The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman


On Tradition

 

    IT is a wonderful June morning in a New England town. Long before breakfast-time the birds have waked you with their riotous medley of songs and calls. Probably it was the oriole in the orchard, talking away in his mellow syllables, who actually roused you to consciousness at last. Then you were glad to be awake, for you remembered you were not in the city any longer, and you gave a sigh of relief and stretched far down in the cool, clean linen. But the oriole sang on and the sun was high and the world was good to see, and you could lie no longer. Now it is after breakfast, and you stroll out on the lawn and see the flowers and clover and hear more birds and watch the people going to church. [Page 175]

    There goes by a little lady in light gown, with her parasol and book, very content and happy, to rehearse her prayers and praises as her grandmother did before her. If you look with the artist’s eye, if you can attain for a moment that magical vision which sees things not too near nor yet too far, which notes every detail and yet is detached from the object and views it as in a dream or a moving picture, you will perceive that she is not as familiar as you fancied. In reality her dress and customs are as strange and foreign as if she were a little Jap or Corean. Why does she trip away so lightly over the grass, why is she so assured in her happiness, why does she wear those needless gloves, that strange hat, those fluttering ribbons? I see her moving through the picture and ask myself these things. Why? Tradition, I suppose. Slowly progressing tradition working for ages has brought about her dress as it is this morning, and made her set out for church [Page 176] in that calm, delightful way. I don’t know whether ladies go to church in Japan, or whether they have any Sunday. But, if they have and if they do, how charming we should think their custom! What a pious and beautiful habit! Yet it is only tradition.

    Is tradition, then, so great a beautifier of this world and of our life here? Is it not rather true to say that all our advances and advantages have been won in a hard-fought fight with tradition? Is it not by stubbornly opposing custom and by unflinchingly insisting on change, freedom, reform, that we have come to our present development? Am I not right to be a liberal, even a radical, and set my face like a stone against benumbing tradition? Tradition makes men bigots and slaves and tyrants and superstitious yokels. Tradition is the father of persecutions, the uncle of falsehoods, the brother of ignorance, and the grandsire of a thousand hideous sins against sweetness and light. I will have none of tradition. I will abide by the example of [Page 177] my masters, those brave thinkers who tried to teach me liberality. Be others what they may, I will be myself.

    “Ah, my friend, that is all very fine,” said a still, small voice, as I kept on the smooth, soft grass, “but look here, look about you. See those yellow lilies there beyond the tennis-court. All winter they were asleep in their bulbs, dry and brown, with not a soul to tend them. Yet this morning there they are, all radiance and light, the same frail, beautiful creatures their people have been for a thousand years. How do you fancy they manage to compass that miracle? Tradition. And you hear your orioles and your warblers and your robins, each keeping fresh and fair his own imperishable measure of gladness. There again is tradition. And just fancy for a moment, please, what would happen if your oriole should turn radical and attempt some new strange note, some violation of the tradition of his kind, or if the yellow lily should presume to disregard the traditions of her [Page 178] folk! No more lovely lilies, no more entrancing orioles, as long as the world might last.

    “Why, my fanciful friend, the very frame of the universe is hung upon tradition. Tradition is the cement that holds the arches of the earth in place; the planets themselves are hung on that thread. Let it once break, and cosmos would fall about your ears. If every creature after its kind, and every herb and flower after their kind, yes, and every stone and metal after their kind, did not follow unquestioningly the immutable law of their activity, the tradition of their race, we could not exist a moment as we are. We should all be thrown into primal confusion once more. Tradition is the first letter in the alphabet of life.”

    And I suppose this is so. Try as we may, few of us can roam very far from the central peg to which our own peculiar tradition has tied us. We fancy ourselves reformers and independents. Let others follow customs, we are in bond to no law but our instinct. We [Page 179] shall act for ourselves, as we think best. We shall conform no more, be subservient to none. Let tradition be hanged, for we have a finer sanction for conduct within the heart. And so off we fly into quixotic reforms and a hundred mad schemes for rearranging the universe in a day and house-cleaning the cosmos in a week.

    It cannot be done. Tradition is not the bugbear radicals would have us believe. It safeguards our existence against our own too rash folly. It keeps us from the ills of a too precipitate haste. There is a happy mean in conduct between radicalism and conservatism. I hear my friend on one side of the room howling at the “hide-bound conservatives.” I hear my friend on the other side muttering at the “blatant radicals.” And I do sympathize with each. If there is one thing I detest as heartily as I do the stuffy, narrow-minded, intolerant, unprogressive, conservative, it is the flannel-mouthed agitator. The one is hopeless, the other is almost [Page 180] worse; he is destructive. And yet it is to be noted tradition moves. It moves slowly, very slowly, but it does move. And tradition is, after all, no inhuman condition, but a habit in which we are immemorially inured. Tradition changes, too; it is changing every day, and it is we ourselves who change it. When we give our energy to the generous tasks of reform, I think perhaps we should do well to remember this; not to try to go too fast. At least we should let our knowledge of tradition reconcile us to the difficulty of progress. We should remember always that the most thorough method of reform is that which reforms tradition. It is not easy to destroy old traditions, but it is possible to infect them with ridicule so that they presently die, tardily but surely. Then we must all the while be fostering new traditions in their place. People are not adapted as yet to a life without tradition. They are not wise enough, and they are too timid. Give them time. Meanwhile, supplant the old traditions [Page 181] with better ones. Be as thoroughgoing as you please, but do have some finesse. In order to weed your garden, it will not be necessary to root up everything that is green. [Page 182]