Emerson and Other Essays
John Jay Chapman

Part 1 out of 3

Produced by Jonathan Ingram, Victoria Woosley and PG Distributed






_Second Printing 1969_

Reprinted from the edition of 1899, New York
First AMS EDITION published 1965
Manufactured in the United States of America

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 75-108126
SEN: 404-00619-1











"Leave this hypocritical prating about the masses. Masses are rude,
lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need
not to be flattered, but to be schooled. I wish not to concede
anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and
draw individuals out of them. The worst of charity is that the lives
you are asked to preserve are not worth preserving. Masses! The
calamity is the masses. I do not wish any mass at all, but honest
men only, lovely, sweet, accomplished women only, and no
shovel-handed, narrow-brained, gin-drinking million stockingers or
lazzaroni at all. If government knew how, I should like to see it
check, not multiply the population. When it reaches its true law of
action, every man that is born will be hailed as essential. Away
with this hurrah of masses, and let us have the considerate vote of
single men spoken on their honor and their conscience."

This extract from The Conduct of Life gives fairly enough the leading
thought of Emerson's life. The unending warfare between the individual
and society shows us in each generation a poet or two, a dramatist or a
musician who exalts and deifies the individual, and leads us back again
to the only object which is really worthy of enthusiasm or which can
permanently excite it,--the character of a man. It is surprising to find
this identity of content in all great deliverances. The only thing we
really admire is personal liberty. Those who fought for it and those who
enjoyed it are our heroes.

But the hero may enslave his race by bringing in a system of tyranny;
the battle-cry of freedom may become a dogma which crushes the soul; one
good custom may corrupt the world. And so the inspiration of one age
becomes the damnation of the next. This crystallizing of life into death
has occurred so often that it may almost be regarded as one of the laws
of progress.

Emerson represents a protest against the tyranny of democracy. He is the
most recent example of elemental hero-worship. His opinions are
absolutely unqualified except by his temperament. He expresses a form of
belief in the importance of the individual which is independent of any
personal relations he has with the world. It is as if a man had been
withdrawn from the earth and dedicated to condensing and embodying this
eternal idea--the value of the individual soul--so vividly, so vitally,
that his words could not die, yet in such illusive and abstract forms
that by no chance and by no power could his creed be used for purposes
of tyranny. Dogma cannot be extracted from it. Schools cannot be built
on it. It either lives as the spirit lives, or else it evaporates and
leaves nothing. Emerson was so afraid of the letter that killeth that he
would hardly trust his words to print. He was assured there was no such
thing as literal truth, but only literal falsehood. He therefore
resorted to metaphors which could by no chance be taken literally. And
he has probably succeeded in leaving a body of work which cannot be made
to operate to any other end than that for which he designed it. If this
be true, he has accomplished the inconceivable feat of eluding
misconception. If it be true, he stands alone in the history of
teachers; he has circumvented fate, he has left an unmixed blessing
behind him.

The signs of those times which brought forth Emerson are not wholly
undecipherable. They are the same times which gave rise to every
character of significance during the period before the war. Emerson is
indeed the easiest to understand of all the men of his time, because his
life is freest from the tangles and qualifications of circumstance. He
is a sheer and pure type and creature of destiny, and the
unconsciousness that marks his development allies him to the deepest
phenomena. It is convenient, in describing him, to use language which
implies consciousness on his part, but he himself had no purpose, no
theory of himself; he was a product.

The years between 1820 and 1830 were the most pitiable through which
this country has ever passed. The conscience of the North was pledged to
the Missouri Compromise, and that Compromise neither slumbered nor
slept. In New England, where the old theocratical oligarchy of the
colonies had survived the Revolution and kept under its own waterlocks
the new flood of trade, the conservatism of politics reinforced the
conservatism of religion; and as if these two inquisitions were not
enough to stifle the soul of man, the conservatism of business
self-interest was superimposed. The history of the conflicts which
followed has been written by the radicals, who negligently charge up to
self-interest all the resistance which establishments offer to change.
But it was not solely self-interest, it was conscience that backed the
Missouri Compromise, nowhere else, naturally, so strongly as in New
England. It was conscience that made cowards of us all. The white-lipped
generation of Edward Everett were victims, one might even say martyrs,
to conscience. They suffered the most terrible martyrdom that can fall
to man, a martyrdom which injured their immortal volition and dried up
the springs of life. If it were not that our poets have too seldom
deigned to dip into real life, I do not know what more awful subject for
a poem could have been found than that of the New England judge
enforcing the fugitive slave law. For lack of such a poem the heroism of
these men has been forgotten, the losing heroism of conservatism. It was
this spiritual power of a committed conscience which met the new forces
as they arose, and it deserves a better name than these new forces
afterward gave it. In 1830 the social fruits of these heavy conditions
could be seen in the life of the people. Free speech was lost.

"I know no country," says Tocqueville, who was here in 1831, "in which
there is so little independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in
America." Tocqueville recurs to the point again and again. He cannot
disguise his surprise at it, and it tinged his whole philosophy and his
book. The timidity of the Americans of this era was a thing which
intelligent foreigners could not understand. Miss Martineau wrote in her
Autobiography: "It was not till months afterwards that I was told that
there were two reasons why I was not invited there [Chelsea] as
elsewhere. One reason was that I had avowed, in reply to urgent
questions, that I was disappointed in an oration of Mr. Everett's; and
another was that I had publicly condemned the institution of slavery. I
hope the Boston people have outgrown the childishness of sulking at
opinions not in either case volunteered, but obtained by pressure. But
really, the subservience to opinion at that time seemed a sort of

The mania was by no means confined to Boston, but qualified this period
of our history throughout the Northern States. There was no literature.
"If great writers have not at present existed in America, the reason is
very simply given in the fact that there can be no literary genius
without freedom of opinion, and freedom of opinion does not exist in
America," wrote Tocqueville. There were no amusements, neither music nor
sport nor pastime, indoors or out of doors. The whole life of the
community was a life of the intelligence, and upon the intelligence lay
the weight of intellectual tyranny. The pressure kept on increasing, and
the suppressed forces kept on increasing, till at last, as if to show
what gigantic power was needed to keep conservatism dominant, the
Merchant Province put forward Daniel Webster.

The worst period of panic seems to have preceded the anti-slavery
agitations of 1831, because these agitations soon demonstrated that the
sky did not fall nor the earth yawn and swallow Massachusetts because of
Mr. Garrison's opinions, as most people had sincerely believed would be
the case. Some semblance of free speech was therefore gradually

Let us remember the world upon which the young Emerson's eyes opened.
The South was a plantation. The North crooked the hinges of the knee
where thrift might follow fawning. It was the era of Martin Chuzzlewit,
a malicious caricature,--founded on fact. This time of humiliation, when
there was no free speech, no literature, little manliness, no reality,
no simplicity, no accomplishment, was the era of American brag. We
flattered the foreigner and we boasted of ourselves. We were
over-sensitive, insolent, and cringing. As late as 1845, G.P. Putnam, a
most sensible and modest man, published a book to show what the country
had done in the field of culture. The book is a monument of the age.
With all its good sense and good humor, it justifies foreign contempt
because it is explanatory. Underneath everything lay a feeling of
unrest, an instinct,--"this country cannot permanently endure half slave
and half free,"--which was the truth, but which could not be uttered.

So long as there is any subject which men may not freely discuss, they
are timid upon all subjects. They wear an iron crown and talk in
whispers. Such social conditions crush and maim the individual, and
throughout New England, as throughout the whole North, the individual
was crushed and maimed.

The generous youths who came to manhood between 1820 and 1830, while
this deadly era was maturing, seem to have undergone a revulsion against
the world almost before touching it; at least two of them suffered,
revolted, and condemned, while still boys sitting on benches in school,
and came forth advancing upon this old society like gladiators. The
activity of William Lloyd Garrison, the man of action, preceded by
several years that of Emerson, who is his prophet. Both of them were
parts of one revolution. One of Emerson's articles of faith was that a
man's thoughts spring from his actions rather than his actions from his
thoughts, and possibly the same thing holds good for society at large.
Perhaps all truths, whether moral or economic, must be worked out in
real life before they are discovered by the student, and it was
therefore necessary that Garrison should be evolved earlier than

The silent years of early manhood, during which Emerson passed through
the Divinity School and to his ministry, known by few, understood by
none, least of all by himself, were years in which the revolting spirit
of an archangel thought out his creed. He came forth perfect, with that
serenity of which we have scarce another example in history,--that union
of the man himself, his beliefs, and his vehicle of expression that
makes men great because it makes them comprehensible. The philosophy
into which he had already transmuted all his earlier theology at the
time we first meet him consisted of a very simple drawing together of a
few ideas, all of which had long been familiar to the world. It is the
wonderful use he made of these ideas, the closeness with which they
fitted his soul, the tact with which he took what he needed, like a bird
building its nest, that make the originality, the man.

The conclusion of Berkeley, that the external world is known to us only
through our impressions, and that therefore, for aught we know, the
whole universe exists only in our own consciousness, cannot be
disproved. It is so simple a conception that a child may understand it;
and it has probably been passed before the attention of every thinking
man since Plato's time. The notion is in itself a mere philosophical
catch or crux to which there is no answer. It may be true. The mystics
made this doctrine useful. They were not content to doubt the
independent existence of the external world. They imagined that this
external world, the earth, the planets, the phenomena of nature, bore
some relation to the emotions and destiny of the soul. The soul and the
cosmos were somehow related, and related so intimately that the cosmos
might be regarded as a sort of projection or diagram of the soul.

Plato was the first man who perceived that this idea could be made to
provide the philosopher with a vehicle of expression more powerful than
any other. If a man will once plant himself firmly on the proposition
that _he is_ the universe, that every emotion or expression of his mind
is correlated in some way to phenomena in the external world, and that
he shall say how correlated, he is in a position where the power of
speech is at a maximum. His figures of speech, his tropes, his
witticisms, take rank with the law of gravity and the precession of the
equinoxes. Philosophical exaltation of the individual cannot go beyond
this point. It is the climax.

This is the school of thought to which Emerson belonged. The sun and
moon, the planets, are mere symbols. They signify whatever the poet
chooses. The planets for the most part stay in conjunction just long
enough to flash his thought through their symbolism, and no permanent
relation is established between the soul and the zodiac. There is,
however, one link of correlation between the external and internal
worlds which Emerson considered established, and in which he believed
almost literally, namely, the moral law. This idea he drew from Kant
through Coleridge and Wordsworth, and it is so familiar to us all that
it hardly needs stating. The fancy that the good, the true, the
beautiful,--all things of which we instinctively approve,--are somehow
connected together and are really one thing; that our appreciation of
them is in its essence the recognition of a law; that this law, in fact
all law and the very idea of law, is a mere subjective experience; and
that hence any external sequence which we cooerdinate and name, like the
law of gravity, is really intimately connected with our moral
nature,--this fancy has probably some basis of truth. Emerson adopted it
as a corner-stone of his thought.

Such are the ideas at the basis of Emerson's philosophy, and it is fair
to speak of them in this place because they antedate everything else
which we know of him. They had been for years in his mind before he
spoke at all. It was in the armor of this invulnerable idealism and with
weapons like shafts of light that he came forth to fight.

