. Many have occupied pages in expressing what he would have expressed in a paragraph.
He wrote as a river runs. In the work of no other writer is to be found less evidence of effort. There is nothing to suggest the literary student, — the “verbal varnisher and veneerer.” Preeminently the word-wizard of his century, the whole of rhetoric was rejuvenated by his genius.
But there is a particular quality of his style, which, although not yet recognized by the general reader, demands conspicuous attention, — and, indeed, perhaps the most conspicuous attention, — in a just estimate of him as a literary artist. I refer to rhythm. For it is undoubtedly true, as an observing and distinguished critic has said, that Ingersoll, like Socrates, was the first to perfect the prose rhythms of the language in which he sought expression. He possessed not only the imagination, but the ear, of the born poet. Believing that the poets themselves have demonstrated rhyme to be a hindrance, rather than a help, in expressing the sublimest thought and feeling; caring nothing for the greater part of that which passes as poetry; and often putting upon it the stamp of ridicule, he carried unconsciously into his lines the enchanting splendor, — the resistless charm, — of metered rhyme. It is this, more than any other single factor, which will one day compel impartial and unprejudiced critics to place him among the first, if not at the head, of the great masters of English prose.
So naturally did his thoughts find harmonious expression, that scarcely a page of his finer productions fails to afford, here and there, material for exquisite blank verse.
Thus “The Warp and Woof,” only part of which (for spacial reasons) will be quoted, may be arranged so that the prevailing measure will be iambic pentameter: —
The birth and death of day,
The dawns of silver and the dusks of gold,
The wonders of rain and snow,
The shroud of winter and the many-colored robes of spring,
The lonely moon with nightly loss or gain,
The serpent lightning and thunder’s voice,
The tempest’s fury and the breath of morn,
The threat of storm and promise of the bow;
Cathedral clouds with dome and spire,” etc.
And elsewhere, in iambic rhythm rendered more conspicuous by prosodical division and capitalization, this charming picture of autumn: —
And gathered fields are growing strangely wan,
White death, poetic death,
With hands that color what they touch,
Weaves in the autumn wood
Its tapestries and gold.”
Speaking of the part that myths have played in the evolution of religious thought, he says, in perfect iambic rhythm: —
“They thrilled the vines of Spring with tremulous desire; Made tawny Summer’s billowed breast the throne and home of love; Filled Autumn’s arms with sun-kissed grapes and gathered sheaves; And pictured Winter as a weak old king Who felt, like Lear upon his withered face, Cordelia’s tears.”
The following rhapsodical tribute to Shelley is so strikingly like what Poe defined as “The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty,” that, had it been written with ten syllables to the line, no more and no less, as it could have been, regardless alike of sense and rhythm, it would doubtless be called poetry: —
“The light of morn beyond the purple hills — – A palm that lifts its coronet of leaves above the desert’s sands — An isle of green in some far sea — A spring that waits for lips of thirst — A strain of music heard within some palace wrought of dreams — A cloud of gold above a setting sun — A fragrance wafted from some unseen shore.”
Concerning Shakespeare’s understanding of human nature, he expresses himself with a rhythm as wondrously beautiful as the molten undulations left by the sinking sun: —
“He knew the thrills and ecstasies of love, The savage joys of hatred and revenge. He heard the hiss of envy’s snakes And watched the eagles of ambition soar. There was no hope that did not put its star above his head — No fear he had not felt — No joy that had not shed its sunshine on his face.”
Again of Shakespeare: —
And saw great Caesar with his legions in the field.
He stood with vast and motley throngs
And watched the triumphs given to victorious men,
Followed by uncrowned kings, the captured hosts, and all
the spoils of ruthless war.
He heard the shouts that shook the Coliseum’s roofless walls,
When from the reeling gladiator’s hand the short sword fell,
While from his bosom gushed the stream of wasted life.”
