Young Men's Heroes
( Originally Published 1884 )
'The Envy of Small Minds.—Admiration and Imitation.—The Great Musicians.—Masters and Disciples.—Enduringness of Good Example.—Consolations of a well-spent Life.
" Examples preach to the eye—care, then, mine says,
-HENRY MARTYN, "Last Thoughts."
MOST young men of generous mind have their heroes, especially if they be book readers. Thus Allan Cunningham, when a mason's apprentice in Nithsdale, walked all the way to Edinburgh for the sole purpose of seeing Sir Walter Scott as he passed along the street. We unconsciously admire the enthusiasm of the lad, and respect the impulse which impelled him to make the journey. It is related of Sir Joshua Reynolds, that, when a boy of ten, he thrust his hand through intervening rows of people to touch Pope, as if there were a sort of virtue in the contact. At a much later period, the painter Haydon was proud to see and to touch Reynolds when on a visit to his native place. Rogers the poet used to tell of his ardent desire, when a boy, to see Dr. Johnson; but when his hand was on the knocker of the house in Bolt Court, his courage failed him, and he turned away. So the late Isaac Disraeli, when a youth, called at Bolt Court for the same purpose; and though he had the courage to knock, to his dismay he was informed by the servant that the great lexicographer had breathed his last only a few hours before.
On the contrary, small and ungenerous minds can not admire heartily. To their own great misfortune, they can not recognize, much less reverence, great men and great things. The mean nature admires meanly. The toad's highest idea of beauty is his toadness. The small snob's highest idea of manhood is the great snob. The slave-dealer values a man according to his muscles. When a Guinea trader was 'told by Sir Godfrey Kneller, in the presence of Pope, that he saw before him two of the greatest men in the world, he replied: " I don't know how great you may be, but I don't like your looks. I have often bought a man much better than both of you together, all bones and muscles, for ten guineas!"
Although Rochefoucauld, in one of his maxims, says that there is something that is not altogether disagreeable to us in the misfortunes of even our best friends, it is only the small and essentially mean nature that finds pleasure in the disappointment, and annoyance at the success, of others. There are, unhappily for themselves, persons so constituted that they have not the heart to be generous. The most disagreeable of all people are those who " sit in the seat of the scorner." Persons of this sort often come to regard the success of others, even in a good work, as a kind of personal offense. They can not bear to hear another praised, especially if he belong to their own art, or calling, or profession. They will pardon a man's failures, but can not forgive his doing a thing better than they can do. And where they have themselves failed., they are found to be the most merciless of detractors. The sour critic thinks of his rival:
" When Heaven with such parts has blest him,
The mean mind occupies itself with sneering, carping, and fault-finding, and is ready to scoff at everything but impudent effrontery or successful vice. The greatest consolation of such persons are the defects of men of character. " If the wise erred not," says George Herbert, " it would go hard with fools." Yet, though wise men may learn of fools by avoiding their errors, fools rarely profit by the example which wise men set them. A German writer has said that it is a miserable temper that cares only to discover the blemishes in the character of great men or great periods. Let us rather judge them with the charity of Bolingbroke, who, when reminded of one of the alleged weaknesses of Marlborough, observed, " He was so great a man that I forgot he had that defect."
Admiration of great men, living or dead, naturally evokes imitation of them in a greater or less degree.
While a mere youth, the mind of Themistocles was fired by the great deeds of his contemporaries, and he longed to distinguish himself in the service of his country. When the battle of Marathon had been fought, he fell into a state of melancholy; and when asked by his friends as to the cause, he replied " that the trophies of Miltiades would not suffer him to sleep." A few years later, we find him at the head of the Athenian army, defeating the Persian fleet of Xerxes in the battles of Artemisium and Salamis his country gratefully acknowledging that it had been saved through his wisdom and valor.
It is related of Thucydides that, when a boy, he burst into tears on hearing Herodotus read his history, and the impression made upon his mind was such as to determine the bent of his own genius. And Demosthenes was so fired on one occasion by the eloquence of Callistratus, that the ambition was roused within him of be-coming an orator himself. Yet Demosthenes was physically weak, had a feeble voice, indistinct articulation, and shortness of breath defects which he was only enabled to overcome by diligent study and invincible de-termination. But, with all his practice, he never became a ready speaker; all his orations, especially the most famous of them, exhibiting indications of careful elaboration the art and industry of the orator being visible in almost every sentence.
Similar illustrations of character imitating character, and moulding itself by the style and manner and genius of great men, are to be found pervading all history. Warriors, statesmen, orators, patriots, poets, and artists all have been., more or less unconsciously, nurtured by the lives and actions of others- living before them or presented for their imitation.
Great men have evoked the admiration of kings, popes, and emperors. Francis de Medicis never spoke to Michael Angelo without uncovering, and Julius III. made him sit by his side while a dozen cardinals were standing. Charles V. made way for Titian; and one day, when the brush dropped from the painter's hand, Charles stooped and picked it up, saying, " You deserve to be served by an emperor." Leo X. threatened with excommunication whoever should print and sell the poems of Ariosto, without the author's consent. The same pope attended the death-bed of Raphael, as Francis I. did that of Leonardo da Vinci.
