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A Piece of Possible History by Edward Everett Hale

 

     [This essay was first published in the Monthly Religious Magazine,
     Boston, for October, 1851. One or another professor of chronology
     has since taken pains to tell me that it is impossible. But until
     they satisfy themselves whether Homer ever lived at all, I shall
     hold to the note which I wrote to Miss Dryasdust's cousin, which I
     printed originally at the end of the article, and which will be
     found there in this collection. The difficulties in the geography
     are perhaps worse than those of chronology.]

A summer bivouac had collected together a little troop of soldiers from Joppa, under the shelter of a grove, where they had spread their sheep-skins, tethered their horses, and pitched a single tent. With the carelessness of soldiers, they were chatting away the time till sleep might come, and help them to to-morrow with its chances; perhaps of fight, perhaps of another day of this camp indolence. Below the garden slope where they were lounging, the rapid torrent of Kishon ran brawling along. A full moon was rising above the rough edge of the Eastern hills, and the whole scene was alive with the loveliness of an Eastern landscape.

As they talked together, the strains of a harp came borne down the stream by the wind, mingling with the rippling of the brook.

“The boys were right,” said the captain of the little company. “They asked leave to go up the stream to spend their evening with the Carmel-men; and said that they had there a harper, who would sing and play for them.”

“Singing at night, and fighting in the morning! It is the true soldier's life,” said another.

“Who have they there?” asked a third.

“One of those Ziklag-men,” replied the chief. “He came into camp a few days ago, seems to be an old favorite of the king's, and is posted with his men, by the old tomb on the edge of the hill. If you cross the brook, he is not far from the Carmel post; and some of his young men have made acquaintance there.”

“One is not a soldier for nothing. If we make enemies at sight, we make friends at sight too.”

“Echish here says that the harper is a Jew.”

“What!—a deserter?”

“I do not know that; that is the king's lookout. Their company came up a week ago, were reviewed the day I was on guard at the outposts, and they had this post I tell you of assigned to them. So the king is satisfied; and, if he is, I am.”

“Jew or Gentile, Jehovah's man or Dagon's man,” said one of the younger soldiers, with a half-irreverent tone, “I wish we had him here to sing to us.”

“And to keep us awake,” yawned another.

“Or to keep us from thinking of to-morrow,” said a third.

“Can nobody sing here, or play, or tell an old-time story?”

There was nobody. The only two soldiers of the post, who affected musical skill, were the two who had gone up to the Carmelites' bivouac; and the little company of Joppa—catching louder notes and louder, as the bard's inspiration carried him farther and farther away—crept as far up the stream as the limits of their station would permit; and lay, without noise, to catch, as they best could, the rich tones of the music as it swept down the valley.

Soothed by the sound, and by the moonlight, and by the summer breeze, they were just in mood to welcome the first interruption which broke the quiet of the night. It was the approach of one of their company, who had been detached to Accho a day or two before; and who came hurrying in to announce the speedy arrival of companions, for whom he bespoke a welcome. Just as they were to leave Accho, he said, that day, on their return to camp, an Ionian trading-vessel had entered port. He and his fellow-soldiers had waited to help her moor, and had been chatting with her seamen. They had told them of the chance of battle to which they were returning; and two or three of the younger Ionians, enchanted at the relief from the sea's imprisonment, had begged them to let them volunteer in company with them. These men had come up into the country with the soldiers, therefore; and he who had broken the silence of the listeners to the distant serenade had hurried on to tell his comrades that such visitors were on their way.

They soon appeared on foot, but hardly burdened by the light packs they bore.

A soldier's welcome soon made the Ionian sailors as much at home with the men of the bivouac, as they had been through the day with the detachment from the sea-board. A few minutes were enough to draw out sheep-skins for them to lie upon, a skin of wine for their thirst, a bunch of raisins and some oat-cakes for their hunger; a few minutes more had told the news which each party asked from the other; and then these sons of the sea and these war-bronzed Philistines were as much at ease with each other as if they had served under the same sky for years.

