Our Topmost Note
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
"HE has not yet reached his topmost note ! " The remark, which was made to the present writer awhile ago concerning a mutual aequaintance, recurred later as offering matter for contemplation. It brought to mind for one thing the saying of Bunsen concerning Gladstone : " Gladstone is the first man in England as to intellectual power, and he has heard higher tones than anyone else in the land." There is a suggestive variation here in the reference. Gladstone, according to Bunsen, had heard tones, whereas our topic is the producing of them. Yet the meaning is essentially the same. For a man produces in proportion as he hears. According to the note that falls on our soul, out of the music that sounds in the invisible, is our life made.
And herein we come upon a fundamental difference between man and the things that surround him. We know matter, in all its forms, by its properties. And these properties are always the same. Oxygen never surpasses itself ; it is always oxygen. When we know granite we know its best and worst- We can build.-it into our wall, or hew it into our statue, sure that it will neither rise above nor drop beneath its level of quality. There are, of course, hidden possibilities in our granite or our oxygen which a deeper intelligence than ours can see into, but our assertion about them is good enough for practical purposes. And it points, we say, to the whole difference between these things and ourselves.
For the certainty, the knownness, the invariability, we predicate of our oxygen is precisely the element that is lacking in ourselves. We may have had our neighbour's acquaintance for forty years ; have studied all his words and acts during that time ; and yet be quite unable to say that this is the man. The greatest part of him is hid from you, and perhaps from himself. This is specially true of his upper ranges. The mass of us, indeed, fail, in this world, to reach our highest. The precise conjuncture of circumstance necessary for that does not arrive. And so our topmost note is never struck. In a musical instrument all the parts, all the strings, keys, hammers are there, the same now as yesterday. It has its scale, and goes never beyond it. You can strike its top note any hour of the day and be sure of the response. But the instrument we call " ourselves " is not built that way. The Maker of it has doubtless views about it, but they are only partially disclosed. We have our fingers on the keys, and make out something of a tune. But we are quite ignorant of its ultimate range ; and we have the vaguest knowledge, so far, of the music which it is designed to produce.
What tyros we are in these matters is seen when we contemplate the various views people have as to what constitutes life's highest note. There is, of course, a material side about which there is practically no controversy, It is comparatively easy to say when a man is physically strongest, when his bone and muscle are at the top of their condition. Plato, in the Republic, put the elect age of woman as between twenty and forty, and of man as between twenty-five and fifty-five. This, he said, is the period during which they are to pro-duce children to the State. It is a different thing, however, to maintain, as some have done, that the inner life, in its range of sensation and accomplishment, corresponds to this adjustment. Froude, when in a pessimistic mood following on the death of his wife, said to Sir George Colley that " the interest of life to a thinking man was exhausted at thirty or thirty-five." But he lived to revise that judgment and to find old age sufficiently pleasant. There is indeed here, despite some notable exceptions, a general consenus of the best minds in favour of Channing's view that " life is a gift which acquires a greater value every day."
But the point we are now seeking is as to what eonstitutes the top note, the supreme height of life, The differences of view, we say, are so curious. It takes all sorts to make a world, and each type has on this question ventilated its theory. A Madame du Chatelet is of opinion that " we have nothing else to do in the world than to obtain agreeable sensations and sentiments."' The idea exactly fitted a society which Sainte Beuve has delineated as from top to bottom incurably frivolous. There are masses of people whose supreme moment is the culmination of a debauch. A City alderman was quoted in our hearing as saying that at a certain age all that was left was the pleasures of the table. We will not stop to characterise that deliverance. Other men have found their rapture in battle—Caesar did and Napoleon. That stout old soldier, Marshal Manteuffel, expressed the warrior note in a sentence which all the great fighters would probably have endorsed : That elevated sentiment of commanding in battle, of knowing that the bullet of the enemy may call you at any moment before God's tribunal, of knowing that the fate of the battle, and consequently the destiny of your country, may depend upon the orders which you give—this tension of mind and of feelings is divinely great." Doubtless it is, and yet one reflects that beneath this top note in the General what undertones there are of unnoted suffering in his men ! Of the great moments of the battlefield we have to say with Horace Walpole : " What is the fame of men compared to their happiness ? How many must be wretched before one can be renowned ! "
There are people who, as we have seen, place their highest moments in sensation ; others, again in action ; others, from Plotinus to Wordsworth, have found them in contemplation. And there are still other forms yet to be enumerated. But we may stop at this point to observe that men of all conditions, in seeking what they deem their highest, look always for some kind of reinforcement of their normal self. The reinforcement is not always of the best kind, Enivrez-vous, cries Baudelaire in one of his prose poems ; and the exhortation, even by some of the choicer spirits, has often been only too literally carried out. De Quincey reached his thought-paradise through opium. as did Coleridge. Lamb's " Confessions of a Drunkard " were not, alas, pure imagination. His friend Crossley declares that " on one evening, when in manner, speech and walk Lamb was obviously under the influence of what he had drunk, he discoursed at length upon Milton with a fulness of knowledge, an eloquence, and a profundity of critical power which left an impression never to be effaced." That was the top note. But heights attained by such aids have abysses close by. What it feels like to be in them is given in a letter to Coleridge, where Lamb has reached the bottom. " I have been drinking too much for two days running. I find my moral sense in the last stage of a consumption, and my religion getting faint." We see a glint of impish humour in his eye as he writes the words, but the confession is, nevertheless, a sorry one. This is not the true road to our top, as none knew better than he.
