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musician does, and chooses words that fall pleasantly and impressively on the ear; and hence, as Dr. Bigg says, " there are innumerable recurrences of the same note, like the tinkling of little silver bells.” When writing he kept in mind the thought that what he wrote would sometimes be read aloud or even chanted ; and in the autograph copy at Brussels, the punctuation is so arranged as to indicate to the reader where the long pauses should be that would allow important words to have their due effect on the listening mind. Most of Thomas' exquisite artistry in words is, of course, lost in translation. It is only occasionally that the assonance of the Latin can be reproduced in the English, as it is in the saying, “homo proponit, sed Deus disponit,”— “man proposes but God disposes.” A great part of the Imitation is in rhythm, and there are numerous occurrences of rhyme, some of it being of a highly elaborated kind. The eleventh chapter of Book II, “On the Fewness of the Lovers of the Cross of Jesus,''1 is in metre. Even in the English prose rendering we are made to feel something of the solemn poetry of the original :
"Jesus has many lovers of his heavenly kingdom ; but few bearers of his cross.
1 Habet Jesus nunc multos amatores regni sui celestis :
Sed paucos bajulatores suae crucis.
“He has many that long for consolation ; but few that long for tribulation.
“He finds many companions of his table, but few of his fast.
“All desire to rejoice with him ; few are willing to suffer anything for him.
“Many follow him unto the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the cup of his passion.
“Many reverence his miracles, but few follow the ignominy of his cross.”.
Thomas' attitude toward the present world is, of course, monastic and mediaeval, the attitude of religious pessimism, which found expression in the twelfth century poem of Bernard of Morlaix, De contemptu mundi, made familiar to us by J. M. Neale's rendering and especially by the hymns taken from it—" Brief life is here our portion," and " Jerusalem the golden.” Whether Thomas was acquainted with that poem, we do not know; but it is interesting to notice that the first chapter of the Imitation is entitled De imitatione Christi et contemptu omnium vanitatum mundi ; and a contempt of all worldly business and pleasure is characteristic of the book as a whole. But this despising of the world, this sense of detachment from the affairs of the present life, and expectation of real happiness only in the life to come—though much exaggerated in the Middle Ages—has to some extent characterised Christianity from the beginning. It represents indeed a recurrent feeling of the human heart amid the strangeness and sorrow and evanescence of mortal things. That Thomas à Kempis was not altogether without a sense of the divinity of the
world, is evident from such a saying as this : “ If thy heart were right, then every creature would be unto thee a mirror of life and a book of holy doctrine. There is no creature so small and abject but it reflects the goodness of God ” (ii. 4); and a very sane other-worldliness finds expression in the advice : “Use temporal things; desire eternal.” (iii. 16.)
Thomas was a monk, and it was mainly for the use and edification of his brethren in the monasteries that the Imitation was written. But the human heart is very much the same everywhere, whether it beat under the garb of monk or merchant; and so true is the Imitation to our essential human nature that it has appealed, like the Bible itself, to all sorts and conditions of men. It is a transcript from life. In setting down what he had himself deeply felt, Thomas was expressing and reflecting the common experience. Perhaps the secret of its power and the kind of influence it has exerted have never been better described than they were by George Eliot, when she tells what the reading of the book meant to Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss.
"A strange thrill passed through Maggie while she read, as if she had been wakened in the night by a strain of solemn music, telling of beings whose souls had been astir while hers was in stupor. Here then was a secret of life which would enable her to renounce all other secrets-here was a sublime height to be reached without the help of outward things—here was insight and strength and conquest to be won by means entirely within her own soul, where a supreme Teacher was waiting to be heard. It flashed through her like the suddenly apprehended solution of a problem, that all the miseries of her young life had come from fixing her heart on her own pleasure, as if that were the central necessity of the universe ; and for the first time she saw the possibility of shifting the positions at which she looked at the gratification of her own desires—of taking her stand out of herself, and looking at her own life as an insignificant part of a divinely guided whole. ... This small old-fashioned book, for which you need only pay sixpence at a book-stall, works miracles to this day ... turning bitter waters into sweetness. . . . It was written down by a hand that waited for the heart's promptings; it is the chronicle of a solitary, hidden anguish, struggle, trust and triumph. . . . And so it remains to all time a lasting record of human needs and consolations, the voice of a brother, who, ages ago, felt and suffered and renounced, in the cloister, perhaps with serge gown and tonsured head, with much chanting and long fasts, and with a fashion of speech different from ours, but under the same silent far-off heavens, and with the same passionate desires, the same strivings, the same failures, the same weariness.”
The Imitation is at once one of the most intimate and self-revealing and one of the most impersonal of devotional books. Even when Thomas uses the personal pronoun “I," it is in an almost impersonal sense-as when he says: “I had rather feel compunction than know the definition thereof." Sometimes he seems to be describing an incident in his own life, but he does so in quite an impersonal way. Thus he is probably referring to something in his own experience when he writes: “One that was in sore anxiety, and often wavered between hope and fear, and once was mastered
by sorrow, prostrated himself in a church before an altar in prayer, and said within himself, ‘O if I knew I should yet persevere !' Presently he heard the divine answer within him : ‘But if thou didst know, what wouldest thou do ? Do now what thou wouldest do then, and thou shalt be free from fear. And being herewith comforted and strengthened, he committed himself to the will of God; and that anxious fluctuation ceased.” (i, 25).
But self-effacing as Thomas seeks to be, the book is, as already said, most intimate and self-revealing. It palpitates with the emotions that surge through his soul. In reading it we feel as though we were overhearing one who is speaking to himself even more than he is consciously addressing others. If the true sermon is that which the preacher has first preached to himself, the Imitation is full of such sermons. Thomas writes, not from hearsay, but as one who has himself seen and known. It is this that gives the note of authority to his teaching, as in his great chapter “On the Way of the Holy Cross”:
“Go where thou wilt, seek whatsoever thou wilt, thou shalt not find a higher way above, nor a safer way below than the way of the Holy Cross.
“Dispose and order all things according to thy will and judgement; yet thou shalt ever find, that of necessity thou must suffer somewhat, either willingly or against thy will, and so thou shalt ever find the Cross.
“For either thou shalt suffer pain in thy body, or in thy soul thou shalt suffer tribulation.
“Sometimes thou shalt be forsaken of God, sometimes thou shalt be troubled by thy neighbours; and, what is more, oftentimes thou shalt be wearisome to thyself.