“We were listening to music,” said the old chief, “when you came up. Some of our young men have gone up, indeed, to the picket yonder, to hear the harper sing, whose voice you catch sometimes, when we are not speaking.”

“You find the Muses in the midst of arms, then,” said one of the young Ionians.

“Muses?” said the old Philistine, laughing. “That sounds like you Greeks. Ah! sir, in our rocks here we have few enough Muses, but those who carry these lances, or teach us how to trade with the islands for tin.”

“That's not quite fair,” cried another. “The youngsters who are gone sing well; and one of them has a harp I should be glad you should see. He made it himself from a gnarled olive-root.” And he turned to look for it.

“You'll not find it in the tent: the boy took it with him. They hoped the Ziklag minstrel might ask them to sing, I suppose.”

“A harp of olive-wood,” said the Ionian, “seems Muse-born and Pallas-blessed.”

And, as he spoke, one of the new-comers of the Philistines leaned over, and whispered to the chief: “He is a bard himself, and we made him promise to sing to us. I brought his harp with me that he might cheer up our bivouac. Pray, do you ask him.”

The old chief needed no persuasion; and the eyes of the whole force brightened as they found they had a minstrel “of their own” now, when the old man pressed the young Ionian courteously to let them hear him: “I told you, sir, that we had no Muses of our own; but we welcome all the more those who come to us from over seas.”

Homer smiled; for it was Homer whom he spoke to,—Homer still in the freshness of his unblinded youth. He took the harp which the young Philistine handed to him, thrummed upon its chords, and as he tuned them said: “I have no harp of olive-wood; we cut this out, it was years ago, from an old oleander in the marshes behind Colophon. What will you hear, gentlemen?”

“The poet chooses for himself,” said the courtly old captain.

“Let me sing you, then, of the Olive Harp”; and he struck the chords in a gentle, quieting harmony, which attuned itself to his own spirit, pleased as he was to find music and harmony and the olive of peace in the midst of the rough bivouac, where he had come up to look for war. But he was destined to be disappointed. Just as his prelude closed, one of the young soldiers turned upon his elbow, and whispered contemptuously to his neighbor: “Always olives, always peace : that's all your music's good for!”

The boy spoke too loud, and Homer caught the discontented tone and words with an ear quicker than the speaker had given him credit for. He ended the prelude with a sudden crash on the strings, and said shortly, “And what is better to sing of than the olive?”

The more courteous Philistines looked sternly on the young soldier; but he had gone too far to be frightened, and he flashed back: “War is better. My broadsword is better. If I could sing, I would sing to your Ares; we call him Mars!”

Homer smiled gravely. “Let it be so,” said he; and, in a lower tone, to the captain, who was troubled at the breach of courtesy, he added, “Let the boy see what war and Mars are for.”

He struck another prelude and began. Then was it that Homer composed his “Hymn to Mars.” In wild measure, and impetuous, he swept along through the list of Mars's titles and attributes; then his key changed, and his hearers listened more intently, more solemnly, as in a graver strain, with slower music, and an almost awed dignity of voice, the bard went on:—

                “Helper of mortals, hear!
                As thy fires give
          The present boldnesses that strive
                In youth for honor;
     So would I likewise wish to have the power
       To keep off from my head thy bitter hour,
     And quench the false fire of my soul's low kind,
     By the fit ruling of my highest mind!
          Control that sting of wealth
     That stirs me on still to the horrid scath
          Of hideous battle!

     “Do thou, O ever blessed! give me still
     Presence of mind to put in act my will,
          Whate'er the occasion be;
     And so to live, unforced by any fear,
     Beneath those laws of peace, that never are
     Affected with pollutions popular
          Of unjust injury,
     As to bear safe the burden of hard fates,
     Of foes inflexive, and inhuman hates!”

The tones died away; the company was hushed for a moment; and the old chief then said gravely to his petulant follower, “That is what men fight for, boy.” But the boy did not need the counsel. Homer's manner, his voice, the music itself, the spirit of the song, as much as the words, had overcome him; and the boasting soldier was covering his tears with his hands.

