Ralph Waldo Emerson
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Part 3 out of 7
history that all the bright boys and girls in New England, quite
ignorant of each other, take the world so, and come and make
confession to fathers and mothers,--the boys, that they do not wish
to go into trade, the girls, that they do not like morning calls and
evening parties. They are all religious, but hate the churches; they
reject all the ways of living of other men, but have none to offer
in their stead. Perhaps one of these days a great Yankee shall come,
who will easily do the unknown deed."
"All the bright boys and girls in New England," and "'The Dial' dying of
inanition!" In October, 1840, Emerson writes to Carlyle:--
"We are all a little wild here with numberless projects of social
reform. Not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his
waistcoat pocket. I am gently mad myself, and am resolved to live
cleanly. George Ripley is talking up a colony of agriculturists and
scholars, with whom he threatens to take the field and the book.
One man renounces the use of animal food; and another of coin; and
another of domestic hired service; and another of the state; and on
the whole we have a commendable share of reason and hope."
Mr. Ripley's project took shape in the West Roxbury Association, better
known under the name of Brook Farm. Emerson was not involved in this
undertaking. He looked upon it with curiosity and interest, as he would
have looked at a chemical experiment, but he seems to have had only a
moderate degree of faith in its practical working. "It was a noble and
generous movement in the projectors to try an experiment of better
living. One would say that impulse was the rule in the society, without
centripetal balance; perhaps it would not be severe to say, intellectual
sans-culottism, an impatience of the formal routinary character of our
educational, religious, social, and economical life in Massachusetts."
The reader will find a full detailed account of the Brook Farm
experiment in Mr. Frothingham's "Life of George Ripley," its founder,
and the first President of the Association. Emerson had only tangential
relations with the experiment, and tells its story in his "Historic
Notes" very kindly and respectfully, but with that sense of the
ridiculous in the aspect of some of its conditions which belongs to the
sagacious common-sense side of his nature. The married women, he
says, were against the community. "It was to them like the brassy and
lacquered life in hotels. The common school was well enough, but to
the common nursery they had grave objections. Eggs might be hatched in
ovens, but the hen on her own account much preferred the old way. A hen
without her chickens was but half a hen." Is not the inaudible, inward
laughter of Emerson more refreshing than the explosions of our noisiest
This is his benevolent summing up:--
"The founders of Brook Farm should have this praise, that they made
what all people try to make, an agreeable place to live in. All
comers, even the most fastidious, found it the pleasantest of
residences. It is certain, that freedom from household routine,
variety of character and talent, variety of work, variety of means
of thought and instruction, art, music, poetry, reading, masquerade,
did not permit sluggishness or despondency; broke up routine.
There is agreement in the testimony that it was, to most of the
associates, education; to many, the most important period of their
life, the birth of valued friendships, their first acquaintance with
the riches of conversation, their training in behavior. The art of
letter-writing, it is said, was immensely cultivated. Letters were
always flying, not only from house to house, but from room to room.
It was a perpetual picnic, a French Revolution in small, an Age of
Reason in a patty-pan."
The public edifice called the "Phalanstery" was destroyed by fire
in 1846. The Association never recovered from this blow, and soon
afterwards it was dissolved.
Section 2. Emerson's first volume of his collected Essays was published
in 1841. In the reprint it contains the following Essays: History;
Self-Reliance; Compensation; Spiritual Laws; Love; Friendship; Prudence;
Heroism; The Over-Soul; Circles; Intellect; Art. "The Young American,"
which is now included in the volume, was not delivered until 1844.
Once accustomed to Emerson's larger formulae we can to a certain extent
project from our own minds his treatment of special subjects. But we
cannot anticipate the daring imagination, the subtle wit, the curious
illustrations, the felicitous language, which make the Lecture or the
Essay captivating as read, and almost entrancing as listened to by
the teachable disciple. The reader must be prepared for occasional
extravagances. Take the Essay on History, in the first series of Essays,
for instance. "Let it suffice that in the light of these two facts,
namely, that the mind is One, and that nature is its correlative,
history is to be read and written." When we come to the application,
in the same Essay, almost on the same page, what can we make of such
discourse as this? The sentences I quote do not follow immediately, one
upon the other, but their sense is continuous.
"I hold an actual knowledge very cheap. Hear the rats in the wall,
see the lizard on the fence, the fungus under foot, the lichen on
the log. What do I know sympathetically, morally, of either of these
worlds of life?--How many times we must say Rome and Paris, and
Constantinople! What does Rome know of rat and lizard? What are
Olympiads and Consulates to these neighboring systems of being?
Nay, what food or experience or succor have they for the Esquimau
seal-hunter, for the Kamchatcan in his canoe, for the fisherman, the
stevedore, the porter?"
The connection of ideas is not obvious. One can hardly help being
reminded of a certain great man's Rochester speech as commonly reported
by the story-teller. "Rome in her proudest days never had a waterfall
a hundred and fifty feet high! Greece in her palmiest days never had a
waterfall a hundred and fifty feet high! Men of Rochester, go on! No
people ever lost their liberty who had a waterfall a hundred and fifty
We cannot help smiling, perhaps laughing, at the odd mixture of Rome
and rats, of Olympiads and Esquimaux. But the underlying idea of the
interdependence of all that exists in nature is far from ridiculous.
Emerson says, not absurdly or extravagantly, that "every history should
be written in a wisdom which divined the range of our affinities and
looked at facts as symbols."
We have become familiar with his doctrine of "Self-Reliance," which is
the subject of the second lecture of the series. We know that he
always and everywhere recognized that the divine voice which speaks
authoritatively in the soul of man is the source of all our wisdom.
It is a man's true self, so that it follows that absolute, supreme
self-reliance is the law of his being. But see how he guards his
proclamation of self-reliance as the guide of mankind.
"Truly it demands something god-like in him who has cast off the
common motives of humanity and has ventured to trust himself for a
task-master. High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight,
that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself,
that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is
"Compensation" might be preached in a synagogue, and the Rabbi would be
praised for his performance. Emerson had been listening to a sermon from
a preacher esteemed for his orthodoxy, in which it was assumed that
judgment is not executed in this world, that the wicked are successful,
and the good are miserable. This last proposition agrees with John
"A Christian man is never long at ease,
When one fright's gone, another doth him seize."
Emerson shows up the "success" of the bad man and the failures and
trials of the good man in their true spiritual characters, with a noble
scorn of the preacher's low standard of happiness and misery, which
would have made him throw his sermon into the fire.
The Essay on "Spiritual Laws" is full of pithy sayings:--
"As much virtue as there is, so much appears; as much goodness as
there is, so much reverence it commands. All the devils respect
virtue.--A man passes for that he is worth.--The ancestor of every
action is a thought.--To think is to act.--Let a man believe in
God, and not in names and places and persons. Let the great soul
incarnated in some woman's form, poor and sad and single, in some
Dolly or Joan, go out to service and sweep chambers and scour
floors, and its effulgent day-beams cannot be hid, but to sweep and
scour will instantly appear supreme and beautiful actions, the top
and radiance of human life, and all people will get mops and brooms;
until, lo! suddenly the great soul has enshrined itself in some
other form and done some other deed, and that is now the flower and
head of all living nature."
This is not any the worse for being the flowering out of a poetical bud
of George Herbert's. The Essay on "Love" is poetical, but the three
poems, "Initial," "Daemonic," and "Celestial Love" are more nearly equal
to his subject than his prose.
There is a passage in the Lecture on "Friendship" which suggests
some personal relation of Emerson's about which we cannot help being
"It has seemed to me lately more possible than I knew, to carry a
friendship greatly, on one side, without due correspondence on the
other. Why should I cumber myself with regrets that the receiver is
not capacious? It never troubles the sun that some of his rays fall
wide and vain into ungrateful space, and only a small part on the
reflecting planet. Let your greatness educate the crude and cold
companion.... Yet these things may hardly be said without a sort of
treachery to the relation. The essence of friendship is entireness,
a total magnanimity and trust. It must not surmise or provide for
infirmity. It treats its object as a god that it may deify both."
Was he thinking of his relations with Carlyle? It is a curious subject
of speculation what would have been the issue if Carlyle had come to
Concord and taken up his abode under Emerson's most hospitable roof.
"You shall not come nearer a man by getting into his house." How could
they have got on together? Emerson was well-bred, and Carlyle was
wanting in the social graces. "Come rest in this bosom" is a sweet air,
heard in the distance, too apt to be followed, after a protracted season
of close proximity, by that other strain,--
"No, fly me, fly me, far as pole from pole!
Rise Alps between us and whole oceans roll!"
But Emerson may have been thinking of some very different person,
perhaps some "crude and cold companion" among his disciples, who was not
equal to the demands of friendly intercourse.
He discourses wisely on "Prudence," a virtue which he does not claim for
himself, and nobly on "Heroism," which was a shining part of his own
moral and intellectual being.
The points which will be most likely to draw the reader's attention are
the remarks on the literature of heroism; the claim for our own America,
for Massachusetts and Connecticut River and Boston Bay, in spite of our
love for the names of foreign and classic topography; and most of all
one sentence which, coming from an optimist like Emerson, has a sound of
sad sincerity painful to recognize.
"Who that sees the meanness of our politics but inly congratulates
Washington that he is long already wrapped in his shroud, and
forever safe; that he was laid sweet in his grave, the hope of
humanity not yet subjugated in him. Who does not sometimes envy the
good and brave who are no more to suffer from the tumults of the
natural world, and await with curious complacency the speedy term of
his own conversation with finite nature? And yet the love that
will be annihilated sooner than treacherous has already made death
impossible, and affirms itself no mortal, but a native of the deeps
of absolute and inextinguishable being."
In the following Essay, "The Over-Soul," Emerson has attempted the
impossible. He is as fully conscious of this fact as the reader of his
rhapsody,--nay, he is more profoundly penetrated with it than any of his
readers. In speaking of the exalted condition the soul is capable of
reaching, he says,--
"Every man's words, who speaks from that life, must sound vain to
those who do not dwell in the same thought on their own part. I dare
not speak for it. My words do not carry its august sense; they fall
short and cold. Only itself can inspire whom it will, and behold!
their speech shall be lyrical and sweet, and universal as the rising
of the wind. Yet I desire, even by profane words, if I may not use
sacred, to indicate the heaven of this deity, and to report what
hints I have collected of the transcendent simplicity and energy of
the Highest Law."
