When such a man dies, it must bring pause to a reasoning world. We may call his death-sickness pneumonia, but we all know that it was sheer overwork,—the using of a delicately-tuned instrument too commonly and continuously and carelessly to let it last its normal life. We may well talk of the waste of wood and water, of food and fire, but the real and unforgivable waste of modern civilization is the waste of ability and genius,—the killing of useful, indispensable men who have no right to die; who deserve, not for themselves, but for the world, leisure, freedom from distraction, expert medical advice, and intelligent sympathy.
Coleridge-Taylor’s life work was not finished,—it was but well begun. He lived only his first period of creative genius, when melody and harmony flashed and fluttered in subtle, compelling, and more than promising profusion. He did not live to do the organized, constructive work in the full, calm power of noonday,—the reflective finishing of evening. In the annals of the future his name must always stand high, but with the priceless gift of years, who can say where it might not have stood.
Why should he have worked so breathlessly, almost furiously? It was, we may be sure, because with unflinching determination and with no thought of surrender he faced the great alternative,—the choice which the cynical, thoughtless, busy, modern world spreads grimly before its greater souls—food or beauty, bread and butter, or ideals. And continually we see worthier men turning to the pettier, cheaper thing—the popular portrait, the sensational novel, the jingling song. The choice is not always between the least and the greatest, the high and the empty, but only too often it is between starvation and something. When, therefore, we see a man, working desperately to earn a living and still stooping to no paltry dickering and to no unworthy work, handing away a “Hiawatha” for less than a song, pausing for glimpses of the stars when a world full of charcoal glowed far more warmly and comfortably, we know that such a man is a hero in a sense never approached by the swashbuckling soldier or the lying patriot.
Deep as was the primal tragedy in the life of Coleridge-Taylor, there lay another still deeper. He smiled at it lightly, as we all do,—we who live within the veil,—to hide the deeper hurt. He had, with us, that divine and African gift of laughter, that echo of a thousand centuries of suns. I mind me how once he told of the bishop, the well-groomed English bishop, who eyed the artist gravely, with his eye-glass—hair and color and figure,—and said quite audibly to his friends, “Quite interesting—looks intelligent,—yes—yes!”