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ARTICLE III.--EDWIN ARNOLD'S LIGHT OF ASIA.
The Light of Asia: or the Great Renunciation, being the life and teaching of Gautama, Prince of India and founder of Buddhism. (As told in verse by an Indian Buddhist.) By EDWIN ARNOLD, M. A. Roberts Brothers, Boston. 12mo.
THE little book before us has been the object of warm, and even passionate, admiration, as well as of sharp criticism. In the opinion of some, it is an epic of great power and the truest poem of the century; others regard it as a string of pretty words and phrases, covering a somewhat fascinating subject in a thin, and even an offensive, way.
It is difficult to assign, upon two or three readings, its proper place in literature to a book whose tone is so fascinating as that of the book before us. So much depends upon expression for our first estimates of any work of art, that it is unsafe to write down at once among the permanent things a poem whose music. has pleased us. Later revisions cling less to tone, and form, and color, and search more for bone, and sinew, and strength, the elements which look to eternity.
One cannot at once get past Titian's tints. At the very first reading of Lycidas, its flow of music makes such sweet charm in the ear that it is hard to hear in it the uttered emotions of eternal feeling. That the Light of Asia is fascinating in style, any one may easily know who has read a half page of it. It will be difficult for a reader who has before him two hours of leisure when he takes it up, to drop it until he has finished the last line.
It reminds you often of Moore, and even of Milton, of Titian, and Fra Angelico, and sometimes of Mendelssohn. You will find the color charms of Lalla Rookh, but the sensuousness of its most sensuous themes is delicate and refined beyond the pen of Moore. You will meet the landscapes of Claude Lorraine, with beautiful lakes shadowing in peaceful hearts more beautiful heavens, the tripping flower and field descriptions of Dr.
Holmes's Astræa, of the Lady of the Lake, and of the Waverly novels, the mellow rhythm of L'Allegro, and once or twice you will hear an echo from the symphonies and anthems of Haydn.
It is given only to most acute criticism to judge at once of the true power of a book like this, other than of its fascinations of style, its fancies, and its music. For these things it will live, if for nothing else; but it will not be strange if the book takes hold of the present and of a long future, by a creative power of thought, which is the imagination of the inspired poets. Let me say farther that the style of the poem is not at all oriental; though dealing in oriental things, it is saturated with the thoughts and phrases, and inspirations of western civilization.
But we are to deal chiefly with the philosophy of the book. It does not assume to bring much new learning to the analysis of Buddhism. Its prime authority is Mr. Spence Hardy. It assumes to go back of Buddhism to the Buddha, and it tells the story of his life and character and doctrine, in a sweet and winning way. It seems strange to believe that anything like a true Buddhist scholarship has existed in Christian nations for but a little more than thirty years.
The spirit of western civilization worked on the surface of this great religion, which embraces 400,000,000 living adherents, until the present generation, when scientific methods of search and the development of comparative religion have carried the age to investigations which are yet far from complete, but which are more honest and useful than the earlier guesses, which gave us the vague notions of the system which formerly prevailed.
In 1875 the Japanese government gave to the English government a complete set of the Buddhist sacred books, 2,000 volumes, in 103 cases or covers, tilling eleven shelves in the library of the India house, ten feet in length. Although the dimensions seem large, Mr. Müller says that the sacred writings proper contain but about twice as many letters as are found in the Bible. This is the Chinese canon, completed in the first century of our era, and claimed to be a reasonably fair re-production of the canon established under the patronage of King Asoka, by
a council in the year 246 B. C. That this is such a re-production is not yet established by scholarship. There were three early councils to arrange the Tripitaka, which assumes to be the sayings of the Buddha, who wrote nothing himself, but whose sayings were preserved at these earliest councils by the testimony of his followers.