"The Over-Soul" might almost be called the Over-_flow_ of a spiritual
imagination. We cannot help thinking of the "pious, virtuous,
God-intoxicated" Spinoza. When one talks of the infinite in terms
borrowed from the finite, when one attempts to deal with the absolute
in the language of the relative, his words are not symbols, like those
applied to the objects of experience, but the shadows of symbols,
varying with the position and intensity of the light of the individual
intelligence. It is a curious amusement to trace many of these thoughts
and expressions to Plato, or Plotinus, or Proclus, or Porphyry, to
Spinoza or Schelling, but the same tune is a different thing according
to the instrument on which it is played. There are songs without words,
and there are states in which, in place of the trains of thought moving
in endless procession with ever-varying figures along the highway of
consciousness, the soul is possessed by a single all-absorbing idea,
which, in the highest state of spiritual exaltation, becomes a vision.
Both Plotinus and Porphyry believed they were privileged to look upon
Him whom "no man can see and live."
But Emerson states his own position so frankly in his Essay entitled
"Circles," that the reader cannot take issue with him as against
utterances which he will not defend. There can be no doubt that he would
have confessed as much with reference to "The Over-Soul" as he has
confessed with regard to "Circles," the Essay which follows "The
"I am not careful to justify myself.... But lest I should mislead
any when I have my own head and obey my whims, let me remind the
reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value
on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I
pretended to settle anything as true or false. I unsettle all
things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply
experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back."
Perhaps, after reading these transcendental essays of Emerson, we might
borrow Goethe's language about Spinoza, as expressing the feeling with
which we are left.
"I am reading Spinoza with Frau von Stein. I feel myself very near
to him, though his soul is much deeper and purer than mine.
"I cannot say that I ever read Spinoza straight through, that at any
time the complete architecture of his intellectual system has
stood clear in view before me. But when I look into him I seem to
understand him,--that is, he always appears to me consistent with
himself, and I can always gather from him very salutary influences
for my own way of feeling and acting."
Emerson would not have pretended that he was always "consistent with
himself," but these "salutary influences," restoring, enkindling,
vivifying, are felt by many of his readers who would have to confess,
like Dr. Walter Channing, that these thoughts, or thoughts like these,
as he listened to them in a lecture, "made his head ache."
The three essays which follow "The Over-Soul," "Circles," "Intellect,"
"Art," would furnish us a harvest of good sayings, some of which we
should recognize as parts of our own (borrowed) axiomatic wisdom.
"Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then
all things are at risk."
"God enters by a private door into every individual."
"God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take
which you please,--you can never have both."
"Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must
carry it with us, or we find it not."
But we cannot reconstruct the Hanging Gardens with a few bricks from
Emerson describes his mode of life in these years in a letter to
Carlyle, dated May 10, 1838.
"I occupy, or improve, as we Yankees say, two acres only of God's
earth; on which is my house, my kitchen-garden, my orchard of thirty
young trees, my empty barn. My house is now a very good one for
comfort, and abounding in room. Besides my house, I have, I believe,
$22,000, whose income in ordinary years is six per cent. I have no
other tithe or glebe except the income of my winter lectures, which
was last winter $800. Well, with this income, here at home, I am a
rich man. I stay at home and go abroad at my own instance. I have
food, warmth, leisure, books, friends. Go away from home, I am rich
no longer. I never have a dollar to spend on a fancy. As no wise
man, I suppose, ever was rich in the sense of freedom to spend,
because of the inundation of claims, so neither am I, who am not
wise. But at home, I am rich,--rich enough for ten brothers. My wife
Lidian is an incarnation of Christianity,--I call her Asia,--and
keeps my philosophy from Antinomianism; my mother, whitest, mildest,
most conservative of ladies, whose only exception to her universal
preference for old things is her son; my boy, a piece of love and
sunshine, well worth my watching from morning to night;--these, and
three domestic women, who cook, and sew and run for us, make all my
household. Here I sit and read and write, with very little system,
and, as far as regards composition, with the most fragmentary
result: paragraphs incompressible, each sentence an infinitely
A great sorrow visited Emerson and his household at this period of his
life. On the 30th of October, 1841, he wrote to Carlyle: "My little boy
is five years old to-day, and almost old enough to send you his love."
Three months later, on the 28th of February, 1842, he writes once
"My dear friend, you should have had this letter and these messages
by the last steamer; but when it sailed, my son, a perfect little
boy of five years and three months, had ended his earthly life. You
can never sympathize with me; you can never know how much of me such
a young child can take away. A few weeks ago I accounted myself a
very rich man, and now the poorest of all. What would it avail to
tell you anecdotes of a sweet and wonderful boy, such as we solace
and sadden ourselves with at home every morning and evening? From a
perfect health and as happy a life and as happy influences as ever
child enjoyed, he was hurried out of my arms in three short days by
scarlatina. We have two babes yet, one girl of three years, and one
girl of three months and a week, but a promise like that Boy's I
shall never see. How often I have pleased myself that one day I
should send to you this Morning Star of mine, and stay at home so
gladly behind such a representative. I dare not fathom the Invisible
and Untold to inquire what relations to my Departed ones I yet
This was the boy whose memory lives in the tenderest and most pathetic
of Emerson's poems, the "Threnody,"--a lament not unworthy of comparison
with Lycidas for dignity, but full of the simple pathos of Cowper's
well-remembered lines on the receipt of his mother's picture, in the
place of Milton's sonorous academic phrases.
1843-1848. AET. 40-45.
"The Young American."--Address on the Anniversary of the Emancipation
of the Negroes in the British West Indies.--Publication of the Second
Series of Essays.--Contents: The Poet.--Experience.--Character.
--Manners.--Gifts.--Nature.--Politics.--Nominalist and Realist.--New
England Reformers.--Publication of Poems.--Second Visit to England.
[Footnote 1: These two addresses are to be found in the first and
eleventh volumes, respectively, of the last collective edition of
Emerson's works, namely, "Nature, Addresses, and Lectures," and
Emerson was American in aspect, temperament, way of thinking, and
feeling; American, with an atmosphere of Oriental idealism; American, so
far as he belonged to any limited part of the universe. He believed in
American institutions, he trusted the future of the American race. In
the address first mentioned in the contents, of this chapter, delivered
February 7, 1844, he claims for this country all that the most ardent
patriot could ask. Not a few of his fellow-countrymen will feel the
significance of the following contrast.
"The English have many virtues, many advantages, and the proudest
history in the world; but they need all and more than all the
resources of the past to indemnify a heroic gentleman in that
country for the mortifications prepared for him by the system of
society, and which seem to impose the alternative to resist or to
avoid it.... It is for Englishmen to consider, not for us; we only
say, Let us live in America, too thankful for our want of feudal
institutions.... If only the men are employed in conspiring with the
designs of the Spirit who led us hither, and is leading us still, we
shall quickly enough advance out of all hearing of others' censures,
out of all regrets of our own, into a new and more excellent social
state than history has recorded."
Thirty years have passed since the lecture from which these passages are
taken was delivered. The "Young American" of that day is the more than
middle-aged American of the present. The intellectual independence of
our country is far more solidly established than when this lecture was
written. But the social alliance between certain classes of Americans
and English is more and more closely cemented from year to year, as the
wealth of the new world burrows its way among the privileged classes
of the old world. It is a poor ambition for the possessor of suddenly
acquired wealth to have it appropriated as a feeder of the impaired
fortunes of a deteriorated household, with a family record of which
its representatives are unworthy. The plain and wholesome language of
Emerson is on the whole more needed now than it was when spoken. His
words have often been extolled for their stimulating quality; following
the same analogy, they are, as in this address, in a high degree tonic,
bracing, strengthening to the American, who requires to be reminded of
his privileges that he may know and find himself equal to his duties.
On the first day of August, 1844, Emerson delivered in Concord an
address on the Anniversary of the Emancipation of the Negroes in the
British West India Islands. This discourse would not have satisfied the
Abolitionists. It was too general in its propositions, full of humane
and generous sentiments, but not looking to their extreme and immediate
method of action.
* * * * *
Emerson's second series of Essays was published in 1844. There are
many sayings in the Essay called "The Poet," which are meant for the
initiated, rather than for him who runs, to read:--
"All that we call sacred history attests that the birth of a poet is
the principal event in chronology."
Does this sound wild and extravagant? What were the political ups and
downs of the Hebrews,--what were the squabbles of the tribes with each
other, or with their neighbors, compared to the birth of that poet to
whom we owe the Psalms,--the sweet singer whose voice is still the
dearest of all that ever sang to the heart of mankind?
The poet finds his materials everywhere, as Emerson tells him in this
"Thou true land-bird! sea-bird! air-bird! Wherever snow falls, or
water flows, or birds fly, wherever day and night meet in twilight,
wherever the blue heaven is hung by clouds, or sown with stars,
wherever are forms with transparent boundaries, wherever are outlets
into celestial space, wherever is danger and awe and love, there is
Beauty, plenteous as rain, shed for thee, and though thou should'st
walk the world over, thou shalt not be able to find a condition
inopportune or ignoble."
"Experience" is, as he says himself, but a fragment. It bears marks of
having been written in a less tranquil state of mind than the other
essays. His most important confession is this:--
"All writing comes by the grace of God, and all doing and having. I
would gladly be moral and keep due metes and bounds, which I dearly
love, and allow the most to the will of man; but I have set my
heart on honesty in this chapter, and I can see nothing at last, in
success or failure, than more or less of vital force supplied from
The Essay on "Character" requires no difficult study, but is well worth
the trouble of reading. A few sentences from it show the prevailing tone
"Character is Nature in the highest form. It is of no use to ape it,
or to contend with it. Somewhat is possible of resistance and of
persistence and of creation to this power, which will foil all
"There is a class of men, individuals of which appear at long
intervals, so eminently endowed with insight and virtue, that they
have been unanimously saluted as _divine_, and who seem to be an
accumulation of that power we consider.
"The history of those gods and saints which the world has written,
and then worshipped, are documents of character. The ages have
exulted in the manners of a youth who owed nothing to fortune, and
who was hanged at the Tyburn of his nation, who, by the pure quality
of his nature, shed an epic splendor around the facts of his death
which has transfigured every particular into an universal symbol
for the eyes of mankind. This great defeat is hitherto our highest
In his Essay on "Manners," Emerson gives us his ideas of a gentleman:--
"The gentleman is a man of truth, lord of his own actions and
expressing that lordship in his behavior, not in any manner
dependent and servile either on persons or opinions or possessions.