In 1836, at the age of thirty-three, Emerson published the little
pamphlet called Nature, which was an attempt to state his creed.
Although still young, he was not without experience of life. He had been
assistant minister to the Rev. Dr. Ware from 1829 to 1832, when he
resigned his ministry on account of his views regarding the Lord's
Supper. He had married and lost his first wife in the same interval. He
had been abroad and had visited Carlyle in 1833. He had returned and
settled in Concord, and had taken up the profession of lecturing, upon
which he in part supported himself ever after. It is unnecessary to
review these early lectures. "Large portions of them," says Mr. Cabot,
his biographer, "appeared afterwards in the Essays, especially those of
the first series." Suffice it that through them Emerson had become so
well known that although Nature was published anonymously, he was
recognized as the author. Many people had heard of him at the time he
resigned his charge, and the story went abroad that the young minister
of the Second Church had gone mad. The lectures had not discredited the
story, and Nature seemed to corroborate it. Such was the impression
which the book made upon Boston in 1836. As we read it to-day, we are
struck by its extraordinary beauty of language. It is a supersensuous,
lyrical, and sincere rhapsody, written evidently by a man of genius. It
reveals a nature compelling respect,--a Shelley, and yet a sort of
Yankee Shelley, who is mad only when the wind is nor'-nor'west; a mature
nature which must have been nourished for years upon its own thoughts,
to speak this new language so eloquently, to stand so calmly on its
feet. The deliverance of his thought is so perfect that this work adapts
itself to our mood and has the quality of poetry. This fluency Emerson
soon lost; it is the quality missing in his poetry. It is the
efflorescence of youth.

"In good health, the air is a cordial of incredible virtue. Crossing
a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky,
without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good
fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the
brink of fear. In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the
snake his slough, and at what period soever of life is always a
child. In the woods is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of
God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed,
and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand
years.... It is the uniform effect of culture on the human mind, not
to shake our faith in the stability of particular phenomena, as
heat, water, azote; but to lead us to regard nature as phenomenon,
not a substance; to attribute necessary existence to spirit; to
esteem nature as an accident and an effect."

Perhaps these quotations from the pamphlet called Nature are enough to
show the clouds of speculation in which Emerson had been walking. With
what lightning they were charged was soon seen.

In 1837 he was asked to deliver the Phi Beta Kappa oration at Cambridge.
This was the opportunity for which he had been waiting. The mystic and
eccentric young poet-preacher now speaks his mind, and he turns out to
be a man exclusively interested in real life. This recluse, too tender
for contact with the rough facts of the world, whose conscience has
retired him to rural Concord, pours out a vial of wrath. This cub puts
forth the paw of a full-grown lion.

Emerson has left behind him nothing stronger than this address, The
American Scholar. It was the first application of his views to the
events of his day, written and delivered in the heat of early manhood
while his extraordinary powers were at their height. It moves with a
logical progression of which he soon lost the habit. The subject of it,
the scholar's relation to the world, was the passion of his life. The
body of his belief is to be found in this address, and in any adequate
account of him the whole address ought to be given.

"Thus far," he said, "our holiday has been simply a friendly sign of the
survival of the love of letters amongst a people too busy to give to
letters any more. As such it is precious as the sign of an
indestructible instinct. Perhaps the time is already come when it ought
to be, and will be, something else; when the sluggard intellect of this
continent will look from under its iron lids and fill the postponed
expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of
mechanical skill.... The theory of books is noble. The scholar of the
first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it
the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again. It came into
him life; it went out from him truth.... Yet hence arises a grave
mischief. The sacredness which attaches to the act of creation, the act
of thought, is transferred to the record. The poet chanting was felt to
be a divine man: henceforth the chant is divine, also. The writer was a
just and wise spirit: henceforward it is settled the book is perfect; as
love of the hero corrupts into worship of his statue. Instantly the book
becomes noxious: the guide is a tyrant.... Books are the best of things,
well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the
one end which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to
inspire.... The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul.
This every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him,
although in almost all men obstructed, and as yet unborn. The soul
active sees absolute truth and utters truth, or creates. In this action
it is genius; not the privilege of here and there a favorite, but the
sound estate of every man.... Genius is always sufficiently the enemy of
genius by over-influence. The literature of every nation bears me
witness. The English dramatic poets have Shakspearized now for two
hundred years.... These being his functions, it becomes him to feel all
confidence in himself, and to defer never to the popular cry. He, and he
only, knows the world. The world of any moment is the merest appearance.
Some great decorum, some fetish of a government, some ephemeral trade,
or war, or man, is cried up by half mankind and cried down by the other
half, as if all depended on this particular up or down. The odds are
that the whole question is not worth the poorest thought which the
scholar has lost in listening to the controversy. Let him not quit his
belief that a popgun is a popgun, though the ancient and honorable of
the earth affirm it to be the crack of doom."

Dr. Holmes called this speech of Emerson's our "intellectual
Declaration of Independence," and indeed it was. "The Phi Beta Kappa
speech," says Mr. Lowell, "was an event without any former parallel in
our literary annals,--a scene always to be treasured in the memory for
its picturesqueness and its inspiration. What crowded and breathless
aisles, what windows clustering with eager heads, what enthusiasm of
approval, what grim silence of foregone dissent!"

The authorities of the Divinity School can hardly have been very careful
readers of Nature and The American Scholar, or they would not have
invited Emerson, in 1838, to deliver the address to the graduating
class. This was Emerson's second opportunity to apply his beliefs
directly to society. A few lines out of the famous address are enough to
show that he saw in the church of his day signs of the same decadence
that he saw in the letters: "The prayers and even the dogmas of our
church are like the zodiac of Denderah and the astronomical monuments of
the Hindoos, wholly insulated from anything now extant in the life and
business of the people. They mark the height to which the waters once
rose.... It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not
was; that he speaketh, not spake. The true Christianity--a faith like
Christ's in the infinitude of man--is lost. None believeth in the soul
of man, but only in some man or person old and departed. Ah me! no man
goeth alone. All men go in flocks to this saint or that poet, avoiding
the God who seeth in secret. They cannot see in secret; they love to be
blind in public. They think society wiser than their soul, and know not
that one soul, and their soul, is wiser than the whole world."

It is almost misleading to speak of the lofty utterances of these early
addresses as attacks upon society, but their reception explains them.
The element of absolute courage is the same in all natures. Emerson
himself was not unconscious of what function he was performing.

The "storm in our wash-bowl" which followed this Divinity School
address, the letters of remonstrance from friends, the advertisements by
the Divinity School of "no complicity," must have been cheering to
Emerson. His unseen yet dominating ambition is shown throughout the
address, and in this note in his diary of the following year:--

"_August_ 31. Yesterday at the Phi Beta Kappa anniversary. Steady,
steady. I am convinced that if a man will be a true scholar he
shall have perfect freedom. The young people and the mature hint at
odium and the aversion of forces to be presently encountered in
society. I say No; I fear it not."

The lectures and addresses which form the latter half of the first
volume in the collected edition show the early Emerson in the ripeness
of his powers. These writings have a lyrical sweep and a beauty which
the later works often lack. Passages in them remind us of Hamlet:--

"How silent, how spacious, what room for all, yet without space to
insert an atom;--in graceful succession, in equal fulness, in
balanced beauty, the dance of the hours goes forward still. Like an
odor of incense, like a strain of music, like a sleep, it is inexact
and boundless. It will not be dissected, nor unravelled, nor
shown.... The great Pan of old, who was clothed in a leopard skin to
signify the beautiful variety of things and the firmament, his coat
of stars,--was but the representative of thee, O rich and various
man! thou palace of sight and sound, carrying in thy senses the
morning and the night and the unfathomable galaxy; in thy brain, the
geometry of the City of God; in thy heart, the bower of love and the
realms of right and wrong.... Every star in heaven is discontent
and insatiable. Gravitation and chemistry cannot content them. Ever
they woo and court the eye of the beholder. Every man who comes into
the world they seek to fascinate and possess, to pass into his mind,
for they desire to republish themselves in a more delicate world
than that they occupy.... So it is with all immaterial objects.
These beautiful basilisks set their brute glorious eyes on the eye
of every child, and, if they can, cause their nature to pass through
his wondering eyes into him, and so all things are mixed."

Emerson is never far from his main thought:--

"The universe does not attract us till it is housed in an
individual." "A man, a personal ascendency, is the only great

"I cannot find language of sufficient energy to convey my sense of
the sacredness of private integrity."

On the other hand, he is never far from his great fear: "But Truth is
such a fly-away, such a sly-boots, so untransportable and unbarrelable a
commodity, that it is as bad to catch as light." "Let him beware of
proposing to himself any end.... I say to you plainly, there is no end
so sacred or so large that if pursued for itself will not become
carrion and an offence to the nostril."

There can be nothing finer than Emerson's knowledge of the world, his
sympathy with young men and with the practical difficulties of applying
his teachings. We can see in his early lectures before students and
mechanics how much he had learned about the structure of society from
his own short contact with the organized church.

"Each finds a tender and very intelligent conscience a
disqualification for success. Each requires of the practitioner a
certain shutting of the eyes, a certain dapperness and compliance,
an acceptance of customs, a sequestration from the sentiments of
generosity and love, a compromise of private opinion and lofty
integrity.... The fact that a new thought and hope have dawned in
your breast, should apprise you that in the same hour a new light
broke in upon a thousand private hearts.... And further I will not
dissemble my hope that each person whom I address has felt his own
call to cast aside all evil customs, timidity, and limitations, and
to be in his place a free and helpful man, a reformer, a benefactor,
not content to slip along through the world like a footman or a spy,
escaping by his nimbleness and apologies as many knocks as he can,
but a brave and upright man who must find or cut a straight road to
everything excellent in the earth, and not only go honorably
himself, but make it easier for all who follow him to go in honor
and with benefit...."

Beneath all lay a greater matter,--Emerson's grasp of the forms and
conditions of progress, his reach of intellect, which could afford fair
play to every one.

His lecture on The Conservative is not a puzzling _jeu d'esprit_, like
Bishop Blougram's Apology, but an honest attempt to set up the opposing
chessmen of conservatism and reform so as to represent real life. Hardly
can such a brilliant statement of the case be found elsewhere in
literature. It is not necessary to quote here the reformer's side of the
question, for Emerson's whole life was devoted to it. The conservatives'
attitude he gives with such accuracy and such justice that the very
bankers of State Street seem to be speaking:--

"The order of things is as good as the character of the population
permits. Consider it as the work of a great and beneficent and
progressive necessity, which, from the first pulsation in the first
animal life up to the present high culture of the best nations, has
advanced thus far....

"The conservative party in the universe concedes that the radical
would talk sufficiently to the purpose if we were still in the
garden of Eden; he legislates for man as he ought to be; his theory
is right, but he makes no allowance for friction, and this omission
makes his whole doctrine false. The idealist retorts that the
conservative falls into a far more noxious error in the other
extreme. The conservative assumes sickness as a necessity, and his
social frame is a hospital, his total legislation is for the present
distress, a universe in slippers and flannels, with bib and
pap-spoon, swallowing pills and herb tea. Sickness gets organized as
well as health, the vice as well as the virtue."

It is unnecessary to go, one by one, through the familiar essays and
lectures which Emerson published between 1838 and 1875. They are in
everybody's hands and in everybody's thoughts. In 1840 he wrote in his
diary: "In all my lectures I have taught one doctrine, namely, the
infinitude of the private man. This the people accept readily enough,
and even with commendation, as long as I call the lecture Art or
Politics, or Literature or the Household; but the moment I call it
Religion they are shocked, though it be only the application of the same
truth which they receive elsewhere to a new class of facts." To the
platform he returned, and left it only once or twice during the
remainder of his life.

