Ralph Waldo Emerson
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Part 2 out of 7
MY DEAR SIR,--Miss Peabody has kindly sent me your manuscript piece
on Goethe and Carlyle. I have read it with great pleasure and a
feeling of gratitude, at the same time with a serious regret that it
was not published. I have forgotten what reason you assigned for not
printing it; I cannot think of any sufficient one. Is it too late
now? Why not change its form a little and annex to it some account
of Carlyle's later pieces, to wit: "Diderot," and "Sartor Resartus."
The last is complete, and he has sent it to me in a stitched
pamphlet. Whilst I see its vices (relatively to the reading public)
of style, I cannot but esteem it a noble philosophical poem,
reflecting the ideas, institutions, men of this very hour. And it
seems to me that it has so much wit and other secondary graces as
must strike a class who would not care for its primary merit, that
of being a sincere exhortation to seekers of truth. If you still
retain your interest in his genius (as I see not how you can avoid,
having understood it and cooperated with it so truly), you will be
glad to know that he values his American readers very highly;
that he does not defend this offensive style of his, but calls it
questionable tentative; that he is trying other modes, and is about
publishing a historical piece called "The Diamond Necklace," as a
part of a great work which he meditates on the subject of the French
Revolution. He says it is part of his creed that history is poetry,
could we tell it right. He adds, moreover, in a letter I have
recently received from him, that it has been an odd dream that he
might end in the western woods. Shall we not bid him come, and be
Poet and Teacher of a most scattered flock wanting a shepherd? Or,
as I sometimes think, would it not be a new and worse chagrin to
become acquainted with the extreme deadness of our community to
spiritual influences of the higher kind? Have you read Sampson
Reed's "Growth of the Mind"? I rejoice to be contemporary with that
man, and cannot wholly despair of the society in which he lives;
there must be some oxygen yet, and La Fayette is only just dead.
Your friend, R. WALDO EMERSON.
It occurs to me that 't is unfit to send any white paper so far as
to your house, so you shall have a sentence from Carlyle's letter.
[This may be found in Carlyle's first letter, dated 12th August, 1834.]
Dr. Le Baron Russell, an intimate friend of Emerson for the greater part
of his life, gives me some particulars with reference to the publication
of "Sartor Resartus," which I will repeat in his own words:--
"It was just before the time of which I am speaking [that of
Emerson's marriage] that the 'Sartor Resartus' appeared in 'Fraser.'
Emerson lent the numbers, or the collected sheets of 'Fraser,' to
Miss Jackson, and we all had the reading of them. The excitement
which the book caused among young persons interested in the
literature of the day at that time you probably remember. I was
quite carried away by it, and so anxious to own a copy, that I
determined to publish an American edition. I consulted James Munroe
& Co. on the subject. Munroe advised me to obtain a subscription to
a sufficient number of copies to secure the cost of the publication.
This, with the aid of some friends, particularly of my classmate,
William Silsbee, I readily succeeded in doing. When this was
accomplished, I wrote to Emerson, who up to this time had taken no
part in the enterprise, asking him to write a preface. (This is the
Preface which appears in the American edition, James Munroe & Co.,
1836. It was omitted in the third American from the second London
edition, by the same publishers, 1840.) Before the first edition
appeared, and after the subscription had been secured, Munroe & Co.
offered to assume the whole responsibility of the publication, and
to this I assented.
[Footnote 1: Revised and corrected by the author.]
"This American edition of 1836 was the first appearance of the
'Sartor' in either country, as a distinct edition. Some copies of
the sheets from 'Fraser,' it appears, were stitched together and sent
to a few persons, but Carlyle could find no English publisher willing
to take the responsibility of printing the book. This shows, I think,
how much more interest was taken in Carlyle's writings in this country
than in England."
On the 14th of May, 1834, Emerson wrote to Carlyle the first letter of
that correspondence which has since been given to the world under the
careful editorship of Mr. Charles Norton. This correspondence lasted
from the date mentioned to the 2d of April, 1872, when Carlyle wrote his
last letter to Emerson. The two writers reveal themselves as being in
strong sympathy with each other, in spite of a radical difference of
temperament and entirely opposite views of life. The hatred of unreality
was uppermost with Carlyle; the love of what is real and genuine with
Emerson. Those old moralists, the weeping and the laughing philosophers,
find their counterparts in every thinking community. Carlyle did not
weep, but he scolded; Emerson did not laugh, but in his gravest moments
there was a smile waiting for the cloud to pass from his forehead. The
Duet they chanted was a Miserere with a Te Deum for its Antiphon; a _De_
_Profundis_ answered by a _Sursum Corda_. "The ground of my existence
is black as death," says Carlyle. "Come and live with me a year," says
Emerson, "and if you do not like New England well enough to stay, one of
these years; (when the 'History' has passed its ten editions, and been
translated into as many languages) I will come and dwell with you."
Section 2. In September, 1835, Emerson was married to Miss Lydia
Jackson, of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The wedding took place in the fine
old mansion known as the Winslow House, Dr. Le Baron Russell and his
sister standing up with the bridegroom and his bride. After their
marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Emerson went to reside in the house in which
he passed the rest of his life, and in which Mrs. Emerson and their
daughter still reside. This is the "plain, square, wooden house," with
horse-chestnut trees in the front yard, and evergreens around it, which
has been so often described and figured. It is without pretensions, but
not without an air of quiet dignity. A full and well-illustrated account
of it and its arrangements and surroundings is given in "Poets' Homes,"
by Arthur Gilman and others, published by D. Lothrop & Company in 1879.
On the 12th of September, 1835, Emerson delivered an "Historical
Discourse, at Concord, on the Second Centennial Anniversary of
the Incorporation of the Town." There is no "mysticism," no
"transcendentalism" in this plain, straightforward Address. The facts
are collected and related with the patience and sobriety which became
the writer as one of the Dryasdusts of our very diligent, very useful,
very matter-of-fact, and for the most part judiciously unimaginative
Massachusetts Historical Society. It looks unlike anything else Emerson
ever wrote, in being provided with abundant foot-notes and an appendix.
One would almost as soon have expected to see Emerson equipped with
a musket and a knapsack as to find a discourse of his clogged with
annotations, and trailing a supplement after it. Oracles are brief and
final in their utterances. Delphi and Cumae are not expected to explain
what they say.
It is the habit of our New England towns to celebrate their own worthies
and their own deeds on occasions like this, with more or less of
rhetorical gratitude and self-felicitation. The discourses delivered
on these occasions are commonly worth reading, for there was never a
clearing made in the forest that did not let in the light on heroes and
heroines. Concord is on the whole the most interesting of all the inland
towns of New England. Emerson has told its story in as painstaking,
faithful a way as if he had been by nature an annalist. But with this
fidelity, we find also those bold generalizations and sharp picturesque
touches which reveal the poetic philosopher.
"I have read with care," he says, "the town records themselves.
They exhibit a pleasing picture of a community almost exclusively
agricultural, where no man has much time for words, in his search
after things; of a community of great simplicity of manners, and of
a manifest love of justice. I find our annals marked with a uniform
good sense.--The tone of the record rises with the dignity of the
event. These soiled and musty books are luminous and electric
within. The old town clerks did not spell very correctly, but
they contrive to make intelligible the will of a free and just
community." ... "The matters there debated (in town meetings) are
such as to invite very small consideration. The ill-spelled pages
of the town records contain the result. I shall be excused for
confessing that I have set a value upon any symptom of meanness and
private pique which I have met with in these antique books, as
proof that justice was done; that if the results of our history are
approved as wise and good, it was yet a free strife; if the
good counsel prevailed, the sneaking counsel did not fail to be
suggested; freedom and virtue, if they triumphed, triumphed in a
fair field. And so be it an everlasting testimony for them, and so
much ground of assurance of man's capacity for self-government."
There was nothing in this Address which the plainest of Concord's
citizens could not read understandingly and with pleasure. In fact Mr.
Emerson himself, besides being a poet and a philosopher, was also a
plain Concord citizen. His son tells me that he was a faithful attendant
upon town meetings, and, though he never spoke, was an interested and
careful listener to the debates on town matters. That respect for
"mother-wit" and for all the wholesome human qualities which reveals
itself all through his writings was bred from this kind of intercourse
with men of sense who had no pretensions to learning, and in whom, for
that very reason, the native qualities came out with less disguise in
their expression. He was surrounded by men who ran to extremes in their
idiosyncrasies; Alcott in speculations, which often led him into the
fourth dimension of mental space; Hawthorne, who brooded himself into
a dream--peopled solitude; Thoreau, the nullifier of civilization, who
insisted on nibbling his asparagus at the wrong end, to say nothing of
idolaters and echoes. He kept his balance among them all. It would
be hard to find a more candid and sober record of the result of
self-government in a small community than is contained in this simple
discourse, patient in detail, large in treatment, more effective than
any unsupported generalities about the natural rights of man, which
amount to very little unless men earn the right of asserting them by
attending fairly to their natural duties. So admirably is the working of
a town government, as it goes on in a well-disposed community, displayed
in the history of Concord's two hundred years of village life, that
one of its wisest citizens had portions of the address printed
for distribution, as an illustration of the American principle of
After settling in Concord, Emerson delivered courses of Lectures in
Boston during several successive winters; in 1835, ten Lectures on
English Literature; in 1836, twelve Lectures on the Philosophy of
History; in 1837, ten Lectures on Human Culture. Some of these lectures
may have appeared in print under their original titles; all of them
probably contributed to the Essays and Discourses which we find in his
On the 19th of April, 1836, a meeting was held to celebrate the
completion of the monument raised in commemoration of the Concord Fight.
For this occasion Emerson wrote the hymn made ever memorable by the
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The last line of this hymn quickens the heartbeats of every American,
and the whole hymn is admirable in thought and expression. Until the
autumn of 1838, Emerson preached twice on Sundays to the church at East
Lexington, which desired him to become its pastor. Mr. Cooke says that
when a lady of the society was asked why they did not settle a friend of
Emerson's whom he had urged them to invite to their pulpit, she replied:
"We are a very simple people, and can understand no one but Mr.
Emerson." He said of himself: "My pulpit is the Lyceum platform."
Knowing that he made his Sermons contribute to his Lectures, we need not
mourn over their not being reported.
In March, 1837, Emerson delivered in Boston a Lecture on War, afterwards
published in Miss Peabody's "Aesthetic Papers." He recognizes war as one
of the temporary necessities of a developing civilization, to disappear
with the advance of mankind:--
"At a certain stage of his progress the man fights, if he be of a
sound body and mind. At a certain high stage he makes no offensive
demonstration, but is alert to repel injury, and of an unconquerable
heart. At a still higher stage he comes into the region of holiness;
passion has passed away from him; his warlike nature is all
converted into an active medicinal principle; he sacrifices himself,
and accepts with alacrity wearisome tasks of denial and charity;
but being attacked, he bears it, and turns the other cheek, as one
engaged, throughout his being, no longer to the service of an
individual, but to the common good of all men."