It will be observed, that, excepting a single line in the last, both of these Shakespearean quotations, like the one on Shelley, could be arranged in perfectly regular blank verse, with five iambic feet (ten syllables) to the line. It will also he observed, that, should they be so arranged, their sense would be marred, and they would lose insouciance and rhythmic beauty. What would be left? And yet, had they been originally written thus, by some professional poet schooled to sacrifice substance to mere traditional literary form, they would have been classed as poetry. Indeed, that this is precisely what would have occurred, even had they possessed less of poetic quality than they do, there is ample evidence. As introductory of a fragment of it, I quote: —
“The red man came — the roaming hunter tribes, warlike and fierce, and the mound-builders vanished from the earth. The solitude of centuries untold has settled where they dwelt. The prairie wolf hunts in their meadows, and his fresh-dug den yawns by my path. The gopher mines the ground where stood their swarming cities.”
Surely the average reader, chancing upon this passage, would not suspect that he was being enriched beyond the potencies of good prose: and yet, no less a judge of literature than William Cullen Bryant evidently regarded it as poetry; for he wrote and published it as such, in blank verse of just ten syllables, under the title The Prairies, as follows: —
The roaming hunter tribes, warlike and fierce,
And the mound-builders vanished from the earth.
The solitude of centuries untold
Has settled where they dwelt. The prairie wolf
Hunts in their meadows, and his fresh-dug den
Yawns by my path. The gopher mines the ground
Where stood their swarming cities.”
But let it be understood, that this passage is not quoted with the object of asserting that it is not poetry, nor with the purposive implication that the scores of productions in like form which might be quoted from other sources are not poetry. Rather is it quoted with the object of rendering the reader receptive to a question which I have had in mind for many years, and which I now ask, in simple justice: If that which, when transformed into prose, is indistinguishable from it may be retransformed into verse and legitimately called poetry, what term shall be applied to that which, although originally written as prose, contains imaginative, emotional, rhythmic, and tonal qualities unmistakably placing it above and beyond good prose? That is to ask, if the quotation from Bryant is poetry, what are the quotations from Ingersoll? If Bryant and others of his school were poets, what was Ingersoll? Let us be candid; let us be fair; let us be sensible.
Form is one thing; substance, or quality, quite another. Form is not an alembic transmuting the baser mental metals into gold. It does not create — it is created. It cannot change prose to poetry, nor poetry to prose. volumes of prose have been written as poetry; volumes of poetry, as prose.
The truth is, that, of all the elements of recognized poetic form, only one is absolutely indispensable to poetry-rhythm. There may be very great poetry without rhyme, and without perfect meter; but poetry without rhythm is not poetry: it is mere verse. It is a heart that does not beat — a stream without cataracts — a willow that does not wave — a bird without wings — a star that does not shine.
This indispensable element of poetry, — this indefinable something that haunts with enchanting spell the golden temple of enraptured song, — is apparent in all of Ingersoll’s finer work. Of course, it is rendered more so by the formal treatment which I have applied to particular selections; but, unlike that of a considerable portion of the professional poet’s blank verse, it cannot be obscured by the prose form, in which Ingersoll usually cast his printed thoughts. Of this, there is no stronger nor more pleasing evidence than the following fragment of one of his controversial Papers: —
“Life is a shadowy, strange, and winding road on which we travel for a little way — a few short steps — just from the cradle, with its lullaby of love, to the low and quiet wayside inn, where all at last must sleep, and where the only salutation is — Good night.”
In exercising the art of expression, Ingersoll kept to himself all that was back of the scene. He made no explanation — offered no excuse. His presence was his prelude; his pen was his preface. He knew that a glance behind the canvas mars the effect of the greatest painting. Very few writers, and still fewer orators, appear to recognize this vital aesthetic truth. Hence most of them, by way of introduction, usually exhibit all of the defects that an imperfect mastery can reveal — the crude ideas and rejected fragments — the very interior of their mental workshops. It is like a glimpse of the kitchen from the banquet board.
What would the tender and enthralling lines to “Chloris” be worth were they prefaced by Burns to imply, that, before writing them, he had carefully and conscientiously compared her with the other girls? Think of it!