Beyond this fact of truth and real force, the word denotes
good-nature or benevolence: manhood first, and then
gentleness.--Power first, or no leading class.--God knows that
all sorts of gentlemen knock at the door: but whenever used in
strictness, and with any emphasis, the name will be found to point
at original energy.--The famous gentlemen of Europe have been of
this strong type: Saladin, Sapor, the Cid, Julius Caesar, Scipio,
Alexander, Pericles, and the lordliest personages. They sat very
carelessly in their chairs, and were too excellent themselves to
value any condition at a high rate.--I could better eat with one
who did not respect the truth or the laws than with a sloven and
unpresentable person.--The person who screams, or uses the
superlative degree, or converses with heat, puts whole drawing-rooms
to flight.--I esteem it a chief felicity of this country that it
excels in woman."
So writes Emerson, and proceeds to speak of woman in language which
seems almost to pant for rhythm and rhyme.
This essay is plain enough for the least "transcendental" reader.
Franklin would have approved it, and was himself a happy illustration of
many of the qualities which go to the Emersonian ideal of good manners,
a typical American, equal to his position, always as much so in the
palaces and salons of Paris as in the Continental Congress, or the
society of Philadelphia.
"Gifts" is a dainty little Essay with some nice distinctions and some
hints which may help to give form to a generous impulse:--
"The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me.
Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the
farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, coral and shells; the
painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing."
"Flowers and fruits are always fit presents; flowers, because
they are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the
utilities of the world.--Fruits are acceptable gifts, because they
are the flower of commodities, and admit of fantastic values being
attached to them."
"It is a great happiness to get off without injury and heart-burning
from one who has had the ill-luck to be served by you. It is a very
onerous business, this of being served, and the debtor naturally
wishes to give you a slap."
Emerson hates the superlative, but he does unquestionably love the
tingling effect of a witty over-statement.
We have recognized most of the thoughts in the Essay entitled "Nature,"
in the previous Essay by the same name, and others which we have passed
in review. But there are poetical passages which will give new pleasure.
Here is a variation of the formula with which we are familiar:--
"Nature is the incarnation of a thought, and turns to a thought
again, as ice becomes water and gas. The world is mind precipitated,
and the volatile essence is forever escaping again into the state of
And here is a quaint sentence with which we may take leave of this
"They say that by electro-magnetism, your salad shall be grown from
the seed, whilst your fowl is roasting for dinner: it is a symbol of
our modern aims and endeavors,--of our condensation and acceleration
of objects; but nothing is gained: nature cannot be cheated: man's
life is but seventy salads long, grow they swift or grow they slow."
This is pretty and pleasant, but as to the literal value of the
prediction, M. Jules Verne would be the best authority to consult. Poets
are fond of that branch of science which, if the imaginative Frenchman
gave it a name, he would probably call _Onditologie_.
It is not to be supposed that the most sanguine optimist could be
satisfied with the condition of the American political world at the
present time, or when the Essay on "Politics" was written, some years
before the great war which changed the aspects of the country in so many
respects, still leaving the same party names, and many of the characters
of the old parties unchanged. This is Emerson's view of them as they
"Of the two great parties, which, at this hour, almost share
the nation between them, I should say that one has the best
cause, and the other contains the best men. The philosopher, the
poet, or the religious man, will, of course, wish to cast his vote
with the democrat, for free trade, for wide suffrage, for the
abolition of legal cruelties in the penal code, and for facilitating
in every manner the access of the young and the poor to the sources
of wealth and power. But he can rarely accept the persons whom the
so-called popular party propose to him as representatives of these
liberties. They have not at heart the ends which give to the name of
democracy what hope and virtue are in it. The spirit of our American
radicalism is destructive and aimless; it is not loving; it has no
ulterior and divine ends; but is destructive only out of hatred and
selfishness. On the other side, the conservative party, composed of
the most moderate, able, and cultivated part of the population, is
timid, and merely defensive of property. It indicates no right, it
aspires to no real good, it brands no crime, it proposes no generous
policy, it does not build nor write, nor cherish the arts, nor
foster religion, nor establish schools, nor encourage science, nor
emancipate the slave, nor befriend the poor, or the Indian, or the
immigrant. From neither party, when in power, has the world any
benefit to expect in science, art, or humanity, at all commensurate
with the resources of the nation."
The metaphysician who looks for a closely reasoned argument on the
famous old question which so divided the schoolmen of old will find
a very moderate satisfaction in the Essay entitled "Nominalism and
Realism." But there are many discursive remarks in it worth gathering
and considering. We have the complaint of the Cambridge "Phi Beta
Kappa Oration," reiterated, that there is no complete man, but only a
collection of fragmentary men.
As a Platonist and a poet there could not be any doubt on which side
were all his prejudices; but he takes his ground cautiously.
"In the famous dispute with the Nominalists, the Realists had a good
deal of reason. General ideas are essences. They are our gods: they
round and ennoble the most practical and sordid way of living.
"Though the uninspired man certainly finds persons a conveniency in
household matters, the divine man does not respect them: he sees
them as a rack of clouds, or a fleet of ripples which the wind
drives over the surface of the water. But this is flat rebellion.
Nature will not be Buddhist: she resents generalizing, and
insults the philosopher in every moment with a million of fresh
_New England Reformers_.--Would any one venture to guess how Emerson
would treat this subject? With his unsparing, though amiable radicalism,
his excellent common sense, his delicate appreciation of the ridiculous,
too deep for laughter, as Wordsworth's thoughts were too deep for tears,
in the midst of a band of enthusiasts and not very remote from a throng
of fanatics, what are we to look for from our philosopher who unites
many characteristics of Berkeley and of Franklin?
We must remember when this lecture was written, for it was delivered on
a Sunday in the year 1844. The Brook Farm experiment was an index of the
state of mind among one section of the Reformers of whom he was writing.
To remodel society and the world into a "happy family" was the aim
of these enthusiasts. Some attacked one part of the old system, some
another; some would build a new temple, some would rebuild the old
church, some would worship in the fields and woods, if at all; one was
for a phalanstery, where all should live in common, and another was
meditating the plan and place of the wigwam where he was to dwell apart
in the proud independence of the woodchuck and the musquash. Emerson had
the largest and kindliest sympathy with their ideals and aims, but he
was too clear-eyed not to see through the whims and extravagances of the
unpractical experimenters who would construct a working world with the
lay figures they had put together, instead of flesh and blood men and
women and children with all their congenital and acquired perversities.
He describes these Reformers in his own good-naturedly half-satirical
"They defied each other like a congress of kings; each of whom had a
realm to rule, and a way of his own that made concert unprofitable.
What a fertility of projects for the salvation of the world! One
apostle thought all men should go to farming; and another that no
man should buy or sell; that the use of money was the cardinal evil;
another that the mischief was in our diet, that we eat and drink
damnation. These made unleavened bread, and were foes to the death
to fermentation. It was in vain urged by the housewife that God made
yeast as well as dough, and loves fermentation just as dearly as he
does vegetation; that fermentation develops the saccharine element
in the grain, and makes it more palatable and more digestible. No,
they wish the pure wheat, and will die but it shall not ferment.
Stop, dear nature, these innocent advances of thine; let us
scotch these ever-rolling wheels! Others attacked the system of
agriculture, the use of animal manures in farming; and the tyranny
of man over brute nature; these abuses polluted his food. The ox
must be taken from the plough, and the horse from the cart, the
hundred acres of the farm must be spaded, and the man must walk
wherever boats and locomotives will not carry him. Even the insect
world was to be defended,--that had been too long neglected, and a
society for the protection of ground-worms, slugs, and mosquitoes
was to be incorporated without delay. With these appeared the adepts
of homoeopathy, of hydropathy, of mesmerism, of phrenology, and
their wonderful theories of the Christian miracles!"
We have already seen the issue of the famous Brook Farm experiment,
which was a practical outcome of the reforming agitation.
Emerson has had the name of being a leader in many movements in which he
had very limited confidence, this among others to which the idealizing
impulse derived from him lent its force, but for the organization of
which he was in no sense responsible.
He says in the lecture we are considering:--
"These new associations are composed of men and women of superior
talents and sentiments; yet it may easily be questioned whether such
a community will draw, except in its beginnings, the able and the
good; whether these who have energy will not prefer their choice of
superiority and power in the world to the humble certainties of the
association; whether such a retreat does not promise to become an
asylum to those who have tried and failed rather than a field to the
strong; and whether the members will not necessarily be fractions of
men, because each finds that he cannot enter into it without some
His sympathies were not allowed to mislead him; he knew human nature too
well to believe in a Noah's ark full of idealists.
All this time he was lecturing for his support, giving courses of
lectures in Boston and other cities, and before the country lyceums in
and out of New England.
His letters to Carlyle show how painstaking, how methodical, how
punctual he was in the business which interested his distant friend. He
was not fond of figures, and it must have cost him a great effort to
play the part of an accountant.
He speaks also of receiving a good deal of company in the summer, and
that some of this company exacted much time and attention,--more than he
could spare,--is made evident by his gentle complaints, especially in
his poems, which sometimes let out a truth he would hardly have uttered
In 1846 Emerson's first volume of poems was published. Many of the poems
had been long before the public--some of the best, as we have seen,
having been printed in "The Dial." It is only their being brought
together for the first time which belongs especially to this period,
and we can leave them for the present, to be looked over by and by in
connection with a second volume of poems published in 1867, under the
title, "May-Day and other Pieces."
In October, 1847, he left Concord on a second visit to England, which
will be spoken of in the following chapter.
1848-1853. AET. 45-50.
The "Massachusetts Quarterly Review;" Visit to Europe.--England.
--Scotland.--France.--"Representative Men" published. I. Uses
of Great Men. II. Plato; or, the Philosopher; Plato; New
Readings. III. Swedenborg; or, the Mystic. IV. Montaigne; or, the
Skeptic. V. Shakespeare; or, the Poet. VI. Napoleon; or, the Man of the
World. VII. Goethe; or, the Writer.--Contribution to the "Memoirs of
Margaret Fuller Ossoli."
A new periodical publication was begun in Boston in 1847, under the name
of the "Massachusetts Quarterly Review." Emerson wrote the "Editor's
Address," but took no further active part in it, Theodore Parker being
the real editor. The last line of this address is characteristic: "We
rely on the truth for aid against ourselves."
On the 5th of October, 1847, Emerson sailed for Europe on his second
visit, reaching Liverpool on the 22d of that month. Many of his admirers
were desirous that he should visit England and deliver some courses of
lectures. Mr. Alexander Ireland, who had paid him friendly attentions
during his earlier visit, and whose impressions of him in the pulpit
have been given on a previous page, urged his coming. Mr. Conway
quotes passages from a letter of Emerson's which show that he had some
hesitation in accepting the invitation, not unmingled with a wish to be
heard by the English audiences favorably disposed towards him.
