The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman


The March Hare's Madness

 

    PERHAPS one of the maddest things in a mad world is to inquire the cause of madness, just as it seems to be one of the requisites of happiness that we should not set our heart upon it. The Angel of Life is evasive, reticent, not to be cornered, yet abounding in generous revelations of the truth upon occasion; and that mortal is likely to learn most about the mysteries of being who does not pry into them too industriously. Curiosity is the fundamental passion of the mind, and to satisfy curiosity with knowledge is one of the three great sources of happiness. At the same time it is forbidden to know everything. At least this is so for the time being, whatever [Page 290] may be permitted to human investigation in some future age.

    And so, whether it is hatters or March hares, we know very little about the madness of either. Each has become a byword in proverbial speech, and we make a simile of his erratic fortune without a second though. How sad to be a name and nothing more in the mouth of one’s fellows! Yet I have no doubt the hatter is as indifferent to his repute as the hare, even perhaps a little proud of his peculiarity. So frail is moral nature, it is boastful even of its blemishes when they lend it a little distinction and draw the eyes of the crowd. One can very well fancy the complacency of the hatter under his visitation, how he would turn it to good account and make a profitable investment of his affliction. He would be a sorry tradesman who could not manage to secure some slight advantage in dealing with destiny and come out at last on the right side of his reckoning with Providence. Was ever the madness of a hatter [Page 291] so complete his commercial instinct could not prevail against it? Is there not always a residuum of sanity at the bottom of his mania, a trace of shrewd calculation concealed under the guise of his feckless innocence? The madness of the hatter is the wisdom of the serpent, seemingly guileless yet profoundly subtle and sardonic.

    Now the March hare is in a very different case. His folly is the folly of a child, his madness the madness of ecstasy, of elation, of transport. He is a visionary and partakes of the rapture of lovers and prophets and bards. He is possessed and carried out of himself. He is akin to the oracular priestess of Delphi and the Vestals, whose care it was to cherish the sacred flame of their goddess. He may be the least of all the creatures who suffer this form of madness, but his tenure of the divine possession is none the less authentic. The burden of joy laid upon his spirit is excessive, and an unhinging of his balance has supervened. He is mad because he loves too [Page 292] greatly, whereas the hatter is mad because he knows too much. Saul and Hamlet were mad as hatters, through an excess of knowledge vouchsafed to them. Blake and Shelley and many another mystic were mad as March hares, by reason of the too great stress of inspiration laid upon them. In the one case the dementia is a malady of the mind, in the other it is an affection of the spirit; though, tried by the standard of sober sense, they are all mad together.

    With something of the March hare’s own folly, I spent a day in a library trying to find out the meaning of his madness, its cause and scope, or how it came into our proverbial lore. Of course, the search was futile, and I only found out several things I was not looking for. One quotation, however, seemed pleasant enough to remember. Drayton in his “Nymphidia” says that Oberon

                                        “Grew mad as any hare,
                               When he has sought each place with care,
                               And found the queen was missing.”
[Page 293]

    I daresay that is the gist of the matter, for the best of the cyclopædists took refuge in the bare statement that hares are particularly wild during the mating season in March. So the madness of our little brother with the long ears is only the erratic behaviour of a lover, after all, and we must sympathize with him in his happy derangement. Who will say there is any joy in the world comparable to that irresponsible state of election, when the kind gods have marked us for their own, and bestowed on us the favour of their rapturous life for one spring day? Is it any wonder the hare should be full of quirks and starts, of aimless chasing to and fro, of dashing here and halting there without rhyme or reason? Could one expect so frail and sensitive a being to support so great a burden of ecstasy and still be undistracted, poised, and sane? Is it not rather a marvel he has a spark of reason left? Most men and women have been lovers, too, in their day, and unless memory can be wholly blighted by time, should know [Page 294] how to feel for their little friend in his March wildness:

                                     “For that is the madness of Ishtar,
                                      Which comes upon earth in spring.”

    It is easy to identify Easter, the ancient goddess of the spring wind and the southwest rain, with Ishtar or Astarte, the deity of love who was worshipped with dark rites in Asia, passed into the purer religion of Hellas as Aphrodite, and survives as April, the mother of the new-ploughed field and swelling seed. The soft wind from the south is her immortal breath; her garment is the mist of purple rain; the opening windflower and blood-root and hepatica betray where her foot has passed; she touches the wild cherry with her hand as she journeys, and the woodlands are filled with the fragrance of its breaking bloom. In the bitter North, when the rivers are loosened from their long imprisonment and go sparkling to the sea, when the streams of melting snow babble to the stars in

                           “The hopeful, solemn, many-murmured night,” [Page 295]

that, too, is the work of the great spring goddess, while in the hearts of all mortal creatures she works a no less miraculous resurgence. It is she who brings back the purple swallow at the appointed day, and whispers the time of year to the flame-bright crocus under the mold. It is she also who puts mad fancies into the heads of imperial lovers and wild March hares. For before her not only is no distinction of persons, but the “flower in the crannied wall,” the hunter on the trail, the small green frog in the marsh, and the proud prince in his palace are equal in her eyes. It is she also who presides over the unmitigated ardours of earth, and delights in the splendid longings, the impassioned desires, the impossible romantic aspirations of human hearts. It was her madness which came upon Leander and sent him to swim the Hellespont to his death, for the sake of a girl’s kiss.

