This merry season of light jokes and lighter love-tokens in which Cupid presents the feathered end of the dart, as if he meant to tickle before he wounded the captive, has always had a great charm for me. When but a child, I saw Allston’s picture of the “Lady reading a Valentine,” and the mild womanliness of the picture, so remote from passion no less than vanity, so capable of tenderness, so chastely timid in its self-possession, has given a color to the gayest thoughts connected with the day. From the ruff of Allston’s Lady, whose clear starch is made to express all rosebud thoughts of girlish retirement, the soft unfledged hopes which never yet were tempted from the nest, to Sam Weller’s Valentine is indeed a broad step, but one which we can take without material change of mood.
But of all the thoughts and pictures associated with the day, none can surpass in interest those furnished by the way in which we celebrated it last week.
The Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane is conducted on the most wise and liberal plan known at the present day. Its superintendent, Dr. Earle, has had ample opportunity to observe the best modes of managing this class of diseases both here and in Europe, and he is one able, by refined sympathies and intellectual discernment, to apply the best that is known and to discover more.
Under his care the beautifully situated establishment at Bloomingdale loses every sign of the hospital and the prison, not long since thought to be inseparable from such a place. It is a house of refuge where those too deeply wounded or disturbed in body or spirit to keep up that semblance or degree of sanity which the conduct of affairs in the world at large demands may be soothed by gentle care, intelligent sympathy, and a judicious attention to their physical welfare, into health, or, at least, into tranquility.
Dr. Earle, in addition to modes of turning the attention from causes of morbid irritation, and promoting brighter and juster thoughts, which he uses in common with other institutions, has this winter delivered a course of lectures to the patients. We were present at one of these some weeks since. The subjects touched upon were, often, of a nature to demand as close attention as an audience of regular students (not college students, but real students) can be induced to give. The large assembly present were almost uniformly silent, to appearance interested, and showed a power of decorum and self-government often wanting among those who esteem themselves in healthful mastery of their morals and manners. We saw, with great satisfaction, generous thoughts and solid pursuits offered as well as light amusements for the choice of the sick in mind. For it is our experience that such sickness arises as often from want of concentration as any other cause. One of the noblest youths that ever trod this soil was wont to say “he was never tired, if he could only see far enough.” He is now gone where his view may be less bounded, but we, who stay behind, may take the hint that mania, no less than the commonest forms of prejudice, bespeaks a mind which does not see far enough to connect partial impressions. No doubt in many cases, dissipation of thought, after attention is once distorted into some morbid direction, may be the first method of cure, but we are glad to see others provided for those who are ready for them.
St. Valentine’s Eve had been appointed for one of the dancing-parties at the Institution, and a few friends from “the world’s people” invited to be present.
At an early hour the company assembled in the well-lighted hall, still gracefully wreathed with its Christmas evergreens; the music struck up and the company entered.
And these are the people who, half a century ago, would have been chained in solitary cells, screaming out their anguish till silenced by threats or blows, lost, forsaken, hopeless, a blight to earth, a libel upon heaven.
Now they are many of them happy, all interested. Even those who are troublesome and subject to violent excitement in every-day scenes, show here that the power of self-control is not lost, only lessened. Give them an impulse strong enough, favorable circumstances, and they will begin to use it again. They regulate their steps to music; they restrain their impatient impulses from respect to themselves and to others. The power which shall yet shape order from all disorder and turn ashes to beauty, as violets spring up from green graves, hath them also in its keeping.
The party were well-dressed, with care and taste. The dancing was better than usual, because there was less of affectation and ennui. The party was more entertaining, because native traits came out more clear from the disguises of vanity and tact.
There was the blue-stocking lady, a mature belle and bel-esprit. Her condescending graces, her rounded compliments, her girlish, yet “highly intellectual” vivacity, expressed no less in her headdress than her manner, were just that touch above the common with which the illustrator of Dickens has thought fit to highten the charms of Mrs. Leo Hunter.