In 1834 Emerson's brother Edward died, as already mentioned, in the West
India island where he had gone for his health. In his letter to Carlyle,
of November 12th of the same year, Emerson says: "Your letter, which
I received last week, made a bright light in a solitary and saddened
place. I had quite recently received the news of the death of a brother
in the island of Porto Rico, whose loss to me will be a lifelong
sorrow." It was of him that Emerson wrote the lines "In Memoriam," in
which he says,--
"There is no record left on earth
Save on tablets of the heart,
Of the rich, inherent worth,
Of the grace that on him shone
Of eloquent lips, of joyful wit;
He could not frame a word unfit,
An act unworthy to be done."
Another bereavement was too soon to be recorded. On the 7th of October,
1835, he says in a letter to Carlyle:--
"I was very glad to hear of the brother you describe, for I have one
too, and know what it is to have presence in two places. Charles
Chauncy Emerson is a lawyer now settled in this town, and, as I
believe, no better Lord Hamlet was ever. He is our Doctor on
all questions of taste, manners, or action. And one of the pure
pleasures I promise myself in the months to come is to make you two
gentlemen know each other."
Alas for human hopes and prospects! In less than a year from the date of
that letter, on the 17th of September, 1836, he writes to Carlyle:--
"Your last letter, dated in April, found me a mourner, as did your
first. I have lost out of this world my brother Charles, of whom I
have spoken to you,--the friend and companion of many years, the
inmate of my house, a man of a beautiful genius, born to speak well,
and whose conversation for these last years has treated every grave
question of humanity, and has been my daily bread. I have put so
much dependence on his gifts, that we made but one man together; for
I needed never to do what he could do by noble nature, much better
than I. He was to have been married in this month, and at the time
of his sickness and sudden death, I was adding apartments to my
house for his permanent accommodation. I wish that you could have
known him. At twenty-seven years the best life is only preparation.
He built his foundation so large that it needed the full age of
man to make evident the plan and proportions of his character. He
postponed always a particular to a final and absolute success, so
that his life was a silent appeal to the great and generous. But
some time I shall see you and speak of him."
Section 3. In the year 1836 there was published in Boston a little book
of less than a hundred very small pages, entitled "Nature." It bore no
name on its title-page, but was at once attributed to its real author,
Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The Emersonian adept will pardon me for burdening this beautiful Essay
with a commentary which is worse than superfluous for him. For it has
proved for many,--I will not say a _pons asinorum_,--but a very narrow
bridge, which it made their heads swim to attempt crossing, and yet they
must cross it, or one domain of Emerson's intellect will not be reached.
It differed in some respects from anything he had hitherto written. It
talked a strange sort of philosophy in the language of poetry. Beginning
simply enough, it took more and more the character of a rhapsody, until,
as if lifted off his feet by the deepened and stronger undercurrent of
his thought, the writer dropped his personality and repeated the words
which "a certain poet sang" to him.
This little book met with a very unemotional reception. Its style was
peculiar,--almost as unlike that of his Essays as that of Carlyle's
"Sartor Resartus" was unlike the style of his "Life of Schiller." It was
vague, mystic, incomprehensible, to most of those who call themselves
common-sense people. Some of its expressions lent themselves easily to
travesty and ridicule. But the laugh could not be very loud or very
long, since it took twelve years, as Mr. Higginson tells us, to sell
five hundred copies. It was a good deal like Keats's
"doubtful tale from fairy-land
Hard for the non-elect to understand."
The same experience had been gone through by Wordsworth.
"Whatever is too original," says De Quincey, "will be hated at the
first. It must slowly mould a public for itself; and the resistance
of the early thoughtless judgments must be overcome by a
counter-resistance to itself, in a better audience slowly mustering
against the first. Forty and seven years it is since William
Wordsworth first appeared as an author. Twenty of these years he was
the scoff of the world, and his poetry a by-word of scorn. Since
then, and more than once, senates have rung with acclamations to the
echo of his name."
No writer is more deeply imbued with the spirit of Wordsworth than
Emerson, as we cannot fail to see in turning the pages of "Nature," his
first thoroughly characteristic Essay. There is the same thought in the
Preface to "The Excursion" that we find in the Introduction to "Nature."
"The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face;
we through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original
relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and
philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by
revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?"
"Paradise and groves
Elysian, Fortunate Fields--like those of old
Sought in the Atlantic Main, why should they be
A history only of departed things,
Or a mere fiction of what never was?"
"Nature" is a reflective prose poem. It is divided into eight chapters,
which might almost as well have been called cantos.
Never before had Mr. Emerson given free utterance to the passion with
which the aspects of nature inspired him. He had recently for the first
time been at once master of himself and in free communion with all the
planetary influences above, beneath, around him. The air of the country
intoxicated him. There are sentences in "Nature" which are as exalted
as the language of one who is just coming to himself after having been
etherized. Some of these expressions sounded to a considerable part of
his early readers like the vagaries of delirium. Yet underlying these
excited outbursts there was a general tone of serenity which reassured
the anxious. The gust passed over, the ripples smoothed themselves, and
the stars shone again in quiet reflection.
After a passionate outbreak, in which he sees all, is nothing, loses
himself in nature, in Universal Being, becomes "part or particle of
God," he considers briefly, in the chapter entitled _Commodity_, the
ministry of nature to the senses. A few picturesque glimpses in pleasing
and poetical phrases, with a touch of archaism, and reminiscences of
Hamlet and Jeremy Taylor, "the Shakspeare of divines," as he has
called him, are what we find in this chapter on Commodity, or natural
But "a nobler want of man is served by Nature, namely, the love
of _Beauty_" which is his next subject. There are some touches of
description here, vivid, high-colored, not so much pictures as hints and
impressions for pictures.
Many of the thoughts which run through all his prose and poetry may be
found here. Analogy is seen everywhere in the works of Nature. "What is
common to them all,--that perfectness and harmony, is beauty."--"Nothing
is quite beautiful alone: nothing but is beautiful in the whole."--"No
reason can be asked or given why the soul seeks beauty." How easily
these same ideas took on the robe of verse may be seen in the Poems,
"Each and All," and "The Rhodora." A good deal of his philosophy comes
out in these concluding sentences of the chapter:--
"Beauty in its largest and profoundest sense is one expression for
the universe; God is the all-fair. Truth and goodness and beauty are
but different faces of the same All. But beauty in Nature is not
ultimate. It is the herald of inward and eternal beauty, and is not
alone a solid and satisfactory good. It must therefore stand as a
part and not as yet the highest expression of the final cause of
In the "Rhodora" the flower is made to answer that
"Beauty is its own excuse for being."
In this Essay the beauty of the flower is not enough, but it must excuse
itself for being, mainly as the symbol of something higher and deeper
He passes next to a consideration of _Language_. Words are signs of
natural facts, particular material facts are symbols of particular
spiritual facts, and Nature is the symbol of spirit. Without going very
profoundly into the subject, he gives some hints as to the mode in
which languages are formed,--whence words are derived, how they become
transformed and worn out. But they come at first fresh from Nature.
"A man conversing in earnest, if he watch his intellectual
processes, will find that always a material image, more or less
luminous, arises in his mind, contemporaneous with every thought,
which furnishes the vestment of the thought. Hence good writing and
brilliant discourse are perpetual allegories."
From this he argues that country life is a great advantage to a powerful
mind, inasmuch as it furnishes a greater number of these material
images. They cannot be summoned at will, but they present themselves
when great exigencies call for them.
"The poet, the orator, bred in the woods, whose senses have been
nourished by their fair and appeasing changes, year after year,
without design and without heed,--shall not lose their lesson
altogether, in the roar of cities or the broil of politics. Long
hereafter, amidst agitations and terror in national councils,--in
the hour of revolution,--these solemn images shall reappear in their
morning lustre, as fit symbols and words of the thought which the
passing events shall awaken. At the call of a noble sentiment, again
the woods wave, the pines murmur, the river rolls and shines, and
the cattle low upon the mountains, as he saw and heard them in his
infancy. And with these forms the spells of persuasion, the keys of
power, are put into his hands."
It is doing no wrong to this very eloquent and beautiful passage to say
that it reminds us of certain lines in one of the best known poems of
"These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye;
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness sensations sweet
Felt in the blood and felt along the heart."
It is needless to quote the whole passage. The poetry of Wordsworth may
have suggested the prose of Emerson, but the prose loses nothing by the
In _Discipline_, which is his next subject, he treats of the influence
of Nature in educating the intellect, the moral sense, and the will.
Man is enlarged and the universe lessened and brought within his grasp,
"Time and space relations vanish as laws are known."--"The moral
law lies at the centre of Nature and radiates to the
circumference."--"All things with which we deal preach to us.
What is a farm but a mute gospel?"--"From the child's successive
possession of his several senses up to the hour when he sayeth, 'Thy
will be done!' he is learning the secret that he can reduce under
his will, not only particular events, but great classes, nay, the
whole series of events, and so conform all facts to his character."
The unity in variety which meets us everywhere is again referred to.
He alludes to the ministry of our friendships to our education. When a
friend has done for our education in the way of filling our minds with
sweet and solid wisdom "it is a sign to us that his office is closing,
and he is commonly withdrawn from our sight in a short time." This
thought was probably suggested by the death of his brother Charles,
which occurred a few months before "Nature" was published. He had
already spoken in the first chapter of this little book as if from some
recent experience of his own, doubtless the same bereavement. "To a man
laboring under calamity, the heat of his own fire hath sadness in it.
Then there is a kind of contempt of the landscape felt by him who has
just lost by death a dear friend. The sky is less grand as it shuts down
over less worth in the population." This was the first effect of the
loss; but after a time he recognizes a superintending power which orders
events for us in wisdom which we could not see at first.
The chapter on _Idealism_ must be read by all who believe themselves
capable of abstract thought, if they would not fall under the judgment
of Turgot, which Emerson quotes: "He that has never doubted the
existence of matter may be assured he has no aptitude for metaphysical
inquiries." The most essential statement is this:--
"It is a sufficient account of that Appearance we call the World,
that God will teach a human mind, and so makes it the receiver of a
certain number of congruent sensations, which we call sun and moon,
man and woman, house and trade. In my utter impotence to test
the authenticity of the report of my senses, to know whether the
impressions they make on me correspond with outlying objects, what
difference does it make, whether Orion is up there in Heaven, or
some god paints the image in the firmament of the Soul?"
We need not follow the thought through the argument from illusions, like
that when we look at the shore from a moving ship, and others which
cheat the senses by false appearances.
The poet animates Nature with his own thoughts, perceives the affinities
between Nature and the soul, with Beauty as his main end. The
philosopher pursues Truth, but, "not less than the poet, postpones
the apparent order and relation of things to the empire of thought."
Religion and ethics agree with all lower culture in degrading Nature
and suggesting its dependence on Spirit. "The devotee flouts
Nature."--"Plotinus was ashamed of his body."--"Michael Angelo said of
external beauty, 'it is the frail and weary weed, in which God dresses
the soul, which He has called into time.'" Emerson would not
undervalue Nature as looked at through the senses and "the unrenewed
understanding." "I have no hostility to Nature," he says, "but a
child's love of it. I expand and live in the warm day like corn and
melons."--But, "seen in the light of thought, the world always is
phenomenal; and virtue subordinates it to the mind. Idealism sees the
world in God,"--as one vast picture, which God paints on the instant
eternity, for the contemplation of the soul.