"I feel no call," he said, "to make a visit of literary propagandism in
England. All my impulses to work of that kind would rather employ me at
home." He does not like the idea of "coaxing" or advertising to get
him an audience. He would like to read lectures before institutions or
friendly persons who sympathize with his studies. He has had a good many
decisive tokens of interest from British men and women, but he doubts
whether he is much and favorably known in any one city, except perhaps
in London. It proved, however, that there was a very widespread desire
to hear him, and applications for lectures flowed in from all parts of
From Liverpool he proceeded immediately to Manchester, where Mr. Ireland
received him at the Victoria station. After spending a few hours with
him, he went to Chelsea to visit Carlyle, and at the end of a week
returned to Manchester to begin the series of lecturing engagements
which had been arranged for him. Mr. Ireland's account of Emerson's
visits and the interviews between him and many distinguished persons
is full of interest, but the interest largely relates to the persons
visited by Emerson. He lectured at Edinburgh, where his liberal way of
thinking and talking made a great sensation in orthodox circles. But he
did not fail to find enthusiastic listeners. A young student, Mr. George
Cupples, wrote an article on these lectures from which, as quoted by Mr.
Ireland, I borrow a single sentence,--one only, but what could a critic
Speaking of his personal character, as revealed through his writings, he
says: "In this respect, I take leave to think that Emerson is the most
mark-worthy, the loftiest, and most heroic mere man that ever appeared."
Emerson has a lecture on the superlative, to which he himself was never
addicted. But what would youth be without its extravagances,--its
preterpluperfect in the shape of adjectives, its unmeasured and
I need not enumerate the celebrated literary personages and other
notabilities whom Emerson met in England and Scotland. He thought "the
two finest mannered literary men he met in England were Leigh Hunt and
De Quincey." His diary might tell us more of the impressions made upon
him by the distinguished people he met, but it is impossible to believe
that he ever passed such inhuman judgments on the least desirable of
his new acquaintances as his friend Carlyle has left as a bitter legacy
behind him. Carlyle's merciless discourse about Coleridge and Charles
Lamb, and Swinburne's carnivorous lines, which take a barbarous
vengeance on him for his offence, are on the level of political rhetoric
rather than of scholarly criticism or characterization. Emerson never
forgot that he was dealing with human beings. He could not have long
endured the asperities of Carlyle, and that "loud shout of laughter,"
which Mr. Ireland speaks of as one of his customary explosions, would
have been discordant to Emerson's ears, which were offended by such
During this visit Emerson made an excursion to Paris, which furnished
him materials for a lecture on France delivered in Boston, in 1856, but
From the lectures delivered in England he selected a certain number for
publication. These make up the volume entitled "Representative Men,"
which was published in 1850. I will give very briefly an account of its
contents. The title was a happy one, and has passed into literature and
conversation as an accepted and convenient phrase. It would teach us a
good deal merely to consider the names he has selected as typical,
and the ground of their selection. We get his classification of men
considered as leaders in thought and in action. He shows his own
affinities and repulsions, and, as everywhere, writes his own biography,
no matter about whom or what he is talking. There is hardly any book of
his better worth study by those who wish to understand, not Plato, not
Plutarch, not Napoleon, but Emerson himself. All his great men interest
us for their own sake; but we know a good deal about most of them, and
Emerson holds the mirror up to them at just such an angle that we
see his own face as well as that of his hero, unintentionally,
unconsciously, no doubt, but by a necessity which he would be the first
Emerson swears by no master. He admires, but always with a reservation.
Plato comes nearest to being his idol, Shakespeare next. But he says of
all great men: "The power which they communicate is not theirs. When we
are exalted by ideas, we do not owe this to Plato, but to the idea, to
which also Plato was debtor."
Emerson loves power as much as Carlyle does; he likes "rough and
smooth," "scourges of God," and "darlings of the human race." He likes
Julius Caesar, Charles the Fifth, of Spain, Charles the Twelfth, of
Sweden, Richard Plantagenet, and Bonaparte.
"I applaud," he says, "a sufficient man, an officer equal
to his office; captains, ministers, senators. I like a master
standing firm on legs of iron, well born, rich, handsome,
eloquent, loaded with advantages, drawing all men by fascination
into tributaries and supporters of his power. Sword and staff,
or talents sword-like or staff-like, carry on the work of the
world. But I find him greater when he can abolish himself and
all heroes by letting in this element of reason, irrespective of
persons, this subtilizer and irresistible upward force, into our
thoughts, destroying individualism; the power is so great that the
potentate is nothing.--
"The genius of humanity is the right point of view of history. The
qualities abide; the men who exhibit them have now more, now less,
and pass away; the qualities remain on another brow.--All that
respects the individual is temporary and prospective, like the
individual himself, who is ascending out of his limits into a
No man can be an idol for one who looks in this way at all men. But
Plato takes the first place in Emerson's gallery of six great personages
whose portraits he has sketched. And of him he says:--
"Among secular books Plato only is entitled to Omar's fanatical
compliment to the Koran, when he said, 'Burn the libraries; for
their value is in this book.' Out of Plato come all things that are
still written and debated among men of thought."--
"In proportion to the culture of men they become his
scholars."--"How many great men Nature is incessantly sending up
out of night to be _his men_!--His contemporaries tax him with
plagiarism.--But the inventor only knows how to borrow. When we are
praising Plato, it seems we are praising quotations from Solon and
Sophron and Philolaus. Be it so. Every book is a quotation; and
every house is a quotation out of all forests and mines and stone
quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors."
The reader will, I hope, remember this last general statement when
he learns from what wide fields of authorship Emerson filled his
A few sentences from Emerson will show us the probable source of some of
the deepest thought of Plato and his disciples.
The conception of the fundamental Unity, he says, finds its highest
expression in the religious writings of the East, especially in the
Indian Scriptures. "'The whole world is but a manifestation of Vishnu,
who is identical with all things, and is to be regarded by the wise as
not differing from but as the same as themselves. I neither am going nor
coming; nor is my dwelling in any one place; nor art thou, thou; nor are
others, others; nor am I, I.' As if he had said, 'All is for the soul,
and the soul is Vishnu; and animals and stars are transient paintings;
and light is whitewash; and durations are deceptive; and form is
imprisonment; and heaven itself a decoy.'" All of which we see
reproduced in Emerson's poem "Brahma."--"The country of unity, of
immovable institutions, the seat of a philosophy delighting in
abstractions, of men faithful in doctrine and in practice to the idea of
a deaf, unimplorable, immense fate, is Asia; and it realizes this faith
in the social institution of caste. On the other side, the genius
of Europe is active and creative: it resists caste by culture; its
philosophy was a discipline; it is a land of arts, inventions, trade,
freedom."--"Plato came to join, and by contact to enhance, the energy of
But Emerson says,--and some will smile at hearing him say it of
another,--"The acutest German, the lovingest disciple, could never tell
what Platonism was; indeed, admirable texts can be quoted on both sides
of every great question from him."
The transcendent intellectual and moral superiorities of this "Euclid of
holiness," as Emerson calls him, with his "soliform eye and his boniform
soul,"--the two quaint adjectives being from the mint of Cudworth,--are
fully dilated upon in the addition to the original article called
"Plato: New Readings."
Few readers will be satisfied with the Essay entitled "Swedenborg; or,
the Mystic." The believers in his special communion as a revealer of
divine truth will find him reduced to the level of other seers. The
believers of the different creeds of Christianity will take offence
at the statement that "Swedenborg and Behmen both failed by attaching
themselves to the Christian symbol, instead of to the moral sentiment,
which carries innumerable christianities, humanities, divinities in
its bosom." The men of science will smile at the exorbitant claims
put forward in behalf of Swedenborg as a scientific discoverer.
"Philosophers" will not be pleased to be reminded that Swedenborg called
them "cockatrices," "asps," or "flying serpents;" "literary men" will
not agree that they are "conjurers and charlatans," and will not listen
with patience to the praises of a man who so called them. As for the
poets, they can take their choice of Emerson's poetical or prose
estimate of the great Mystic, but they cannot very well accept both. In
"The Test," the Muse says:--
"I hung my verses in the wind,
Time and tide their faults may find;
All were winnowed through and through,
Five lines lasted good and true ...
Sunshine cannot bleach the snow,
Nor time unmake what poets know.
Have you eyes to find the five
Which five hundred did survive?"
In the verses which follow we learn that the five immortal poets
referred to are Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, _Swedenborg_, and Goethe.
And now, in the Essay we have just been looking at, I find that "his
books have no melody, no emotion, no humor, no relief to the dead
prosaic level. We wander forlorn in a lack-lustre landscape. No bird
ever sang in these gardens of the dead. The entire want of poetry in so
transcendent a mind betokens the disease, and like a hoarse voice in a
beautiful person, is a kind of warning." Yet Emerson says of him that
"He lived to purpose: he gave a verdict. He elected goodness as the clue
to which the soul must cling in this labyrinth of nature."
Emerson seems to have admired Swedenborg at a distance, but seen nearer,
he liked Jacob Behmen a great deal better.
"Montaigne; or, the Skeptic," is easier reading than the last-mentioned
Essay. Emerson accounts for the personal regard which he has for
Montaigne by the story of his first acquaintance with him. But no other
reason was needed than that Montaigne was just what Emerson describes
him as being.
"There have been men with deeper insight; but, one would say, never
a man with such abundance of thought: he is never dull, never
insincere, and has the genius to make the reader care for all that
he cares for.
"The sincerity and marrow of the man reaches to his sentences.
I know not anywhere the book that seems less written. It is the
language of conversation transferred to a book. Cut these words and
they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.--
"Montaigne talks with shrewdness, knows the world and books and
himself, and uses the positive degree; never shrieks, or protests,
or prays: no weakness, no convulsion, no superlative: does not wish
to jump out of his skin, or play any antics, or annihilate space or
time, but is stout and solid; tastes every moment of the day; likes
pain because it makes him feel himself and realize things; as we
pinch ourselves to know that we are awake. He keeps the plain; he
rarely mounts or sinks; likes to feel solid ground and the stones
underneath. His writing has no enthusiasms, no aspiration;
contented, self-respecting, and keeping the middle of the road.
There is but one exception,--in his love for Socrates. In speaking
of him, for once his cheek flushes and his style rises to passion."
The writer who draws this portrait must have many of the same
characteristics. Much as Emerson loved his dreams and his dreamers, he
must have found a great relief in getting into "the middle of the road"
with Montaigne, after wandering in difficult by-paths which too often
led him round to the point from which he started.