Mr. Arnold dates the birth of this man, called by various titles, Gautama, the Buddha, Siddartha, and Sakya Muni, at 620, and his death at 563 B. C. His career is often fixed from 75 to 130 years later. The poem makes him the son of a king, in the borders of Nepaul His mother was Maya, Suddhôdana's queen. He was born of celestial quickening, surrounded by every conceivable luxury and thing of beauty, and designed by his royal father to be the king of kings, "of universal dominance," to "trample his enemies under foot." The strange circumstances of the child's birth, the boy's wonderful thoughtfulness, and his own dreams distressed his father, who feared he would forsake his home. Siddartha was kept in the presence of everything which was fascinating and lovely, and in sight of nothing else. But he got his first real glimpse of pain in a wounded swan, which his cousin's arrow brought from the air. "A wilful shaft,
Which found the wide wing of the foremost swan,
So that it fell, the bitter arrow fixed,
Bright scarlet blood-gouts staining the pure plumes."
He caressed the bird and healed it.
"Yet all so little knew the boy of pain,
That curiously into his wrist he pressed
The arrow's barb, and winced to feel it sting,
And turned with tears to soothe his bird again."
He had before witnessed the painful breath of the laboring steeds. In studying the beauties of nature he saw thorns:
"but, looking deep, he saw
The thorns which grow upon this rose of life:
And kite on both; and how the fish hawk robbed
The jeweled butterflies; till everywhere
Of mutual murder, from the worm to man,
The king projects love as the best way to wean him from his musings;
"The thoughts ye cannot stay with brazen chains,
A girl's hair lightly binds."
The story of his love is sweetly told, and from many beautiful maidens of Kapilavastu, he easily selects the lovely Yasodhara. It was a pronounced case of love at first sight, which is partly explained by the fact that she had been his bride twice before in preëxisting states; once when he was the son of a hunter, and once again when he was a tiger, and she a singularly beautiful black and gold tigress. It is consoling to know that true elective affinities will not be interrupted when we become tigers bye and bye.
But his love could not be established by mere choice. The customs required more than a mutual fancy. He must be proved a hero in contests with the bow, and sword, and in horsemanship. To the surprise of many, the thoughtful youth was easily victor in his contests with the most skillful of the court. He snapped the bows offered him, and used the black steel bow from the temple,
"Which none can string nor draw if it be strung,"
like King Arthur's excalibar. With a sword-cut, like Saladdin's, he cleft a double tree,
"So smooth that the straight trunks upstood,
And Nanda cried, 'His edge turned,' and the maid
Trembled anew, seeing the trees erect,
Until the Devas of the air, who watched,
Blew light breaths from the south, and both green crowns
Crashed in the sands clean felled."
In horsemanship there was brought to him a horse, wilder than Mazeppa's, whom his most skillful rival could not subdue,
"Whose liver is a tempest and his blood
Red flame, but the prince said, 'let go the chains,
In his palace, adorned with the highest magnificence of the orient, he hears the voices of the wandering winds in the notes of an æolian harp, and they call him in mellow tones from his pleasures of love to his mission of self-sacrifice for a suffering world. He thinks more and more of the outer world and the outer nations. He rides in a painted car, and calls the little children, who all love him, to share his carriage seat with him. The king had labored to keep from his sight everything of a distressing and sorrowful character.
"'T was treason if a thread of silver strayed
In tress of singing girl or nautch-dancer,
And every dawn the dying rose was plucked;"
but on this ride he met old age, and soon after convulsive disease, and then a funeral procession; and here he staggered before the great problems which have raised their cruel where. fores? in all true and thoughtful souls.
He wept that Yasodhara and all his dear ones, and that everybody's dear ones, must grow old; he bent his own form to relieve the sufferer with the loathsome disease. I will quote bis thoughts at his sight of death:
"But lo, Siddartha turned
Eyes gleaming with divine tears to the sky,
From sky to earth he looked, from earth to sky,
Some far-off vision, linking this and that,
Lost-past-but searchable, but seen, but known.
Boundless, insatiate: Oh! suffering world.
Oh! known and unknown of my common flesh,