His writings vary in coherence. In his early occasional pieces, like the
Phi Beta Kappa address, coherence is at a maximum. They were written for
a purpose, and were perhaps struck off all at once. But he earned his
living by lecturing, and a lecturer is always recasting his work and
using it in different forms. A lecturer has no prejudice against
repetition. It is noticeable that in some of Emerson's important
lectures the logical scheme is more perfect than in his essays. The
truth seems to be that in the process of working up and perfecting his
writings, in revising and filing his sentences, the logical scheme
became more and more obliterated. Another circumstance helped make his
style fragmentary. He was by nature a man of inspirations and exalted
moods. He was subject to ecstasies, during which his mind worked with
phenomenal brilliancy. Throughout his works and in his diary we find
constant reference to these moods, and to his own inability to control
or recover them. "But what we want is consecutiveness. 'T is with us a
flash of light, then a long darkness, then a flash again. Ah! could we
turn these fugitive sparkles into an astronomy of Copernican worlds!"

In order to take advantage of these periods of divination, he used to
write down the thoughts that came to him at such times. From boyhood
onward he kept journals and commonplace books, and in the course of his
reading and meditation he collected innumerable notes and quotations
which he indexed for ready use. In these mines he "quarried," as Mr.
Cabot says, for his lectures and essays. When he needed a lecture he
went to the repository, threw together what seemed to have a bearing on
some subject, and gave it a title. If any other man should adopt this
method of composition, the result would be incomprehensible chaos;
because most men have many interests, many moods, many and conflicting
ideas. But with Emerson it was otherwise. There was only one thought
which could set him aflame, and that was the thought of the unfathomed
might of man. This thought was his religion, his politics, his ethics,
his philosophy. One moment of inspiration was in him own brother to the
next moment of inspiration, although they might be separated by six
weeks. When he came to put together his star-born ideas, they fitted
well, no matter in what order he placed them, because they were all
part of the same idea.

His works are all one single attack on the vice of the age, moral
cowardice. He assails it not by railings and scorn, but by positive and
stimulating suggestion. The imagination of the reader is touched by
every device which can awake the admiration for heroism, the
consciousness of moral courage. Wit, quotation, anecdote, eloquence,
exhortation, rhetoric, sarcasm, and very rarely denunciation, are
launched at the reader, till he feels little lambent flames beginning to
kindle in him. He is perhaps unable to see the exact logical connection
between two paragraphs of an essay, yet he feels they are germane. He
takes up Emerson tired and apathetic, but presently he feels himself
growing heady and truculent, strengthened in his most inward vitality,
surprised to find himself again master in his own house.

The difference between Emerson and the other moralists is that all these
stimulating pictures and suggestions are not given by him in
illustration of a general proposition. They have never been through the
mill of generalization in his own mind. He himself could not have told
you their logical bearing on one another. They have all the vividness of
disconnected fragments of life, and yet they all throw light on one
another, like the facets of a jewel. But whatever cause it was that led
him to adopt his method of writing, it is certain that he succeeded in
delivering himself of his thought with an initial velocity and carrying
power such as few men ever attained. He has the force at his command of
the thrower of the discus.

His style is American, and beats with the pulse of the climate. He is
the only writer we have had who writes as he speaks, who makes no
literary parade, has no pretensions of any sort. He is the only writer
we have had who has wholly subdued his vehicle to his temperament. It is
impossible to name his style without naming his character: they are one

Both in language and in elocution Emerson was a practised and consummate
artist, who knew how both to command his effects and to conceal his
means. The casual, practical, disarming directness with which he writes
puts any honest man at his mercy. What difference does it make whether a
man who can talk like this is following an argument or not? You cannot
always see Emerson clearly; he is hidden by a high wall; but you always
know exactly on what spot he is standing. You judge it by the flight of
the objects he throws over the wall,--a bootjack, an apple, a crown, a
razor, a volume of verse. With one or other of these missiles, all
delivered with a very tolerable aim, he is pretty sure to hit you. These
catchwords stick in the mind. People are not in general influenced by
long books or discourses, but by odd fragments of observation which they
overhear, sentences or head-lines which they read while turning over a
book at random or while waiting for dinner to be announced. These are
the oracles and orphic words that get lodged in the mind and bend a
man's most stubborn will. Emerson called them the Police of the
Universe. His works are a treasury of such things. They sparkle in the
mine, or you may carry them off in your pocket. They get driven into
your mind like nails, and on them catch and hang your own experiences,
till what was once his thought has become your character.

"God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take
which you please; you can never have both." "Discontent is want of
self-reliance; it is infirmity of will." "It is impossible for a man
to be cheated by any one but himself."

The orchestration with which Emerson introduces and sustains these
notes from the spheres is as remarkable as the winged things themselves.
Open his works at a hazard. You hear a man talking.

"A garden is like those pernicious machineries we read of every
month in the newspapers, which catch a man's coat-skirt or his hand,
and draw in his arm, his leg, and his whole body to irresistible
destruction. In an evil hour he pulled down his wall and added a
field to his homestead. No land is bad, but land is worse. If a man
own land, the land owns him. Now let him leave home if he dare.
Every tree and graft, every hill of melons, row of corn, or quickset
hedge, all he has done and all he means to do, stand in his way like
duns, when he would go out of his gate."

Your attention is arrested by the reality of this gentleman in his
garden, by the first-hand quality of his mind. It matters not on what
subject he talks. While you are musing, still pleased and patronizing,
he has picked up the bow of Ulysses, bent it with the ease of Ulysses,
and sent a shaft clear through the twelve axes, nor missed one of them.
But this, it seems, was mere byplay and marksmanship; for before you
have done wondering, Ulysses rises to his feet in anger, and pours
flight after flight, arrow after arrow, from the great bow. The shafts
sing and strike, the suitors fall in heaps. The brow of Ulysses shines
with unearthly splendor. The air is filled with lightning. After a
little, without shock or transition, without apparent change of tone,
Mr. Emerson is offering you a biscuit before you leave, and bidding you
mind the last step at the garden end. If the man who can do these things
be not an artist, then must we have a new vocabulary and rename the

There is, in all this effectiveness of Emerson, no pose, no literary
art; nothing that corresponds even remotely to the pretended modesty and
ignorance with which Socrates lays pitfalls for our admiration in
Plato's dialogues.

It was the platform which determined Emerson's style. He was not a
writer, but a speaker. On the platform his manner of speech was a living
part of his words. The pauses and hesitation, the abstraction, the
searching, the balancing, the turning forward and back of the leaves of
his lecture, and then the discovery, the illumination, the gleam of
lightning which you saw before your eyes descend into a man of
genius,--all this was Emerson. He invented this style of speaking, and
made it express the supersensuous, the incommunicable. Lowell wrote,
while still under the spell of the magician: "Emerson's oration was more
disjointed than usual, even with him. It began nowhere, and ended
everywhere, and yet, as always with that divine man, it left you feeling
that something beautiful had passed that way, something more beautiful
than anything else, like the rising and setting of stars. Every possible
criticism might have been made on it but one,--that it was not noble.
There was a tone in it that awakened all elevating associations. He
boggled, he lost his place, he had to put on his glasses; but it was as
if a creature from some fairer world had lost his way in our fogs, and
it was _our_ fault, not his. It was chaotic, but it was all such stuff
as stars are made of, and you couldn't help feeling that, if you waited
awhile, all that was nebulous would be whirled into planets, and would
assume the mathematical gravity of system. All through it I felt
something in me that cried, 'Ha! ha!' to the sound of the trumpets."

It is nothing for any man sitting in his chair to be overcome with the
sense of the immediacy of life, to feel the spur of courage, the victory
of good over evil, the value, now and forever, of all great-hearted
endeavor. Such moments come to us all. But for a man to sit in his chair
and write what shall call up these forces in the bosoms of others--that
is desert, that is greatness. To do this was the gift of Emerson. The
whole earth is enriched by every moment of converse with him. The shows
and shams of life become transparent, the lost kingdoms are brought
back, the shutters of the spirit are opened, and provinces and realms of
our own existence lie gleaming before us.

It has been necessary to reduce the living soul of Emerson to mere dead
attributes like "moral courage" in order that we might talk about him at
all. His effectiveness comes from his character; not from his
philosophy, nor from his rhetoric nor his wit, nor from any of the
accidents of his education. He might never have heard of Berkeley or
Plato. A slightly different education might have led him to throw his
teaching into the form of historical essays or of stump speeches. He
might, perhaps, have been bred a stonemason, and have done his work in
the world by travelling with a panorama. But he would always have been
Emerson. His weight and his power would always have been the same. It is
solely as character that he is important. He discovered nothing; he
bears no relation whatever to the history of philosophy. We must regard
him and deal with him simply as a man.

Strangely enough, the world has always insisted upon accepting him as a
thinker: and hence a great coil of misunderstanding. As a thinker,
Emerson is difficult to classify. Before you begin to assign him a
place, you must clear the ground by a disquisition as to what is meant
by "a thinker", and how Emerson differs from other thinkers. As a man,
Emerson is as plain as Ben Franklin.

People have accused him of inconsistency; they say that he teaches one
thing one day, and another the next day. But from the point of view of
Emerson there is no such thing as inconsistency. Every man is each day a
new man. Let him be to-day what he is to-day. It is immaterial and waste
of time to consider what he once was or what he may be.

His picturesque speech delights in fact and anecdote, and a public which
is used to treatises and deduction cares always to be told the moral. It
wants everything reduced to a generalization. All generalizations are
partial truths, but we are used to them, and we ourselves mentally make
the proper allowance. Emerson's method is, not to give a generalization
and trust to our making the allowance, but to give two conflicting
statements and leave the balance of truth to be struck in our own minds
on the facts. There is no inconsistency in this. It is a vivid and very
legitimate method of procedure. But he is much more than a theorist: he
is a practitioner. He does not merely state a theory of agitation: he
proceeds to agitate. "Do not," he says, "set the least value on what I
do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle
anything as false or true. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me
sacred, none are profane. I simply experiment, an endless seeker with no
past at my back." He was not engaged in teaching many things, but one
thing,--Courage. Sometimes he inspires it by pointing to great
characters,--Fox, Milton, Alcibiades; sometimes he inspires it by
bidding us beware of imitating such men, and, in the ardor of his
rhetoric, even seems to regard them as hindrances and dangers to our
development. There is no inconsistency here. Emerson might logically
have gone one step further and raised inconsistency into a jewel. For
what is so useful, so educational, so inspiring, to a timid and
conservative man, as to do something inconsistent and regrettable? It
lends character to him at once. He breathes freer and is stronger for
the experience.

Emerson is no cosmopolitan. He is a patriot. He is not like Goethe,
whose sympathies did not run on national lines. Emerson has America in
his mind's eye all the time. There is to be a new religion, and it is to
come from America; a new and better type of man, and he is to be an
American. He not only cared little or nothing for Europe, but he cared
not much for the world at large. His thought was for the future of this
country. You cannot get into any chamber in his mind which is below this
chamber of patriotism. He loves the valor of Alexander and the grace of
the Oxford athlete; but he loves them not for themselves. He has a use
for them. They are grist to his mill and powder to his gun. His
admiration of them he subordinates to his main purpose,--they are his
blackboard and diagrams. His patriotism is the backbone of his
significance. He came to his countrymen at a time when they lacked, not
thoughts, but manliness. The needs of his own particular public are
always before him.

"It is odd that our people should have, not water on the brain, but
a little gas there. A shrewd foreigner said of the Americans that
'whatever they say has a little the air of a speech.'"

"I shall not need to go into an enumeration of our national defects
and vices which require this Order of Censors in the State.... The
timidity of our public opinion is our disease, or, shall I say, the
publicness of opinion, the absence of private opinion."

"Our measure of success is the moderation and low level of an
individual's judgment. Dr. Channing's piety and wisdom had such
weight in Boston that the popular idea of religion was whatever this
eminent divine held."

"Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity, the squalid
contentment of the times."

The politicians he scores constantly.

"Who that sees the meanness of our politics but congratulates
Washington that he is long already wrapped in his shroud and forever
safe." The following is his description of the social world of his
day: "If any man consider the present aspects of what is called by
distinction _society_, he will see the need of these ethics. The
sinew and heart of man seem to be drawn out, and we are become
timorous, desponding whimperers."

It is the same wherever we open his books. He must spur on, feed up,
bring forward the dormant character of his countrymen. When he goes to
England, he sees in English life nothing except those elements which are
deficient in American life. If you wish a catalogue of what America has
not, read English Traits. Emerson's patriotism had the effect of
expanding his philosophy. To-day we know the value of physique, for
science has taught it, but it was hardly discovered in his day, and his
philosophy affords no basis for it. Emerson in this matter transcends
his philosophy. When in England, he was fairly made drunk with the
physical life he found there. He is like Caspar Hauser gazing for the
first time on green fields. English Traits is the ruddiest book he ever
wrote. It is a hymn to force, honesty, and physical well-being, and ends
with the dominant note of his belief: "By this general activity and by
this sacredness of individuals, they [the English] have in seven hundred
years evolved the principles of freedom. It is the land of patriots,
martyrs, sages, and bards, and if the ocean out of which it emerged
should wash it away, it will be remembered as an island famous for
immortal laws, for the announcements of original right which make the
stone tables of liberty." He had found in England free speech, personal
courage, and reverence for the individual.

No convulsion could shake Emerson or make his view unsteady even for an
instant. What no one else saw, he saw, and he saw nothing else. Not a
boy in the land welcomed the outbreak of the war so fiercely as did this
shy village philosopher, then at the age of fifty-eight. He saw that war
was the cure for cowardice, moral as well as physical. It was not the
cause of the slave that moved him; it was not the cause of the Union for
which he cared a farthing. It was something deeper than either of these
things for which he had been battling all his life. It was the cause of
character against convention. Whatever else the war might bring, it was
sure to bring in character, to leave behind it a file of heroes; if not
heroes, then villains, but in any case strong men. On the 9th of April,
1861, three days before Fort Sumter was bombarded, he had spoken with
equanimity of "the downfall of our character-destroying civilization....
We find that civilization crowed too soon, that our triumphs were
treacheries; we had opened the wrong door and let the enemy into the

"Ah," he said, when the firing began, "sometimes gunpowder smells good."
Soon after the attack on Sumter he said in a public address, "We have
been very homeless for some years past, say since 1850; but now we have
a country again.... The war was an eye-opener, and showed men of all
parties and opinions the value of those primary forces that lie beneath
all political action." And it was almost a personal pledge when he said
at the Harvard Commemoration in 1865, "We shall not again disparage
America, now that we have seen what men it will bear."

The place which Emerson forever occupies as a great critic is defined by
the same sharp outlines that mark his work, in whatever light and from
whatever side we approach it. A critic in the modern sense he was not,
for his point of view is fixed, and he reviews the world like a
search-light placed on the top of a tall tower. He lived too early and
at too great a distance from the forum of European thought to absorb the
ideas of evolution and give place to them in his philosophy. Evolution
does not graft well upon the Platonic Idealism, nor are physiology and
the kindred sciences sympathetic. Nothing aroused Emerson's indignation
more than the attempts of the medical faculty and of phrenologists to
classify, and therefore limit individuals. "The grossest ignorance does
not disgust me like this ignorant knowingness."

We miss in Emerson the underlying conception of growth, of development,
so characteristic of the thought of our own day, and which, for
instance, is found everywhere latent in Browning's poetry. Browning
regards character as the result of experience and as an ever changing
growth. To Emerson, character is rather an entity complete and eternal
from the beginning. He is probably the last great writer to look at life
from a stationary standpoint. There is a certain lack of the historic
sense in all he has written. The ethical assumption that all men are
exactly alike permeates his work. In his mind, Socrates, Marco Polo, and
General Jackson stand surrounded by the same atmosphere, or rather stand
as mere naked characters surrounded by no atmosphere at all. He is
probably the last great writer who will fling about classic anecdotes as
if they were club gossip. In the discussion of morals, this assumption
does little harm. The stories and proverbs which illustrate the thought
of the moralist generally concern only those simple relations of life
which are common to all ages. There is charm in this familiar dealing
with antiquity. The classics are thus domesticated and made real to us.
What matter if AEsop appear a little too much like an American citizen,
so long as his points tell?

It is in Emerson's treatment of the fine arts that we begin to notice
his want of historic sense. Art endeavors to express subtle and ever
changing feelings by means of conventions which are as protean as the
forms of a cloud; and the man who in speaking on the plastic arts makes
the assumption that all men are alike will reveal before he has uttered
three sentences that he does not know what art is, that he has never
experienced any form of sensation from it. Emerson lived in a time and
clime where there was no plastic art, and he was obliged to arrive at
his ideas about art by means of a highly complex process of reasoning.
He dwelt constantly in a spiritual place which was the very focus of
high moral fervor. This was his enthusiasm, this was his revelation, and
from it he reasoned out the probable meaning of the fine arts. "This,"
thought Emerson, his eye rolling in a fine frenzy of moral feeling,
"this must be what Apelles experienced, this fervor is the passion of
Bramante. I understand the Parthenon." And so he projected his feelings
about morality into the field of the plastic arts. He deals very freely
and rather indiscriminately with the names of artists,--Phidias,
Raphael, Salvator Rosa,--and he speaks always in such a way that it is
impossible to connect what he says with any impression we have ever
received from the works of those masters.

In fact, Emerson has never in his life felt the normal appeal of any
painting, or any sculpture, or any architecture, or any music. These
things, of which he does not know the meaning in real life, he yet uses,
and uses constantly, as symbols to convey ethical truths. The result is
that his books are full of blind places, like the notes which will not
strike on a sick piano.

It is interesting to find that the one art of which Emerson did have a
direct understanding, the art of poetry, gave him some insight into the
relation of the artist to his vehicle. In his essay on Shakespeare there
is a full recognition of the debt of Shakespeare to his times. This
essay is filled with the historic sense. We ought not to accuse Emerson
because he lacked appreciation of the fine arts, but rather admire the
truly Goethean spirit in which he insisted upon the reality of arts of
which he had no understanding. This is the same spirit which led him to
insist on the value of the Eastern poets. Perhaps there exist a few
scholars who can tell us how far Emerson understood or misunderstood
Saadi and Firdusi and the Koran. But we need not be disturbed for his
learning. It is enough that he makes us recognize that these men were
men too, and that their writings mean something not unknowable to us.
The East added nothing to Emerson, but gave him a few trappings of
speech. The whole of his mysticism is to be found in Nature, written
before he knew the sages of the Orient, and it is not improbable that
there is some real connection between his own mysticism and the
mysticism of the Eastern poets.

Emerson's criticism on men and books is like the test of a great chemist
who seeks one or two elements. He burns a bit of the stuff in his
incandescent light, shows the lines of it in his spectrum, and there an

It was a thought of genius that led him to write Representative Men. The
scheme of this book gave play to every illumination of his mind, and it
pinned him down to the objective, to the field of vision under his
microscope. The table of contents of Representative Men is the dial of
his education. It is as follows: Uses of Great Men; Plato, or The
Philosopher; Plato, New Readings; Swedenborg, or The Mystic; Montaigne,
or The Sceptic; Shakespeare, or The Poet; Napoleon, or The Man of the
World; Goethe, or The Writer. The predominance of the writers over all
other types of men is not cited to show Emerson's interest in The
Writer, for we know his interest centred in the practical man,--even his
ideal scholar is a practical man,--but to show the sources of his
illustration. Emerson's library was the old-fashioned gentleman's
library. His mines of thought were the world's classics. This is one
reason why he so quickly gained an international currency. His very
subjects in Representative Men are of universal interest, and he is
limited only by certain inevitable local conditions. Representative Men
is thought by many persons to be his best book. It is certainly filled
with the strokes of a master. There exists no more profound criticism
than Emerson's analysis of Goethe and of Napoleon, by both of whom he
was at once fascinated and repelled.


The attitude of Emerson's mind toward reformers results so logically
from his philosophy that it is easily understood. He saw in them people
who sought something as a panacea or as an end in itself. To speak
strictly and not irreverently, he had his own panacea,--the development
of each individual; and he was impatient of any other. He did not
believe in association. The very idea of it involved a surrender by the
individual of some portion of his identity, and of course all the
reformers worked through their associations. With their general aims he
sympathized. "These reforms," he wrote, "are our contemporaries; they
are ourselves, our own light and sight and conscience; they only name
the relation which subsists between us and the vicious institutions
which they go to rectify." But with the methods of the reformers he had
no sympathy: "He who aims at progress should aim at an infinite, not at
a special benefit. The reforms whose fame now fills the land with
temperance, anti-slavery, non-resistance, no-government, equal labor,
fair and generous as each appears, are poor bitter things when
prosecuted for themselves as an end." Again: "The young men who have
been vexing society for these last years with regenerative methods seem
to have made this mistake: they all exaggerated some special means, and
all failed to see that the reform of reforms must be accomplished
without means."

Emerson did not at first discriminate between the movement of the
Abolitionists and the hundred and one other reform movements of the
period; and in this lack of discrimination lies a point of extraordinary
interest. The Abolitionists, as it afterwards turned out, had in fact
got hold of the issue which was to control the fortunes of the republic
for thirty years. The difference between them and the other reformers
was this: that the Abolitionists were men set in motion by the primary
and unreasoning passion of pity. Theory played small part in the
movement. It grew by the excitement which exhibitions of cruelty will
arouse in the minds of sensitive people.

It is not to be denied that the social conditions in Boston in 1831
foreboded an outbreak in some form. If the abolition excitement had not
drafted off the rising forces, there might have been a Merry Mount, an
epidemic of crime or insanity, or a mob of some sort. The abolition
movement afforded the purest form of an indulgence in human feeling that
was ever offered to men. It was intoxicating. It made the agitators
perfectly happy. They sang at their work and bubbled over with
exhilaration. They were the only people in the United States, at this
time, who were enjoying an exalted, glorifying, practical activity.

But Emerson at first lacked the touchstone, whether of intellect or of
heart, to see the difference between this particular movement and the
other movements then in progress. Indeed, in so far as he sees any
difference between the Abolitionists and the rest, it is that the
Abolitionists were more objectionable and distasteful to him. "Those,"
he said, "who are urging with most ardor what are called the greatest
benefits to mankind are narrow, conceited, self-pleasing men, and affect
us as the insane do." And again: "By the side of these men [the
idealists] the hot agitators have a certain cheap and ridiculous air;
they even look smaller than others. Of the two, I own I like the
speculators the best. They have some piety which looks with faith to a
fair future unprofaned by rash and unequal attempts to realize it." He
was drawn into the abolition cause by having the truth brought home to
him that these people were fighting for the Moral Law. He was slow in
seeing this, because in their methods they represented everything he
most condemned. As soon, however, as he was convinced, he was ready to
lecture for them and to give them the weight of his approval. In 1844 he
was already practically an Abolitionist, and his feelings upon the
matter deepened steadily in intensity ever after.

