“Out of the drear and desolate place
So full of ruin’s solemn grace”
William Dean Howells, “The Empty House” (1861)
Pathos is the power by which a human heart is stirred to pity and compassion for the suffering of little people, for the decay of ordinary things. Pathos is dangerous when it becomes an excuse for weeping sentimentality, but a man who has never been touched by pathos is not altogether a man. Shakespeare called it the “melting mood” because pathos for a moment liquefies a frozen heart; because the south wind of pathos starts the eye dripping like an icicle in spring.
Weltschmerz is a special sort of pathos in which the pathetic person or object is apprehended as a symbol of the universal sadness of the world. It is sometimes said to be the poetic expression of philosophic pessimism, but the difference runs deeper than that. Where pessimism is a settled conviction, Weltschmerz is a transitory mood. It passes over one like the shadow of a scudding cloud.
Dead Creek rises in an overgrown and forgotten cemetery, creeps east for two and a half listless miles, and then drowns itself in the brown flood of the Brazos River. On a knoll overlooking Dead Creek, in a thicket of pin oak and cedar, hides the husk of a house that is equally dead. The pathos of Weltschmerz sits on the porch of that house, like a warry squatter who intends to guard its solemn grace with a shotgun on his knee.
The pathos of Weltschmerz squats in every empty house were people were once happy, and this is why we feel that melting mood when we stop to consider such a ruin. This why the colors fade to grey, as though we are in the shadow of a scudding cloud.
The American poet Joyce Kilmer explained this melting mood a hundred years ago. Kilmer was the most popular Roman Catholic writer of his day, and he wrote these lines just four years before he was killed by a bullet through the brain at the Second Battle of Marne. He was living with his family outside Suffern, a country town in the environs of New York City.
“Whenever I walk to Suffern along the Erie track
I go by a poor old farmhouse with its shingles broken and black.
I suppose I’ve passed it a hundred times, but I always stop for a minute
And look at the house, the tragic house, the house with nobody in it.
. . . .
But a house that has done what a house should do, a house that has sheltered life
That has put its loving wooden arms around a man and his wife
A house that has echoed a baby’s laugh and held up his stumbling feet,
Is the saddest sight, when its left alone, that every your eyes could meet.
So whenever I go to Suffern along the Erie track
I never go by the empty house without stopping and looking back,
Yet it hurts me to look at the crumbling roof and the shutters fallen apart,
For I can’t help thinking the poor old house is a house with a broken heart.”*
*) Joyce Kilmer “The House With Nobody In It.” (1914)