I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand:
A thousand years, their cloudy wings expand
Around me, and a dying Glory smiles
O’er the far times, when many a subject land
Look’d to the winged Lion’s marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles!
Man! I wonder what a man really is! Starting from a single cell, this seized upon by another, and out of the Eternal comes a particle of the Divine Energy that makes these cells its home. Growth follows, cell is added to cell, and there develops a man–a man whose body, two-thirds water, can be emptied by a single dagger-thrust and the spirit given back to its Maker.
This being, which we call man, does not last long.
Fifty-seven generations have come and gone since Caesar trod the Roman Forum. The pillars against which he often leaned still stand, the thresholds over which he passed are there, the pavements ring beneath your tread as they once rang beneath his. Three generations and more have come and gone since Napoleon trod the streets of Toulon contemplating suicide.
Babes in arms were carried by fond mothers to see Lincoln, the candidate for President. These babes have grown into men, are grandfathers possibly, with whitened hair, furrowed faces, looking calmly forward to the end, having tasted all that life holds in store for them.
And yet Lincoln lived but yesterday! You can reach back into the past and grasp his hand, and look into his sad and weary eyes.
A man! weighted with the sins of his parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, who fade off into dim spectral shapes in the dark and dreamlike past; no word of choice has he in the selection of his father and mother, no voice in the choosing of environment–brought into life without his consent and thrust out of it against his will–battling, striving, hoping, cursing, waiting, loving, praying; burned by fever, torn by passion, checked by fear, reaching for friendship, longing for sympathy, clutching–nothing.
* * * * *
Doctors and priests attend us at both ends of the route. We can not be born, neither can we die, without consulting the tax-collector, and interviewing those who look after us for a consideration.
The doctor who sought to assist George Gordon Byron into the world dislocated the bones of his left foot in the operation. Forsooth, this baby would not be born as others—he selected a way of his own and paid the penalty. “It is a malformation–take these powders–I’ll be back tomorrow,” quoth the busy doctor.
The autopsy proved it was not a malformation, but a displacement.
“Doctor, now please tell me just what is the matter with me,” once asked an anxious patient.
“Tut, tut!” replied the absent-minded physician; “can’t you wait? The post-mortem will reveal all that.”
The critics did not wait for Byron’s death–it was vivisection. And after his death the dissection was zealously continued. Byron’s life lies open to us in many books. Scarcely a month in the entire life of the man is unaccounted for, and if a hiatus of a few weeks is found, the men of imagination fill in and make him a pirate on the Mediterranean coast, or give him a seraglio in some gloomy old Moorish palace in Venice.
In his lifetime Byron was overpraised and overcensured, and since his death the dust has been allowed to gather over his matchless books. Between the two extremes lies the truth; and the true Byron is just now being discovered. Byron in literature will not die. He is the brightest comet that has darted into our ken since Shakespeare’s time; and as comets have no orbit, but are vagrants of the heavens, so was he. Tragedy was in his train, and his destiny was disgrace and death.