The most interesting page of Emerson's published journal is the
following, written at some time previous to 1844; the exact date is not
given. A like page, whether written or unwritten, may be read into the
private annals of every man who lived before the war. Emerson has, with
unconscious mastery, photographed the half-spectre that stalked in the
minds of all. He wrote: "I had occasion to say the other day to
Elizabeth Hoar that I like best the strong and worthy persons, like her
father, who support the social order without hesitation or misgiving. I
like these; they never incommode us by exciting grief, pity, or
perturbation of any sort. But the professed philanthropists, it is
strange and horrible to say, are an altogether odious set of people,
whom one would shun as the worst of bores and canters. But my
conscience, my unhappy conscience respects that hapless class who see
the faults and stains of our social order, and who pray and strive
incessantly to right the wrong; this annoying class of men and women,
though they commonly find the work altogether beyond their faculty, and
their results are, for the present, distressing. They are partial, and
apt to magnify their own. Yes, and the prostrate penitent, also,--he is
not comprehensive, he is not philosophical in those tears and groans.
Yet I feel that under him and his partiality and exclusiveness is the
earth and the sea and all that in them is, and the axis around which the
universe revolves passes through his body where he stands."

It was the defection of Daniel Webster that completed the conversion of
Emerson and turned him from an adherent into a propagandist of
abolition. Not pity for the slave, but indignation at the violation of
the Moral Law by Daniel Webster, was at the bottom of Emerson's anger.
His abolitionism was secondary to his main mission, his main enthusiasm.
It is for this reason that he stands on a plane of intellect where he
might, under other circumstances, have met and defeated Webster. After
the 7th of March, 1850, he recognized in Webster the embodiment of all
that he hated. In his attacks on Webster, Emerson trembles to his inmost
fibre with antagonism. He is savage, destructive, personal, bent on

This exhibition of Emerson as a fighting animal is magnificent, and
explains his life. There is no other instance of his ferocity. No other
nature but Webster's ever so moved him; but it was time to be moved, and
Webster was a man of his size. Had these two great men of New England
been matched in training as they were matched in endowment, and had they
then faced each other in debate, they would not have been found to
differ so greatly in power. Their natures were electrically repellent,
but from which did the greater force radiate? Their education differed
so radically that it is impossible to compare them, but if you translate
the Phi Beta Kappa address into politics, you have something stronger
than Webster,--something that recalls Chatham; and Emerson would have
had this advantage,--that he was not afraid. As it was, he left his
library and took the stump. Mr. Cabot has given us extracts from his

"The tameness is indeed complete; all are involved in one hot haste
of terror,--presidents of colleges and professors, saints and
brokers, lawyers and manufacturers; not a liberal recollection, not
so much as a snatch of an old song for freedom, dares intrude on
their passive obedience.... Mr. Webster, perhaps, is only following
the laws of his blood and constitution. I suppose his pledges were
not quite natural to him. He is a man who lives by his memory; a man
of the past, not a man of faith and of hope. All the drops of his
blood have eyes that look downward, and his finely developed
understanding only works truly and with all its force when it stands
for animal good; that is, for property. He looks at the Union as an
estate, a large farm, and is excellent in the completeness of his
defence of it so far. What he finds already written he will defend.
Lucky that so much had got well written when he came, for he has no
faith in the power of self-government. Not the smallest municipal
provision, if it were new, would receive his sanction. In
Massachusetts, in 1776, he would, beyond all question, have been a
refugee. He praises Adams and Jefferson, but it is a past Adams and
Jefferson. A present Adams or Jefferson he would denounce.... But
one thing appears certain to me: that the Union is at an end as soon
as an immoral law is enacted. He who writes a crime into the
statute book digs under the foundations of the Capitol.... The words
of John Randolph, wiser than he knew, have been ringing ominously in
all echoes for thirty years: 'We do not govern the people of the
North by our black slaves, but by their own white slaves.' ... They
come down now like the cry of fate, in the moment when they are

The exasperation of Emerson did not subside, but went on increasing
during the next four years, and on March 7, 1854, he read his lecture on
the Fugitive Slave Law at the New York Tabernacle: "I have lived all my
life without suffering any inconvenience from American Slavery. I never
saw it; I never heard the whip; I never felt the check on my free speech
and action, until the other day, when Mr. Webster, by his personal
influence, brought the Fugitive Slave Law on the country. I say Mr.
Webster, for though the bill was not his, it is yet notorious that he
was the life and soul of it, that he gave it all he had. It cost him his
life, and under the shadow of his great name inferior men sheltered
themselves, threw their ballots for it, and made the law.... Nobody
doubts that Daniel Webster could make a good speech. Nobody doubts that
there were good and plausible things to be said on the part of the
South. But this is not a question of ingenuity, not a question of
syllogisms, but of sides. _How came he there_? ... But the question which
history will ask is broader. In the final hour when he was forced by the
peremptory necessity of the closing armies to take a side,--did he take
the part of great principles, the side of humanity and justice, or the
side of abuse, and oppression and chaos? ... He did as immoral men
usually do,--made very low bows to the Christian Church and went through
all the Sunday decorums, but when allusion was made to the question of
duty and the sanctions of morality, he very frankly said, at Albany,
'Some higher law, something existing somewhere between here and the
heaven--I do not know where.' And if the reporters say true, this
wretched atheism found some laughter in the company."

It was too late for Emerson to shine as a political debater. On May 14,
1857, Longfellow wrote in his diary, "It is rather painful to see
Emerson in the arena of politics, hissed and hooted at by young law
students." Emerson records a similar experience at a later date: "If I
were dumb, yet would I have gone and mowed and muttered or made signs.
The mob roared whenever I attempted to speak, and after several
beginnings I withdrew." There is nothing "painful" here: it is the
sublime exhibition of a great soul in bondage to circumstance.

The thing to be noted is that this is the same man, in the same state of
excitement about the same idea, who years before spoke out in The
American Scholar, in the Essays, and in the Lectures.

What was it that had aroused in Emerson such Promethean antagonism in
1837 but those same forces which in 1850 came to their culmination and
assumed visible shape in the person of Daniel Webster? The formal
victory of Webster drew Emerson into the arena, and made a dramatic
episode in his life. But his battle with those forces had begun thirteen
years earlier, when he threw down the gauntlet to them in his Phi Beta
Kappa oration. Emerson by his writings did more than any other man to
rescue the youth of the next generation and fit them for the fierce
times to follow. It will not be denied that he sent ten thousand sons to
the war.

In speaking of Emerson's attitude toward the anti-slavery cause, it has
been possible to dispense with any survey of that movement, because the
movement was simple and specific and is well remembered. But when we
come to analyze the relations he bore to some of the local agitations of
his day, it becomes necessary to weave in with the matter a discussion
of certain tendencies deeply imbedded in the life of his times, and of
which he himself was in a sense an outcome. In speaking of the
Transcendentalists, who were essentially the children of the Puritans,
we must begin with some study of the chief traits of Puritanism.

What parts the factors of climate, circumstance, and religion have
respectively played in the development of the New England character no
analysis can determine. We may trace the imaginary influence of a harsh
creed in the lines of the face. We may sometimes follow from generation
to generation the course of a truth which at first sustained the spirit
of man, till we see it petrify into a dogma which now kills the spirits
of men. Conscience may destroy the character. The tragedy of the New
England judge enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law was no new spectacle in
New England. A dogmatic crucifixion of the natural instincts had been in
progress there for two hundred years. Emerson, who is more free from
dogma than any other teacher that can be named, yet comes very near
being dogmatic in his reiteration of the Moral Law.

Whatever volume of Emerson we take up, the Moral Law holds the same
place in his thoughts. It is the one statable revelation of truth which
he is ready to stake his all upon. "The illusion that strikes me as the
masterpiece in that ring of illusions which our life is, is the timidity
with which we assert our moral sentiment. We are made of it, the world
is built by it, things endure as they share it; all beauty, all health,
all intelligence exist by it; yet we shrink to speak of it or range
ourselves by its side. Nay, we presume strength of him or them who deny
it. Cities go against it, the college goes against it, the courts snatch
any precedent at any vicious form of law to rule it out; legislatures
listen with appetite to declamations against it and vote it down."

With this very beautiful and striking passage no one will quarrel, nor
will any one misunderstand it.

The following passage has the same sort of poetical truth. "Things are
saturated with the moral law. There is no escape from it. Violets and
grass preach it; rain and snow, wind and tides, every change, every
cause in Nature is nothing but a disguised missionary." ...

But Emerson is not satisfied with metaphor. "We affirm that in all men
is this majestic perception and command; that it is the presence of the
eternal in each perishing man; that it distances and degrades all
statements of whatever saints, heroes, poets, as obscure and confused
stammerings before its silent revelation. _They_ report the truth. _It_
is the truth." In this last extract we have Emerson actually affirming
that his dogma of the Moral Law is Absolute Truth. He thinks it not
merely a form of truth, like the old theologies, but very
distinguishable from all other forms in the past.

Curiously enough, his statement of the law grows dogmatic and incisive
in proportion as he approaches the borderland between his law and the
natural instincts: "The last revelation of intellect and of sentiment is
that in a manner it severs the man from all other men; makes known to
him _that the spiritual powers are sufficient to him if no other being
existed_; that he is to deal absolutely in the world, as if he alone
were a system and a state, and though all should perish could make all
anew." Here we have the dogma applied, and we see in it only a new form
of old Calvinism as cruel as Calvinism, and not much different from its
original. The italics are not Emerson's, but are inserted to bring out
an idea which is everywhere prevalent in his teaching.

In this final form, the Moral Law, by insisting that sheer conscience
can slake the thirst that rises in the soul, is convicted of falsehood;
and this heartless falsehood is the same falsehood that has been put
into the porridge of every Puritan child for six generations. A grown
man can digest doctrine and sleep at night. But a young person of high
purpose and strong will, who takes such a lie as this half-truth and
feeds on it as on the bread of life, will suffer. It will injure the
action of his heart. Truly the fathers have eaten sour grapes, therefore
the children's teeth are set on edge.

* * * * *

To understand the civilization of cities, we must look at the rural
population from which they draw their life. We have recently had our
attention called to the last remnants of that village life so reverently
gathered up by Miss Wilkins, and of which Miss Emily Dickinson was the
last authentic voice. The spirit of this age has examined with an almost
pathological interest this rescued society. We must go to it if we would
understand Emerson, who is the blossoming of its culture. We must study
it if we would arrive at any intelligent and general view of that
miscellaneous crop of individuals who have been called the

Between 1830 and 1840 there were already signs in New England that the
nutritive and reproductive forces of society were not quite wholesome,
not exactly well adjusted. Self-repression was the religion which had
been inherited. "Distrust Nature" was the motto written upon the front
of the temple. What would have happened to that society if left to
itself for another hundred years no man can guess. It was rescued by the
two great regenerators of mankind, new land and war. The dispersion
came, as Emerson said of the barbarian conquests of Rome, not a day too
soon. It happened that the country at large stood in need of New England
as much as New England stood in need of the country. This congested
virtue, in order to be saved, must be scattered. This ferment, in order
to be kept wholesome, must be used as leaven to leaven the whole lump.
"As you know," says Emerson in his Eulogy on Boston, "New England
supplies annually a large detachment of preachers and schoolmasters and
private tutors to the interior of the South and West.... We are willing
to see our sons emigrate, as to see our hives swarm. That is what they
were made to do, and what the land wants and invites."

For purposes of yeast, there was never such leaven as the Puritan stock.
How little the natural force of the race had really abated became
apparent when it was placed under healthy conditions, given land to
till, foes to fight, the chance to renew its youth like the eagle. But
during this period the relief had not yet come. The terrible pressure of
Puritanism and conservatism in New England was causing a revolt not only
of the Abolitionists, but of another class of people of a type not so
virile as they. The times have been smartly described by Lowell in his
essay on Thoreau:--

"Every possible form of intellectual and physical dyspepsia brought
forth its gospel. Bran had its prophets.... Everybody had a Mission
(with a capital M) to attend to everybody else's business. No brain
but had its private maggot, which must have found pitiably short
commons sometimes. Not a few impecunious zealots abjured the use of
money (unless earned by other people), professing to live on the
internal revenues of the spirit. Some had an assurance of instant
millennium so soon as hooks and eyes should be substituted for
buttons. Communities were established where everything was to be
common but common sense.... Conventions were held for every hitherto
inconceivable purpose."