Though Haydn once archly observed that he was loved and esteemed by everybody except professors of music, yet all the greatest musicians were unusually ready to recognize each other's greatness. Haydn him-self seems to have been entirely free from petty jealousy. His admiration of the famous Porpora was such, that he resolved to gain admission to his house and serve him as a valet. Having made the acquaintance of the family with whom Porpora lived, he was allowed to officiate in that capacity. Early each morning he took care to brush the veteran's coat, polish his shoes, and put his rusty wig in order. At first Porpora growled at the intruder, but his asperity soon softened, and eventually melted into affection. He quickly discovered his valet's genius, and, by his instructions, directed it into the line in which Haydn eventually acquired so much distinction.
Haydn himself was enthusiastic in his admiration of Handel. " He is the father of us all," he said on one-occasion. Scarlatti followed Handel in admiration all over Italy, and, when his name was mentioned, he crossed himself in token of veneration. Mozart's recognition of the great composer was not less hearty. "When he chooses," said he, " Handel strikes like the thunder-bolt." Beethoven hailed him as " the monarch of the musical kingdom." When Beethoven was dying, one of his friends sent him a present of Handel's works, in forty volumes. They were brought into his chamber, and, gazing on them with reanimated eye, he exclaimed, pointing at them with his finger, There there is the truth!"
Haydn not only recognized the genius of the great men who had passed away, but of his young contemporaries, Mozart and Beethoven. Small men may be envious of their fellows, but really great men seek out and. love each other. Of Mozart, Haydn wrote: " I only wish I could impress on every friend of music, and on. great men in particular, the same depth of musical sympathy, and profound appreciation of Mozart's inimitable music, that I myself feel and enjoy; . then nations would vie with each other to possess such a jewel within their frontiers. Prague ought not only to strive to retain this precious man, but also to remunerate him; for without this the history of a great genius is sad indeed.
It enrages me to think that the unparalleled Mozart is not yet engaged by some imperial or royal court. Forgive my excitement; but I love the man so dearly !"
Mozart was equally generous in his recognition of the merits of Haydn. " Sir," said he' to a critic, speaking of the latter, " if you and I were both melted down together, we should not furnish materials for one Haydn." And when Mozart first heard Beethoven, he observed : " Listen to that young man; be assured that he will yet make a great name in the world."
Buffon set Newton above all other philosophers, and admired him so highly that he had always his portrait before him while he sat at work. So Schiller looked up to Shakespeare, whom he studied reverently and zealously for years, until he became capable of comprehending nature at first hand and then his admiration became, even more ardent than before.
Pitt was Canning's master and hero, whom he followed and admired with attachment and devotion. " To one man while he lived," said Canning, " I was devoted with all my heart and all my soul. Since the death of Mr. Pitt I acknowledge no leader; my political allegiance lies buried in his grave.
A French physiologist, M. Roux, was occupied one day in lecturing to his pupils, when Sir Charles Bell, whose discoveries were even better known and more highly appreciated abroad than at home, strolled into his class-room. The professor, recognizing his visitor, at once stopped his exposition, saying, "Messieurs, c'est assez pour aujourd'hui, vous avez vu Sir Charles Bell."
The first acquaintance with a great work of art has usually proved an important event in every young artist's life. When Correggio first gazed on Raphael's " Saint Cecilia," he felt within himself an awakened power, and exclaimed, "And I too am a painter! " So Constable used to look back on his first sight of Claude's picture of " Hagar " as forming an epoch in his career. Sir George Beaumont's admiration of the same picture was such that he always took it with him in his carriage when he traveled from home.
The examples set by the great and good do not die; they continue to live and speak to all the generations that succeed them. It was very impressively observed by Mr. Disraeli, in the House of Commons, shortly after the death of Mr. Cobden:
" There is this consolation remaining to us, when we remember our unequaled and irreparable losses, that those great men are not altogether lost to us that their words will often be quoted in this House that their examples will often be referred to and appealed to, and that even their expressions will form part of our discussions and debates. There are now, I may say, some members of Parliament who, though they may not be present are still members of this House who are independent of dissolutions, of the caprices of constituencies, and even of the course of time. I think that Mr. Cobden was one of those men."
It is the great lesson of biography to teach what man can be and can do at his best. It may thus give each man renewed strength and confidence. The humblest, in sight of even the greatest, may admire, and hope, and take courage. These great brothers of ours in blood and lineage, who live a universal life, still speak to us from their graves, and beckon us on in the paths which they have trod. Their example is still with us, to guide, to influence and to direct us. For nobility of character is a perpetual bequest, living from age to age, and constantly tending to reproduce its like.
" The sage," says the Chinese, " is the instructor of a hundred ages. When the manners of Loo are heard of, the stupid become intelligent, and the wavering deter-mined." Thus the acted life of a good man continues to be a gospel of freedom and emancipation to all who succeed him:
"To live in hearts we leave behind,
The golden words which good men have uttered, the examples they have set, live through all time: they pass into the thoughts and hearts of their successors, help them on the road of life and often console them in the hour of death. " And the most miserable or most painful of deaths," said Henry Marten, the Commowealth man who died in prison, " is as nothing compared with the memory of a well-spent life; and great alone is he who has earned the glorious privilege of bequeathing such a lesson and example to his successors."