The unimaginative reader is likely to find himself off soundings in the
next chapter, which has for its title _Spirit_.
Idealism only denies the existence of matter; it does not satisfy the
demands of the spirit. "It leaves God out of me."--Of these three
questions, What is matter? Whence is it? Where to? The ideal theory
answers the first only. The reply is that matter is a phenomenon, not a
"But when we come to inquire Whence is matter? and Whereto? many
truths arise to us out of the recesses of consciousness. We learn
that the highest is present to the soul of man, that the dread
universal essence, which is not wisdom, or love, or beauty, or
power, but all in one, and each entirely, is that for which all
things exist, and that by which they are; that spirit creates; that
behind nature, throughout nature, spirit is present; that spirit is
one and not compound; that spirit does not act upon us from
without, that is, in space and time, but spiritually, or through
ourselves."--"As a plant upon the earth, so a man rests upon the
bosom of God; he is nourished by unfailing fountains, and draws, at
his need, inexhaustible power."
Man may have access to the entire mind of the Creator, himself become a
"creator in the finite."
"As we degenerate, the contrast between us and our house is more
evident. We are as much strangers in nature as we are aliens from
God. We do not understand the notes of birds. The fox and the deer
run away from us; the bear and the tiger rend us."
All this has an Old Testament sound as of a lost Paradise. In the next
chapter he dreams of Paradise regained.
This next and last chapter is entitled _Prospects_. He begins with
a bold claim for the province of intuition as against induction,
undervaluing the "half sight of science" as against the "untaught
sallies of the spirit," the surmises and vaticinations of the mind,--the
"imperfect theories, and sentences which contain glimpses of truth." In
a word, he would have us leave the laboratory and its crucibles for
the sibyl's cave and its tripod. We can all--or most of us,
certainly--recognize something of truth, much of imagination, and more
of danger in speculations of this sort. They belong to visionaries and
to poets. Emerson feels distinctly enough that he is getting into the
realm of poetry. He quotes five beautiful verses from George Herbert's
"Poem on Man." Presently he is himself taken off his feet into the air
of song, and finishes his Essay with "some traditions of man and nature
which a certain poet sang to me."--"A man is a god in ruins."--"Man is
the dwarf of himself. Once he was permeated and dissolved by spirit. He
filled nature with his overflowing currents. Out from him sprang the
sun and moon; from man the sun, from woman the moon."--But he no longer
fills the mere shell he had made for himself; "he is shrunk to a drop."
Still something of elemental power remains to him. "It is instinct."
Such teachings he got from his "poet." It is a kind of New England
Genesis in place of the Old Testament one. We read in the Sermon on the
Mount: "Be ye therefore perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect."
The discourse which comes to us from the Trimount oracle commands us,
"Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to
the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions." The
seer of Patmos foretells a heavenly Jerusalem, of which he says, "There
shall in no wise enter into it anything which defileth." The sage of
Concord foresees a new heaven on earth. "A correspondent revolution in
things will attend the influx of the spirit. So fast will disagreeable
appearances, swine, spiders, snakes, pests, mad-houses, prisons,
enemies, vanish; they are temporary and shall be no more seen."
* * * * *
It may be remembered that Calvin, in his Commentary on the New
Testament, stopped when he came to the book of the "Revelation." He
found it full of difficulties which he did not care to encounter. Yet,
considered only as a poem, the vision of St. John is full of noble
imagery and wonderful beauty. "Nature" is the Book of Revelation of our
Saint Radulphus. It has its obscurities, its extravagances, but as a
poem it is noble and inspiring. It was objected to on the score of its
pantheistic character, as Wordsworth's "Lines composed near Tintern
Abbey" had been long before. But here and there it found devout readers
who were captivated by its spiritual elevation and great poetical
beauty, among them one who wrote of it in the "Democratic Review" in
terms of enthusiastic admiration.
Mr. Bowen, the Professor of Natural Theology and Moral Philosophy
in Harvard University, treated this singular semi-philosophical,
semi-poetical little book in a long article in the "Christian Examiner,"
headed "Transcendentalism," and published in the January number for
1837. The acute and learned Professor meant to deal fairly with his
subject. But if one has ever seen a sagacious pointer making the
acquaintance of a box-tortoise, he will have an idea of the relations
between the reviewer and the reviewed as they appear in this article.
The professor turns the book over and over,--inspects it from plastron
to carapace, so to speak, and looks for openings everywhere, sometimes
successfully, sometimes in vain. He finds good writing and sound
philosophy, passages of great force and beauty of expression, marred by
obscurity, under assumptions and faults of style. He was not, any more
than the rest of us, acclimated to the Emersonian atmosphere, and after
some not unjust or unkind comments with which many readers will heartily
agree, confesses his bewilderment, saying:--
"On reviewing what we have already said of this singular work, the
criticism seems to be couched in contradictory terms; we can only
allege in excuse the fact that the book is a contradiction in
Carlyle says in his letter of February 13, 1837:--
"Your little azure-colored 'Nature' gave me true satisfaction. I
read it, and then lent it about to all my acquaintances that had a
sense for such things; from whom a similar verdict always came back.
You say it is the first chapter of something greater. I call it
rather the Foundation and Ground-plan on which you may build
whatsoever of great and true has been given you to build. It is the
true Apocalypse, this when the 'Open Secret' becomes revealed to a
man. I rejoice much in the glad serenity of soul with which you look
out on this wondrous Dwelling-place of yours and mine,--with an ear
for the _Ewigen Melodien_, which pipe in the winds round us, and
utter themselves forth in all sounds and sights and things; _not_ to
be written down by gamut-machinery; but which all right writing is a
kind of attempt to write down."
The first edition of "Nature" had prefixed to it the following words
from Plotinus: "Nature is but an image or imitation of wisdom, the last
thing of the soul; Nature being a thing which doth only do, but not
know." This is omitted in after editions, and in its place we read:--
"A subtle chain of countless rings
The next unto the farthest brings;
The eye reads omens where it goes,
And speaks all languages the rose;
And striving to be man, the worm
Mounts through all the spires of form."
The copy of "Nature" from which I take these lines, his own, of course,
like so many others which he prefixed to his different Essays, was
printed in the year 1849, ten years before the publication of Darwin's
"Origin of Species," twenty years and more before the publication of
"The Descent of Man." But the "Vestiges of Creation," published in 1844,
had already popularized the resuscitated theories of Lamarck. It seems
as if Emerson had a warning from the poetic instinct which, when it does
not precede the movement of the scientific intellect, is the first to
catch the hint of its discoveries. There is nothing more audacious in
the poet's conception of the worm looking up towards humanity, than
the naturalist's theory that the progenitor of the human race was an
acephalous mollusk. "I will not be sworn," says Benedick, "but love may
transform me to an oyster." For "love" read science.
Unity in variety, "_il piu nell uno_" symbolism of Nature and its
teachings, generation of phenomena,--appearances,--from spirit, to
which they correspond and which they obey; evolution of the best and
elimination of the worst as the law of being; all this and much more may
be found in the poetic utterances of this slender Essay. It fell like an
aerolite, unasked for, unaccounted for, unexpected, almost unwelcome,--a
stumbling-block to be got out of the well-trodden highway of New England
scholastic intelligence. But here and there it found a reader to whom it
was, to borrow, with slight changes, its own quotation,--
"The golden key
Which opes the palace of eternity,"
inasmuch as it carried upon its face the highest certificate of truth,
because it animated them to create a new world for themselves through
the purification of their own souls.
Next to "Nature" in the series of his collected publications comes "The
American Scholar. An Oration delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society
at Cambridge, August 31, 1837."
The Society known by these three letters, long a mystery to the
uninitiated, but which, filled out and interpreted, signify that
philosophy is the guide of life, is one of long standing, the
annual meetings of which have called forth the best efforts of many
distinguished scholars and thinkers. Rarely has any one of the annual
addresses been listened to with such profound attention and interest.
Mr. Lowell says of it, that its delivery "was an event without any
former parallel in our literary annals, a scene to be always 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!"
Mr. Cooke says truly of this oration, that nearly all his leading ideas
found expression in it. This was to be expected in an address delivered
before such an audience. Every real thinker's world of thought has its
centre in a few formulae, about which they revolve as the planets circle
round the sun which cast them off. But those who lost themselves now and
then in the pages of "Nature" will find their way clearly enough through
those of "The American Scholar." It is a plea for generous culture;
for the development of all the faculties, many of which tend to become
atrophied by the exclusive pursuit of single objects of thought. It
begins with a note like a trumpet call.
"Thus far," he says, "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 expectations of the world with something better
than the exertions of mechanical skill. Our day of dependence, our
long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a
close. The millions that around us are rushing into life cannot
always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests. Events,
actions arise, that must be sung, that will sing themselves. Who can
doubt that poetry will revive and lead in a new age, as the star in
the constellation Harp, which now flames in our zenith, astronomers
announce shall one day be the pole-star for a thousand years?"
Emerson finds his text in the old fable which tells that Man, as he was
in the beginning, was divided into men, as the hand was divided into
fingers, the better to answer the end of his being. The fable covers the
doctrine that there is One Man; present to individuals only in a partial
manner; and that we must take the whole of society to find the whole
man. Unfortunately the unit has been too minutely subdivided, and many
faculties are practically lost for want of use. "The state of society is
one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and
strut about so many walking monsters,--a good finger, a neck, a stomach,
an elbow, but never a man.... Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing,
into many things.... The priest becomes a form; the attorney a statute
book; the mechanic a machine; the sailor a rope of the ship."
This complaint is by no means a new one. Scaliger says, as quoted
by omnivorous old Burton: "_Nequaquam, nos homines sumus sed partes
hominis_." The old illustration of this used to be found in pin-making.
It took twenty different workmen to make a pin, beginning with drawing
the wire and ending with sticking in the paper. Each expert, skilled
in one small performance only, was reduced to a minute fraction of a
fraction of humanity. If the complaint was legitimate in Scaliger's
time, it was better founded half a century ago when Mr. Emerson found
cause for it. It has still more serious significance to-day, when
in every profession, in every branch of human knowledge, special
acquirements, special skill have greatly tended to limit the range of
men's thoughts and working faculties.
"In this distribution of functions the scholar is the delegated
intellect. In the right state he is _Man thinking_. In the
degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a
mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men's thinking.
In this view of him, as Man thinking, the theory of his office is
continued. Him Nature solicits with all her placid, all her monitory
pictures; him the past instructs; him the future invites."
Emerson proceeds to describe and illustrate the influences of nature
upon the mind, returning to the strain of thought with which his
previous Essay has made us familiar. He next considers the influence of
the past, and especially of books as the best type of that influence.
"Books are the best of things well used; abused among the worst." It is
hard to distil what is already a quintessence without loss of what is
just as good as the product of our labor. A sentence or two may serve to
give an impression of the epigrammatic wisdom of his counsel.