As to his exposition of the true relations of skepticism to affirmative
and negative belief, the philosophical reader must be referred to the
In writing of "Shakespeare; or, the Poet," Emerson naturally gives
expression to his leading ideas about the office of the poet and of
"Great men are more distinguished by range and extent than by
originality." A poet has "a heart in unison with his time and
country."--"There is nothing whimsical and fantastic in his production,
but sweet and sad earnest, freighted with the weightiest convictions,
and pointed with the most determined aim which any man or class knows of
in his times."
When Shakespeare was in his youth the drama was the popular means of
amusement. It was "ballad, epic, newspaper, caucus, lecture, Punch, and
library, at the same time. The best proof of its vitality is the crowd
of writers which suddenly broke into this field." Shakespeare found a
great mass of old plays existing in manuscript and reproduced from time
to time on the stage. He borrowed in all directions: "A great poet who
appears in illiterate times absorbs into his sphere all the light which
is anywhere radiating." Homer, Chaucer, Saadi, felt that all wit was
their wit. "Chaucer is a huge borrower." Emerson gives a list of authors
from whom he drew. This list is in many particulars erroneous, as I have
learned from a letter of Professor Lounsbury's which I have had the
privilege of reading, but this is a detail which need not delay us.
The reason why Emerson has so much to say on this subject of borrowing,
especially when treating of Plato and of Shakespeare, is obvious enough.
He was arguing in his own cause,--not defending himself, as if there
were some charge of plagiarism to be met, but making the proud claim
of eminent domain in behalf of the masters who knew how to use their
"Shakespeare is the only biographer of Shakespeare; and even he can
tell nothing except to the Shakespeare in us."--"Shakespeare is as
much out of the category of eminent authors as he is out of the
crowd. A good reader can in a sort nestle into Plato's brain and
think from thence; but not into Shakespeare's. We are still out of
After all the homage which Emerson pays to the intellect of Shakespeare,
he weighs him with the rest of mankind, and finds that he shares "the
halfness and imperfection of humanity."
"He converted the elements which waited on his command into
entertainment. He was master of the revels to mankind."
And so, after this solemn verdict on Shakespeare, after looking at the
forlorn conclusions of our old and modern oracles, priest and prophet,
Israelite, German, and Swede, he says: "It must be conceded that these
are half views of half men. The world still wants its poet-priest, who
shall not trifle with Shakespeare the player, nor shall grope in graves
with Swedenborg the mourner; but who shall see, speak, and act with
It is not to be expected that Emerson should have much that is new to
say about "Napoleon; or, the Man of the World."
The stepping-stones of this Essay are easy to find:--
"The instinct of brave, active, able men, throughout the middle
class everywhere, has pointed out Napoleon as the incarnate
"Napoleon is thoroughly modern, and at the highest point of his
fortunes, has the very spirit of the newspapers." As Plato borrowed,
as Shakespeare borrowed, as Mirabeau "plagiarized every good
thought, every good word that was spoken in France," so Napoleon is
not merely "representative, but a monopolizer and usurper of other
He was "a man of stone and iron,"--equipped for his work by nature as
Sallust describes Catiline as being. "He had a directness of action
never before combined with such comprehension. Here was a man who in
each moment and emergency knew what to do next. He saw only the object;
the obstacle must give way."
"When a natural king becomes a titular king everybody is pleased and
"I call Napoleon the agent or attorney of the middle class of modern
society.--He was the agitator, the destroyer of prescription, the
internal improver, the liberal, the radical, the inventor of means, the
opener of doors and markets, the subverter of monopoly and abuse."
But he was without generous sentiments, "a boundless liar," and
finishing in high colors the outline of his moral deformities, Emerson
gives us a climax in two sentences which render further condemnation
"In short, when you have penetrated through all the circles of power
and splendor, you were not dealing with a gentleman, at last, but
with an impostor and rogue; and he fully deserves the epithet of
Jupiter Scapin, or a sort of Scamp Jupiter.
"So this exorbitant egotist narrowed, impoverished, and absorbed the
power and existence of those who served him; and the universal cry
of France and of Europe in 1814 was, Enough of him; '_Assez de
It was to this feeling that the French poet Barbier, whose death
we have but lately seen announced, gave expression in the terrible
satire in which he pictured France as a fiery courser bestridden by
her spurred rider, who drove her in a mad career over heaps of rocks
But after all, Carlyle's "_carriere ouverte aux talens_" is the
expression for Napoleon's great message to mankind.
"Goethe; or, the Writer," is the last of the Representative Men who
are the subjects of this book of Essays. Emerson says he had read the
fifty-five volumes of Goethe, but no other German writers, at least in
the original. It must have been in fulfilment of some pious vow that
he did this. After all that Carlyle had written about Goethe, he could
hardly help studying him. But this Essay looks to me as if he had found
the reading of Goethe hard work. It flows rather languidly, toys with
side issues as a stream loiters round a nook in its margin, and finds
an excuse for play in every pebble. Still, he has praise enough for his
author. "He has clothed our modern existence with poetry."--"He has
said the best things about nature that ever were said.--He flung into
literature in his Mephistopheles the first organic figure that has
been added for some ages, and which will remain as long as the
Prometheus.--He is the type of culture, the amateur of all arts and
sciences and events; artistic, but not artist; spiritual, but not
spiritualist.--I join Napoleon with him, as being both representatives
of the impatience and reaction of nature against the morgue of
conventions,--two stern realists, who, with their scholars, have
severally set the axe at the root of the tree of cant and seeming, for
this time and for all time."
This must serve as an _ex pede_ guide to reconstruct the Essay which
finishes the volume.
In 1852 there was published a Memoir of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, in which
Emerson, James Freeman Clarke, and William Henry Channing each took
a part. Emerson's account of her conversation and extracts from
her letters and diaries, with his running commentaries and his
interpretation of her mind and character, are a most faithful and vivid
portraiture of a woman who is likely to live longer by what is written
of her than by anything she ever wrote herself.
1858-1858. AEt. 50-55.
Lectures in various Places.--Anti-Slavery Addresses.--Woman. A Lecture
read before the Woman's Rights Convention.--Samuel Hoar. Speech at
Concord.--Publication of "English Traits."--The "Atlantic Monthly."--The
After Emerson's return from Europe he delivered lectures to different
audiences,--one on Poetry, afterwards published in "Letters and Social
Aims," a course of lectures in Freeman Place Chapel, Boston, some of
which have been published, one on the Anglo-Saxon Race, and many
others. In January, 1855, he gave one of the lectures in a course of
Anti-Slavery Addresses delivered in Tremont Temple, Boston. In the same
year he delivered an address before the Anti-Slavery party of New York.
His plan for the extirpation of slavery was to buy the slaves from the
planters, not conceding their right to ownership, but because "it is
the only practical course, and is innocent." It would cost two thousand
millions, he says, according to the present estimate, but "was there
ever any contribution that was so enthusiastically paid as this would
His optimism flowers out in all its innocent luxuriance in the paragraph
from which this is quoted. Of course with notions like these he could
not be hand in hand with the Abolitionists. He was classed with the Free
Soilers, but he seems to have formed a party by himself in his project
for buying up the negroes. He looked at the matter somewhat otherwise in
1863, when the settlement was taking place in a different currency,--in
steel and not in gold:--
"Pay ransom to the owner,
And fill the bag to the brim.
Who is the owner? The slave is owner,
And ever was. Pay him."
His sympathies were all and always with freedom. He spoke with
indignation of the outrage on Sumner; he took part in the meeting at
Concord expressive of sympathy with John Brown. But he was never in the
front rank of the aggressive Anti-Slavery men. In his singular "Ode
inscribed to W.H. Channing" there is a hint of a possible solution of
the slavery problem which implies a doubt as to the permanence of the
cause of all the trouble.
Who marries Right to Might,
Who peoples, unpeoples,--
He who exterminates
Races by stronger races,
Black by white faces,--
Knows to bring honey
Out of the lion."
Some doubts of this kind helped Emerson to justify himself when he
refused to leave his "honeyed thought" for the busy world where
"Things are of the snake."
The time came when he could no longer sit quietly in his study, and, to
borrow Mr. Cooke's words, "As the agitation proceeded, and brave men
took part in it, and it rose to a spirit of moral grandeur, he gave a
heartier assent to the outward methods adopted."
* * * * *
No woman could doubt the reverence of Emerson for womanhood. In a
lecture read to the "Woman's Rights Convention" in 1855, he takes bold,
and what would then have been considered somewhat advanced, ground in
the controversy then and since dividing the community. This is the way
in which he expresses himself:
"I do not think it yet appears that women wish this equal share in
public affairs. But it is they and not we that are to determine it.
Let the laws he purged of every barbarous remainder, every barbarous
impediment to women. Let the public donations for education be
equally shared by them, let them enter a school as freely as a
church, let them have and hold and give their property as men do
theirs;--and in a few years it will easily appear whether they wish
a voice in making the laws that are to govern them. If you do refuse
them a vote, you will also refuse to tax them,--according to our
Teutonic principle, No representation, no tax.--The new movement
is only a tide shared by the spirits of man and woman; and you may
proceed in the faith that whatever the woman's heart is prompted to
desire, the man's mind is simultaneously prompted to accomplish."
Emerson was fortunate enough to have had for many years as a neighbor,
that true New England Roman, Samuel Hoar. He spoke of him in Concord
before his fellow-citizens, shortly after his death, in 1856. He
afterwards prepared a sketch of Mr. Hoar for "Putnam's Magazine," from
which I take one prose sentence and the verse with which the sketch
"He was a model of those formal but reverend manners which make
what is called a gentleman of the old school, so called under an
impression that the style is passing away, but which, I suppose, is
an optical illusion, as there are always a few more of the class
remaining, and always a few young men to whom these manners are
The single verse I quote is compendious enough and descriptive enough
for an Elizabethan monumental inscription.
"With beams December planets dart
His cold eye truth and conduct scanned;
July was in his sunny heart,
October in his liberal hand."
Emerson's "English Traits," forming one volume of his works, was
published in 1856. It is a thoroughly fresh and original book. It is not
a tourist's guide, not a detailed description of sights which tired
the traveller in staring at them, and tire the reader who attacks the
wearying pages in which they are recorded. Shrewd observation there is
indeed, but its strength is in broad generalization and epigrammatic
characterizations. They are not to be received as in any sense final;
they are not like the verifiable facts of science; they are more or less
sagacious, more or less well founded opinions formed by a fair-minded,
sharp-witted, kind-hearted, open-souled philosopher, whose presence
made every one well-disposed towards him, and consequently left him
well-disposed to all the world.