Homer felt at once (the prince of gentlemen he) that the little outbreak, and the rebuke of it, had jarred the ease of their unexpected meeting. How blessed is the presence of mind with which the musician of real genius passes from song to song, “whate'er the occasion be!” With the ease of genius he changed the tone of his melody again, and sang his own hymn, “To Earth, the Mother of all.”

The triumphant strain is one which harmonizes with every sentiment; and he commanded instantly the rapt attention of the circle. So engrossed was he, that he did not seem to observe, as he sang, an addition to their company of some soldiers from above in the valley, just as he entered on the passage:—

             “Happy, then, are they
         Whom thou, O great in reverence!
     Are bent to honor. They shall all things find
     In all abundance! All their pastures yield
     Herds in all plenty. All their roofs are filled
             With rich possessions.
       High happiness and wealth attend them,
       While, with laws well-ordered, they
       Cities of happy households sway;
     And their sons exult in the pleasure of youth,
     And their daughters dance with the flower-decked girls,
     Who play among the flowers of summer!
     Such are the honors thy full hands divide;
     Mother of Gods and starry Heaven's bride!”[1]

A buzz of pleasure and a smile ran round the circle, in which the new-comers joined. They were the soldiers who had been to hear and join the music at the Carmel-men's post. The tones of Homer's harp had tempted them to return; and they had brought with them the Hebrew minstrel, to whom they had been listening. It was the outlaw David, of Bethlehem Ephrata.

David had listened to Homer more intently than any one; and, as the pleased applause subsided, the eyes of the circle gathered upon him, and the manner of all showed that they expected him, in minstrel-fashion, to take up the same strain.

He accepted the implied invitation, played a short prelude, and taking Homer's suggestion of topic, sang in parallel with it:—

     “I will sing a new song unto thee, O God!
     Upon psaltery and harp will I sing praise to thee.
     Thou art He that giveth salvation to kings,
     That delivereth David, thy servant, from the sword.
     Rid me and save me from those who speak vanity,
     Whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood,—
     That our sons may be as plants in fresh youth;
     That our daughters may be as corner-stones,—
     The polished stones of our palaces;
     That our garners may be full with all manner of store;
     That our sheep may bring forth thousands and ten thousands in the way;
     That there may be no cry nor complaint in our streets.
     Happy is the people that is in such a case;
     Yea, happy is the people whose God is the Lord!”

The melody was triumphant; and the enthusiastic manner yet more so. The Philistines listened delighted,—too careless of religion, they, indeed not to be catholic in presence of religious enthusiasm; and Homer wore the exalted expression which his face seldom wore. For the first time since his childhood, Homer felt that he was not alone in the world!

Who shall venture to tell what passed between the two minstrels, when Homer, leaving his couch, crossed the circle at once, flung himself on the ground by David's side, gave him his hand; when they looked each other in the face, and sank down into the rapid murmuring of talk, which constant gesture illustrated, but did not fully explain to the rough men around them? They respected the poets' colloquy for a while; but then, eager again to hear one harp or the other, they persuaded one of the Ionian sailors to ask Homer again to sing to them.

It was hard to persuade Homer. He shook his head, and turned back to the soldier-poet.

“What should I sing?” he said.

They did not enter into his notion: hearers will not always. And so, taking his question literally, they replied, “Sing? Sing us of the snow-storm, the storm of stones, of which you sang at noon.”

