The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman

The Tides of the Mind


    ALWAYS through the ocean the ranging tides are sweeping with flux and counterflux, like enormous arteries throbbing under the bright vesture of the sea. There are the diurnal tides that flow and ebb and pause and flow again continually, hung in space by the mystery of gravitation; with the thrust of the sun and the pull of the great ponderous moon, they swing around the earth. But to us creepers by the shore they seem only streaming currents or blue or red or greenish water. Then there are the greater, tides — properly speaking, ocean currents — which have their bounds and frontiers, their apportioned cycles to journey, shores to scour, islands to build, reefs to thread, and the unknown [Page 7] depths of unplumbed immensity to traverse.

    To speak by metaphor, there are tides of the mind also. Each man’s mind, perhaps, is something like an insignificant rock-pool on our granite coast. It may be sleeping idly in the sun, and you would take it to be a mere chance rain puddle, or at best the oversplash of storm, soon to become stagnant, to evaporate, to pass away. But you mistake; it has somewhere out of sight a hidden passage of communication with the great deep, eternally breathing down the shore.

    On parts of the coast where the soil permits it, as in the Bahamas, for instance, with their coral rock foundation, there are wells of sweet water within a few feet of the sea, that rise and fall regularly with the tide, yet are always fresh and wholesome to drink; so admirable is the filtering alchemy of the earth. There are minds of this sort, the thinkers of the race, able to keep always in close touch with the vast profound of truth, and able at [Page 8] the same time to transmute it in some way into their own limpid expression for the kindly service of man. Such a man, whether he be poet or preacher, artist or agitator, is more than merely “a well of English undefiled;” he is a well of spiritual refreshment. Shakespeare, Marcus Aurelius, Goethe, Darwin, Plato, Whitman, Browning, Job, Virgil, Hugo, Kant, Spinoza, St. Francis — pagan, saint, or sceptic, it matters not at all — these were wells of the undefiled truth. They might be the fountain springs of that stream Emerson speaks of in his poem “Two Rivers.”

     “So forth and brighter fares my stream, —
    Who drink it shall not thirst again;
No darkness stains its equal gleam,  
And ages drop in it like rain.”   

    Yes, and how we prize a good well! Think how many generations have drunk from that clear fountain which Chaucer gave to England! A new spring discovered, and we try its taste, — first two or three put it to their [Page 9] lips, then a hundred, then perhaps a hundred thousand, its fame is so excellent. Then, if it is really good water, and unfailing for human need, we and our children may drink of it for centuries.

    We read books for that same reason that we drink of a well, I fancy. The natural element is necessary for the body; and we bring ourselves daily into contact with the vast primal chemic forces of the universe, else we should perish. So, too, the mind has its necessity of nourishment; it must be brought daily into immediate relation with the outer vast of spiritual truth from which it springs. It may drink from books, or it may find the sea of actual life sufficient for it. But water it must have, sweet or salt.

    Now there is nothing mysterious, or elect, or exclusive in art, or books, or poetry. Our only use of these things, our only joy in them, is this: that they put our small selves into relation with the great tides of truth. How a draught from Carlyle will sluice the dust [Page 10] out of one’s brain! For the mind of every man would perish in a day if it had no channel leading out to a source of thought! It is not a question of right reason, or even of reason at all; it is a question of life, of common joy and sorrow, and love and pleasure in beauty.

    It has been said that happiness is not governed by circumstance, that it depends on the tides of the mind. Have you not noticed how capricious our own capacity for happiness seems? To-day every condition may make for pleasure, — a morning unsurpassed for loveliness, an easy conscience, indulgent friends, a well-earned respite from routine, wealth, plenty, amusement, — and yet the magic moment of radiant joy fails to arrive. The tide is setting the wrong way. To-morrow, on the contrary, everything is adverse; it is a mean, drizzly, unhealthy day in town, business is vexing, men are untrustworthy, one failure follows another, out home folk berate us, our clothes are shabby, the cars are [Page 11] crowded to indecency; it matters not the least in the world. From some undiscovered source, there suffuses us a sense of joyful content, an unfathomable draught of happiness which nothing can poison or take away. Probably, unknown to ourselves, we have done some act or met some thought, which put us in communication with absolute truth. One cannot tell. It was a touch of the tides of the mind.

    But this is certain: never, by taking thought for the outward conditions alone, can one secure happiness, nor control these uncharted mental tides. I dare say, however, that we might be helped in governing the ebb and flow of happiness by two rules. The first is thus: See that your body is well [Page 12] cared for. The body is the reservoir through which the tides of the mind will flow. You must keep it clean and well ventilated, and thoroughly repaired. To do this needs leisure and work combined. And the second rule is very like the first: See that every other body is well cared for. This will give you a sufficient spiritual exercise to ensure a wholesome thirst for happiness; and your soul will then refuse to be put off with any of the numerous decoctions of mere pleasure. [Page 13]