Most writers are affected with a sort of verbose diathesis. Having almost no imagination, they credit the reader with a like amount. They anticipate the very motions of his brain — tell everything. Their lines are prison-bars between which fettered fancy catches only now and then a glimpse of field and sky. With such a style, Ingersoll had no patience. He despised detail, the mathematical, the provincial. In short, he was an idealist; and his style, like the rainbow, arched in iridescent wonder the intellectual sky. He knew that one mind can get from another no more than it is “capable of receiving,” and that, between the words, there should always be room for the reader or hearer to use the brush and chisel. He knew that every mind, in spite of others, — in spite of itself, — takes its own peculiar view. He realized that the greatest work of art is, at most, only a sort of mental arbor where cling and run the vines of fancy, springing from the brain of whomsoever reads or sees. Most of these vines would be dwarfed and flowerless, and not last half the season through; some might live, but would not thrive; others still, with exuberance interwoven, would tender to mating songsters the hospitality of countless leafy bowers, fling to summer dawns blossoms fit for Juliet’s breast, while beneath the mellowing skies would hang, in clustered spheres and purple, the smiles and tears of April days, the amorous kisses of unnumbered suns.
There is a particular circumstance which those who would form a just estimate of Ingersoll’s expressional faculties should keep constantly in mind: he was, first of all, an orator. By dint of the orator’s power and prestige did he lay claim upon contemporaries; and under the orator’s almost fateful disadvantages must he lay claim upon posterity. The present has memories; the future will have type and tradition. The critic, the student, even the admirer, in the years to be will know and feel only so much of the expressional power of this great personality as can be conveyed by the illusive and inadequate medium of the insensate page. Gone, — fading in the mist of memory, — the noble form; silent, — echoing only in the hearts of a lessening few, — the voice that soothed and silvered common speech, and glorified the un-remembering air; vanished the enthralling presence — a presence that held in magic spell the spirit of the springtime dawn, — the calm of fulfilled noon, — the peacefulness of eventide, — the tranquillity of midnight upon the starlit plain.
So in Ingersoll the orator were blended, in matchless harmony, nature’s rarest and noblest gifts. The circumstances under which the latter first became manifest, — under which he discovered himself, — are as interesting as they were anomalous.
Robert Ingersoll was in his late teens when a presumably orthodox gentleman who had been selected to speak at a Sunday- school picnic, on the Fourth of July, near a small town in Illinois, was prevented by illness, at the veritable “eleventh hour,” from keeping his engagement. Thereupon the good people who were charged with seeing that the programme was carried out in its original completeness, and who had heard something of young Ingersoll’s oratorical inclinations, invited him to take the place of the delinquent one.
The youthful substitute chose as his theme the patriots and heroes of the Revolution. Familiar, of course, with the great and noble services which Thomas Paine had rendered, not only to America, but to the whole world, before, during, and after that struggle, and resenting, with deepest indignation, the base ingratitude which had been his lot simply and solely because of his subsequent deistical and anti-christian writings, Ingersoll had previously made a resolution never to deliver a speech without mentioning the name of the “Author-Hero.” The probability that those whom he was about to address were somewhat deficient in reliable data concerning the author of Common Sense, The Crisis, The Right of Man, etc. doubtless served to confirm, in Ingersoll’s judgment, the wisdom of the resolution just mentioned. Anyway, the memory of Thomas Paine received at that Sunday-school picnic its rightful meed. This, of course, was met with resentment — resentment which the youthful speaker read unmistakably in the faces and voices of his orthodox elders. But in the same faces and voices, he read something else — evidence of kindled emotion; for, many times during his speech, — made without preparation, — his hearers were moved alternately to laughter and tears. In that laughter and those tears, — in that April of his genius, — Robert Ingersoll saw the many-colored bow of promise. For the first time, he realized that he held the magic key which, even through the cankerous rust of prejudice, could reach and unlock the secrets of the soul.
Of the “rarest and noblest gifts,” visible and invisible, which ‘nature blended with matchless harmony in Ingersoll the orator,’ I would here mention eyes, features, and physique; for these were by no means the least of the many factors which combined to constitute in him “that wonderful thing called presence.”
