Sehnsucht is “the longing for that unnameable something, the desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of, The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”
Not twenty centuries and more have been able to darken the golden glow of the immortal song that has come to us in the forty-second Psalm… in which the homesickness of our human heart cries after the Source of our life. What here grips so mightily is the ardent fervor that breathes throughout this whole psalm, the passionate outpouring of soul… In this psalm the heart itself pushes and drives. It is not from without but from the inner chamber of the heart that the homesickness after the living god irresistibly wells upward… “My soul pants, yea, thirsts after the living God.” Not after Creed regarding God, not after an idea of God, not after a remembrance of God, not after a Divine Majesty, that, far removed from the soul, stands over against it as a God in words or in phrases, but after God Himself, after God in His holy outpouring of strength and grace, after God Who is alive, Who… in holy exhibition of love reveals Himself to you and in you as the living God. You feel that all learning falls away, all dogma, all formulas, everything that is external and abstract, everything that exhausts itself in words… It is not your idea, not your understanding, not your thinking, not your reasoning, not even your profession of faith, that here can quench the thirst. The home-sickness goes out after God Himself… it is not the name of God but God Himself whom your soul desires and cannot do without.
Were we to believe that death ends all, that the cessation of the mortal life terminated the career of being, that the sun of hope was never to arise above the eternal horizon of tomorrow, the present existence would be a nightmare of horror, even to those who fall heirs to the enjoyments of the world, for earth’s pleasures are but pain, earth’s riches but dross. Nothing satisfies here; everything cloys and palls upon the senses. The man of wealth and learning in this respect is no better off than his poorest neighbor. The latter is often envying the wealthy, while the rich man is sighing for an indefinable something to fill up the void in his life, but the void can never be filled by time; its capacity is the measure of eternity. The ever-constant longing in the heart of man is a proof that this world is not his home, that the tomb is not the objective point where the final line is drawn, beyond which none may go.
It seems to me it’s a painter’s duty to try to put an idea into his work. In this print I have tried to express what seems to me one of the strongest proofs of the existence of the “quelque chose l’-haut” [something on high] in which Millet believed, namely the existence of God and eternity… ¶ [It is] certainly in the infinitely touching expression of a little old man, which he himself is unconscious of, when he is sitting quietly in the corner by the fire. At the same time, there is something noble, something great, which cannot be destined for the worms… This is far from all theology, simply the fact that the poorest little woodcutter or peasant on the hearth or miner can have moments of emotion and inspiration that give him a feeling of an eternal home, and of being close to it.
I often told them that I had had a presentiment of it years ago and that all that joy and glory had been perceived by me while I was still on our earth as a nostalgic yearning, bordering at times on unendurably poignant sorrow; that I had had a presentiment of them all and of their glory in the dreams of my heart and in the reveries of my soul; that often on our earth I could not look at the setting sun without tears…. That there always was a sharp pang of anguish in my hatred of the men of our earth; why could I not hate them without loving them too? why could I not forgive them? And in my love for them, too, there was a sharp pang of anguish: Why could I not love them without hating them?
Did I ever tell you about a picture by Boughton, “The Pilgrim’s Progress”? It is toward evening. A sandy path leads over the hills to a mountain, on the top of which is the Holy City, lit by the red sun setting behind the gray evening clouds. On the road is a pilgrim who wants to go to the city; he is already tired and asks a woman in black, who is standing by the road and whose name is “Sorrowful yet always Rejoicing”: “Does the road go uphill all the way?” “Yes, to the very end.” “And will the journey take all day long?” “Yes, from morn till night my friend.” Truly, it is not a picture, but an inspiration.
It is God who makes real men and who can enrich our lives with moments and periods of higher feeling. Has the sea made itself, has an oak tree?
Somewhat it seeketh, and what that is directly it knoweth not, yet very intentive desire thereof doth so incite it, that all other know delights and pleasures are laid aside, they give place to the search of this but only suspected desire. If the soul of man did serve only to give him being in this life, then things appertaining unto this life would content him, as we see they do other creatures; which creatures enjoying what they live by seek no further, but in this contentation do shew a kind of acknowledgment that there is no higher good which doth any way telling unto them. With us it is otherwise. For although the beauties, riches, honors, sciences, virtues, and perfection of all men living, were in the present possession of one; yet somewhat beyond and above all this there would still be sought and earnestly thirsted for. So that Nature even in the life doth plainly claim and call for a more divine perfection than either of these two that have been mentioned.
So I were out of your whispering.
Whose souls, albeit in a cloudy memory, yet seek back their good, but, like drunk men, know not the road home.
This every soul seeketh and for the sake of this doth all her actions, having an inkling that it is; but what it is she cannot sufficiently discern, and she knoweth not her way, and concerning this she hath no constant assurance as she hath of other things.