X. The flood-tide of youth.
To one who returns in middle or later life, like myself, to dwell in some college town where the first years of youth were spent, there is something that may fairly be called tremendous in the presence of that flood-tide of youth which surges forever through the streets.
It is at first dismaying, then interesting, and at last quite absorbing in its fascination.
The new-comer soon finds that he has in a manner to hold himself firm against it as against an incoming sea. To say that he feels insignificant before it is to say nothing; it carrieth him away as with a flood.
What is all that which makes up the sum of his personal existence-his childhood, his early loves and hopes and fears, his gratified or ungratified ambitions, and what he calls his work in the world — in presence of this resistless wave of another generation, sweeping on to replace him and to annihilate the very trace of him and his?
Who brings his little vanity, his grave
Appeal to men's applause or wonder....
Flash o'er the graven sands a liberal wave
And let us know no more his memory or his blood.
It is not that these unconscious boys are distinctly aware how secure is their tenure, how insecure and brief is yours.
That is the worst of it. A tinge of self-consciousness would imply a trace of weakness.
Their demeanor is never defiant or insolent; it would be too flattering were it thus.
Such a bearing would imply a certain equality; whereas there is no equality between those who possess the future and those who only hold the defined and limited past.
You are not slighted as an individual, but simply superseded as a generation.
There is no equality between Shakespeare
's dying King Henry and the Prince Hal who tries on his crown.
In the case of these college youths, disrespect would be almost complimentary; it is the supreme and absolute indifference that overwhelms.
You may have your place in the world, such as it is. “Old age hath yet its honor and its toil.”
They neither assert nor deny it. Why should they?
They simply shoulder their way through the ranks of mature persons, triumphantly heedless, like the conquering Goths
through the streets of Rome
, or a party of California
miners through the Louvre.
“The accumulations of the past may be all very
well,” they seem to say, “but ours is the future.”
They are right; that future is in their hands, with its coming art and statesmanship, Rome
, Louvre, and all. This they know, or it is true without their knowing it, which makes them still more resistless and insuperable than if they knew it.
There is not a trace of any spirit of unkindness about all this; they would as soon think of being unkind to the portrait of their great-grandfather.
You may even invade their haunts unmolested.
If you go with a young niece or daughter to an assembly, they receive you with grave courtesy and with a respect that penetrates to the marrow of your bones, showing how utterly you are removed from their world.
They even glance at you with a pleased interest sometimes, as if one of the Copley paintings had come down from the wall of Memorial 1all and walked and talked.
It is to them inconceivable that you should like to come there; but if you do, they really like to have you. They do not compliment you by the slightest jealousy or resentment.
They would gladly put you on a raised seat with the other chaperons, and give you, as they give them, bouquets and ice-cream
; all that is left of the intoxicating sweets of youth.
It is this careless courtesy that is the crowning banishment.
In all Tourguenief's novels there is no scene more powerful than that closing chapter of “Lisa” where the participant
in a great domestic tragedy comes back in later years and bursts in upon a gay circle of youths and maidens, the kindred and namesakes of those who took part in that earlier heart-break — a joyous group, who gather laughingly around him, vaguely recall for an instant the names that made up all of life to him, and then whirl away, not even noticing him when he leaves the house.
But there really is no need of sorrow in dwelling amid this ever-rising tide.
As Algernon in “Patience” regards himself as a trustee for beauty, to preserve it, show it, and make the most of it, so these exuberant children are trustees for youth.
It is amusing to notice that sometimes, indeed, they, like Algernon, grow weary of their trust, and even enjoy assuming the attitudes of old age a little while.
No white-haired man is so old-or would be, if he could help it — as many a college bard at twenty who writes for himself, as Dr. Holmes
wrote when little more than that age:
Alas! the morning dew is gone-
Gone ere the full of day.
How delicious it is to boast of age when one is young, and of misery when one is happy!
It is like the delight of a fresh young girl at wearing hair-powder and attempting to look old; the more venerable the fashion, the more radiant becomes
her blooming youth; but let her hair really grow gray for a day, and see how she likes it!
Yet hence with the cruel suggestion!
Why should we know how she likes it?
Her turn will come soon enough.
Be the trustee for youth while you can, my fair one, and you too, jubilant and tumultuous boys.
hairs may bring you something that is worth all youth's spring-tide.
That something is what it is now the fashion to call “altruism” the power of being happy in another's happiness, the last and most blessed of all Heaven's gifts to man. You have a thousand advantages over your venerable relative who stands, an unobserved wall-flower, behind you; but he has one vast advantage that you cannot share: he can partake in imagination of every thrill of your happiness, for he has had it all; but you cannot comprehend an atom of his, for you have not come to it. As he watches his daughter or his favorite niece with divided emotions in the ballroom — enraged, as Howells
says, when she has not a partner, and jealous when she has — he still has a pleasure that he would not, on the whole, exchange for yours.
Your enjoyments are more ardent, it may be, but his have wider range, for they represent the whole genial sympathy of matured existence.
And beyond all this-and still more utterly beyond the comprehension of the young — is that
sense of wealth and inherent resources in the human race which we obtain from watching this incessant tide.
What the individual loses by it in importance, humanity gains.
In saner moments I am able not merely to acquiesce, but positively to exult, in the thought that a new generation is to supersede all that my own contemporaries with such vast effort have accomplished; to make our seeming wealth poverty, our successes superfluous, our deeds forgotten.
Not only is it the new generation's right, but it is the glory of the race, thus to obliterate all predecessors.
It proves that the life of humanity on this planet is an ocean, not a pond: nay, it is more than an ocean, for it has a flood-tide, but no ebb.