Whatever may be said of the Transcendentalists, it must not be forgotten
that they represented an elevation of feeling, which through them
qualified the next generation, and can be traced in the life of New
England to-day. The strong intrinsic character lodged in these recusants
was later made manifest; for many of them became the best citizens of
the commonwealth,--statesmen, merchants, soldiers, men and women of
affairs. They retained their idealism while becoming practical men.
There is hardly an example of what we should have thought would be
common in their later lives, namely, a reaction from so much ideal
effort, and a plunge into cynicism and malice, scoundrelism and the
flesh-pots. In their early life they resembled the Abolitionists in
their devotion to an idea; but with the Transcendentalists self-culture
and the aesthetic and sentimental education took the place of more
public aims. They seem also to have been persons of greater social
refinement than the Abolitionists.

The Transcendentalists were sure of only one thing,--that society as
constituted was all wrong. In this their main belief they were right.
They were men and women whose fundamental need was activity, contact
with real life, and the opportunity for social expansion; and they
keenly felt the chill and fictitious character of the reigning
conventionalities. The rigidity of behavior which at this time
characterized the Bostonians seemed sometimes ludicrous and sometimes
disagreeable to the foreign visitor. There was great gravity, together
with a certain pomp and dumbness, and these things were supposed to be
natural to the inhabitants and to give them joy. People are apt to
forget that such masks are never worn with ease. They result from the
application of an inflexible will, and always inflict discomfort. The
Transcendentalists found themselves all but stifled in a society as
artificial in its decorum as the court of France during the last years
of Louis XIV.

Emerson was in no way responsible for the movement, although he got the
credit of having evoked it by his teaching. He was elder brother to it,
and was generated by its parental forces; but even if Emerson had never
lived, the Transcendentalists would have appeared. He was their victim
rather than their cause. He was always tolerant of them and sometimes
amused at them, and disposed to treat them lightly. It is impossible to
analyze their case with more astuteness than he did in an editorial
letter in The Dial. The letter is cold, but is a masterpiece of good
sense. He had, he says, received fifteen letters on the Prospects of
Culture. "Excellent reasons have been shown us why the writers,
obviously persons of sincerity and elegance, should be dissatisfied with
the life they lead, and with their company.... They want a friend to
whom they can speak and from whom they may hear now and then a
reasonable word." After discussing one or two of their proposals,--one
of which was that the tiresome "uncles and aunts" of the enthusiasts
should be placed by themselves in one delightful village, the dough, as
Emerson says, be placed in one pan and the leaven in another,--he
continues: "But it would be unjust not to remind our younger friends
that whilst this aspiration has always made its mark in the lives of men
of thought, in vigorous individuals it does not remain a detached
object, but is satisfied along with the satisfaction of other aims."
Young Americans "are educated above the work of their times and country,
and disdain it. Many of the more acute minds pass into a lofty
criticism ... which only embitters their sensibility to the evil, and
widens the feeling of hostility between them and the citizens at
large.... We should not know where to find in literature any record of
so much unbalanced intellectuality, such undeniable apprehension without
talent, so much power without equal applicability, as our young men
pretend to.... The balance of mind and body will redress itself fast
enough. Superficialness is the real distemper.... It is certain that
speculation is no succedaneum for life." He then turns to find the cure
for these distempers in the farm lands of Illinois, at that time already
being fenced in "almost like New England itself," and closes with a
suggestion that so long as there is a woodpile in the yard, and the
"wrongs of the Indian, of the Negro, of the emigrant, remain
unmitigated," relief might be found even nearer home.

In his lecture on the Transcendentalists he says: "... But their
solitary and fastidious manners not only withdraw them from the
conversation, but from the labors of the world: they are not good
citizens, not good members of society; unwillingly they bear their part
of the public and private burdens; they do not willingly share in the
public charities, in the public religious rites, in the enterprises of
education, of missions foreign and domestic, in the abolition of the
slave-trade, or in the temperance society. They do not even like to
vote." A less sympathetic observer, Harriet Martineau, wrote of them:
"While Margaret Fuller and her adult pupils sat 'gorgeously dressed,'
talking about Mars and Venus, Plato and Goethe, and fancying themselves
the elect of the earth in intellect and refinement, the liberties of the
republic were running out as fast as they could go at a breach which
another sort of elect persons were devoting themselves to repair; and my
complaint against the 'gorgeous' pedants was that they regarded their
preservers as hewers of wood and drawers of water, and their work as a
less vital one than the pedantic orations which were spoiling a set of
well-meaning women in a pitiable way." Harriet Martineau, whose whole
work was practical, and who wrote her journal in 1855 and in the light
of history, was hardly able to do justice to these unpractical but
sincere spirits.

Emerson was divided from the Transcendentalists by his common sense. His
shrewd business intellect made short work of their schemes. Each one of
their social projects contained some covert economic weakness, which
always turned out to lie in an attack upon the integrity of the
individual, and which Emerson of all men could be counted on to detect.
He was divided from them also by the fact that he was a man of genius,
who had sought out and fought out his means of expression. He was a
great artist, and as such he was a complete being. No one could give to
him nor take from him. His yearnings found fruition in expression. He
was sure of his place and of his use in this world. But the
Transcendentalists were neither geniuses nor artists nor complete
beings. Nor had they found their places or uses as yet. They were men
and women seeking light. They walked in dry places, seeking rest and
finding none. The Transcendentalists are not collectively important
because their _Sturm und Drang_ was intellectual and bloodless. Though
Emerson admonish and Harriet Martineau condemn, yet from the memorials
that survive, one is more impressed with the sufferings than with the
ludicrousness of these persons. There is something distressing about
their letters, their talk, their memoirs, their interminable diaries.
They worry and contort and introspect. They rave and dream. They peep
and theorize. They cut open the bellows of life to see where the wind
comes from. Margaret Fuller analyzes Emerson, and Emerson Margaret
Fuller. It is not a wholesome ebullition of vitality. It is a nightmare,
in which the emotions, the terror, the agony, the rapture, are all
unreal, and have no vital content, no consequence in the world outside.
It is positively wonderful that so much excitement and so much suffering
should have left behind nothing in the field of art which is valuable.
All that intelligence could do toward solving problems for his friends
Emerson did. But there are situations in life in which the intelligence
is helpless, and in which something else, something perhaps possessed by
a ploughboy, is more divine than Plato.

If it were not pathetic, there would be something cruel--indeed there is
something cruel--in Emerson's incapacity to deal with Margaret Fuller.
He wrote to her on October 24, 1840: "My dear Margaret, I have your
frank and noble and affecting letter, and yet I think I could wish it
unwritten. I ought never to have suffered you to lead me into any
conversation or writing on our relation, a topic from which with all
persons my Genius warns me away."

The letter proceeds with unimpeachable emptiness and integrity in the
same strain. In 1841 he writes in his diary: "Strange, cold-warm,
attractive-repelling conversation with Margaret, whom I always admire,
most revere when I nearest see, and sometimes love; yet whom I freeze
and who freezes me to silence when we promise to come nearest."

Human sentiment was known to Emerson mainly in the form of pain. His
nature shunned it; he cast it off as quickly as possible. There is a
word or two in the essay on Love which seems to show that the inner and
diaphanous core of this seraph had once, but not for long, been shot
with blood: he recalls only the pain of it. His relations with Margaret
Fuller seem never normal, though they lasted for years. This brilliant
woman was in distress. She was asking for bread, and he was giving her a
stone, and neither of them was conscious of what was passing. This is
pitiful. It makes us clutch about us to catch hold, if we somehow may,
of the hand of a man.

There was manliness in Horace Greeley, under whom Miss Fuller worked on
the New York Tribune not many years afterward. She wrote: "Mr. Greeley I
like,--nay, more, love. He is in his habit a plebeian, in his heart a
nobleman. His abilities in his own way are great. He believes in mine
to a surprising degree. We are true friends."

This anaemic incompleteness of Emerson's character can be traced to the
philosophy of his race; at least it can be followed in that philosophy.
There is an implication of a fundamental falsehood in every bit of
Transcendentalism, including Emerson. That falsehood consists in the
theory of the self-sufficiency of each individual, men and women alike.
Margaret Fuller is a good example of the effect of this philosophy,
because her history afterward showed that she was constituted like other
human beings, was dependent upon human relationship, and was not only a
very noble, but also a very womanly creature. Her marriage, her Italian
life, and her tragic death light up with the splendor of reality the
earlier and unhappy period of her life. This woman had been driven into
her vagaries by the lack of something which she did not know existed,
and which she sought blindly in metaphysics. Harriet Martineau writes of
her: "It is the most grievous loss I have almost ever known in private
history, the deferring of Margaret Fuller's married life so long. That
noble last period of her life is happily on record as well as the
earlier." The hardy Englishwoman has here laid a kind human hand on the
weakness of New England, and seems to be unconscious that she is making
a revelation as to the whole Transcendental movement. But the point is
this: there was no one within reach of Margaret Fuller, in her early
days, who knew what was her need. One offered her Kant, one Comte, one
Fourier, one Swedenborg, one the Moral Law. You cannot feed the heart on
these things.

Yet there is a bright side to this New England spirit, which seems, if
we look only to the graver emotions, so dry, dismal, and deficient. A
bright and cheery courage appears in certain natures of which the sun
has made conquest, that almost reconciles us to all loss, so splendid is
the outcome. The practical, dominant, insuppressible active temperaments
who have a word for every emergency, and who carry the controlled force
of ten men at their disposal, are the fruits of this same spirit.
Emerson knew not tears, but he and the hundred other beaming and
competent characters which New England has produced make us almost envy
their state. They give us again the old Stoics at their best.

Very closely connected with this subject--the crisp and cheery New
England temperament--lies another which any discussion of Emerson must
bring up,--namely, Asceticism. It is probable that in dealing with
Emerson's feelings about the plastic arts we have to do with what is
really the inside, or metaphysical side, of the same phenomena which
present themselves on the outside, or physical side, in the shape of

Emerson's natural asceticism is revealed to us in almost every form in
which history can record a man. It is in his philosophy, in his style,
in his conduct, and in his appearance. It was, however, not in his
voice. Mr. Cabot, with that reverence for which every one must feel
personally grateful to him, has preserved a description of Emerson by
the New York journalist, N.P. Willis: "It is a voice with shoulders in
it, which he has not; with lungs in it far larger than his; with a walk
which the public never see; with a fist in it which his own hand never
gave him the model for; and with a gentleman in it which his parochial
and 'bare-necessaries-of-life' sort of exterior gives no other betrayal
of. We can imagine nothing in nature (which seems too to have a type for
everything) like the want of correspondence between the Emerson that
goes in at the eye and the Emerson that goes in at the ear. A heavy and
vase-like blossom of a magnolia, with fragrance enough to perfume a
whole wilderness, which should be lifted by a whirlwind and dropped into
a branch of aspen, would not seem more as if it could never have grown
there than Emerson's voice seems inspired and foreign to his visible and
natural body." Emerson's ever exquisite and wonderful good taste seems
closely connected with this asceticism, and it is probable that his
taste influenced his views and conduct to some small extent.