    For no weightier reason, how many a man has gone to his doom in the glad, fragrant [Page 296] hours of some lengthened twilight of spring, with the green pipes of the frogs sounding in the meadows, and the still, small magic flute of desire answering in his breast! Over the hills or beyond the sea dwelt the remembered shape of beauty, beckoned the vision of alluring loveliness, echoed the silver sound of irresistible laughter, and he could do nothing but follow the old irremediable path of destiny and joy. Let prudence lay up saws and experience inculcate caution as they will; it is not in the nature of love to count the cost. Youth knows a better wisdom in the infatuated gladness of the lover, and those whom the gods love die without ever being disillusioned. Crazy in the sight of the world, they go to their graves with no care upon their brow, unreluctant to the last. Of a metal too fine to be tarnished by the corrosive air of life, they pass in charmed immunity through the scurvy environments of struggle and selfishness and greed, childlike, instinctive, single-hearted, guided for ever by the divine insanity.

    It is not only in the tender pursuits of youth that the inescapable March madness reveals itself. It is made patent in all the undertakings of men. Wherever there is a touch of the visionary and the extreme there are its symptoms appearing. We may be sober, diligent, God-fearing, impeccable, stanch as churchwardens, and dependable as a stone wall, yet make no more than a decent demise after all. For all our sedulous anxiety to keep the Commandments, we may go down to the pit with none to grieve above us. The local paper may give us a stickful of perfunctory eulogy, our possessions will be scattered among our relatives, and the sum total of the matter is not much more than a name and two dates on a headstone under a sighing willow. Of such is the kingdom of the world. It is all very well and very right and very necessary, but alone it is not enough. You will find that whenever a man is remembered and beloved beyond the day of his great departure, there has been a touch of the unusual and extravagant [Page 298] about him in some direction. However commonplace he may have seemed for the most part, it will turn out that those who knew him best were acquainted with exaggerated and unusual traits in his character, vagaries, and predilections out of the ordinary, generous promptings of self-forgetful folly, which endeared him to them more than all his unwavering rectitude. For it is not what we expect of people that makes us love them, but their unasked, unrequited, and lavish actions. The soul is not happy in exactitude, but loves the overbrimming measure. The mean and calculating wisdom of the market-place is abhorrent to it, and the wasteful, splendid, unstinted dealings of Nature are the only method it knows. Who ever heard of keeping a tally in friendship, or doing a kindness for the sake of gain? Surely that were the very embodiment of blasphemy against the spirit of love! Yet that is the custom of traders and politicians and moneylenders and all the sleek complacency that [Page 299] rules the world. Alas for them! They despise the unsuspecting gentleness of Utopian dreamers, they have cast out all childish and impractical faith from their mind, and have made themselves lords of their fellow men, only to lose the greatest of all treasures at last, — a radiant spirit and a contented heart.

    We aver glibly enough that aberration always goes with genius, but we make a mistake when we expect genius to exist without aberration. Nature progresses steadily but unevenly, here a little and there a little, now at one point, now at another. It is the very height of her intention to produce a perfect individual, to embody the beauty of the normal in the single instance. Toward this ideal she is always tending, yet how seldom she seems to attain it, even remotely! The impossible hopes and aims of the altruist make him peculiar, — make him a variant from the average type of man. Any great capacity in one direction or another, which we call genius and hold to be a kind of inspiration, makes [Page 300] its possessor conspicuous. It does not make him abnormal, for that is the one direction in which he is permitted to approach the normal a little more closely. If he were allowed to approach it in all directions, — if he could have strength of body and power of mind, for instance, commensurate with his noble longings and imaginings, — the creature of genius would be human no longer, but divine. And it is not permitted any one mortal to run so far ahead in the great procession.

    It does not need any philosophy, however, to appreciate the March hare’s enthusiasm. We all know how the feeling of young spring takes hold of him, when the sappy buds begin to swell and the sleeping rivers begin to murmur in their icy dungeons. We, too, have our seizures of restlessness, our longings to wander, our admonitions of splendid discontent, when the sun passes the equator and the hours of sunshine lengthen toward the season of flowers. For us also routine becomes irksome and common sense the only delusion. [Page 301] It is time for rejuvenation upon the earth, when age looks on youth with an envious eye, and the soberest beef-eater among us is wont to put by his accustomed habit of prudence for the gayer garb of some more reckless virtue. It is not enough to be sound citizens, forsooth, and scrupulous upholders of things as they are; we must revert to the days of our pupilage and taste once more the intoxicating savour of romance. Perhaps we have accumulated an enviable store of worldly wisdom, venerable with the dust of time, and are hoarding it against ravages of age. Of no avail is our fatuous precaution. The first breath of spring wind blows it all away, and we go merrily forth upon the great adventure as empty-handed and daring as when we first began. It may be hard to learn instruction from our elders; it is a hundred times harder to forget the counsels of our own youth. The heart’s great by-laws of intrepidity and hope need neither to be written nor taught; they were promulgated long before [Page 302] our puny civilizations were dreamed of, and they will guide many generations when our hands have let go of all temporal affairs. The forethought of the ant may be a sufficient providence against the perils of winter, but we must have a touch of the March madness of the hare if we would come happily through the round year. It is not enough to avoid disaster and penury and mischance; the stones of the field accomplish that better than we. We needs must have “a bliss to dies with, dim descried,” if we would save ourselves from the consciousness of ultimate failure. You may very well think to get yourself through the inexorable portals of heaven under the patronage of Socrates and Newton and the Lord of Verulam, of the seven wise men of Greece and the seventy wise men of modern days. But, pray, were they not all mad together? Let me take my modest chance with the timorous March hare. [Page 303]

                                                          THE END.