The drug and stimulant habit is indeed only a perversion of that law of human life which demands " a something beyond ourselves " in order to the realisation of our fullest self. The poet's muse is a psychological reality. Tennyson's friends noticed that at times he fell into a kind of trance in which he seemed sensible of no outward thing. Says De Musset describing his own feelings : " On ne travaille pas ; on écoute ; c'est comme un inconnu qui vous parle a l'oreille." The orator has the same experience. His greatest effects are produced he knows not how. It is as if a divine fury seizes him and carries him and his audience away in the rush of its movement. All the prophets of humanity are inspired, whatever be the form in which they express themselves. Boehme with his seven days' sabbatical ecstasy, Cicero with his " divine afflatus," Socrates with his daimon, Philo and Plotinus with their vision-trances are all telling us practically the same thing. They are describing the penetration of the normal mind by the higher consciousness which surrounds us, and which continually makes itself known to the more attuned spirits.
Most strange, most interesting, at times most tragically pathetic, is the way in which men reach their topmost note. There are those with whom it is a solitary utterance, never repeated. Sidney Carton finishes his futile career with a divine act of self-renunciation. There have been many Sidney Cartons. The man at the pit-mouth, drunken often and foul-mouthed, who beat his wife yesterday, goes down the reeking shaft after the explosion and lays down his life in the effort to rescue a comrade. Amid all his blasphemies and his brutalities, that deed lay possible in him. When we imprison men, when we read over them the denunciations of our theology, when we hang them, what we denounce and imprison and hang is indeed a sorry affair enough. But as, in these processes, we operate on our man, something has escaped our touch. In these worst whom we thus handle there was a divine possibility, higher, mark you, than our own present best. Of these also it has to be said, in Milton's great words, " There is surely a piece of Divinity within us, something that was before the elements, and owing no homage to the sun ! " Will not, in the future, the note of society be, with reference to its criminals and failures, not how to punish for their worst, but how to help them to their best ?
The cosmic process is a puzzling one, but as we trace its long, sinuous course we recognise that its effort is to get from the world, from humanity, the topmost note. Even the brute forces of Nature are working to this end. Says Aquinas, in his deep way : " Things which have no perception can only tend towards an end if directed by a conscious and intelligent being." And surely they are being directed, and " a God orders the march." The suffering of the world has this, amongst other things, for its end. " Is not He who made misery wiser than thou art ? " Oscar Wilde, out of the deeps of his prison experience, wrote this : " If the world has been built of sorrow, it has been built by the hands of love ; because in no other way could the soul of man, for whom the world was made, reach the full stature of perfection."
Better men than Oscar Wilde had discovered this truth before him. But each of us has to find it out in his own way. We learn, with the mighty ones before us, that the road to our topmost is not just by exquisite sensations, but also by toils and sacrifices and endurances. Gautama was at his highest when he renounced all under the Bo tree, Socrates in his discourse before drinking the hemlock, Jesus as He suffered on the Cross Wonderful is it, too, and a thought that might well reconcile us to everything, that the road to the supreme sensations lies this way. You have not told what martyrs felt in describing the scorch and bite of the flames. There are sensations within sensations. Said Dr. Taylor, when he reached the stake at Hadleigh. " Thanked be God, I am even at home." Indeed, that ours has been, and is, a suffering world is the greatest thing that can be said of it. Had life been plain and simple, a mere swine-trough happiness, it had not been worth the trouble of history. Its significance is in what it has endured. Since it has been laid upon humanity in all times to be a cross-bearer ; to have its Gethsemane and its Golgotha, so, as we read, must there have been also reserved for it a resurrection and ascension, an exaltation to God's right hand.