Poor Homer! It was easier to do it than to be pressed to do it; and he struck his harp again:—

     “It was as when, some wintry day, to men
       Jove would, in might, his sharp artillery show;
     He wills his winds to sleep, and over plain
       And mountains pours, in countless flakes, his snow.
     Deep it conceals the rocky cliffs and hills,
       Then covers all the blooming meadows o'er,
     All the rich monuments of mortals' skill,
       All ports and rocks that break the ocean-shore.
     Rock, haven, plain, are buried by its fall;
     But the near wave, unchanging, drinks it all.
     So while these stony tempests veil the skies,
     While this on Greeks, and that on Trojans flies,
     The walls unchanged above the clamor rise.”[2]

The men looked round upon David, whose expression, as he returned the glance, showed that he had enjoyed the fragment as well as they. But when they still looked expectant, he did not decline the unspoken invitation; but, taking Homer's harp, sang, as if the words were familiar to him:—

     “He giveth snow like wool;
     He scattereth the hoar-frost like ashes;
     He casteth forth his ice like morsels;
     Who can stand before his cold?
     He sendeth forth his word, and melteth them;
     He causeth his wind to blow, and the waters flow.”

“Always this 'He,'“ said one of the young soldiers to another.

“Yes,” he replied; “and it was so in the beginning of the evening, when we were above there.”

“There is a strange difference between the two men, though the one plays as well as the other, and the Greek speaks with quite as little foreign accent as the Jew, and their subjects are the same.”

“Yes,” said the young Philistine harper; “if the Greek should sing one of the Hebrew's songs, you would know he had borrowed it, in a moment.”

“And so, if it were the other way.”

“Of course,” said their old captain, joining in this conversation. “Homer, if you call him so, sings the thing made: David sings the maker. Or, rather, Homer thinks of the thing made: David thinks of the maker, whatever they sing.”

“I was going to say that Homer would sing of cities; and David, of the life in them.”

“It is not what they say so much, as the way they look at it. The Greek sees the outside,—the beauty of the thing; the Hebrew—”

“Hush!”

For David and his new friend had been talking too. Homer had told him of the storm at sea they met a few days before; and David, I think, had spoken of a mountain-tornado, as he met it years before. In the excitement of his narrative he struck the harp, which was still in his hand, and sung:—

     “Then the earth shook and trembled,
     The foundations of the hills moved and were shaken,
         Because He was wroth;
     There went up a smoke out of his nostrils,
     And fire out of his mouth devoured;
         It burned with living coal.
       He bowed the heavens also, and came down,
     And darkness was under his feet;
     He rode upon a cherub and did fly,
     Yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind.
     He made darkness his resting-place,
       His pavilion were dark waters and clouds of the skies;
       At the brightness before him his clouds passed by,
         Hail-stones and coals of fire.
       The Lord also thundered in the heavens,
       And the highest gave his voice;
         Hail-stones and coals of fire.
     Yea, he sent out his arrows, and scattered them,
     And he shot out his lightnings, and discomfited them.
       Then the channels of waters were seen,
       And the foundations of the world were made known,
         At thy rebuke, O Lord!
       At the blast of the breath of thy nostrils.
         He sent from above, he took me,
         He drew me out of many waters.”

“Mine were but a few verses,” said Homer. “I am more than repaid by yours. Imagine Neptune, our sea-god, looking on a battle:—

     “There he sat high, retired from the seas;
     There looked with pity on his Grecians beaten;
     There burned with rage at the god-king who slew them.
     Then he rushed forward from the rugged mountains,
          Quickly descending;
     He bent the forests also as he came down,
     And the high cliffs shook under his feet.
         Three times he trod upon them,
     And with his fourth step reached the home he sought for.

     “There was his palace, in the deep waters of the seas,
     Shining with gold, and builded forever.
     There he yoked him his swift-footed horses;
     Their hoofs are brazen, and their manes are golden.
         He binds them with golden thongs,
         He seizes his golden goad,
     He mounts upon his chariot, and doth fly:
     Yes! he drives them forth into the waves!
         And the whales rise under him from the depths,
     For they know he is their king;
     And the glad sea is divided into parts,
     That his steeds may fly along quickly;
     And his brazen axle passes dry between the waves,
       So, bounding fast, they bring him to his Grecians.”[3]

And the poets sank again into talk.

“You see it,” said the old Philistine. “He paints the picture. David sings the life of the picture.”

“Yes: Homer sees what he sings; David feels his song.”

“Homer's is perfect in its description.”