His eyes, then, were light-blue, changing, with varying moods, to gray, — changing markedly; and his face was “the face that mirrored thoughts.” Among the orators of the world, from Pericles to the present, there is no face like the face of Ingersoll. As you gaze upon it, you feel that nature has reached the summit — that she can rise no higher, can do no more — that she, at last, has done what she set out to do. This face is human! — you feel that a great brain is in partnership with a great heart, and that the heart is senior partner. The lines of the former seem everywhere just subdued by the lines of the latter — the lines of intellect to blend easily, gladly, with the lines of art. The forehead, the eyes, the nose, of the thinker are also those of the artist and philanthropist; the mouth and chin of the intellectual gladiator are also the mouth and chin of the poet, — almost of the mother. As you gaze upon this face, you feel that mercy, at last, has found expression — every unfortunate, a friend; that the moans of every martyr, — the longings of every exile, — the agonies of every victim of dungeon, rack, and chain, — the burdens of every slave, — the despair and wretchedness of every outcast, — the cries of every unmothered babe, — the sobs and yearnings of every abused or hungry child, — were heard and felt by the unknown sculptor who traced the lines; — that those lines express the rapturous realization of an eon-wished, but hitherto unpictured and unembodied, ideal. And you feel that, after all, man’s melancholy martyrdom was not in vain; that the race has possibilities; that its future is radiant with hope. This face has the contour, the symmetry, the poise and balance, the confidence, the integrity, the frankness, the open honesty — the naturalness — of nature. In it are the joy of June and the serenity of September. And yet there is earnestness, determination, unmistakable. In fact, you look upon this face, and you feel that, were it just a trifle less serious, you should smile. You look a moment longer, and — you smile! and are satisfied.
ln height Ingersoll was six feet, minus half an inch; and, in his prime, he weighed from two hundred to two hundred and twenty pounds. This brief statement, in conjunction with the preceding text and illustrations, might, perhaps, suffice as a description of his physical appearance, were it not for the remarkable fact (repeatedly noted by intimate friends), that, when he stepped upon the platform before an audience, he seemed suddenly to become a giant in stature, — far ampler and taller than he actually was — seemed to rise on the spirit of the occasion, to the supreme command of everything in sight! The greater the occasion and the audience, the greater he seemed to become, and the higher he seemed to rise. He was peculiarly, preeminently, “the born orator” — born anew with every inspiration. Of incomparable physique, — the broad and massive shoulders supporting a perfectly molded head — with the formidableness of an antique warrior, and yet the gentle mien of a child — his was a presence to command the attention of the Olympian gods. The admirer of the majestic, the heroic, the classic in poise and bearing, — of the Grecian ideal in breathing flesh, — who never sat with an audience as Robert G. Ingersoll strode upon the stage and stood “foursquare to all the winds that blew,” has missed such an unforgettable impression as will not again be the proud and happy fortune of mankind.
Oratory is the noblest stream that flows from the hidden spring of the ideal to the illimitable ocean of expression. Ingersoll was acquainted by nature with the course of that stream — knew its every inch, from where it, dallying, sparkles like a silver thread among the rocks and hills of thought, to where its mighty current forces back the tides of error in the broad estuary of persuasion.
Of course, as already mentioned, oratory cannot be put upon paper It cannot even be separated from the times and the scenes that produce it, nor from the effects that it in turn produces. As dead protoplasm is no longer protoplasm, so a printed oration is not an oration. The unprecedented occasion — the opportunity previously sought in vain, but now within the orator’s grasp; the vast assemblage waiting only for the magic voice that shall set vibrating in unison with each other, and with those of the orator, the secret chords of sympathy and emotion; the flashing eye, the poise, the gesture, and the thrilling pause — language too eloquent for utterance — these are as much a part of the oration as are its words.
But while the latter alone are comparatively valueless in judging the orator as such, they do enable us to judge him as verbal artist and philosopher.
To attempt a final selection from the gems that, for forty years, fell from the golden lips of Ingersoll, seems well nigh hopeless. To choose from most other geniuses, would be an easy task. Their average product contains enough of the commonplace to distinguish passages that are really grand. But Ingersoll left nothing commonplace. Great lines, — thoughts that touch the universal, — poems of subdue shade, — are found on almost every page. Many sentences are music, as sweet as the Orphean lyre, and will hold their power to charm as long as genius knows its kith and kin. There was no thought, fancy, sentiment, emotion, or passion in the expression of which he was not supreme. He was the Phidias of verbal sculpture — the Michelangelo of words. From the gallery of his mind, he selected symbols, figures, pictures, as easily, — as naturally, — as the sea tosses upon the sand a nameless gem.