"Each age must write its own books, or, rather, each generation
for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit
When a book has gained a certain hold on the mind, it is liable to
become an object of idolatrous regard.
"Instantly the book becomes noxious: the guide is a tyrant. The
sluggish and perverted mind of the multitude, slow to open to the
incursions of reason, having once so opened, having received this
book, stands upon it and makes an outcry if it is disparaged.
Colleges are built on it. Books are written on it by thinkers, not
by Man thinking; by men of talent, that is, who start wrong, who set
out from accepted dogmas, not from their own sight of principle.
Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to
accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given;
forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in
libraries when they wrote these books.--One must he an inventor to
read well. As the proverb says, 'He that would bring home the wealth
of the Indies must carry out the wealth of the Indies.'--When the
mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book
we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is
doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the
It is not enough that the scholar should be a student of nature and of
books. He must take a part in the affairs of the world about him.
"Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential.
Without it he is not yet man. Without it thought can never ripen
into truth.--The true scholar grudges every opportunity of action
past by, as a loss of power. It is the raw material out of which the
intellect moulds her splendid products. A strange process, too, this
by which experience is converted into thought as a mulberry leaf is
converted into satin. The manufacture goes forward at all hours."
Emerson does not use the words "unconscious cerebration," but these
last words describe the process in an unmistakable way. The beautiful
paragraph in which he pictures the transformation, the transfiguration
of experience, closes with a sentence so thoroughly characteristic, so
Emersonially Emersonian, that I fear some readers who thought they were
his disciples when they came to it went back and walked no more with
him, at least through the pages of this discourse. The reader shall have
the preceding sentence to prepare him for the one referred to.
"There is no fact, no event in our private history, which shall not,
sooner or later, lose its adhesive, inert form, and astonish us by
soaring from our body into the empyrean.
"Cradle and infancy, school and playground, the fear of boys, and
dogs, and ferules, the love of little maids and berries, and many
another fact that once filled the whole sky, are gone already;
friend and relative, professions and party, town and country, nation
and world must also soar and sing."
Having spoken of the education of the scholar by nature, by books, by
action, he speaks of the scholar's duties. "They may all," he says, "be
comprised in self-trust." We have to remember that the _self_ he means
is the highest self, that consciousness which he looks upon as open to
the influx of the divine essence from which it came, and towards which
all its upward tendencies lead, always aspiring, never resting; as he
sings in "The Sphinx ":--
"The heavens that now draw him
With sweetness untold,
Once found,--for new heavens
He spurneth the old."
"First one, then another, we drain all cisterns, and waxing greater
by all these supplies, we crave a better and more abundant food. The
man has never lived that can feed us ever. The human mind cannot be
enshrined in a person who shall set a barrier on any one side of
this unbounded, unboundable empire. It is one central fire, which,
flaming now out of the lips of Etna, lightens the Capes of Sicily,
and now out of the throat of Vesuvius, illuminates the towers and
vineyards of Naples. It is one light which beams out of a thousand
stars. It is one soul which animates all men."
And so he comes to the special application of the principles he has laid
down to the American scholar of to-day. He does not spare his censure;
he is full of noble trust and manly courage. Very refreshing it is
to remember in this day of specialists, when the walking fraction of
humanity he speaks of would hardly include a whole finger, but rather
confine itself to the single joint of the finger, such words as these:--
"The scholar is that man who must take up into himself all the
ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, all the
hopes of the future. He must he a university of knowledges.... We
have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe. The spirit of
the American freeman is already suspected to be timid, imitative,
tame.--The scholar is decent, indolent, complaisant.--The mind of
this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself. There
is no work for any but the decorous and the complaisant."
The young men of promise are discouraged and disgusted.
"What is the remedy? They did not yet see, and thousands of young
men as hopeful now crowding to the barriers for the career do not
yet see, that if the single man plant himself indomitably on his
instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him."
Each man must be a unit,--must yield that peculiar fruit which he was
created to bear.
"We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands;
we will speak our own minds.--A nation of men will for the first
time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the
Divine Soul which also inspires all men."
This grand Oration was our intellectual Declaration of Independence.
Nothing like it had been heard in the halls of Harvard since Samuel
Adams supported the affirmative of the question, "Whether it be lawful
to resist the chief magistrate, if the commonwealth cannot otherwise be
preserved." It was easy to find fault with an expression here and there.
The dignity, not to say the formality of an Academic assembly was
startled by the realism that looked for the infinite in "the meal in the
firkin; the milk in the pan." They could understand the deep thoughts
suggested by "the meanest flower that blows," but these domestic
illustrations had a kind of nursery homeliness about them which the
grave professors and sedate clergymen were unused to expect on so
stately an occasion. But the young men went out from it as if a prophet
had been proclaiming to them "Thus saith the Lord." No listener ever
forgot that Address, and among all the noble utterances of the speaker
it may be questioned if one ever contained more truth in language more
like that of immediate inspiration.
1838-1843. AET. 35-40.
Section 1. Divinity School Address.--Correspondence.--Lectures on Human
Life.--Letters to James Freeman Clarke.--Dartmouth College Address:
Literary Ethics.--Waterville College Address: The Method of
Nature.--Other Addresses: Man the Reformer.--Lecture on the Times.--The
Conservative.--The Transcendentalist.--Boston "Transcendentalism."--"The
Section 2. First Series of Essays published.--Contents: History,
Self-Reliance, Compensation, Spiritual Laws, Love, Friendship, Prudence,
Heroism, The Oversoul, Circles, Intellect, Art.--Emerson's Account
of his Mode of Life in a Letter to Carlyle.--Death of Emerson's
Section 1. On Sunday evening, July 15, 1838, Emerson delivered an
Address before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge,
which caused a profound sensation in religious circles, and led to a
controversy, in which Emerson had little more than the part of Patroclus
when the Greeks and Trojans fought over his body. In its simplest
and broadest statement this discourse was a plea for the individual
consciousness as against all historical creeds, bibles, churches; for
the soul as the supreme judge in spiritual matters.
He begins with a beautiful picture which must be transferred without the
change of an expression:--
"In this refulgent Summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath
of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with
fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and
sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm of Gilead, and the new
hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade.
Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost
spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge
globe a toy. The cool night bathes the world as with a river, and
prepares his eyes again for the crimson dawn."
How softly the phrases of the gentle iconoclast steal upon the ear,
and how they must have hushed the questioning audience into pleased
attention! The "Song of Songs, which is Solomon's," could not have wooed
the listener more sweetly. "Thy lips drop as the honeycomb: honey and
milk are under thy tongue, and the smell of thy garments is like the
smell of Lebanon." And this was the prelude of a discourse which, when
it came to be printed, fared at the hands of many a theologian, who did
not think himself a bigot, as the roll which Baruch wrote with ink from
the words of Jeremiah fared at the hands of Jehoiakim, the King of
Judah. He listened while Jehudi read the opening passages. But "when
Jehudi had read three or four leaves he cut it with the penknife, and
cast it into the fire that was on the hearth, until all the roll was
consumed in the fire that was on the hearth." Such was probably the fate
of many a copy of this famous discourse.
It is reverential, but it is also revolutionary. The file-leaders of
Unitarianism drew back in dismay, and the ill names which had often been
applied to them were now heard from their own lips as befitting this
new heresy; if so mild a reproach as that of heresy belonged to this
alarming manifesto. And yet, so changed is the whole aspect of the
theological world since the time when that discourse was delivered that
it is read as calmly to-day as a common "Election Sermon," if such are
ever read at all. A few extracts, abstracts, and comments may give the
reader who has not the Address before him some idea of its contents and
The material universe, which he has just pictured in its summer beauty,
deserves our admiration. But when the mind opens and reveals the laws
which govern the world of phenomena, it shrinks into a mere fable and
illustration of this mind. What am I? What is?--are questions always
asked, never fully answered. We would study and admire forever.
But above intellectual curiosity, there is the sentiment of virtue. Man
is born for the good, for the perfect, low as he now lies in evil and
weakness. "The sentiment of virtue is a reverence and delight in the
presence of certain divine laws.--These laws refuse to be adequately
stated.--They elude our persevering thought; yet we read them hourly in
each other's faces, in each other's actions, in our own remorse.--The
intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of
the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves.--As we are, so we
associate. The good, by affinity, seek the good; the vile, by affinity,
the vile. Thus, of their own volition, souls proceed into heaven, into
These facts, Emerson says, have always suggested to man that the
world is the product not of manifold power, but of one will, of one
mind,--that one mind is everywhere active.--"All things proceed out of
the same spirit, and all things conspire with it." While a man seeks
good ends, nature helps him; when he seeks other ends, his being
shrinks, "he becomes less and less, a mote, a point, until absolute
badness is absolute death."--"When he says 'I ought;' when love warms
him; when he chooses, warned from on high, the good and great deed; then
deep melodies wander through his soul from Supreme Wisdom."
"This sentiment lies at the foundation of society and successively
creates all forms of worship.--This thought dwelled always deepest
in the minds of men in the devout and contemplative East; not alone in
Palestine, where it reached its purest expression, but in Egypt,
in Persia, in India, in China. Europe has always owed to Oriental
genius its divine impulses. What these holy bards said, all sane men
found agreeable and true. And the unique impression of Jesus upon
mankind, whose name is not so much written as ploughed into the
history of this world, is proof of the subtle virtue of this
But this truth cannot be received at second hand; it is an intuition.
What another announces, I must find true in myself, or I must reject
it. If the word of another is taken instead of this primary faith, the
church, the state, art, letters, life, all suffer degradation,--"the
doctrine of inspiration is lost; the base doctrine of the majority of
voices usurps the place of the doctrine of the soul."
The following extract will show the view that he takes of Christianity
and its Founder, and sufficiently explain the antagonism called forth by
"Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with
open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony,
ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there.
Alone in all history he estimated the greatness of man. One man was
true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in
man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his World.
He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, 'I am Divine. Through
me God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see
thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.' But what a distortion
did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the
following ages! There is no doctrine of the Reason which will bear
to be taught by the Understanding. The understanding caught this
high chant from the poet's lips, and said, in the next age, 'This
was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you if you say
he was a man.' The idioms of his language and the figures of his
rhetoric have usurped the place of his truth; and churches are not
built on his principles, but on his tropes. Christianity became a
Mythus, as the poetic teaching of Greece and of Egypt, before. He
spoke of Miracles; for he felt that man's life was a miracle, and
all that man doth, and he knew that this miracle shines as the
character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian
churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one
with the blowing clover and the falling rain."
He proceeds to point out what he considers the great defects of
historical Christianity. It has exaggerated the personal, the positive,
the ritual. It has wronged mankind by monopolizing all virtues for the
Christian name. It is only by his holy thoughts that Jesus serves us.
"To aim to convert a man by miracles is a profanation of the soul." The
preachers do a wrong to Jesus by removing him from our human sympathies;
they should not degrade his life and dialogues by insulation and
Another defect of the traditional and limited way of using the mind of
Christ is that the Moral Nature--the Law of Laws--is not explored as the
fountain of the established teaching in society. "Men have come to speak
of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were
dead."--"The soul is not preached. The church seems to totter to its
fall, almost all life extinct.--The stationariness of religion; the
assumption that the age of inspiration is past; that the Bible is
closed; the fear of degrading the character of Jesus by representing
him as a man; indicate with sufficient clearness the falsehood of our
theology. 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."