“Yes; but for life, for the soul of the description, you need the Hebrew.”

“Homer might be blind; and, with that fancy and word-painting power of his, and his study of everything new, he would paint pictures as he sang, though unseen.”

“Yes,” said another; “but David—” And he paused.

“But David?” asked the chief.

“I was going to say that he might be blind, deaf, imprisoned, exiled, sick, or all alone, and that yet he would never know he was alone; feeling as he does, as he must to sing so, of the presence of this Lord of his!”

“He does not think of a snow-flake, but as sent from him.”

“While the snow-flake is reminding Homer of that hard, worrying, slinging work of battle. He must have seen fight himself.”

They were hushed again. For, though they no longer dared ask the poets to sing to them,—so engrossed were they in each other's society,—the soldiers were hardly losers from this modest courtesy. For the poets were constantly arousing each other to strike a chord, or to sing some snatch of remembered song. And so it was that Homer, àpropos of I do not know what, sang in a sad tone:—

     “Like leaves on trees the race of man is found,
     Now green in youth, now withering on the ground:
     Another race the following spring supplies;
     They fall successive, and successive rise.
     So generations in their course decay,
     So flourish these, when those have passed away.”[4]

David waited for a change in the strain; but Homer stopped. The young Hebrew asked him to go on; but Homer said that the passage which followed was mere narrative, from a long narrative poem. David looked surprised that his new friend had not pointed a moral as he sang; and said simply, “We sing that thus:—

     “As for man, his days are as grass;
     As a flower of the field, so he flourisheth;
     For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone,
     And the place thereof shall know it no more.
          But the mercy of the Lord
          Is from everlasting to everlasting
            Of them that fear him;
         And his righteousness
         Unto children's children,
            To such as keep his covenant,
     As remember his commandments to do them!”

Homer's face flashed delighted. “I, like you, 'keep his covenant,'” he cried; and then without a lyre, for his was still in David's hands, he sang, in clear tone:—

     “Thou bid'st me birds obey;—I scorn their flight,
     If on the left they rise, or on the right!
     Heed them who may, the will of Jove I own,
     Who mortals and immortals rules alone!”[5]

“That is more in David's key,” said the young Philistine harper, seeing that the poets had fallen to talk together again. “But how would it sound in one of the hymns on one of our feast-days?”

     “Who mortals and immortals rules alone.”

“How, indeed?” cried one of his young companions. “There would be more sense in what the priests say and sing, if each were not quarrelling for his own,—Dagon against Astarte, and Astarte against Dagon.”

The old captain bent over, that the poets might not hear him, and whispered: “There it is that the Hebrews have so much more heart than we in such things. Miserable fellows though they are, so many of them, yet, when I have gone through their whole land with the caravans, the chances have been that any serious-minded man spoke of no God but this 'He' of David's.”

“What is his name?”

“They do not know themselves, I believe.”

“Well, as I said an hour ago, God's man or Dagon's man,—for those are good names enough for me,—I care little; but I should like to sing as that young fellow does.”

“My boy,” said the old man, “have not you heard him enough to see that it is not he that sings, near as much as this love of his for a Spirit he does not name? It is that spirited heart of his that sings.”

You sing like him? Find his life, boy; and perhaps it may sing for you.”

“We should be more manly men, if he sang to us every night.”

“Or if the other did,” said an Ionian sailor.

“Yes,” said the chief. “And yet, I think, if your countryman sang every night to me, he would make me want the other. Whether David's singing would send me to his, I do not feel sure. But how silly to compare them! As well compare the temple in Accho with the roar of a whirlwind—”

“Or the point of my lance with the flight of an eagle. The men are in two worlds.”

“O, no! that is saying too much. You said that one could paint pictures—”

“—Into which the other puts life. Yes, I did say so. We are fortunate that we have them together.”

“For this man sings of men quite as well as the other does; and to have the other sing of God—”

“—Why, it completes the song. Between them they bring the two worlds together.”

“He bows the heavens, and comes down,” said the boy of the olive-harp, trying to hum David's air.