So the question as to which is Ingersoll’s oratorical masterpiece is preeminently, — almost distinctively, — one that does not permit of a confident answer. Yet, ask the average person to name that masterpiece, and he will mention the “Plumed Knight Speech” or A Tribute to Ebon C. Ingersoll or possibly, A Vision of War. Why I do not know. Probably it is because he has read one of them. For, though perfect of their kind, none of them, I judge, is better entitled to distinction than are several other productions of our orator.
Take the “Soliloquy” at the grave of Napoleon — only a few sentences, to be sure — a few touches of the brush; and yet it is a complete and perfect picture of that marvelous life, from the insatiable ambition which would grasp and hold the world, to the Stygian midnight of despair and gloom which settled at St. Helena. There, “gazing out upon the sad and solemn sea” — “the only woman that ever loved him pushed from his heart by the cold hand of ambition” — stands the great Napoleon. And beside the “poor peasant,” in “wooden shoes,” but surrounded by loving wife and happy children, how small and wretched!
Then there is “The Cemetery” — “that vast cemetery called the past,” wherein are “most of the religions of men,” and “nearly all their gods,” from India’s mystic shrines to the divine fires of our Aztecs — a view of comparative mythology and religion which is universal in its scope, and which is expressed with the charm of consummate art.
And the Shakespearean lecture — a vine of words that twines with subtle delicacy and grace around the mighty oak of Shakespeare’s brain. I have often thought that there are two productions which should be in the hands of every student of English, — Spencer’s Philosophy of Style and Ingersoll’s lecture on Shakespeare: the first, to show why certain words and expressions are used in preference to others; the last, how they are used. This lecture contains, in my judgment, the noblest metaphor in our language: —
“Shakespeare was an intellectual ocean, whose waves touched all the shores of thought; within which were all the fate, ambition and revenge; upon which fell the gloom and darkness of despair and death and all the sunlight of content and love, and within which was the inverted sky lit with eternal stars — an intellectual ocean — towards which all rivers ran, and from which now the isles and continents of thought receive their dew and rain.”
Many other selections, taken here and there, are hardly less notable. How many have read the following? and yet what physiologist, psychologist, poet, or philosopher has left a truer description of the human brain? —
“The dark continent of motive and desire has never been explored. In the brain, that wondrous world with one inhabitant, there are recesses dim and dark, treacherous sands and dangerous shores, where seeming sirens tempt and fade; streams that rise in unknown lands from hidden springs, strange seas with ebb and flow of tides, restless billows urged by storms of flame, profound and awful depths hidden by mist of dreams, obscure and phantom realms where vague and fearful things are half revealed, jungles where passion’s tigers crouch, and skies of cloud and blue where fancies fly with painted wings that dazzle and mislead; and the poor of this pictured world is led by old desires and ancient hates, and stained by crimes of many vanished years, and pushed by hands that long ago were dust, until he feels like some bewildered slave that Mockery has throned and crowned.”
Could the student of human nature — could any one who has climbed unhelped, or in spite of opposition, the ladder of success — possibly fail to catch the golden thread that runs through this iambic epigram? —
“Obstruction is but virtue’s foil. From thwarted light leaps color’s flame. The stream impedded has a song.”
Think of the spirit of liberty that breathes through this sentence: —
“Let us go the broad way where science goes — through the open fields, past the daisied slopes, where sunlight, lingering, seems to sleep and dream.”
His ability to find in the words of his very adversaries the weapons of attack, — to capture the enemy’s ordnance and use it against its owner, — is well shown in describing “The Infidel”: —
“He knew that all the pomp and glitter had been purchased with liberty — that priceless jewel of the soul. In looking at the cathedral he remembered the dungeon. The music of the organ was not loud enough to drown the clank of fitters. He could not forget that the taper had lighted the fagot. He knew that the cross adorned the hilt of the sword, and so where others worshiped, he wept.”
What other orator, standing at the grave of a friend, has uttered such praise as the following? — hyperbole so perfect that it actually does not seem an exaggeration! —
“Her heart was open as the gates of day. She shed kindness as the sun sheds light. If all her deeds were flowers, the air would be faint with perfume. If all her charities could change to melodies, a symphony would fill the sky.”
