"Age could not wither her, nor custom stale Her infinite variety."
So was one person described by the pen which has made a clearer mark than any other on the history of Man. But is it not surprising that such a description should apply to so few?
Of two or three women we read histories that correspond with the hint given in these lines. They were women in whom there was intellect enough to temper and enrich, heart enough to soften and enliven the entire being. There was soul enough to keep the body beautiful through the term of earthly existence; for while the roundness, the pure, delicate lineaments, the flowery bloom of youth were passing, the marks left in the course of those years were not merely of time and care, but also of exquisite emotions and noble thoughts. With such chisels Time works upon his statues, tracery and fretwork, well worth the loss of the first virgin beauty of the alabaster; while the fire within, growing constantly brighter and brighter, shows all these changes in the material, as rich and varied ornaments. The vase, at last, becomes a lamp of beauty, fit to animate the councils of the great, or the solitude of the altar.
Two or three women there have been, who have thus grown even more beautiful with age. We know of many more men of whom this is true. These have been heroes, or still more frequently poets and artists; with whom the habitual life tended to expand the soul, deepen and vary the experience, refine the perceptions, and immortalize the hopes and dreams of youth.
They were persons who never lost their originality of character, nor spontaneity of action. Their impulses proceeded from a fulness and certainty of character, that made it impossible they should doubt or repent, whatever the results of their actions might be.
They could not repent, in matters little or great, because they felt that their notions were a sincere exposition of the wants of their souls. Their impulsiveness was not the restless fever of one who must change his place somehow or some-whither, but the waves of a tide, which might be swelled to vehemence by the action of the winds or the influence of an attractive orb, but was none the less subject to fixed laws.
A character which does not lose its freedom of motion and impulse by contact with the world, grows with its years more richly creative, more freshly individual. It is a character governed by a principle of its own, and not by rules taken from other men's experience; and therefore it is that
"Age cannot wither them, nor custom stale Their infinite variety."
Like violins, they gain by age, and the spirit of him who discourseth through them most excellent music,
"Like wine well kept and long, Heady, nor harsh, nor strong, With each succeeding year is quaffed A richer, purer, mellower draught."
Our French neighbors have been the object of humorous satire for their new coinage of terms to describe the heroes of their modern romance. A hero is no hero unless he has "ravaged brows," is "blasé" or "brisé" or "fatigué." His eyes must be languid, and his cheeks hollow. Youth, health and strength, charm no more; only the tree broken by the gust of passion is beautiful, only the lamp that has burnt out the better part of its oil precious, in their eyes. This, with them, assumes the air of caricature and grimace, yet it indicates a real want of this time—a feeling that the human being ought to grow more rather than less attractive with the passage of time, and that the decrease in physical charms would, in a fair and full life, be more than compensated by an increase of those which appeal to the imagination and higher feelings.
A friend complains that, while most men are like music-boxes, which you can wind up to play their set of tunes, and then they stop, in our society the set consists of only two or three tunes at most That is because no new melodies are added after five-and-twenty at farthest. It is the topic of jest and amazement with foreigners that what is called society is 'given up so much into the hands of boys and girls. Accordingly it wants spirit, variety and depth of tone, and we find there no historical presences, none of the charms, infinite in variety, of Cleopatra, no heads of Julius Cæsar, overflowing with meanings, as the sun with light.
Sometimes we hear an educated voice that shows us how these things might be altered. It has lost the fresh tone of youth, but it has gained unspeakably in depth, brilliancy, and power of expression. How exquisite its modulations, so finely shaded, showing that all the intervals are filled up with little keys of fairy delicacy and in perfect tune!
Its deeper tones sound the depth of the past; its more thrilling notes express an awakening to the infinite, and ask a thousand questions of the spirits that are to unfold our destinies, too far-reaching to be clothed in words. Who does not feel the sway of such a voice? It makes the whole range of our capacities resound and tremble, and, when there is positiveness enough to give an answer, calls forth most melodious echoes.
The human eye gains, in like manner, by tune and experience. Its substance fades, but it is only the more filled with an ethereal lustre which penetrates the gazer till he feels as if
"That eye were in itself a soul,"
and realizes the range of its power
"To rouse, to win, to fascinate, to melt, And by its spell of undefined control Magnetic draw the secrets of the soul."
The eye that shone beneath the white locks of Thorwaldsen was such an one,—the eye of immortal youth, the indicator of the man's whole aspect in a future sphere. We have scanned such eyes closely; when near, we saw that the lids were red, the corners defaced with ominous marks, the orb looked faded and tear-stained; but when we retreated far enough for its ray to reach us, it seemed far younger than the clear and limpid gaze of infancy, more radiant than the sweetest beam in that of early youth. The Future and the Past met in that glance,
O for more such eyes! The vouchers of free, of full and ever-growing lives!