When Emerson came to what his earlier ancestors would have called the
"practical application," some of his young hearers must have been
startled at the style of his address.
"Yourself a new--born bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all
conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity. Look to it
first and only, that fashion, custom, authority, pleasure, and
money are nothing to you,--are not bandages over your eyes, that
you cannot see,--but live with the privilege of the
Emerson recognizes two inestimable advantages as the gift of
Christianity; first the Sabbath,--hardly a Christian institution,--and
secondly the institution of preaching. He spoke not only eloquently, but
with every evidence of deep sincerity and conviction. He had sacrificed
an enviable position to that inner voice of duty which he now proclaimed
as the sovereign law over all written or spoken words. But he was
assailing the cherished beliefs of those before him, and of Christendom
generally; not with hard or bitter words, not with sarcasm or levity,
rather as one who felt himself charged with a message from the same
divinity who had inspired the prophets and evangelists of old with
whatever truth was in their messages. He might be wrong, but his words
carried the evidence of his own serene, unshaken confidence that the
spirit of all truth was with him. Some of his audience, at least, must
have felt the contrast between his utterances and the formal discourses
they had so long listened to, and said to themselves, "he speaks 'as one
having authority, and not as the Scribes.'"
Such teaching, however, could not be suffered to go unchallenged. Its
doctrines were repudiated in the "Christian Examiner," the leading organ
of the Unitarian denomination. The Rev. Henry Ware, greatly esteemed
and honored, whose colleague he had been, addressed a letter to him, in
which he expressed the feeling that some of the statements of Emerson's
discourse would tend to overthrow the authority and influence of
Christianity. To this note Emerson returned the following answer:--
"What you say about the discourse at Divinity College is just what I
might expect from your truth and charity, combined with your known
opinions. I am not a stick or a stone, as one said in the old time,
and could not but feel pain in saying some things in that place and
presence which I supposed would meet with dissent, I may say, of
dear friends and benefactors of mine. Yet, as my conviction is
perfect in the substantial truth of the doctrines of this discourse,
and is not very new, you will see at once that it must appear very
important that it be spoken; and I thought I could not pay the
nobleness of my friends so mean a compliment as to suppress my
opposition to their supposed views, out of fear of offence. I would
rather say to them, these things look thus to me, to you otherwise.
Let us say our uttermost word, and let the all-pervading truth, as
it surely will, judge between us. Either of us would, I doubt not,
be willingly apprised of his error. Meantime, I shall be admonished
by this expression of your thought, to revise with greater care the
'address,' before it is printed (for the use of the class): and I
heartily thank you for this expression of your tried toleration and
Dr. Ware followed up his note with a sermon, preached on the 23d of
September, in which he dwells especially on the necessity of adding the
idea of personality to the abstractions of Emerson's philosophy, and
sent it to him with a letter, the kindness and true Christian spirit of
which were only what were inseparable from all the thoughts and feelings
of that most excellent and truly apostolic man.
To this letter Emerson sent the following reply:--
CONCORD, October 8, 1838.
"MY DEAR SIR,--I ought sooner to have acknowledged your kind letter
of last week, and the sermon it accompanied. The letter was right
manly and noble. The sermon, too, I have read with attention. If it
assails any doctrine of mine,--perhaps I am not so quick to see it
as writers generally,--certainly I did not feel any disposition
to depart from my habitual contentment, that you should say your
thought, whilst I say mine. I believe I must tell you what I think
of my new position. It strikes me very oddly that good and wise men
at Cambridge and Boston should think of raising me into an object of
criticism. I have always been--from my very incapacity of methodical
writing--a 'chartered libertine,' free to worship and free to
rail,--lucky when I could make myself understood, but never esteemed
near enough to the institutions and mind of society to deserve the
notice of the masters of literature and religion. I have appreciated
fully the advantages of my position, for I well know there is no
scholar less willing or less able than myself to be a polemic. I
could not give an account of myself, if challenged. I could not
possibly give you one of the 'arguments' you cruelly hint at, on
which any doctrine of mine stands; for I do not know what arguments
are in reference to any expression of a thought. I delight in
telling what I think; but if you ask me how I dare say so, or why it
is so, I am the most helpless of mortal men. I do not even see
that either of these questions admits of an answer. So that in the
present droll posture of my affairs, when I see myself suddenly
raised to the importance of a heretic, I am very uneasy when I
advert to the supposed duties of such a personage, who is to make
good his thesis against all comers. I certainly shall do no such
thing. I shall read what you and other good men write, as I have
always done, glad when you speak my thoughts, and skipping the
page that has nothing for me. I shall go on just as before, seeing
whatever I can, and telling what I see; and, I suppose, with the
same fortune that has hitherto attended me,--the joy of finding that
my abler and better brothers, who work with the sympathy of society,
loving and beloved, do now and then unexpectedly confirm my
conceptions, and find my nonsense is only their own thought in
motley,--and so I am your affectionate servant," etc.
The controversy which followed is a thing of the past; Emerson took no
part in it, and we need not return to the discussion. He knew his
office and has defined it in the clearest manner in the letter just
given,--"Seeing whatever I can, and telling what I see." But among his
listeners and readers was a man of very different mental constitution,
not more independent or fearless, but louder and more combative, whose
voice soon became heard and whose strength soon began to be felt in the
long battle between the traditional and immanent inspiration,--Theodore
Parker. If Emerson was the moving spirit, he was the right arm in the
conflict, which in one form or another has been waged up to the present
In the winter of 1838-39 Emerson delivered his usual winter course
of Lectures. He names them in a letter to Carlyle as follows: "Ten
Lectures: I. The Doctrine of the Soul; II. Home; III. The School; IV.
Love; V. Genius; VI. The Protest; VII. Tragedy; VIII. Comedy; IX. Duty;
X. Demonology. I designed to add two more, but my lungs played me false
with unseasonable inflammation, so I discoursed no more on Human Life."
Two or three of these titles only are prefixed to his published Lectures
or Essays; Love, in the first volume of Essays; Demonology in "Lectures
and Biographical Sketches;" and "The Comic" in "Letters and Social
* * * * *
I owe the privilege of making use of the two following letters to my
kind and honored friend, James Freeman Clarke.
The first letter was accompanied by the Poem "The Humble-bee," which
was first published by Mr. Clarke in the "Western Messenger," from the
autograph copy, which begins "Fine humble-bee! fine humble-bee!" and has
a number of other variations from the poem as printed in his collected
CONCORD, December 7, 1838.
MY DEAR SIR,--Here are the verses. They have pleased some of my
friends, and so may please some of your readers, and you asked me
in the spring if I hadn't somewhat to contribute to your journal. I
remember in your letter you mentioned the remark of some friend of
yours that the verses, "Take, O take those lips away," were not
Shakspeare's; I think they are. Beaumont, nor Fletcher, nor both
together were ever, I think, visited by such a starry gleam as that
stanza. I know it is in "Rollo," but it is in "Measure for Measure"
also; and I remember noticing that the Malones, and Stevens, and
critical gentry were about evenly divided, these for Shakspeare, and
those for Beaumont and Fletcher. But the internal evidence is all
for one, none for the other. If he did not write it, they did not,
and we shall have some fourth unknown singer. What care we _who_
sung this or that. It is we at last who sing. Your friend and
servant, R.W. EMERSON.
TO JAMES FREEMAN CLARKE.
CONCORD, February 27, 1839.
MY DEAR SIR,--I am very sorry to have made you wait so long for an
answer to your flattering request for two such little poems. You are
quite welcome to the lines "To the Rhodora;" but I think they need
the superscription ["Lines on being asked 'Whence is the Flower?'"].
Of the other verses ["Good-by proud world," etc] I send you a
corrected copy, but I wonder so much at your wishing to print them
that I think you must read them once again with your critical
spectacles before they go further. They were written sixteen years
ago, when I kept school in Boston, and lived in a corner of Roxbury
called Canterbury. They have a slight misanthropy, a shade deeper
than belongs to me; and as it seems nowadays I am a philosopher and
am grown to have opinions, I think they must have an apologetic
date, though I well know that poetry that needs a date is no poetry,
and so you will wiselier suppress them. I heartily wish I had any
verses which with a clear mind I could send you in lieu of these
juvenilities. It is strange, seeing the delight we take in verses,
that we can so seldom write them, and so are not ashamed to lay up
old ones, say sixteen years, instead of improvising them as freely
as the wind blows, whenever we and our brothers are attuned to
music. I have heard of a citizen who made an annual joke. I believe
I have in April or May an annual poetic _conatus_ rather than
_afflatus_, experimenting to the length of thirty lines or so, if I
may judge from the dates of the rhythmical scraps I detect among my
MSS. I look upon this incontinence as merely the redundancy of
a susceptibility to poetry which makes all the bards my daily
treasures, and I can well run the risk of being ridiculous once a
year for the benefit of happy reading all the other days. In regard
to the Providence Discourse, I have no copy of it; and as far as I
remember its contents, I have since used whatever is striking in it;
but I will get the MS., if Margaret Fuller has it, and you shall
have it if it will pass muster. I shall certainly avail myself
of the good order you gave me for twelve copies of the "Carlyle
Miscellanies," so soon as they appear. He, T.C., writes in excellent
spirits of his American friends and readers.... A new book, he
writes, is growing in him, though not to begin until his spring
lectures are over (which begin in May). Your sister Sarah was kind
enough to carry me the other day to see some pencil sketches done
by Stuart Newton when in the Insane Hospital. They seemed to me to
betray the richest invention, so rich as almost to say, why draw any
line since you can draw all? Genius has given you the freedom of the
universe, why then come within any walls? And this seems to be the
old moral which we draw from our fable, read it how or where you
will, that we cannot make one good stroke until we can make every
possible stroke; and when we can one, every one seems superfluous. I
heartily thank you for the good wishes you send me to open the year,
and I say them back again to you. Your field is a world, and all men
are your spectators, and all men respect the true and great-hearted
service you render. And yet it is not spectator nor spectacle that
concerns either you or me. The whole world is sick of that very ail,
of being seen, and of seemliness. It belongs to the brave now to
trust themselves infinitely, and to sit and hearken alone. I am glad
to see William Channing is one of your coadjutors. Mrs. Jameson's
new book, I should think, would bring a caravan of travellers,
aesthetic, artistic, and what not, up your mighty stream, or along
the lakes to Mackinaw. As I read I almost vowed an exploration, but
I doubt if I ever get beyond the Hudson.
Your affectionate servant, R.W. EMERSON.
On the 24th of July, 1838, a little more than a week after the delivery
of the Address before the Divinity School, Mr. Emerson delivered an
Oration before the Literary Societies of Dartmouth College. If any rumor
of the former discourse had reached Dartmouth, the audience must have
been prepared for a much more startling performance than that to
which they listened. The bold avowal which fluttered the dovecotes of
Cambridge would have sounded like the crash of doom to the cautious
old tenants of the Hanover aviary. If there were any drops of false or
questionable doctrine in the silver shower of eloquence under which
they had been sitting, the plumage of orthodoxy glistened with unctuous
repellents, and a shake or two on coming out of church left the sturdy
old dogmatists as dry as ever.