And could human speech be more tenderly pathetic than in the lines in behalf of the aged actors whom death has claimed? —
“And then the silence falls on darkness.
“Some loving hands should close their eyes; some loving lips should leave upon their pallid brows a kiss; some friends should lay the breathless forms away, and on the graves drop blossoms jeweled with the tears of love.”
It required three of the Rhodian artists to chisel the Laocoon group; but, in the Decoration Day Oration of 1882, Ingersoll alone chiseled an allegorical group, which, in perfection at least, is its companion-piece: —
“Pity pointed to the scarred and bleeding backs of slaves; Mercy heard the sobs of mothers reft of babes, and justice held aloft the scales, in which one drop of blood shed by a master’s lash, outweighed a nation’s gold.”
Having included the preceding, it would be very hard to omit the closing sentences of A Vision of War: —
“Those heroes are dead. They died for liberty — they died for us. They are at rest. They sleep in the land they made free, under the flag they rendered stainless, under the solemn pines, the sad hemlocks, the tearful willows, and the embracing vines. They sleep beneath the shadows od clouds, careless alike of sunshine or of storm, each in the windowless palace of Rest. Earth may run red with other wars — they are at peace. In the midst of battle, in the roar of conflict, they found the serenity of death. I have one sentiment for soldiers living and dead: Cheers for the living; tears for the dead.”
What majesty! What harmony! What soulful perfection! — “under the solemn pines, the sad hemlocks, the tearful willows, and the embracing vines”; and “in the windowless palace of Rest.” One must indeed be faintly impressible to beauty, who should hope to do justice to the author of such words as these.
Were he not necessarily aware of the sad depth to which the noxious roots of religious prejudice penetrate the mental soil of mediocrity, the justly appreciative reader of the selections here quoted or mentioned would, despairing, wonder at the comparatively meager praise elsewhere bestowed upon their author. And with a reviewer who should utterly ignore the source of so many matchless thoughts, such reader could have but little patience. Suppose that the spirit of an absolutely unprejudiced literary critic, visiting this earth from another sphere, should find in some “Library of the World’s Best Literature” liberal selections from America’s recognized literati, with no mention of Life, A Vision of War, Shakespeare, or any of the “tributes.” What, in the reader’s judgment, would be that angel’s opinion of literary editors? Yet this is precisely what would be found. There are in our libraries to-day compilations containing no reference to Ingersoll, but including productions of scores of writers who are all but commonplace, and whose combined efforts could never have resulted in even one of his masterpieces.
He shared with poets and philosophers the ability to express, with appositeness, lucidity, and beauty, the utmost in a line. He was gifted to an extraordinary degree with the phrasal and the epigrammatic faculties. Definitions, descriptions, comparisons, illustrations, generalizations, fell from his lips as fall the ripened fruits from autumn’s laden boughs. Thus he referred to the bygone centuries as —
“The withered leaves of time that strew the desert of the past.”
In the aurora borealis, he beheld —
“The morning of the North when the glittering lances pierce the shield of night.”
He was —
“Touched and saddened by autumn, the grace and poetry of death.”
Where others saw merely the snowflakes blown singly or in flurries, he could see —
“the infantry of the snows and the cavalry of the wild blast.”
Than this it would be difficult to find in English a more strikingly suggestive figure.
With a delicacy rivaling Shelley’s reference to the lids of the sleeping Ianthe, he described the breast of woman as —
“Life’s drifted font, blue-veined and fair, where perfect peace finds perfect form.”
Condemning alike the practices of the “insane ascetic” and the “fool of pleasure,” he defined temperance as —
“The golden path along the strip of virtue that lies between the deserts of extremes.”
The secret of his countless tributes to manhood, heroism, and genius is revealed in this line: —
“Gratitude is the fairest flower that sheds its perfume in the heart.”
There was in Ingersoll the marvelous extravagance of Hugo — of Shakespeare. Referring to the hopefulness of a beautiful but helpless girl — a paralytic — whom he had visited, he said that
“her brave and cheerful spirit over wreck and ruin of her body like morning on the desert.”