There was the traveled Englishman, au fait to every thing beneath the moon and beyond. With his clipped and glib phrases, his bundle of conventionalities carried so neatly under his arm, and his “My dear sir,” in the perfection of cockney dignity, what better could the most select dinner party furnish us in the way of distinguished strangerhood?
There was the hoydenish young girl, and the decorous elegant lady smoothing down “the wild little thing.” There was the sarcastic observer on the folly of the rest; in that, the greatest fool of all, unbeloved and unannealed. In contrast to this were characters altogether lovely, full of all sweet affections, whose bells, if jangled out of tune, still retained their true tone.
One of the best things on the evening was a dance improvised by two elderly women. They asked the privilege of the floor, and, a suitable measure being played, performed this dance in a style lively, characteristic, yet moderate enough. It was true dancing, like peasant dancing.
An old man sang comic songs in the style of various nations and characters, with a dramatic expression that would have commanded applause “on any stage.”
And all was done decently, and in order; each biding his time. Slight symptoms of impatience here and there were easily soothed by the approach of this, truly a “good physician,” the touch of whose hand seemed to possess a talismanic powe to soothe. We doubt not that all went to their beds exhilarated, free from irritation, and more attuned to concord than before. Good bishop Valentine! thy feast was well kept, and not without the usual jokes and flings at old bachelors, the exchange of sugarplums, mottos and repartees.
This is the second festival I have kept with those whom society has placed, not outside her pale, indeed, but outside the hearing of her benison. Christmas I passed in prison! There too, I saw marks of the miraculous power of Love, when guided by a pure faith in the goodness of its source, and intelligence as to the design of the creative intelligence. I saw enough of its power, impeded as it was by the ignorance of those who, eighteen hundred years after the coming of Christ, still believe more in fear and force. I saw enough, I say, of this power to convince me, if I needed conviction, that it is indeed omnipotent, as he said it was.
A companion, of that delicate nature by which a scar is felt as a wound, was saddened by the sense how very little our partialities, undue emotions, and manias need to be exaggerated to entitle us to rank among madmen. I cannot view it so. Rather let the sense that, with all our faults and follies, there is still a sound spot, a presentiment of eventual health in the inmost nature, embolden us to hope—to know it is the same with all. A great thinker has spoken of the Greek, for highest praise as “a self-renovating character.” But we are all Greeks, if we will but think so. For the mentally or morally insane, there is no irreparable ill if the principle of life can but be aroused. And it can never be finally benumbed, except by our own will.
One of the famous pictures at Munich is of a mad house. The painter has represented the moral obliquities of society exaggerated into madness; that is to say, self-indulgence has, in each instance, destroyed the power to forbear the ill or to discern the good. A celebrated writer has added a little book, to be used while looking at the picture, and drawn inferences of universal interest.
Such would we draw; such as this! Let no one dare to call another mad who is not himself willing to rank in the same class for every perversion and fault of judgment. Let no one dare aid in punishing another as criminal who is not willing to suffer the penalty due to his own offences.
Yet, while owning that we are all mad, all criminal, let us not despair, but rather believe that the Ruler of all never could permit such wide-spread ill but to good ends. It is permitted to give us a field to redeem it—
Of an ill influence and a good receive.”
It flows inevitably from the emancipation of our wills, the development of individuality in us. These aims accomplished, all shall yet be well; and it is ours to learn how that good time may be hastened.
We know no sign of the times more encouraging than the increasing nobleness and wisdom of view as to the government of asylums for the insane and of prisons. Whatever is learnt as to these forms of society is learnt for all. There is nothing that can be said of such government that must not be said, also, of the government of families, schools, and States. But we have much to say on this subject, and shall revert to it again, and often, though, perhaps, not with so pleasing a theme as this of St. Valentine’s Eve.*
“St. Valentine’s Day—Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane.” New-York Daily Tribune, 22 February 1845, p. 2.