The anti-slavery people were not always refined. They were constantly
doing things which were tactically very effective, but were not
calculated to attract the over-sensitive. Garrison's rampant and
impersonal egotism was good politics, but bad taste. Wendell Phillips
did not hesitate upon occasion to deal in personalities of an
exasperating kind. One sees a certain shrinking in Emerson from the
taste of the Abolitionists. It was not merely their doctrines or their
methods which offended him. He at one time refused to give Wendell
Phillips his hand because of Phillips's treatment of his friend, Judge
Hoar. One hardly knows whether to be pleased at Emerson for showing a
human weakness, or annoyed at him for not being more of a man. The
anecdote is valuable in both lights. It is like a tiny speck on the
crystal of his character which shows us the exact location of the orb,
and it is the best illustration of the feeling of the times which has
come down to us.

If by "asceticism" we mean an experiment in starving the senses, there
is little harm in it. Nature will soon reassert her dominion, and very
likely our perceptions will be sharpened by the trial. But "natural
asceticism" is a thing hardly to be distinguished from functional
weakness. What is natural asceticism but a lack of vigor? Does it not
tend to close the avenues between the soul and the universe? "Is it not
so much death?" The accounts of Emerson show him to have been a man in
whom there was almost a hiatus between the senses and the most inward
spirit of life. The lower register of sensations and emotions which
domesticate a man into fellowship with common life was weak. Genial
familiarity was to him impossible; laughter was almost a pain. "It is
not the sea and poverty and pursuit that separate us. Here is Alcott by
my door,--yet is the union more profound? No! the sea, vocation,
poverty, are seeming fences, but man is insular and cannot be touched.
Every man is an infinitely repellent orb, and holds his individual being
on that condition.... Most of the persons whom I see in my own house I
see across a gulf; I cannot go to them nor they come to me."

This aloofness of Emerson must be remembered only as blended with his
benignity. "His friends were all that knew him," and, as Dr. Holmes
said, "his smile was the well-remembered line of Terence written out in
living features." Emerson's journals show the difficulty of his
intercourse even with himself. He could not reach himself at will, nor
could another reach him. The sensuous and ready contact with nature
which more carnal people enjoy was unknown to him. He had eyes for the
New England landscape, but for no other scenery. If there is one supreme
sensation reserved for man, it is the vision of Venice seen from the
water. This sight greeted Emerson at the age of thirty. The famous city,
as he approached it by boat, "looked for some time like nothing but New
York. It is a great oddity, a city for beavers, but to my thought a most
disagreeable residence. You feel always in prison and solitary. It is as
if you were always at sea. I soon had enough of it."

Emerson's contempt for travel and for the "rococo toy," Italy, is too
well known to need citation. It proceeds from the same deficiency of
sensation. His eyes saw nothing; his ears heard nothing. He believed
that men travelled for distraction and to kill time. The most vulgar
plutocrat could not be blinder to beauty nor bring home less from Athens
than this cultivated saint. Everything in the world which must be felt
with a glow in the breast, in order to be understood, was to him
dead-letter. Art was a name to him; music was a name to him; love was a
name to him. His essay on Love is a nice compilation of compliments and
elegant phrases ending up with some icy morality. It seems very well
fitted for a gift-book or an old-fashioned lady's annual.

"The lovers delight in endearments, in avowals of love, in comparisons
of their regards.... The soul which is in the soul of each, craving a
perfect beatitude, detects incongruities, defects, and disproportion in
the behavior of the other. Hence arise surprise, expostulation, and
pain. Yet that which drew them to each other was signs of loveliness,
signs of virtue; and these virtues are there, however eclipsed. They
appear and reappear and continue to attract; but the regard changes,
quits the sign and attaches to the substance. This repairs the wounded
affection. Meantime, as life wears on, it proves a game of permutation
and combination of all possible positions of the parties, to employ all
the resources of each, and acquaint each with the weakness of the
other.... At last they discover that all which at first drew them
together--those once sacred features, that magical play of charms--was
deciduous, had a prospective end like the scaffolding by which the house
was built, and the purification of the intellect and the heart from year
to year is the real marriage, foreseen and prepared from the first, and
wholly above their consciousness.... Thus are we put in training for a
love which knows not sex nor person nor partiality, but which seeks
wisdom and virtue everywhere, to the end of increasing virtue and
wisdom.... There are moments when the affections rule and absorb the
man, and make his happiness dependent on a person or persons. But in
health the mind is presently seen again," etc.

All this is not love, but the merest literary coquetry. Love is
different from this. Lady Burton, when a very young girl, and six years
before her engagement, met Burton at Boulogne. They met in the street,
but did not speak. A few days later they were formally introduced at a
dance. Of this she writes: "That was a night of nights. He waltzed with
me once, and spoke to me several times. I kept the sash where he put his
arm around me and my gloves, and never wore them again."

A glance at what Emerson says about marriage shows that he suspected
that institution. He can hardly speak of it without some sort of caveat
or precaution. "Though the stuff of tragedy and of romances is in a
moral union of two superior persons whose confidence in each other for
long years, out of sight and in sight, and against all appearances, is
at last justified by victorious proof of probity to gods and men,
causing joyful emotions, tears, and glory,--though there be for heroes
this _moral union_, yet they too are as far as ever from, an
intellectual union, and the moral is for low and external purposes, like
the corporation of a ship's company or of a fire club." In speaking of
modern novels, he says: "There is no new element, no power, no
furtherance. 'Tis only confectionery, not the raising of new corn. Great
is the poverty of their inventions. _She was beautiful, and he fell in
love_.... Happy will that house be in which the relations are formed by
character; after the highest and not after the lowest; the house in
which character marries and not confusion and a miscellany of
unavowable motives.... To each occurs soon after puberty, some event, or
society or way of living, which becomes the crisis of life and the chief
fact in their history. In women it is love and marriage (which is more
reasonable), and yet it is pitiful to date and measure all the facts and
sequel of an unfolding life from such a youthful and generally
inconsiderate period as the age of courtship and marriage.... Women more
than all are the element and kingdom of illusion. Being fascinated they
fascinate. They see through Claude Lorraines. And how dare any one, if
he could, pluck away the coulisses, stage effects and ceremonies by
which they live? Too pathetic, too pitiable, is the region of affection,
and its atmosphere always liable to mirage."

We are all so concerned that a man who writes about love shall tell the
truth that if he chance to start from premises which are false or
mistaken, his conclusions will appear not merely false, but offensive.
It makes no matter how exalted the personal character of the writer may
be. Neither sanctity nor intellect nor moral enthusiasm, though they be
intensified to the point of incandescence, can make up for a want of

This perpetual splitting up of love into two species, one of which is
condemned, but admitted to be useful--is it not degrading? There is in
Emerson's theory of the relation between the sexes neither good sense,
nor manly feeling, nor sound psychology. It is founded on none of these
things. It is a pure piece of dogmatism, and reminds us that he was bred
to the priesthood. We are not to imagine that there was in this doctrine
anything peculiar to Emerson. But we are surprised to find the pessimism
inherent in the doctrine overcome Emerson, to whom pessimism is foreign.
Both doctrine and pessimism are a part of the Puritanism of the times.
They show a society in which the intellect had long been used to analyze
the affections, in which the head had become dislocated from the body.
To this disintegration of the simple passion of love may be traced the
lack of maternal tenderness characteristic of the New England nature.
The relation between the blood and the brain was not quite normal in
this civilization, nor in Emerson, who is its most remarkable

If we take two steps backward from the canvas of this mortal life and
glance at it impartially, we shall see that these matters of love and
marriage pass like a pivot through the lives of almost every individual,
and are, sociologically speaking, the _primum mobile_ of the world. The
books of any philosopher who slurs them or distorts them will hold up a
false mirror to life. If an inhabitant of another planet should visit
the earth, he would receive, on the whole, a truer notion of human life
by attending an Italian opera than he would by reading Emerson's
volumes. He would learn from the Italian opera that there were two
sexes; and this, after all, is probably the fact with which the
education of such a stranger ought to begin.

In a review of Emerson's personal character and opinions, we are thus
led to see that his philosophy, which finds no room for the emotions, is
a faithful exponent of his own and of the New England temperament, which
distrusts and dreads the emotions. Regarded as a sole guide to life for
a young person of strong conscience and undeveloped affections, his
works might conceivably be even harmful because of their unexampled
power of purely intellectual stimulation.

* * * * *

Emerson's poetry has given rise to much heart-burning and disagreement.
Some people do not like it. They fail to find the fire in the ice. On
the other hand, his poems appeal not only to a large number of
professed lovers of poetry, but also to a class of readers who find in
Emerson an element for which they search the rest of poesy in vain.

It is the irony of fate that his admirers should be more than usually
sensitive about his fame. This prophet who desired not to have
followers, lest he too should become a cult and a convention, and whose
main thesis throughout life was that piety is a crime, has been calmly
canonized and embalmed in amber by the very forces he braved. He is
become a tradition and a sacred relic. You must speak of him under your
breath, and you may not laugh near his shrine.

Emerson's passion for nature was not like the passion of Keats or of
Burns, of Coleridge or of Robert Browning; compared with these men he is
cold. His temperature is below blood-heat, and his volume of poems
stands on the shelf of English poets like the icy fish which in Caliban
upon Setebos is described as finding himself thrust into the warm ooze
of an ocean not his own.

But Emerson is a poet, nevertheless, a very extraordinary and rare man
of genius, whose verses carry a world of their own within them. They are
overshadowed by the greatness of his prose, but they are authentic. He
is the chief poet of that school of which Emily Dickinson is a minor
poet. His poetry is a successful spiritual deliverance of great
interest. His worship of the New England landscape amounts to a
religion. His poems do that most wonderful thing, make us feel that we
are alone in the fields and with the trees,--not English fields nor
French lanes, but New England meadows and uplands. There is no human
creature in sight, not even Emerson is there, but the wind and the
flowers, the wild birds, the fences, the transparent atmosphere, the
breath of nature. There is a deep and true relation between the
intellectual and almost dry brilliancy of Emerson's feelings and the
landscape itself. Here is no defective English poet, no Shelley without
the charm, but an American poet, a New England poet with two hundred
years of New England culture and New England landscape in him.

People are forever speculating upon what will last, what posterity will
approve, and some people believe that Emerson's poetry will outlive his
prose. The question is idle. The poems are alive now, and they may or
may not survive the race whose spirit they embody; but one thing is
plain: they have qualities which have preserved poetry in the past. They
are utterly indigenous and sincere. They are short. They represent a
civilization and a climate.

His verse divides itself into several classes. We have the single
lyrics, written somewhat in the style of the later seventeenth century.
Of these The Humble Bee is the most exquisite, and although its tone and
imagery can be traced to various well-known and dainty bits of poetry,
it is by no means an imitation, but a masterpiece of fine taste. The
Rhodora and Terminus and perhaps a few others belong to that class of
poetry which, like Abou Ben Adhem, is poetry because it is the
perfection of statement. The Boston Hymn, the Concord Ode, and the other
occasional pieces fall in another class, and do not seem to be
important. The first two lines of the Ode,

"O tenderly the haughty day
Fills his blue urn with fire."

are for their extraordinary beauty worthy of some mythical Greek, some
Simonides, some Sappho, but the rest of the lines are commonplace.
Throughout his poems there are good bits, happy and golden lines,
snatches of grace. He himself knew the quality of his poetry, and wrote
of it,

"All were sifted through and through,
Five lines lasted sound and true."