A glance at the table of contents will give an idea of the objects which
Emerson proposed to himself in his tour, and which take up the principal
portion of his record. Only one _place_ is given as the heading of a
chapter,--_Stonehenge_. The other eighteen chapters have general titles,
_Land, Race, Ability, Manners_, and others of similar character.
He uses plain English in introducing us to the Pilgrim fathers of the
"Twenty thousand thieves landed at Hastings. These founders of the
House of Lords were greedy and ferocious dragoons, sons of greedy
and ferocious pirates. They were all alike, they took everything
they could carry; they burned, harried, violated, tortured, and
killed, until everything English was brought to the verge of ruin.
Such, however, is the illusion of antiquity and wealth, that decent
and dignified men now existing boast their descent from these filthy
thieves, who showed a far juster conviction of their own merits by
assuming for their types the swine, goat, jackal, leopard, wolf, and
snake, which they severally resembled."
The race preserves some of its better characteristics.
"They have a vigorous health and last well into middle and old age.
The old men are as red as roses, and still handsome. A clear skin,
a peach-bloom complexion, and good teeth are found all over the
English "Manners" are characterized, according to Emerson, by pluck,
vigor, independence. "Every one of these islanders is an island himself,
safe, tranquil, incommunicable." They are positive, methodical, cleanly,
and formal, loving routine and conventional ways; loving truth and
religion, to be sure, but inexorable on points of form.
"They keep their old customs, costumes, and pomps, their wig and
mace, sceptre and crown. A severe decorum rules the court and the
cottage. Pretension and vaporing are once for all distasteful. They
hate nonsense, sentimentalism, and high-flown expressions; they use
a studied plainness."
"In an aristocratical country like England, not the Trial by Jury,
but the dinner is the capital institution."
"They confide in each other,--English believes in English."--"They
require the same adherence, thorough conviction, and reality in
"As compared with the American, I think them cheerful and contented.
Young people in this country are much more prone to melancholy."
Emerson's observation is in accordance with that of Cotton Mather nearly
two hundred years ago.
"_New England_, a country where splenetic Maladies are prevailing
and pernicious, perhaps above any other, hath afforded numberless
instances, of even pious people, who have contracted those
_Melancholy Indispositions_, which have unhinged them from all
service or comfort; yea, not a few persons have been hurried thereby
to lay _Violent Hands_ upon themselves at the last. These are among
the _unsearchable Judgments_ of God."
If there is a little exaggeration about the following portrait of the
Englishman, it has truth enough to excuse its high coloring, and the
likeness will be smilingly recognized by every stout Briton.
"They drink brandy like water, cannot expend their quantities of
waste strength on riding, hunting, swimming, and fencing, and run
into absurd follies with the gravity of the Eumenides. They stoutly
carry into every nook and corner of the earth their turbulent sense;
leaving no lie uncontradicted; no pretension unexamined. They chew
hasheesh; cut themselves with poisoned creases, swing their hammock
in the boughs of the Bohon Upas, taste every poison, buy every
secret; at Naples, they put St. Januarius's blood in an alembic;
they saw a hole into the head of the 'winking virgin' to know why
she winks; measure with an English foot-rule every cell of the
inquisition, every Turkish Caaba, every Holy of Holies; translate
and send to Bentley the arcanum, bribed and bullied away from
shuddering Bramins; and measure their own strength by the terror
This last audacious picture might be hung up as a prose pendant to
Marvell's poetical description of Holland and the Dutch.
"A saving stupidity marks and protects their perception as the
curtain of the eagle's eye. Our swifter Americans, when they first
deal with English, pronounce them stupid; but, later, do them
justice as people who wear well, or hide their strength.--High and
low, they are of an unctuous texture.--Their daily feasts argue a
savage vigor of body.--Half their strength they put not forth. The
stability of England is the security of the modern world."
Perhaps nothing in any of his vigorous paragraphs is more striking than
the suggestion that "if hereafter the war of races often predicted,
and making itself a war of opinions also (a question of despotism
and liberty coming from Eastern Europe), should menace the English
civilization, these sea-kings may take once again to their floating
castles and find a new home and a second millennium of power in their
In reading some of Emerson's pages it seems as if another Arcadia, or
the new Atlantis, had emerged as the fortunate island of Great Britain,
or that he had reached a heaven on earth where neither moth nor rust
doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal,--or if
they do, never think of denying that they have done it. But this was a
generation ago, when the noun "shoddy," and the verb "to scamp," had not
grown such familiar terms to English ears as they are to-day. Emerson
saw the country on its best side. Each traveller makes his own England.
A Quaker sees chiefly broad brims, and the island looks to him like a
field of mushrooms.
The transplanted Church of England is rich and prosperous and
fashionable enough not to be disturbed by Emerson's flashes of light
that have not come through its stained windows.
"The religion of England is part of good-breeding. When you see on
the continent the well-dressed Englishman come into his ambassador's
chapel, and put his face for silent prayer into his smooth-brushed
hat, one cannot help feeling how much national pride prays with him,
and the religion of a gentleman.
"The church at this moment is much to be pitied. She has nothing
left but possession. If a bishop meets an intelligent gentleman, and
reads fatal interrogation in his eyes, he has no resource but to
take wine with him."
Sydney Smith had a great reverence for a bishop,--so great that he told
a young lady that he used to roll a crumb of bread in his hand, from
nervousness, when he sat next one at a dinner-table,--and if next an
archbishop, used to roll crumbs with both hands,---but Sydney Smith
would have enjoyed the tingling felicity of this last stinging touch
of wit, left as lightly and gracefully as a _banderillero_ leaves his
little gayly ribboned dart in the shoulders of the bull with whose
unwieldy bulk he is playing.
Emerson handles the formalism and the half belief of the Established
Church very freely, but he closes his chapter on Religion with
"Yet if religion be the doing of all good, and for its sake
the suffering of all evil, _souffrir de tout le monde,
et ne faire souffrir personne,_ that divine secret has existed in
England from the days of Alfred to those of Romilly, of Clarkson,
and of Florence Nightingale, and in thousands who have no fame."
"English Traits" closes with Emerson's speech at Manchester, at the
annual banquet of the "Free Trade Athenaeum." This was merely an
occasional after-dinner reply to a toast which called him up, but it had
sentences in it which, if we can imagine Milton to have been called up
in the same way, he might well have spoken and done himself credit in
* * * * *
The total impression left by the book is that Emerson was fascinated
by the charm of English society, filled with admiration of the people,
tempted to contrast his New Englanders in many respects unfavorably with
Old Englanders, mainly in their material and vital stamina; but with all
this not blinded for a moment to the thoroughly insular limitations
of the phlegmatic islander. He alternates between a turn of genuine
admiration and a smile as at a people that has not outgrown its
playthings. This is in truth the natural and genuine feeling of a
self-governing citizen of a commonwealth where thrones and wigs and
mitres seem like so many pieces of stage property. An American need not
be a philosopher to hold these things cheap. He cannot help it. Madame
Tussaud's exhibition, the Lord-Mayor's gilt coach, and a coronation, if
one happens to be in season, are all sights to be seen by an American
traveller, but the reverence which is born with the British subject went
up with the smoke of the gun that fired the long echoing shot at the
little bridge over the sleepy river which works its way along through
the wide-awake town of Concord.
In November, 1857, a new magazine was established in Boston, bearing
the name of "The Atlantic Monthly." Professor James Russell Lowell
was editor-in-chief, and Messrs. Phillips and Sampson, who were the
originators of the enterprise, were the publishers. Many of the old
contributors to "The Dial" wrote for the new magazine, among them
Emerson. He contributed twenty-eight articles in all, more than half of
them verse, to different numbers, from the first to the thirty-seventh
volume. Among them are several of his best known poems, such as "The
Romany Girl," "Days," "Brahma," "Waldeinsamkeit," "The Titmouse,"
"Boston Hymn," "Saadi," and "Terminus."
At about the same time there grew up in Boston a literary association,
which became at last well known as the "Saturday Club," the members
dining together on the last Saturday of every month.
The Magazine and the Club have existed and flourished to the present
day. They have often been erroneously thought to have some organic
connection, and the "Atlantic Club" has been spoken of as if there was
or had been such an institution, but it never existed.
Emerson was a member of the Saturday Club from the first; in reality
before it existed as an empirical fact, and when it was only a Platonic
idea. The Club seems to have shaped itself around him as a nucleus of
crystallization, two or three friends of his having first formed the
habit of meeting him at dinner at "Parker's," the "Will's Coffee-House"
of Boston. This little group gathered others to itself and grew into a
club as Rome grew into a city, almost without knowing how. During its
first decade the Saturday Club brought together, as members or as
visitors, many distinguished persons. At one end of the table sat
Longfellow, florid, quiet, benignant, soft-voiced, a most agreeable
rather than a brilliant talker, but a man upon whom it was always
pleasant to look,--whose silence was better than many another man's
conversation. At the other end of the table sat Agassiz, robust,
sanguine, animated, full of talk, boy-like in his laughter. The stranger
who should have asked who were the men ranged along the sides of the
table would have heard in answer the names of Hawthorne, Motley, Dana,
Lowell, Whipple, Peirce, the distinguished mathematician, Judge Hoar,
eminent at the bar and in the cabinet, Dwight, the leading musical
critic of Boston for a whole generation, Sumner, the academic champion
of freedom, Andrew, "the great War Governor" of Massachusetts, Dr. Howe,
the philanthropist, William Hunt, the painter, with others not unworthy
of such company. And with these, generally near the Longfellow end of
the table, sat Emerson, talking in low tones and carefully measured
utterances to his neighbor, or listening, and recording on his mental
phonograph any stray word worth remembering. Emerson was a very regular
attendant at the meetings of the Saturday Club, and continued to dine at
its table, until within a year or two of his death.
Unfortunately the Club had no Boswell, and its golden hours passed
1858-1863: AET. 55-60.
Essay on Persian Poetry.--Speech at the Burns Centennial
Festival--Letter from Emerson to a Lady.--Tributes to Theodore Parker
and to Thoreau.--Address on the Emancipation Proclamation.--Publication
of "The Conduct of Life." Contents: Fate; Power; Wealth; Culture;
Behavior; Worship; Considerations by the Way; Beauty; Illusions.