While the selections thus far quoted, — particularly in the present chapter, — are extraordinarily rich in epigrammatic quality, they are nevertheless inadequate in doing full justice to Ingersoll’s genius in the latter regard.
Our philosopher was not one of those individuals who sit down deliberately to write epigrams. Had he been such, he doubtless would not now be creditable with a greater number of really noteworthy sayings than any other American. Like Burns’s poem’s, Ingersoll’s epigrams wrote themselves.
In the one that follows, we are reminded, by the way, of the “ploughman poet’s” partiality for common sense and real genius, in contradistinction to mere book-learning and acquired talent: —
“For the most part, colleges are places where pebbles are polished and diamonds are dimmed.”
In our next selection, we find cause to wonder at Ingersoll’s intimate knowledge of things in which he never indulged: —
“A brazen falsehood and a timid truth are the parents of compromise.”
“Apology is the prelude to retreat.”
In illustration of the truth that great cares and sorrows are rare with most of us, — that trivialities make up the bulk of life’s burdens, — he said: —
“The traveler is bothered more with dust than mountains.”
He observed that —
“The road is short to anything we fear,”
“Joy lives in the house beyond the one we reach,”
And that —
“Hope is the only bee that makes honey without flowers.”
Ingersoll uttered in the fewer, shortest words the profoundest philosophic truths, — the wisest ethical precepts.
Than the following sixteen syllables what pompous array of sentences and paragraphs could more truly express the conclusion of every candid man who has really thought? —
“The golden bridge of life from gloom emerges and on shadow rests.”
He was the philosopher, not only of moral, but of mental honesty, — of perfect intellectual veracity; and he observed that
“Cunning plates fraud with the gold of honesty, and veneers vice with virtue.”
But that, nevertheless —
“There is nothing shrewder in this world than intelligent honesty. Perfect candor is sword and shield.”
And he declared that —
“Nobility is a question of character, not of birth.
“Honor cannot be received as alms — it must be earned.
“It is the brow that makes the wreath of glory green.”
He was the philosopher of right: —
“Every man in the right is my brother.”
Although painfully aware that “innocence is not a perfect shield” against the aggressiveness of evil, he still asserted that
“The gem of the brain is the innocence of the soul.”
He was the philosopher of human love — a believer in its protecting and redeeming powers: —
“Vice lives either before Love is born, or after Love is dead.”
In the following line, conscience comes to solace the victim of unmerited neglect: —
“It is better to deserve without receiving than to receive without deserving.”
He was the philosopher of freedom: —
“In the realm of Freedom, waste is husbandry. He who puts chains upon the body of another shackles his own soul.”
He was the philosopher of sympathy. He believed that no character could be so lofty that it would not be elevated by pitying even the very lowest: —
“We rise by raising others — and he who stoops above the fallen, stands erect.”
To those who would seek life’s goal solely in the heights of fame, he said: —
“Happiness dwells in the valleys with the shadows.”
He condenses the conclusions of modern physical science into these nine words: —
“A grain of sand can defy all the gods.”
In the following line our language is enriched with a new definition: —
“Wisdom is the science of happiness.”
To the morally short-sighted, he utters this warning: —
“He loads the dice against himself, who scores a point against the right.”
Is there in progressive literature a more substantial line than the following? —
“Fear is the dungeon of the mind.”
He declares that —
“Intellectual freedom is only the right to be honest.”
This is one of the subtlest and profoundest truths. A person who has not the right to express his honest thoughts has not the right to be honest.
But in none of the preceding epigrams, perhaps, is there stronger proof of profound and subtle intellect than in the following fragment of an argument for the doctrine of necessity: —
“To the extent that we have wants, we are not free. To the extent that we do not have wants, we do not act.”
And yet it has been said that the author of these lines was not a thinker!
It is barely necessary to state, that, making due allowance, in many cases, for unavoidable incompleteness, the selections which have been included in this chapter, and in this work as a whole, are, in my judgment, fairly representative of the artistic and intellectual Ingersoll. Should they not seem fully to justify my estimate of him, I could only wish that they might at least awaken sufficient interest to prompt their unbiased comparison with an equal number of selections, of kindred nature, from some reformer, lawyer, patriot, philosopher, orator, and poet whose title to enduring fame is universally recognized.