“Let us ask them—”

And just then there rang along the valley the sound of a distant conch-shell. The soldiers groaned, roused up, and each looked for his own side-arms and his own skin.

But the poets talked on unheeding.

The old chief knocked down a stack of lances; but the crash did not rouse them. He was obliged himself to interrupt their eager converse.

“I am sorry to break in; but the night-horn has sounded to rest, and the guard will be round to inspect the posts. I am sorry to hurry you away, sir,” he said to David.

David thanked him courteously.

“Welcome the coming, speed the parting guest,” said Homer, with a smile.

“We will all meet to-morrow. And may to-night's dreams be good omens!”

“If we dream at all,” said Homer again:—

     “Without a sign his sword the brave man draws,
     And asks no omen but his country's cause.”

They were all standing together, as he made this careless reply to the captain; and one of the young men drew him aside, and whispered that David was in arms against his country.

Homer was troubled that he had spoken as he did. But the young Jew looked little as if he needed sympathy. He saw the doubt and regret which hung over their kindly faces; told them not to fear for him; singing, as he bade them good night, and with one of the Carmel-men walked home to his own outpost:—

     “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion,
     The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the bear,
         He will deliver me.”

And he smiled to think how his Carmelite companion would start, if he knew when first he used those words.

So they parted, as men who should meet on the morrow.

But God disposes.

David had left to-morrow's dangers for to-morrow to care for. It seemed to promise him that he must be in arms against Saul. But, unlike us in our eagerness to anticipate our conflicts of duty, David waited.

And the Lord delivered him. While they were singing by the brookside, the proud noblemen of the Philistine army had forced an interview with their king; and, in true native Philistine arrogance, insisted that “this Hebrew” and his men should be sent away.

With the light of morning the king sent for the minstrel, and courteously dismissed him, because “the princes of the Philistines have said, 'He shall not go up with us to the battle.'”

So David marched his men to Ziklag.

And David and Homer never met on earth again.

     NOTE.—This will be a proper place to print the following note,
     which I was obliged to write to a second cousin of Miss Dryasdust
     after she had read the MS. of the article above:—

     “DEAR MADAM:—I thank you for your kind suggestion, in returning my
     paper, that it involves a piece of impossible history. You inform
     me, that, 'according to the nomenclatured formulas and homophonic
     analogies of Professor Gouraud, of never-to-be-forgotten memory, “A
     NEEDLE is less useful for curing a DEAF HEAD, than for putting
     ear-rings into a Miss's lily-ears”; and that this shows that the
     second king of Judah, named David (or Deaf-head) began to reign in
     1055 B.C., and died 1040 B.C.'; and further, that, according to the
     same authority, 'Homer flourished when the Greeks were fond of
     his POETRY'; which, being interpreted, signifies that he flourished
     in 914 B.C., and, consequently, could have had no more to do with
     David than to plant ivy over his grave, in some of his voyages to
     Phoenicia.

     “I thank you for the suggestion. I knew the unforgetting professor;
     and I do not doubt that he remembered David and Homer as his near
     friends. But, of course, to such a memory, a century or two might
     easily slip aside.

     “Now, did you look up Clement? And did you not forget the
     Arundelian Marbles? For, if you will take the long estimates, you
     will find that some folks think Homer lived as long ago as the year
     1150, and some that it was as 'short ago' as 850. And some set
     David as long ago as 1170, and some bring him down to a hundred and
     fifty years later. These are the long measures and the short
     measures. So the long and short of it is, that you can keep the two
     poets 320 years apart, while I have rather more than a century
     which I can select any night of, for a bivouac scene, in which to
     bring them together. Believe me, my dear Miss D., always yours, &c.

     “Confess that you forgot the Arundelian Marbles!”

FOOTNOTES:

[1] After Chapman.

[2] After Cowper and Pope. Long after!

[3] Iliad, vi.

[4] Iliad, vi.—POPE.

[5] Iliad, xii., after Sotheby.

 
 
 

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