It was on or about July 2, 1835, that it flashed on the mind of Baron Justus Liebig that, if one side of a sheet of glass were coated with an ammoniacal solution of nitrate of silver, the other side would fling back the image presented to it instead of allowing it to pass through.
Nature, as any astronomer will testify, achieves many of its most lustrous triumphs by cunning processes of reflection. Anybody who has admired the indescribable beauty of a night on which sea and shore are bathed in silver, knows how much we owe to an orb whose effulgence is purely a reflected splendour. Nor can anyone journey up the Derwent to New Norfolk under favourable atmospheric conditions without being entranced by the exquisite loveliness of the reflections on either side of the river. Like the graceful bird on St. Mary's Lake that Wordsworth described as "floating double, swan and shadow," every object is presented in colourful duplicate. Such pleasing effects are among Nature's masterpieces.
One of the most thrilling episodes in Sir Hall Caine's "Scapegoat" is the scene in which Naomi, the blind girl, who has recently recovered her sight, sees her own fair image in the water. Her father tries to explain the phenomenon; but it is not easy. "There was something ghostly in this thing that was herself and yet not herself." But when at last she had overcome her terror, the vision fascinated her. She could scarcely tear herself away from the beauteous apparition. If John Milton is to be believed—and he assumes the air of an eyewitness—something of the kind occurred in the Garden of Eden. Eve, to her rapturous delight, came upon a tranquil lake in whose crystalline waters she was able, while seated on the grassy bank, to admire her own comely reflection. She herself tells the story:
As I bent down to look, first opposite
A shape within the watery gleam
Bending to look on me: I started back,
It started back; but,
pleased, I soon returned.
Pleased it returned as soon with answering
Of sympathy and love.
From that time to this, looking glasses have been fairly popular contrivances.
We Get From Life What We Give
The reason is obvious. In his "Fair as the Morn," Temple Bailey tells of a quaint old Swedish inn, on the wall of which the landlord had inscribed the legend: "You will find here excellent meat, excellent bread, and excellent wine—provided you bring it with you!" The words represent the law of the looking glass. Bring beauty to it, and it will present you with a picture of loveliness; bring ugliness and you will find ugliness confronting you. Life is like that. Mr. A. C. Benson tells of a holiday that he spent in a tiny English village as the guest of the local schoolmaster. In walking about the little place with his genial host, Mr. Benson was impressed by the delightful manners of all the children that they chanced to meet. On making inquiries, Mr. Benson was told that, when the dominie first settled in the district, the behaviour of the young people was appalling. Realising that scolding would be useless, the new master was careful to treat all the inhabitants, young and old, with the most charming politeness; and the conduct that Mr. Benson so much admired was simply the reflection of the schoolmaster's old-world courtesies.
In his "La Sagesse et la Destinee," Maeterlinck declares that nothing befalls us that is not of the nature of ourselves. "Go where you will, none but yourself shall you meet on the highway of fate. If Judas go forth tonight, it is towards Judas that his steps will tend, nor will chance for betrayal be lacking; but let Socrates open his door and he shall find Socrates asleep on the threshhold before him and there will be occasion for Wisdom." And Emerson argues that, if we meet no gods, it is because we harbour none; if there is grandeur in a man, he adds, that man will find grandeur in porters and in sweeps.
Literature Holds Its Mirror To Life
The ideal friend, by his unaffected sincerity, delights us and rebukes us. But they rebuke us as the mirrors do. Bret Harte has told us how the proprietor of Tuttle's store spruced up the rough miners of Roaring Camp. He said not a word; but he hung looking glasses round the store. And when the men, lounging round the place, caught sight of their reflections, they resolved to pay some attention to their personal appearance. Books exercise the same subtle and valuable ministry. By his story of the ewe lamb, Nathan held a mirror to the face of David, and brought that monarch to his knees. Shakespeare has told us how Hamlet did the same thing, by means of the travelling players, for King Claudius. Our best novelists and dramatists invariably render us this service. It is good for a man, lounging with his novel beside a cheerful fire, to see his own little hypocrisies reflected in the hypocrisies of Uriah Heep; to see his own petty selfishness in the selfishness of Mr. Dombey; to see his own vacillations and inconsistencies exaggerated but reflected in the oddities of Mr. Micawber; and to see the possibilities of his own retrieval and redemption in the noble self-sacrifice of Sydney Carton.
No man has come in sight of the sublime possibilities that life holds for him until he has looked straight into his own eyes and peered down into the abysmal depths of his inner being. It is at this crucial point that the idyll of the Prodigal Son becomes so startlingly significant and revealing. When the fortunes of the Wanderer had fallen to their lowest ebb, and starvation seemed inevitable, he suddenly came to himself. At that magic touchstone, the real tragedy stands exposed. His alienation was an alienation from himself. He had neglected himself, forgotten himself, lost himself. Then, like one who abruptly confronts his own image in a mirror, he was for the first time introduced to his real self. The statement that he immediately arose and returned to his father represents the natural corollary and felicitous climax of that self-revealing process.
F W Boreham
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