The Wandering Word



    SOMETIMES it seems as if words were the only realities, as if everything else were fleeting and perishable as dew. We say in household phrase that the word that is written remains, and we think of our heritage of literature. But the unwritten word has an indestructible life as well.
    In the Old Book, where the story of the creation is told, how the heavens and the earth were made in the beginning, it is written “God said.” No other way of promulgating the vast elemental fiat could occur to the imagination. By simple word of mouth the revolving firmament was created, so that beautiful poem has it; and the conception is a tribute to the power of the word. When you [Page 133] come to revise that primitive notion, and substitute for it some slow gigantic idea of evolution, rational but ponderous and lumbering, much of the wonder at first escapes. The process seems so logical, the periods of time are so immeasurably enormous, that one hardly travels back to “in the beginning;” the mind is so sufficiently occupied with the revelations of scientific method, it does not note the old ever-present marvel. For the sphinx has only retreated behind another question; and our solution of the riddle has been found in terms of still another conundrum.
    Follow the evolutionary idea, the new idea of the creation, to its limits, and there the ancient wonder resides as fresh and inscrutably smiling as it was in the Hebrew poem. The reason at last runs back to the power of the word. For, think of the infinite tribes of the earth and the sea, and the breeds of the air; if no voice said, “Let these creatures appear, each after its kind,” they must have [Page 134] said to each other, “Let us go forth and possess the earth;” or at least they must have said to themselves, each in his heart, “Go to, I will become.” A world without words is an unthinkable world.
    And, again, in the New Book you may read “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” This is a more illumined, modern, and symbolistic way of saying the same thing that the author of the first chapter of Genesis said. There was no time, it seems to imply, when expression and the power of communication did not exist; more than that, there never was a time when anything more potent than a word held sway over being. In the Scots usage, “The word is with you,” shifts the obligation from speaker to hearer, and places the credit where it is due. And in the phrase, “The word was with God,” I read the attribution of all moral force. Also, if “the word was God,” and God is unchanging, the word is still Lord of the Earth. Thought, sentiment [Page 135], desire, these are our rulers, and they have their only embodiment in expression. It is by the help of the wandering word that they hold sway and move in power.
    Before the written speech was the sound of the voice, prevailing, urging, convincing, obtaining the individual’s wish and swaying multitudes to a single will. Then with printing came the multiplying of the word, the increase of the powers of the unseen. All of the fine arts are only differing phases of the word; they are only so many modes of expression, signals of the spirit across gulfs of silence. And our Titan of the century, mechanical invention, what is the end of all its labour but to bring men face to face more rapidly, that they may speak what they know, or to carry their thought abroad with the swiftness of light?
    So now, when the vernal sun is warming the earth, and April is spreading up the sloping world with resurrection, by what magic is the transformation wrought? In the dim nether [Page 136] glooms of the deep sea all the fin people have received the summons; the unrest has taken hold of them, — the fever of migration; and the myriad hosts from the green Floridian water and azure Carib calms gather and move; surely and swiftly they come, through the soundless, trackless spaces under the broken whitish day, up to the cool fresh rivers and the pools of the North. How did they know the date? By instinct? But what is that? The communication came to them, inexplicably as it comes to us, — the unuttered word, the presage, the portent. And their brothers the birds, too; already they are here, hard on the heels of the retreating frost, every tribe with its cohorts full and overflowing; from tree to tree, from state to state, the long unnoted procession comes up through the night. How they started, how they guessed the hour of departure, we can only dimly surmise. Their movements are as mysterious as our own, their whim as undiscoverable. Yet to them, too, the message must have gone [Page 137] abroad. To say that the word went forth among them is to use the simplest and most elemental imagery.
    The word is that which has both meaning and melody, both sense and semblance; it is that which informs us; it is neither matter alone, nor spirit alone, but the dual manifestation of the two in one. It is the symbol of the universe that we perceive, and the universe that we are. The Word is the Lord of Creation, the unresting master of life, the great vagabond, our substantial brother and ghostly friend.
    I knew a man who was a writer by trade, and one day in conversation I heard a friend say to him in the course of their talk, “Don’t you really love a word better than anything else in the world?” But this monstrous notion he stoutly repudiated, almost with indignation, I thought. Years afterward, however, he reminded me of the incident, and said that he had never quite escaped from that suggestion, – he often feared it was true [Page 138].