The Essay on Persian Poetry, published in the "Atlantic Monthly" in
1858, should be studied by all readers who are curious in tracing the
influence of Oriental poetry on Emerson's verse. In many of the shorter
poems and fragments published since "May-Day," as well as in the
"Quatrains" and others of the later poems in that volume, it is
sometimes hard to tell what is from the Persian from what is original.
On the 25th of January, 1859, Emerson attended the Burns Festival, held
at the Parker House in Boston, on the Centennial Anniversary of the
poet's birth. He spoke after the dinner to the great audience with such
beauty and eloquence that all who listened to him have remembered it as
one of the most delightful addresses they ever heard. Among his hearers
was Mr. Lowell, who says of it that "every word seemed to have just
dropped down to him from the clouds." Judge Hoar, who was another of his
hearers, says, that though he has heard many of the chief orators of his
time, he never witnessed such an effect of speech upon men. I was myself
present on that occasion, and underwent the same fascination that these
gentlemen and the varied audience before the speaker experienced. His
words had a passion in them not usual in the calm, pure flow most
natural to his uttered thoughts; white-hot iron we are familiar with,
but white-hot silver is what we do not often look upon, and his
inspiring address glowed like silver fresh from the cupel.
I am allowed the privilege of printing the following letter addressed
to a lady of high intellectual gifts, who was one of the earliest, most
devoted, and most faithful of his intimate friends:--
CONCORD, May 13, 1859.
Please, dear C., not to embark for home until I have despatched these
lines, which I will hasten to finish. Louis Napoleon will not bayonet
you the while,--keep him at the door. So long I have promised to
write! so long I have thanked your long suffering! I have let pass the
unreturning opportunity your visit to Germany gave to acquaint you with
Gisela von Arnim (Bettina's daughter), and Joachim the violinist, and
Hermann Grimm the scholar, her friends. Neither has E.,--wandering in
Europe with hope of meeting you,--yet met. This contumacy of mine I
shall regret as long as I live. How palsy creeps over us, with gossamer
first, and ropes afterwards! and the witch has the prisoner when
once she has put her eye on him, as securely as after the bolts are
drawn.--Yet I and all my little company watch every token from you, and
coax Mrs. H. to read us letters. I learned with satisfaction that you
did not like Germany. Where then did Goethe find his lovers? Do all the
women have bad noses and bad mouths? And will you stop in England, and
bring home the author of "Counterparts" with you? Or did----write the
novels and send them to London, as I fancied when I read them? How
strange that you and I alone to this day should have his secret! I think
our people will never allow genius, without it is alloyed by talent.
But----is paralyzed by his whims, that I have ceased to hope from him.
I could wish your experience of your friends were more animating than
mine, and that there were any horoscope you could not cast from the
first day. The faults of youth are never shed, no, nor the merits, and
creeping time convinces ever the more of our impotence, and of the
irresistibility of our bias. Still this is only science, and must remain
science. Our _praxis_ is never altered for that. We must forever hold
our companions responsible, or they are not companions but stall-fed.
I think, as we grow older, we decrease as individuals, and as if in an
immense audience who hear stirring music, none essays to offer a new
stave, but we only join emphatically in the chorus. We volunteer
no opinion, we despair of guiding people, but are confirmed in
our perception that Nature is all right, and that we have a good
understanding with it. We must shine to a few brothers, as palms or
pines or roses among common weeds, not from greater absolute value, but
from a more convenient nature. But 'tis almost chemistry at last, though
a meta-chemistry. I remember you were such an impatient blasphemer,
however musically, against the adamantine identities, in your youth,
that you should take your turn of resignation now, and be a preacher of
peace. But there is a little raising of the eyebrow, now and then, in
the most passive acceptance,--if of an intellectual turn. Here comes out
around me at this moment the new June,--the leaves say June, though the
calendar says May,--and we must needs hail our young relatives again,
though with something of the gravity of adult sons and daughters
receiving a late-born brother or sister. Nature herself seems a little
ashamed of a law so monstrous, billions of summers, and now the old game
again without a new bract or sepal. But you will think me incorrigible
with my generalities, and you so near, and will be here again this
summer; perhaps with A.W. and the other travellers. My children scan
curiously your E.'s drawings, as they have seen them.
The happiest winds fill the sails of you and yours!
In the year 1860, Theodore Parker died, and Emerson spoke
of his life and labors at the meeting held at the Music Hall to do honor
to his memory. Emerson delivered discourses on Sundays and week-days in
the Music Hall to Mr. Parker's society after his death. In 1862, he lost
his friend Thoreau, at whose funeral he delivered an address which was
published in the "Atlantic Monthly" for August of the same year. Thoreau
had many rare and admirable qualities, and Thoreau pictured by Emerson
is a more living personage than White of Selborne would have been on the
canvas of Sir Joshua Reynolds.
The Address on the Emancipation Proclamation was delivered in Boston
in September, 1862. The feeling that inspired it may be judged by the
"Happy are the young, who find the pestilence cleansed out of the
earth, leaving open to them an honest career. Happy the old, who see
Nature purified before they depart. Do not let the dying die; hold
them back to this world, until you have charged their ear and heart
with this message to other spiritual societies, announcing the
melioration of our planet:--
"'Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And Peace proclaims olives of endless age.'"
The "Conduct of Life" was published in 1860. The chapter on "Fate" might
leave the reader with a feeling that what he is to do, as well as what
he is to be and to suffer, is so largely predetermined for him, that
his will, though formally asserted, has but a questionable fraction in
adjusting him to his conditions as a portion of the universe. But let
him hold fast to this reassuring statement:--
"If we must accept Fate, we are not less compelled to affirm
liberty, the significance of the individual, the grandeur of duty,
the power of character.--We are sure, that, though we know not how,
necessity does comport with liberty, the individual with the world,
my polarity with the spirit of the times."
But the value of the Essay is not so much in any light it throws on the
mystery of volition, as on the striking and brilliant way in which the
limitations of the individual and the inexplicable rule of law are
"Nature is no sentimentalist,--does not cosset or pamper us. We must
see that the world is rough and surly, and will not mind drowning a
man or a woman; but swallows your ship like a grain of dust.--The
way of Providence is a little rude. The habit of snake and spider,
the snap of the tiger and other leapers and bloody jumpers, the
crackle of the bones of his prey in the coil of the anaconda,--these
are in the system, and our habits are like theirs. You have just
dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in
the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity,--expensive
races,--race living at the expense of race.--Let us not deny it up
and down. Providence has a wild, rough, incalculable road to its
end, and it is of no use to try to whitewash its huge, mixed
instrumentalities, or to dress up that terrific benefactor in a
clean shirt and white neckcloth of a student in divinity."
Emerson cautions his reader against the danger of the doctrines which he
believed in so fully:--
"They who talk much of destiny, their birth-star, etc., are in a
lower dangerous plane, and invite the evils they fear."
But certainly no physiologist, no cattle-breeder, no Calvinistic
predestinarian could put his view more vigorously than Emerson, who
dearly loves a picturesque statement, has given it in these words,
which have a dash of science, a flash of imagination, and a hint of the
delicate wit that is one of his characteristics:--
"People are born with the moral or with the material bias;--uterine
brothers with this diverging destination: and I suppose, with
high magnifiers, Mr. Fraunhofer or Dr. Carpenter might come to
distinguish in the embryo at the fourth day, this is a whig and that
Let us see what Emerson has to say of "Power:"--
"All successful men have agreed in one thing--they were
_causationists_. They believed that things went not by luck, but by
law; that there was not a weak or a cracked link in the chain that
joins the first and the last of things.
"The key to the age may be this, or that, or the other, as the young
orators describe;--the key to all ages is,--Imbecility; imbecility
in the vast majority of men at all times, and, even in heroes, in
all but certain eminent moments; victims of gravity, custom, and
fear. This gives force to the strong,--that the multitude have no
habit of self-reliance or original action.--
"We say that success is constitutional; depends on a _plus_
condition of mind and body, on power of work, on courage; that is of
main efficacy in carrying on the world, and though rarely found
in the right state for an article of commerce, but oftener in the
supernatural or excess, which makes it dangerous and destructive,
yet it cannot be spared, and must be had in that form, and
absorbents provided to take off its edge."
The "two economies which are the best _succedanea"_ for deficiency of
temperament are concentration and drill. This he illustrates by example,
and he also lays down some good, plain, practical rules which "Poor
Richard" would have cheerfully approved. He might have accepted also the
Essay on "Wealth" as having a good sense so like his own that he could
hardly tell the difference between them.
"Wealth begins in a tight roof that keeps the rain and
wind out; in a good pump that yields you plenty of sweet
water; in two suits of clothes, so as to change your dress
when you are wet; in dry sticks to burn; in a good double-wick
lamp, and three meals; in a horse or locomotive to cross
the land; in a boat to cross the sea; in tools to work with; in
books to read; and so, in giving, on all sides, by tools and
auxiliaries, the greatest possible extension to our powers, as if it
added feet, and hands, and eyes, and blood, length to the day,
and knowledge and good will. Wealth begins with these articles of
"To be rich is to have a ticket of admission to the masterworks and
chief men of each race.--
"The pulpit and the press have many commonplaces denouncing the
thirst for wealth; but if men should take these moralists at their
word, and leave off aiming to be rich, the moralists would rush
to rekindle at all hazards this love of power in the people, lest
civilization should be undone."
Who can give better counsels on "Culture" than Emerson? But we must
borrow only a few sentences from his essay on that subject. All kinds of
secrets come out as we read these Essays of Emerson's. We know something
of his friends and disciples who gathered round him and sat at his feet.
It is not hard to believe that he was drawing one of those composite
portraits Mr. Galton has given us specimens of when he wrote as
"The pest of society is egotism. This goitre of egotism
is so frequent among notable persons that we must infer some strong
necessity in nature which it subserves; such as we see in the sexual
attraction. The preservation of the species was a point of such
necessity that Nature has secured it at all hazards by immensely
overloading the passion, at the risk of perpetual crime and
disorder. So egotism has its root in the cardinal necessity by which
each individual persists to be what he is.
"The antidotes against this organic egotism are, the range and
variety of attraction, as gained by acquaintance with the world,
with men of merit, with classes of society, with travel, with
eminent persons, and with the high resources of philosophy, art, and
religion: books, travel, society, solitude."
"We can ill spare the commanding social benefits of cities; they
must be used; yet cautiously and haughtily,--and will yield their
best values to him who can best do without them. Keep the town for
occasions, but the habits should be formed to retirement. Solitude,
the safeguard of mediocrity, is to genius the stern friend, the
cold, obscure shelter, where moult the wings which will bear it
farther than suns and stars."