Those who remember the Dartmouth College of that day cannot help smiling
at the thought of the contrast in the way of thinking between the
speaker and the larger part, or at least the older part, of his
audience. President Lord was well known as the scriptural defender of
the institution of slavery. Not long before a controversy had arisen,
provoked by the setting up of the Episcopal form of worship by one of
the Professors, the most estimable and scholarly Dr. Daniel Oliver.
Perhaps, however, the extreme difference between the fundamental
conceptions of Mr. Emerson and the endemic orthodoxy of that place
and time was too great for any hostile feeling to be awakened by the
sweet-voiced and peaceful-mannered speaker. There is a kind of harmony
between boldly contrasted beliefs like that between complementary
colors. It is when two shades of the same color are brought side by side
that comparison makes them odious to each other. Mr. Emerson could go
anywhere and find willing listeners among those farthest in their belief
from the views he held. Such was his simplicity of speech and manner,
such his transparent sincerity, that it was next to impossible to
quarrel with the gentle image-breaker.
The subject of Mr. Emerson's Address is _Literary Ethics._ It is on the
same lofty plane of sentiment and in the same exalted tone of eloquence
as the Phi Beta Kappa Address. The word impassioned would seem
misplaced, if applied to any of Mr. Emerson's orations. But these
discourses were both written and delivered in the freshness of his
complete manhood. They were produced at a time when his mind had learned
its powers and the work to which it was called, in the struggle which
freed him from the constraint of stereotyped confessions of faith and
all peremptory external authority. It is not strange, therefore, to find
some of his paragraphs glowing with heat and sparkling with imaginative
"Neither years nor books," he says, "have yet availed to extirpate a
prejudice rooted in me, that a scholar is the favorite of Heaven and
earth, the excellency of his country, the happiest of men." And yet,
he confesses that the scholars of this country have not fulfilled
the reasonable expectation of mankind. "Men here, as elsewhere, are
indisposed to innovation and prefer any antiquity, any usage, any livery
productive of ease or profit, to the unproductive service of thought."
For all this he offers those correctives which in various forms underlie
all his teachings. "The resources of the scholar are proportioned to his
confidence in the attributes of the Intellect." New lessons of spiritual
independence, fresh examples and illustrations, are drawn from history
and biography. There is a passage here so true to nature that it permits
a half page of quotation and a line or two of comment:--
"An intimation of these broad rights is familiar in the sense of
injury which men feel in the assumption of any man to limit their
possible progress. We resent all criticism which denies us anything
that lies In our line of advance. Say to the man of letters, that
he cannot paint a Transfiguration, or build a steamboat, or be a
grand-marshal, and he will not seem to himself depreciated. But deny
to him any quality of literary or metaphysical power, and he is
piqued. Concede to him genius, which is a sort of stoical _plenum_
annulling the comparative, and he is content; but concede him
talents never so rare, denying him genius, and he is aggrieved."
But it ought to be added that if the pleasure of denying the genius of
their betters were denied to the mediocrities, their happiness would be
From the resources of the American Scholar Mr. Emerson passes to his
tasks. Nature, as it seems to him, has never yet been truly studied.
"Poetry has scarcely chanted its first song. The perpetual admonition of
Nature to us is, 'The world is new, untried. Do not believe the past. I
give you the universe a virgin to-day.'" And in the same way he would
have the scholar look at history, at philosophy. The world belongs to
the student, but he must put himself into harmony with the constitution
of things. "He must embrace solitude as a bride." Not superstitiously,
but after having found out, as a little experience will teach him, all
that society can do for him with its foolish routine. I have spoken of
the exalted strain into which Mr. Emerson sometimes rises in the midst
of his general serenity. Here is an instance of it:--
"You will hear every day the maxims of a low prudence. You will hear
that the first duty is to get land and money, place and name. 'What
is this truth you seek? What is this beauty?' men will ask, with
derision. If, nevertheless, God have called any of you to explore
truth and beauty, be bold, be firm, be true. When you shall say,
'As others do, so will I: I renounce, I am sorry for it, my early
visions: I must eat the good of the land, and let learning and
romantic expectations go, until a more convenient season;'--then
dies the man in you; then once more perish the buds of art, and
poetry, and science, as they have died already in a thousand
thousand men.--Bend to the persuasion which is flowing to you from
every object in nature, to be its tongue to the heart of man, and to
show the besotted world how passing fair is wisdom. Why should you
renounce your right to traverse the starlit deserts of truth, for
the premature comforts of an acre, house, and barn? Truth also has
its roof and house and board. Make yourself necessary to the world,
and mankind will give you bread; and if not store of it, yet such as
shall not take away your property in all men's possessions, in all
men's affections, in art, in nature, and in hope."
The next Address Emerson delivered was "The Method of Nature," before
the Society of the Adelphi, in Waterville College, Maine, August 11,
In writing to Carlyle on the 31st of July, he says: "As usual at this
season of the year, I, incorrigible spouting Yankee, am writing an
oration to deliver to the boys in one of our little country colleges
nine days hence.... My whole philosophy--which is very real--teaches
acquiescence and optimism. Only when I see how much work is to be done,
what room for a poet--for any spiritualist--in this great, intelligent,
sensual, and avaricious America, I lament my fumbling fingers and
stammering tongue." It may be remembered that Mr. Matthew Arnold quoted
the expression about America, which sounded more harshly as pronounced
in a public lecture than as read in a private letter.
The Oration shows the same vein of thought as the letter. Its title is
"The Method of Nature." He begins with congratulations on the enjoyments
and promises of this literary Anniversary.
"The scholars are the priests of that thought which establishes the
foundations of the castle."--"We hear too much of the results of
machinery, commerce, and the useful arts. We are a puny and a fickle
folk. Avarice, hesitation, and following are our diseases. The rapid
wealth which hundreds in the community acquire in trade, or by the
incessant expansion of our population and arts, enchants the eyes
of all the rest; this luck of one is the hope of thousands, and the
bribe acts like the neighborhood of a gold mine to impoverish the
farm, the school, the church, the house, and the very body and
feature of man."--"While the multitude of men degrade each other,
and give currency to desponding doctrines, the scholar must be a
bringer of hope, and must reinforce man against himself."
I think we may detect more of the manner of Carlyle in this Address than
in any of those which preceded it.
"Why then goest thou as some Boswell or literary worshipper to this
saint or to that? That is the only lese-majesty. Here art thou with
whom so long the universe travailed in labor; darest thou think
meanly of thyself whom the stalwart Fate brought forth to unite his
ragged sides, to shoot the gulf, to reconcile the irreconcilable?"
That there is an "intimate divinity" which is the source of all true
wisdom, that the duty of man is to listen to its voice and to follow it,
that "the sanity of man needs the poise of this immanent force,"
that the rule is "Do what you know, and perception is converted into
character,"--all this is strongly enforced and richly illustrated in
this Oration. Just how easily it was followed by the audience, just how
far they were satisfied with its large principles wrought into a few
broad precepts, it would be easier at this time to ask than to learn.
We notice not so much the novelty of the ideas to be found in this
discourse on "The Method of Nature," as the pictorial beauty of
their expression. The deep reverence which underlies all Emerson's
speculations is well shown in this paragraph:--
"We ought to celebrate this hour by expressions of manly joy. Not
thanks nor prayer seem quite the highest or truest name for
our communication with the infinite,--but glad and conspiring
reception,--reception that becomes giving in its turn as the
receiver is only the All-Giver in part and in infancy."--"It is God
in us which checks the language of petition by grander thought. In
the bottom of the heart it is said: 'I am, and by me, O child! this
fair body and world of thine stands and grows. I am, all things are
mine; and all mine are thine.'"
We must not quarrel with his peculiar expressions. He says, in this same
paragraph, "I cannot,--nor can any man,--speak precisely of things so
sublime; but it seems to me the wit of man, his strength, his grace, his
tendency, his art, is the grace and the presence of God. It is beyond
"We can point nowhere to anything final but tendency; but tendency
appears on all hands; planet, system, constellation, total nature is
growing like a field of maize in July; is becoming something else;
is in rapid metamorphosis. The embryo does not more strive to be
man, than yonder burr of light we call a nebula tends to be a ring,
a comet, a globe, and parent of new stars." "In short, the spirit
and peculiarity of that impression nature makes on us is this, that
it does not exist to any one, or to any number of particular ends,
but to numberless and endless benefit; that there is in it no
private will, no rebel leaf or limb, but the whole is oppressed by
one superincumbent tendency, obeys that redundancy or excess of life
which in conscious beings we call ecstasy."
Here is another of those almost lyrical passages which seem too long for
the music of rhythm and the resonance of rhyme.
"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."
His feeling about the soul, which has shown itself in many of the
extracts already given, is summed up in the following sentence:--
"We cannot describe the natural history of the soul, but we know
that it is divine. I cannot tell if these wonderful qualities which
house to-day in this mental home shall ever reassemble in equal
activity in a similar frame, or whether they have before had a
natural history like that of this body you see before you; but this
one thing I know, that these qualities did not now begin to exist,
cannot be sick with my sickness, nor buried in any grave; but that
they circulate through the Universe: before the world was, they
It is hard to see the distinction between the omnipresent Deity
recognized in our formal confessions of faith and the "pantheism" which
is the object of dread to many of the faithful. But there are many
expressions in this Address which must have sounded strangely and
vaguely to his Christian audience. "Are there not moments in the history
of heaven when the human race was not counted by individuals, but was
only the Influenced; was God in distribution, God rushing into manifold
benefit?" It might be feared that the practical philanthropists would
feel that they lost by his counsels.
"The reform 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."--"I say to you plainly there is no end to
which your practical faculty can aim so sacred or so large, that if
pursued for itself, will not at last become carrion and an offence
to the nostril. The imaginative faculty of the soul must be fed with
objects immense and eternal. Your end should be one inapprehensible
to the senses; then it will be a god, always approached,--never
touched; always giving health."
Nothing is plainer than that it was Emerson's calling to supply impulses
and not methods. He was not an organizer, but a power behind many
organizers, inspiring them with lofty motive, giving breadth, to their
views, always tending to become narrow through concentration on their
special objects. The Oration we have been examining was delivered in
the interval between the delivery of two Addresses, one called "Man the
Reformer," and another called "Lecture on the Times." In the first he
preaches the dignity and virtue of manual labor; that "a man should have
a farm, or a mechanical craft for his culture."--That he cannot give up
labor without suffering some loss of power. "How can the man who has
learned but one art procure all the conveniences of life honestly? Shall
we say all we think?--Perhaps with his own hands.--Let us learn the
meaning of economy.--Parched corn eaten to-day that I may have roast
fowl to my dinner on Sunday is a baseness; but parched corn and a house
with one apartment, that I may be free of all perturbation, that I
may be serene and docile to what the mind shall speak, and quit and
road-ready for the lowest mission of knowledge or good will, is
frugality for gods and heroes."