He is never merely conventional, and his poetry, like his prose, is
homespun and sound. But his ear was defective: his rhymes are crude, and
his verse is often lame and unmusical, a fault which can be
countervailed by nothing but force, and force he lacks. To say that his
ear was defective is hardly strong enough. Passages are not uncommon
which hurt the reader and unfit him to proceed; as, for example:--

"Thorough a thousand voices
Spoke the universal dame:
'Who telleth one of my meanings
Is master of all I am.'"

He himself has very well described the impression his verse is apt to
make on a new reader when he says,--

"Poetry must not freeze, but flow."

The lovers of Emerson's poems freely acknowledge all these defects, but
find in them another element, very subtle and rare, very refined and
elusive, if not altogether unique. This is the mystical element or
strain which qualifies many of his poems, and to which some of them are
wholly devoted.

There has been so much discussion as to Emerson's relation to the
mystics that it is well here to turn aside for a moment and consider
the matter by itself. The elusiveness of "mysticism" arises out of the
fact that it is not a creed, but a state of mind. It is formulated into
no dogmas, but, in so far as it is communicable, it is conveyed, or
sought to be conveyed, by symbols. These symbols to a sceptical or an
unsympathetic person will say nothing, but the presumption among those
who are inclined towards the cult is that if these symbols convey
anything at all, that thing is mysticism. The mystics are right. The
familiar phrases, terms, and symbols of mysticism are not meaningless,
and a glance at them shows that they do tend to express and evoke a
somewhat definite psychic condition.

There is a certain mood of mind experienced by most of us in which we
feel the mystery of existence; in which our consciousness seems to
become suddenly separated from our thoughts, and we find ourselves
asking, "Who am I? What are these thoughts?" The mood is very apt to
overtake us while engaged in the commonest acts. In health it is always
momentary, and seems to coincide with the instant of the transition and
shift of our attention from one thing to another. It is probably
connected with the transfer of energy from one set of faculties to
another set, which occurs, for instance, on our waking from sleep, on
our hearing a bell at night, on our observing any common object, a chair
or a pitcher, at a time when our mind is or has just been thoroughly
preoccupied with something else. This displacement of the attention
occurs in its most notable form when we walk from the study into the
open fields. Nature then attacks us on all sides at once, overwhelms,
drowns, and destroys our old thoughts, stimulates vaguely and all at
once a thousand new ideas, dissipates all focus of thought and dissolves
our attention. If we happen to be mentally fatigued, and we take a walk
in the country, a sense of immense relief, of rest and joy, which
nothing else on earth can give, accompanies this distraction of the mind
from its problems. The reaction fills us with a sense of mystery and
expansion. It brings us to the threshold of those spiritual experiences
which are the obscure core and reality of our existence, ever alive
within us, but generally veiled and sub-conscious. It brings us, as it
were, into the ante-chamber of art, poetry, and music. The condition is
one of excitation and receptiveness, where art may speak and we shall
understand. On the other hand, the condition shows a certain
dethronement of the will and attention which may ally it to the
hypnotic state.

Certain kinds of poetry imitate this method of nature by calling on us
with a thousand voices at once. Poetry deals often with vague or
contradictory statements, with a jumble of images, a throng of
impressions. But in true poetry the psychology of real life is closely
followed. The mysticism is momentary. We are not kept suspended in a
limbo, "trembling like a guilty thing surprised," but are ushered into
another world of thought and feeling. On the other hand, a mere
statement of inconceivable things is the _reductio ad absurdum_ of
poetry, because such a statement puzzles the mind, scatters the
attention, and does to a certain extent superinduce the "blank
misgivings" of mysticism. It does this, however, _without_ going further
and filling the mind with new life. If I bid a man follow my reasoning
closely, and then say, "I am the slayer and the slain, I am the doubter
and the doubt," I puzzle his mind, and may succeed in reawakening in him
the sense he has often had come over him that we are ignorant of our own
destinies and cannot grasp the meaning of life. If I do this, nothing
can be a more legitimate opening for a poem, for it is an opening of the
reader's mind. Emerson, like many other highly organized persons, was
acquainted with the mystic mood. It was not momentary with him. It
haunted him, and he seems to have believed that the whole of poetry and
religion was contained in the mood. And no one can gainsay that this
mental condition is intimately connected with our highest feelings and
leads directly into them.

The fault with Emerson is that he stops in the ante-chamber of poetry.
He is content if he has brought us to the hypnotic point. His prologue
and overture are excellent, but where is the argument? Where is the
substantial artistic content that shall feed our souls?

The Sphinx is a fair example of an Emerson poem. The opening verses are
musical, though they are handicapped by a reminiscence of the German way
of writing. In the succeeding verses we are lapped into a charming
reverie, and then at the end suddenly jolted by the question, "What is
it all about?" In this poem we see expanded into four or five pages of
verse an experience which in real life endures an eighth of a second,
and when we come to the end of the mood we are at the end of the poem.

There is no question that the power to throw your sitter into a
receptive mood by a pass or two which shall give you his virgin
attention is necessary to any artist. Nobody has the knack of this more
strongly than Emerson in his prose writings. By a phrase or a common
remark he creates an ideal atmosphere in which his thought has the
directness of great poetry. But he cannot do it in verse. He seeks in
his verse to do the very thing which he avoids doing in his prose:
follow a logical method. He seems to know too much what he is about, and
to be content with doing too little. His mystical poems, from the point
of view of such criticism as this, are all alike in that they all seek
to do the same thing. Nor does he always succeed. How does he sometimes
fail in verse to say what he conveys with such everlasting happiness in

"I am owner of the sphere,
Of the seven stars and the solar year,
Of Caesar's hand and Plato's brain,
Of Lord Christ's heart and Shakespeare's strain."

In these lines we have the same thought which appears a few pages later
in prose: "All that Shakespeare says of the king, yonder slip of a boy
that reads in the corner feels to be true of himself." He has failed in
the verse because he has thrown a mystical gloss over a thought which
was stronger in its simplicity; because in the verse he states an
abstraction instead of giving an instance. The same failure follows him
sometimes in prose when he is too conscious of his machinery.

Emerson knew that the sense of mystery accompanies the shift of an
absorbed attention to some object which brings the mind back to the
present. "There are times when the cawing of a crow, a weed, a
snowflake, a boy's willow whistle, or a farmer planting in his field is
more suggestive to the mind than the Yosemite gorge or the Vatican would
be in another hour. In like mood, an old verse, or certain words, gleam
with rare significance." At the close of his essay on History he is
trying to make us feel that all history, in so far as we can know it, is
within ourselves, and is in a certain sense autobiography. He is
speaking of the Romans, and he suddenly pretends to see a lizard on the
wall, and proceeds to wonder what the lizard has to do with the Romans.
For this he has been quite properly laughed at by Dr. Holmes, because he
has resorted to an artifice and has failed to create an illusion.
Indeed, Dr. Holmes is somewhere so irreverent as to remark that a gill
of alcohol will bring on a psychical state very similar to that
suggested by Emerson; and Dr. Holmes is accurately happy in his jest,
because alcohol does dislocate the attention in a thoroughly mystical

There is throughout Emerson's poetry, as throughout all of the New
England poetry, too much thought, too much argument. Some of his verse
gives the reader a very curious and subtle impression that the lines are
a translation. This is because he is closely following a thesis. Indeed,
the lines are a translation. They were thought first, and poetry
afterwards. Read off his poetry, and you see through the scheme of it at
once. Read his prose, and you will be put to it to make out the
connection of ideas. The reason is that in the poetry the sequence is
intellectual, in the prose the sequence is emotional. It is no mere
epigram to say that his poetry is governed by the ordinary laws of prose
writing, and his prose by the laws of poetry.

The lines entitled Days have a dramatic vigor, a mystery, and a music
all their own:--

"Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.
To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky that holds them all.
I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,
Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day
Turned and departed silent. I, too late,
Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn."

The prose version of these lines, which in this case is inferior, is to
be found in Works and Days: "He only is rich who owns the day.... They
come and go like muffled and veiled figures, sent from a distant
friendly party; but they say nothing, and if we do not use the gifts
they bring, they carry them as silently away."

That Emerson had within him the soul of a poet no one will question, but
his poems are expressed in prose forms. There are passages in his early
addresses which can be matched in English only by bits from Sir Thomas
Browne or Milton, or from the great poets. Heine might have written the
following parable into verse, but it could not have been finer. It comes
from the very bottom of Emerson's nature. It is his uttermost. Infancy
and manhood and old age, the first and the last of him, speak in it.

"Every god is there sitting in his sphere. The young mortal enters
the hall of the firmament; there is he alone with them alone, they
pouring on him benedictions and gifts, and beckoning him up to
their thrones. On the instant, and incessantly, fall snowstorms of
illusions. He fancies himself in a vast crowd which sways this way
and that, and whose movements and doings he must obey; he fancies
himself poor, orphaned, insignificant. The mad crowd drives hither
and thither, now furiously commanding this thing to be done, now
that. What is he that he should resist their will, and think or act
for himself? Every moment new changes and new showers of deceptions
to baffle and distract him. And when, by and by, for an instant, the
air clears and the cloud lifts a little, there are the gods still
sitting around him on their thrones,--they alone with him alone."

With the war closes the colonial period of our history, and with the end
of the war begins our national life. Before that time it was not
possible for any man to speak for the nation, however much he might long
to, for there was no nation; there were only discordant provinces held
together by the exercise on the part of each of a strong and
conscientious will. It is too much to expect that national character
shall be expressed before it is developed, or that the arts shall
flourish during a period when everybody is preoccupied with the fear of
revolution. The provincial note which runs through all our literature
down to the war resulted in one sense from our dependence upon Europe.
"All American manners, language, and writings," says Emerson, "are
derivative. We do not write from facts, but we wish to state the facts
after the English manner. It is the tax we pay for the splendid
inheritance of English Literature." But in a deeper sense this very
dependence upon Europe was due to our disunion among ourselves. The
equivocal and unhappy self-assertive patriotism to which we were
consigned by fate, and which made us perceive and resent the
condescension of foreigners, was the logical outcome of our political

The literature of the Northern States before the war, although full of
talent, lacks body, lacks courage. It has not a full national tone. The
South is not in it. New England's share in this literature is so large
that small injustice will be done if we give her credit for all of it.
She was the Academy of the land, and her scholars were our authors. The
country at large has sometimes been annoyed at the self-consciousness of
New England, at the atmosphere of clique, of mutual admiration, of
isolation, in which all her scholars, except Emerson, have lived, and
which notably enveloped the last little distinguished group of them. The
circumstances which led to the isolation of Lowell, Holmes, Longfellow,
and the Saturday Club fraternity are instructive. The ravages of the war
carried off the poets, scholars, and philosophers of the generation
which immediately followed these men, and by destroying their natural
successors left them standing magnified beyond their natural size, like
a grove of trees left by a fire. The war did more than kill off a
generation of scholars who would have succeeded these older scholars. It
emptied the universities by calling all the survivors into the field of
practical life; and after the war ensued a period during which all the
learning of the land was lodged in the heads of these older worthies who
had made their mark long before. A certain complacency which piqued the
country at large was seen in these men. An ante-bellum colonial posing,
inevitable in their own day, survived with them. When Jared Sparks put
Washington in the proper attitude for greatness by correcting his
spelling, Sparks was in cue with the times. It was thought that a great
man must have his hat handed to him by his biographer, and be ushered on
with decency toward posterity. In the lives and letters of some of our
recent public men there has been a reminiscence of this posing, which we
condemn as absurd because we forget it is merely archaic. Provincial
manners are always a little formal, and the pomposity of the colonial
governor was never quite worked out of our literary men.

Let us not disparage the past. We are all grateful for the New England
culture, and especially for the little group of men in Cambridge and


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