We must remember, too, that "the calamities are our friends. Try the
rough water as well as the smooth. Rough water can teach lessons worth
knowing. Don't be so tender at making an enemy now and then. He who aims
high, must dread an easy home and popular manners."
Emerson cannot have had many enemies, if any, in his calm and noble
career. He can have cherished no enmity, on personal grounds at least.
But he refused his hand to one who had spoken ill of a friend whom he
respected. It was "the hand of Douglas" again,--the same feeling that
Charles Emerson expressed in the youthful essay mentioned in the
introduction to this volume.
Here are a few good sayings about "Behavior."
"There is always a best way of doing everything, if it be to boil an
egg. Manners are the happy ways of doing things; each once a stroke
of genius or of love,--now repeated and hardened into usage."
Thus it is that Mr. Emerson speaks of "Manners" in his Essay under the
"The basis of good manners is self-reliance.--Manners require time,
as nothing is more vulgar than haste.--
"Men take each other's measure, when they meet for the first
time,--and every time they meet.--
"It is not what talents or genius a man has, but how he is to his
talents, that constitutes friendship and character. The man that
stands by himself, the universe stands by him also."
In his Essay on "Worship," Emerson ventures the following prediction:--
"The religion which is to guide and fulfil the present and coming
ages, whatever else it be, must be intellectual. The scientific mind
must have a faith which is science.--There will be a new church
founded on moral science, at first cold and naked, a babe in a
manger again, the algebra and mathematics of ethical law, the church
of men to come, without shawms or psaltery or sackbut; but it will
have heaven and earth for its beams and rafters; science for symbol
and illustration; it will fast enough gather beauty, music, picture,
It is a bold prophecy, but who can doubt that all improbable and
unverifiable traditional knowledge of all kinds will make way for the
established facts of science and history when these last reach it in
their onward movement? It may be remarked that he now speaks of science
more respectfully than of old. I suppose this Essay was of later date
than "Beauty," or "Illusions." But accidental circumstances made such
confusion in the strata of Emerson's published thought that one is often
at a loss to know whether a sentence came from the older or the newer
We come to "Considerations by the Way." The common-sense side of
Emerson's mind has so much in common with the plain practical
intelligence of Franklin that it is a pleasure to find the philosopher
of the nineteenth century quoting the philosopher of the eighteenth.
"Franklin said, 'Mankind are very superficial and dastardly: they
begin upon a thing, but, meeting with a difficulty, they fly from it
discouraged; but they have the means if they would employ them.'"
"Shall we judge a country by the majority, or by the minority? By the
minority, surely." Here we have the doctrine of the "saving remnant,"
which we have since recognized in Mr. Matthew Arnold's well-remembered
lecture. Our republican philosopher is clearly enough outspoken on this
matter of the _vox populi_. "Leave this hypocritical prating about the
masses. Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands, and
need not to be flattered, but to be schooled. I wish not to concede
anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and
draw individuals out of them."
Pere Bouhours asked a question about the Germans which found its answer
in due time. After reading what Emerson says about "the masses," one is
tempted to ask whether a philosopher can ever have "a constituency" and
be elected to Congress? Certainly the essay just quoted from would not
make a very promising campaign document. Perhaps there was no great
necessity for Emerson's returning to the subject of "Beauty," to which
he had devoted a chapter of "Nature," and of which he had so often
discoursed incidentally. But he says so many things worth reading in the
Essay thus entitled in the "Conduct of Life" that we need not trouble
ourselves about repetitions. The Essay is satirical and poetical rather
than philosophical. Satirical when he speaks of science with something
of that old feeling betrayed by his brother Charles when he was writing
in 1828; poetical in the flight of imagination with which he enlivens,
entertains, stimulates, inspires,--or as some may prefer to say,--amuses
his listeners and readers.
The reader must decide which of these effects is produced by the
"The feat of the imagination is in showing the convertibility of
everything into every other thing. Facts which had never before left
their stark common sense suddenly figure as Eleusinian mysteries. My
boots and chair and candlestick are fairies in disguise, meteors,
and constellations. All the facts in Nature are nouns of the
intellect, and make the grammar of the eternal language. Every word
has a double, treble, or centuple use and meaning. What! has my
stove and pepper-pot a false bottom? I cry you mercy, good shoe-box!
I did not know you were a jewel-case. Chaff and dust begin to
sparkle, and are clothed about with immortality. And there is a joy
in perceiving the representative or symbolic character of a fact,
which no base fact or event can ever give. There are no days
so memorable as those which vibrated to some stroke of the
One is reminded of various things in reading this sentence. An ounce
of alcohol, or a few whiffs from an opium-pipe, may easily make a day
memorable by bringing on this imaginative delirium, which is apt, if
often repeated, to run into visions of rodents and reptiles. A
coarser satirist than Emerson indulged his fancy in "Meditations on a
Broomstick," which My Lady Berkeley heard seriously and to edification.
Meditations on a "Shoe-box" are less promising, but no doubt something
could be made of it. A poet must select, and if he stoops too low he
cannot lift the object he would fain idealize.
The habitual readers of Emerson do not mind an occasional
over-statement, extravagance, paradox, eccentricity; they find them
amusing and not misleading. But the accountants, for whom two and two
always make four, come upon one of these passages and shut the book up
as wanting in sanity. Without a certain sensibility to the humorous, no
one should venture upon Emerson. If he had seen the lecturer's smile
as he delivered one of his playful statements of a runaway truth, fact
unhorsed by imagination, sometimes by wit, or humor, he would have found
a meaning in his words which the featureless printed page could never
The Essay on "Illusions" has little which we have not met with, or shall
not find repeating itself in the Poems.
During this period Emerson contributed many articles in prose and
verse to the "Atlantic Monthly," and several to "The Dial," a second
periodical of that name published in Cincinnati. Some of these have
been, or will be, elsewhere referred to.
1863-1868. AET. 60-65.
"Boston Hymn."--"Voluntaries."--Other Poems.--"May-Day and other
Pieces."--"Remarks at the Funeral Services of Abraham Lincoln."--Essay
on Persian Poetry.--Address at a Meeting of the Free Religious
Association.--"Progress of Culture." Address before the Phi Beta
Kappa Society of Harvard University.--Course of Lectures in
Philadelphia.--The Degree of LL.D. conferred upon Emerson by Harvard
The "Boston Hymn" was read by Emerson in the Music Hall, on the first
day of January, 1863. It is a rough piece of verse, but noble from
beginning to end. One verse of it, beginning "Pay ransom to the owner,"
has been already quoted; these are the three that precede it:--
"I cause from every creature
His proper good to flow:
As much as he is and doeth
So much shall he bestow.
"But laying hands on another
To coin his labor and sweat,
He goes in pawn to his victim
For eternal years in debt.
"To-day unbind the captive,
So only are ye unbound:
Lift up a people from the dust,
Trump of their rescue, sound!"
"Voluntaries," published in the same year in the "Atlantic Monthly," is
more dithyrambic in its measure and of a more Pindaric elevation than
the plain song of the "Boston Hymn."
"But best befriended of the God
He who, in evil times,
Warned by an inward voice,
Heeds not the darkness and the dread,
Biding by his rule and choice,
Feeling only the fiery thread
Leading over heroic ground,
Walled with mortal terror round,
To the aim which him allures,
And the sweet heaven his deed secures.
Peril around, all else appalling,
Cannon in front and leaden rain
Him duly through the clarion calling
To the van called not in vain."
It is in this poem that we find the lines which, a moment after they
were written, seemed as if they had been carved on marble for a thousand
"So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When Duty whispers low, _Thou must_,
The youth replies, _I can_."
"Saadi" was published in the "Atlantic Monthly" in 1864, "My Garden" in
1866, "Terminus" in 1867. In the same year these last poems with many
others were collected in a small volume, entitled "May-Day, and
Other Pieces." The general headings of these poems are as follows:
May-Day.--The Adirondacs.--Occasional and Miscellaneous Pieces.--Nature
and Life.--Elements.--Quatrains.--Translations.--Some of these poems,
which were written at long intervals, have been referred to in previous
pages. "The Adirondacs" is a pleasant narrative, but not to be compared
for its poetical character with "May-Day," one passage from which,
"I saw the bud-crowned Spring go forth,"
is surpassingly imaginative and beautiful. In this volume will be found
"Brahma," "Days," and others which are well known to all readers of
Emerson's delineations of character are remarkable for high-relief and
sharp-cut lines. In his Remarks at the Funeral Services for Abraham
Lincoln, held in Concord, April 19, 1865, he drew the portrait of the
homespun-robed chief of the Republic with equal breadth and delicacy:--
"Here was place for no holiday magistrate, no fair weather sailor;
the new pilot was hurried to the helm in a tornado. In four
years,--four years of battle-days,--his endurance, his fertility
of resources, his magnanimity, were sorely tried and never found
wanting. There, by his courage, his justice, his even temper, his
fertile counsel, his humanity, he stood a heroic figure in the
centre of a heroic epoch. He is the true history of the American
people in his time. Step by step he walked before them; slow
with their slowness, quickening his march by theirs, the true
representative of this continent; an entirely public man; father of
his country; the pulse of twenty millions throbbing in his heart,
the thought of their minds articulated by his tongue."
In his "Remarks at the Organization of the Free Religious Association,"
Emerson stated his leading thought about religion in a very succinct and
sufficiently "transcendental" way: intelligibly for those who wish to
understand him; mystically to those who do not accept or wish to accept
the doctrine shadowed forth in his poem, "The Sphinx."
--"As soon as every man is apprised of the Divine Presence within
his own mind,--is apprised that the perfect law of duty corresponds
with the laws of chemistry, of vegetation, of astronomy, as face to
face in a glass; that the basis of duty, the order of society, the
power of character, the wealth of culture, the perfection of taste,
all draw their essence from this moral sentiment; then we have a
religion that exalts, that commands all the social and all the
Nothing could be more wholesome in a meeting of creed-killers than the
--"What I expected to find here was, some practical suggestions by
which we were to reanimate and reorganize for ourselves the true
Church, the pure worship. Pure doctrine always bears fruit in pure
benefits. It is only by good works, it is only on the basis of
active duty, that worship finds expression.--The interests that grow
out of a meeting like this, should bind us with new strength to the
old eternal duties."
In a later address before the same association, Emerson says:--
"I object, of course, to the claim of miraculous
dispensation,--certainly not to the _doctrine_ of Christianity.--If
you are childish and exhibit your saint as a worker of wonders, a
thaumaturgist, I am repelled. That claim takes his teachings out of
nature, and permits official and arbitrary senses to be grafted on
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