This was what Emerson wrote in January, 1841. This "house with one
apartment" was what Thoreau built with his own hands in 1845. In April
of the former year, he went to live with Mr. Emerson, but had been on
intimate terms with him previously to that time. Whether it was from him
that Thoreau got the hint of the Walden cabin and the parched corn, or
whether this idea was working in Thoreau's mind and was suggested to
Emerson by him, is of no great consequence. Emerson, to whom he owed
so much, may well have adopted some of those fancies which Thoreau
entertained, and afterwards worked out in practice. He was at the
philanthropic centre of a good many movements which he watched others
carrying out, as a calm and kindly spectator, without losing his common
sense for a moment. It would never have occurred to him to leave all the
conveniences and comforts of life to go and dwell in a shanty, so as to
prove to himself that he could live like a savage, or like his friends
"Teague and his jade," as he called the man and brother and sister, more
commonly known nowadays as Pat, or Patrick, and his old woman.
"The Americans have many virtues," he says in this Address, "but they
have not Faith and Hope." Faith and Hope, Enthusiasm and Love, are the
burden of this Address. But he would regulate these qualities by "a
great prospective prudence," which shall mediate between the spiritual
and the actual world.
In the "Lecture on the Times" he shows very clearly the effect which a
nearer contact with the class of men and women who called themselves
Reformers had upon him.
"The Reforms have their higher origin in an ideal justice,
but they do not retain the purity of an idea. They are
quickly organized in some low, inadequate form, and present no
more poetic image to the mind than the evil tradition which they
reprobated. They mix the fire of the moral sentiment with personal
and party heats, with measureless exaggerations, and the blindness
that prefers some darling measure to justice and truth. Those who
are urging with most ardor what are called the greatest benefit of
mankind are narrow, self-pleasing, conceited men, and affect us as
the insane do. They bite us, and we run mad also. I think the work
of the reformer as innocent as other work that is done around him;
but when I have seen it near!--I do not like it better. It is done
in the same way; it is done profanely, not piously; by management,
by tactics and clamor."
All this, and much more like it, would hardly have been listened to by
the ardent advocates of the various reforms, if anybody but Mr. Emerson
had said it. He undervalued no sincere action except to suggest a wiser
and better one. He attacked no motive which had a good aim, except in
view of some larger and loftier principle. The charm of his imagination
and the music of his words took away all the sting from the thoughts
that penetrated to the very marrow of the entranced listeners. Sometimes
it was a splendid hyperbole that illuminated a statement which by the
dim light of common speech would have offended or repelled those who
sat before him. He knew the force of _felix audacia_ as well as any
rhetorician could have taught him. He addresses the reformer with one of
those daring images which defy the critics.
"As the farmer casts into the ground the finest ears of his grain,
the time will come when we too shall hold nothing back, but shall
eagerly convert more than we possess into means and powers, when we
shall be willing to sow the sun and the moon for seeds."
He said hard things to the reformer, especially to the Abolitionist, in
his "Lecture on the Times." It would have taken a long while to get
rid of slavery if some of Emerson's teachings in this lecture had been
accepted as the true gospel of liberty. But how much its last sentence
covers with its soothing tribute!
"All the newspapers, all the tongues of today will of course defame
what is noble; but you who hold not of to-day, not of the times, but
of the Everlasting, are to stand for it; and the highest compliment
man ever receives from Heaven is the sending to him its disguised
and discredited angels."
The Lecture called "The Transcendentalist" will naturally be looked at
with peculiar interest, inasmuch as this term has been very commonly
applied to Emerson, and to many who were considered his disciples.
It has a proper philosophical meaning, and it has also a local and
accidental application to the individuals of a group which came together
very much as any literary club might collect about a teacher. All this
comes out clearly enough in the Lecture. In the first place, Emerson
explains that the "_new views_," as they are called, are the oldest of
thoughts cast in a new mould.
"What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us is Idealism:
Idealism as it appears in 1842. As thinkers, mankind have ever
divided into two sects, Materialists and Idealists; the first class
founding on experience, the second on consciousness; the first class
beginning to think from the data of the senses, the second class
perceive that the senses are not final, and say, the senses give us
representations of things, but what are the things themselves, they
cannot tell. The materialist insists on facts, on history, on the
force of circumstances and the animal wants of man; the idealist on
the power of Thought and of Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on
"The materialist takes his departure from the external world,
and esteems a man as one product of that. The idealist takes his
departure from his consciousness, and reckons the world an
appearance.--His thought, that is the Universe."
The association of scholars and thinkers to which the name of
"Transcendentalists" was applied, and which made itself an organ in the
periodical known as "The Dial," has been written about by many who were
in the movement, and others who looked on or got their knowledge of
it at second hand. Emerson was closely associated with these "same
Transcendentalists," and a leading contributor to "The Dial," which was
their organ. The movement borrowed its inspiration more from him than
from any other source, and the periodical owed more to him than to any
other writer. So far as his own relation to the circle of illuminati and
the dial which they shone upon was concerned, he himself is the best
In his "Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England," he sketches
in a rapid way the series of intellectual movements which led to the
development of the "new views" above mentioned. "There are always two
parties," he says, "the party of the Past and the party of the Future;
the Establishment and the Movement."
About 1820, and in the twenty years which followed, an era of activity
manifested itself in the churches, in politics, in philanthropy, in
literature. In our own community the influence of Swedenborg and of the
genius and character of Dr. Channing were among the more immediate early
causes of the mental agitation. Emerson attributes a great importance
to the scholarship, the rhetoric, the eloquence, of Edward Everett, who
returned to Boston in 1820, after five years of study in Europe. Edward
Everett is already to a great extent a tradition, somewhat as Rufus
Choate is, a voice, a fading echo, as must be the memory of every great
orator. These wondrous personalities have their truest and warmest life
in a few old men's memories. It is therefore with delight that one who
remembers Everett in his robes of rhetorical splendor, who recalls his
full-blown, high-colored, double-flowered periods, the rich, resonant,
grave, far-reaching music of his speech, with just enough of nasal
vibration to give the vocal sounding-board its proper value in the
harmonies of utterance,--it is with delight that such a one reads the
glowing words of Emerson whenever he refers to Edward Everett. It is
enough if he himself caught inspiration from those eloquent lips; but
many a listener has had his youthful enthusiasm fired by that great
master of academic oratory.
Emerson follows out the train of influences which added themselves to
the impulse given by Mr. Everett. German scholarship, the growth of
science, the generalizations of Goethe, the idealism of Schelling, the
influence of Wordsworth, of Coleridge, of Carlyle, and in our immediate
community, the writings of Channing,--he left it to others to say of
Emerson,--all had their part in this intellectual, or if we may call it
so, spiritual revival. He describes with that exquisite sense of the
ridiculous which was a part of his mental ballast, the first attempt at
organizing an association of cultivated, thoughtful people. They came
together, the cultivated, thoughtful people, at Dr. John Collins
Warren's,--Dr. Channing, the great Dr. Channing, among the rest, full
of the great thoughts he wished to impart. The preliminaries went on
smoothly enough with the usual small talk,--
"When a side-door opened, the whole company streamed in to an oyster
supper, crowned by excellent wines [this must have been before
Dr. Warren's temperance epoch], and so ended the first attempt to
establish aesthetic society in Boston.
"Some time afterwards Dr. Channing opened his mind to Mr. and Mrs.
Ripley, and with some care they invited a limited party of ladies
and gentlemen. I had the honor to be present.--Margaret Fuller,
George Ripley, Dr. Convers Francis, Theodore Parker, Dr. Hedge, Mr.
Brownson, James Freeman Clarke, William H. Channing, and many others
gradually drew together, and from time to time spent an afternoon at
each other's houses in a serious conversation."
With them was another, "a pure Idealist,--who read Plato as an
equal, and inspired his companions only in proportion as they were
intellectual." He refers, of course to Mr. Alcott. Emerson goes on to
"I think there prevailed at that time a general belief in Boston
that there was some concert of _doctrinaires_ to establish certain
opinions, and inaugurate some movement in literature, philosophy,
and religion, of which design the supposed conspirators were quite
innocent; for there was no concert, and only here and there two or
three men and women who read and wrote, each alone, with unusual
vivacity. Perhaps they only agreed in having fallen upon Coleridge
and Wordsworth and Goethe, then on Carlyle, with pleasure and
sympathy. Otherwise their education and reading were not marked, but
had the American superficialness, and their studies were solitary.
I suppose all of them were surprised at this rumor of a school or
sect, and certainly at the name of Transcendentalism, given, nobody
knows by whom, or when it was applied."
Emerson's picture of some of these friends of his is so peculiar as to
suggest certain obvious and not too flattering comments.
"In like manner, if there is anything grand and daring in human
thought or virtue; any reliance on the vast, the unknown; any
presentiment, any extravagance of faith, the Spiritualist adopts
it as most in nature. The Oriental mind has always tended to this
largeness. Buddhism is an expression of it. The Buddhist, who thanks
no man, who says, 'Do not flatter your benefactors,' but who in his
conviction that every good deed can by no possibility escape its
reward, will not deceive the benefactor by pretending that he has
done more than he should, is a Transcendentalist.
"These exacting children advertise us of our wants. There is no
compliment, no smooth speech with them; they pay you only this one
compliment, of insatiable expectation; they aspire, they severely
exact, and if they only stand fast in this watch-tower, and persist
in demanding unto the end, and without end, then are they terrible
friends, whereof poet and priest cannot choose but stand in awe; and
what if they eat clouds, and drink wind, they have not been without
service to the race of man."
The person who adopts "any presentiment, any extravagance as most in
nature," is not commonly called a Transcendentalist, but is known
colloquially as a "crank." The person who does not thank, by word or
look, the friend or stranger who has pulled him out of the fire or
water, is fortunate if he gets off with no harder name than that of a
Nothing was farther from Emerson himself than whimsical eccentricity or
churlish austerity. But there was occasionally an air of bravado in some
of his followers as if they had taken out a patent for some knowing
machine which was to give them a monopoly of its products. They claimed
more for each other than was reasonable,--so much occasionally that
their pretensions became ridiculous. One was tempted to ask: "What
forlorn hope have you led? What immortal book have you written? What
great discovery have you made? What heroic task of any kind have you
performed?" There was too much talk about earnestness and too little
real work done. Aspiration too frequently got as far as the alpenstock
and the brandy flask, but crossed no dangerous crevasse, and scaled
no arduous summit. In short, there was a kind of "Transcendentalist"
dilettanteism, which betrayed itself by a phraseology as distinctive as
that of the Della Cruscans of an earlier time.
In reading the following description of the "intelligent and religious
persons" who belonged to the "Transcendentalist" communion, the reader
must remember that it is Emerson who draws the portrait,--a friend and
not a scoffer:--
"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 enterprise 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."
After arraigning the representatives of Transcendental or spiritual
beliefs in this way, he summons them to plead for themselves, and this
is what they have to say:--
"'New, we confess, and by no means happy, is our condition: if you
want the aid of our labor, we ourselves stand in greater want of the
labor. We are miserable with inaction. We perish of rest and rust:
but we do not like your work.'
'Then,' says the world, 'show me your own.'
'We have none.'
'What will you do, then?' cries the world.
'We will wait.'
'Until the Universe beckons and calls us to work.'
'But whilst you wait you grow old and useless.'
'Be it so: I can sit in a corner and _perish_ (as you call it), but
I will not move until I have the highest command.'"
And so the dissatisfied tenant of this unhappy creation goes on with his
reasons for doing nothing.
It is easy to stay away from church and from town-meetings. It is
easy to keep out of the way of the contribution box and to let the
subscription paper go by us to the next door. The common duties of life
and the good offices society asks of us may be left to take care of
themselves while we contemplate the infinite. There is no safer fortress
for indolence than "the Everlasting No." The chimney-corner is the true
arena for this class of philosophers, and the pipe and mug furnish their
all-sufficient panoply. Emerson undoubtedly met with some of them among
his disciples. His wise counsel did not always find listeners in a
fitting condition to receive it. He was a sower who went forth to sow.
Some of the good seed fell among the thorns of criticism. Some fell on
the rocks of hardened conservatism. Some fell by the wayside and was
picked up by the idlers who went to the lecture-room to get rid of
themselves. But when it fell upon the right soil it bore a growth of
thought which ripened into a harvest of large and noble lives.
Emerson shows up the weakness of his young enthusiasts with that
delicate wit which warns its objects rather than wounds them. But he
makes it all up with the dreamers before he can let them go.
"Society also has its duties in reference to this class, and must
behold them with what charity it can. Possibly some benefit may yet
accrue from them to the state. Besides our coarse implements, there
must be some few finer instruments,--rain-gauges, thermometers, and
telescopes; and in society, besides farmers, sailors, and weavers,
there must be a few persons of purer fire kept specially as gauges
and meters of character; persons of a fine, detecting instinct,
who note the smallest accumulations of wit and feeling in the
by-stander. Perhaps too there might be room for the exciters and
monitors; collectors of the heavenly spark, with power to convey the
electricity to others. Or, as the storm-tossed vessel at sea speaks
the frigate or "line-packet" to learn its longitude, so it may not
be without its advantage that we should now and then encounter rare
and gifted men, to compare the points of our spiritual compass, and
verify our bearings from superior chronometers."
It must be confessed that it is not a very captivating picture which
Emerson draws of some of his transcendental friends. Their faults were
naturally still more obvious to those outside of their charmed circle,
and some prejudice, very possibly, mingled with their critical
judgments. On the other hand we have the evidence of a visitor who knew
a good deal of the world as to the impression they produced upon him:--
"There has sprung up in Boston," says Dickens, in his "American
Notes," "a sect of philosophers known as Transcendentalists. On
inquiring what this appellation might be supposed to signify, I
was given to understand that whatever was unintelligible would be
certainly Transcendental. Not deriving much comfort from this
elucidation, I pursued the inquiry still further, and found that the
Transcendentalists are followers of my friend Mr. Carlyle, or, I
should rather say, of a follower of his, Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson.
This gentleman has written a volume of Essays, in which, among much
that is dreamy and fanciful (if he will pardon me for saying
so), there is much more that is true and manly, honest and bold.
Transcendentalism has its occasional vagaries (what school has
not?), but it has good healthful qualities in spite of them; not
least among the number a hearty disgust of Cant, and an aptitude to
detect her in all the million varieties of her everlasting wardrobe.
And therefore, if I were a Bostonian, I think I would be a
In December, 1841, Emerson delivered a Lecture entitled "The
Conservative." It was a time of great excitement among the members of
that circle of which he was the spiritual leader. Never did Emerson
show the perfect sanity which characterized his practical judgment more
beautifully than in this Lecture and in his whole course with reference
to the intellectual agitation of the period. He is as fair to the
conservative as to the reformer. He sees the fanaticism of the one as
well as that of the other. "Conservatism tends to universal seeming and
treachery; believes in a negative fate; believes that men's tempers
govern them; that for me it avails not to trust in principles, they will
fail me, I must bend a little; it distrusts Nature; it thinks there is a
general law without a particular application,--law for all that does
not include any one. Reform in its antagonism inclines to asinine
resistance, to kick with hoofs; it runs to egotism and bloated
self-conceit; it runs to a bodiless pretension, to unnatural refining
and elevation, which ends in hypocrisy and sensual reaction. And so,
whilst we do not go beyond general statements, it may be safely affirmed
of these two metaphysical antagonists that each is a good half, but an
He has his beliefs, and, if you will, his prejudices, but he loves fair
play, and though he sides with the party of the future, he will not be
unjust to the present or the past.
We read in a letter from Emerson to Carlyle, dated March 12, 1835, that
Dr. Charming "lay awake all night, he told my friend last week, because
he had learned in the evening that some young men proposed to issue
a journal, to be called 'The Transcendentalist,' as the organ of a
spiritual philosophy." Again on the 30th of April of the same year, in
a letter in which he lays out a plan for a visit of Carlyle to this
country, Emerson says:--
"It was suggested that if Mr. C. would undertake a journal of which
we have talked much, but which we have never yet produced, he would
do us great service, and we feel some confidence that it could be
made to secure him a support. It is that project which I mentioned
to you in a letter by Mr. Barnard,--a book to be called 'The
Transcendentalist;' or, 'The Spiritual Inquirer,' or the like....
Those who are most interested in it designed to make gratuitous
contribution to its pages, until its success could be assured."
The idea of the grim Scotchman as editor of what we came in due time to
know as "The Dial!" A concert of singing mice with a savage and hungry
old grimalkin as leader of the orchestra! It was much safer to be
content with Carlyle's purring from his own side of the water, as
"'The Boston Transcendentalist,' whatever the fate or merit of it
may prove to be, is surely an interesting symptom. There must be
things not dreamt of over in that _Transoceanic_ parish! I shall
certainly wish well to this thing; and hail it as the sure
forerunner of things better."
There were two notable products of the intellectual ferment of the
Transcendental period which deserve an incidental notice here, from the
close connection which Emerson had with one of them and the interest
which he took in the other, in which many of his friends were more
deeply concerned. These were the periodical just spoken of as a
possibility realized, and the industrial community known as Brook Farm.
They were to a certain extent synchronous,--the Magazine beginning in
July, 1840, and expiring in April, 1844; Brook Farm being organized in
1841, and breaking up in 1847.
"The Dial" was edited at first by Margaret Fuller, afterwards by
Emerson, who contributed more than forty articles in prose and verse,
among them "The Conservative," "The Transcendentalist," "Chardon Street
and Bible Convention," and some of his best and best known poems, "The
Problem," "Woodnotes," "The Sphinx," "Fate." The other principal writers
were Margaret Fuller, A. Bronson Alcott, George Ripley, James Freeman
Clarke, Theodore Parker, William H. Channing, Henry Thoreau, Eliot
Cabot, John S. Dwight, C.P. Cranch, William Ellery Channing, Mrs.
Ellen Hooper, and her sister Mrs. Caroline Tappan. Unequal as the
contributions are in merit, the periodical is of singular interest.
It was conceived and carried on in a spirit of boundless hope and
enthusiasm. Time and a narrowing subscription list proved too hard
a trial, and its four volumes remain stranded, like some rare and
curiously patterned shell which a storm of yesterday has left beyond
the reach of the receding waves. Thoreau wrote for nearly every number.
Margaret Fuller, less attractive in print than in conversation, did her
part as a contributor as well as editor. Theodore Parker came down with
his "trip-hammer" in its pages. Mrs. Ellen Hooper published a few poems
in its columns which remain, always beautiful, in many memories. Others,
whose literary lives have fulfilled their earlier promise, and who are
still with us, helped forward the new enterprise with their frequent
contributions. It is a pleasure to turn back to "The Dial," with all its
crudities. It should be looked through by the side of the "Anthology."
Both were April buds, opening before the frosts were over, but with the
pledge of a better season.
We get various hints touching the new Magazine in the correspondence
between Emerson and Carlyle. Emerson tells Carlyle, a few months before
the first number appeared, that it will give him a better knowledge
of our _young people_ than any he has had. It is true that unfledged
writers found a place to try their wings in it, and that makes it more
interesting. This was the time above all others when out of the mouth
of babes and sucklings was to come forth strength. The feeling that
intuition was discovering a new heaven and a new earth was the
inspiration of these "young people" to whom Emerson refers. He has to
apologize for the first number. "It is not yet much," he says; "indeed,
though no copy has come to me, I know it is far short of what it should
be, for they have suffered puffs and dulness to creep in for the sake
of the complement of pages, but it is better than anything we had.--The
Address of the Editors to the Readers is all the prose that is mine, and
whether they have printed a few verses for me I do not know." They did
print "The Problem." There were also some fragments of criticism from
the writings of his brother Charles, and the poem called "The Last
Farewell," by his brother Edward, which is to be found in Emerson's
"May-day and other Pieces."
On the 30th of August, after the periodical had been published a couple
of months, Emerson writes:--
"Our community begin to stand in some terror of Transcendentalism;
and the _Dial_, poor little thing, whose first number contains
scarce anything considerable or even visible, is just now honored
by attacks from almost every newspaper and magazine; which at least
betrays the irritability and the instincts of the good public."
Carlyle finds the second number of "The Dial" better than the first, and
tosses his charitable recognition, as if into an alms-basket, with
his usual air of superiority. He distinguishes what is Emerson's
readily,--the rest he speaks of as the work of [Greek: oi polloi] for
the most part. "But it is all good and very good as a _soul;_ wants only
a body, which want means a great deal." And again, "'The Dial,' too, it
is all spirit like, aeri-form, aurora-borealis like. Will no _Angel_
body himself out of that; no stalwart Yankee _man_, with color in the
cheeks of him and a coat on his back?"
Emerson, writing to Carlyle in March, 1842, speaks of the "dubious
approbation on the part of you and other men," notwithstanding which he
found it with "a certain class of men and women, though few, an object
of tenderness and religion." So, when Margaret Fuller gave it up, at the
end of the second volume, Emerson consented to become its editor. "I
cannot bid you quit 'The Dial,'" says Carlyle, "though it, too, alas, is
Antinomian somewhat! _Perge, perge_, nevertheless."
In the next letter he says:--
"I love your 'Dial,' and yet it is with a kind of shudder. You seem
to me in danger of dividing yourselves from the Fact of this present
Universe, in which alone, ugly as it is, can I find any anchorage,
and soaring away after Ideas, Beliefs, Revelations and such
like,--into perilous altitudes, as I think; beyond the curve of
perpetual frost, for one thing. I know not how to utter what
impression you give me; take the above as some stamping of the
A curious way of characterizing himself as a critic,--but he was not
always as well-mannered as the Houyhnhnms.
To all Carlyle's complaints of "The Dial's" short-comings Emerson did
not pretend to give any satisfactory answer, but his plea of guilty,
with extenuating circumstances, is very honest and definite.
"For the _Dial_ and its sins, I have no defence to set up. We write
as we can, and we know very little about it. If the direction of
these speculations is to be deplored, it is yet a fact for literary
Back to Full Books