Ralph Waldo Emerson
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Part 4 out of 7
The "Progress of Culture" was delivered as a Phi Beta Kappa oration just
thirty years after his first address before the same society. It is very
instructive to compare the two orations written at the interval of a
whole generation: one in 1837, at the age of thirty-four; the other in
1867, at the age of sixty-four. Both are hopeful, but the second is more
sanguine than the first. He recounts what he considers the recent gains
of the reforming movement:--
"Observe the marked ethical quality of the innovations urged or
adopted. The new claim of woman to a political status is itself an
honorable testimony to the civilization which has given her a civil
status new in history. Now that by the increased humanity of law she
controls her property, she inevitably takes the next step to her
share in power."
He enumerates many other gains, from the war or from the growth of
intelligence,--"All, one may say, in a high degree revolutionary,
teaching nations the taking of governments into their own hands, and
He repeats some of his fundamental formulae.
"The foundation of culture, as of character, is at last the moral
"Great men are they who see that spiritual is stronger than any
material force, that thoughts rule the world.
"Periodicity, reaction, are laws of mind as well as of matter."
And most encouraging it is to read in 1884 what was written in
1867,--especially in the view of future possibilities. "Bad kings and
governors help us, if only they are bad enough." _Non tali auxilio_, we
exclaim, with a shudder of remembrance, and are very glad to read these
concluding words: "I read the promise of better times and of greater
In the year 1866, Emerson reached the age which used to be spoken of as
the "grand climacteric." In that year Harvard University conferred upon
him the degree of Doctor of Laws, the highest honor in its gift.
In that same year, having left home on one of his last lecturing trips,
he met his son, Dr. Edward Waldo Emerson, at the Brevoort House, in New
York. Then, and in that place, he read to his son the poem afterwards
published in the "Atlantic Monthly," and in his second volume, under the
title "Terminus." This was the first time that Dr. Emerson recognized
the fact that his father felt himself growing old. The thought, which
must have been long shaping itself in the father's mind, had been so far
from betraying itself that it was a shock to the son to hear it plainly
avowed. The poem is one of his noblest; he could not fold his robes
about him with more of serene dignity than in these solemn lines. The
reader may remember that one passage from it has been quoted for a
particular purpose, but here is the whole poem:--
It is time to be old,
To take in sail:--
The god of bounds,
Who sets to seas a shore,
Came to me in his fatal rounds,
And said: "No more!
No farther shoot
Thy broad ambitious branches, and thy root.
Fancy departs: no more invent;
Contract thy firmament
To compass of a tent.
There's not enough for this and that,
Make thy option which of two;
Economize the failing river,
Not the less revere the Giver,
Leave the many and hold the few,
Timely wise accept the terms,
Soften the fall with wary foot;
A little while
Still plan and smile,
And,--fault of novel germs,--
Mature the unfallen fruit.
Curse, if thou wilt, thy sires,
Bad husbands of their fires,
Who when they gave thee breath,
Failed to bequeath
The needful sinew stark as once,
The baresark marrow to thy bones,
But left a legacy of ebbing veins,
Inconstant heat and nerveless reins,--
Amid the Muses, left thee deaf and dumb,
Amid the gladiators, halt and numb.
"As the bird trims her to the gale
I trim myself to the storm of time,
I man the rudder, reef the sail,
Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime:
'Lowly faithful, banish fear,
Right onward drive unharmed;
The port, well worth the cruise, is near,
And every wave is charmed.'"
1868-1873. AET. 65-70.
Lectures on the Natural History of the Intellect.--Publication
of "Society and Solitude." Contents: Society and Solitude.
--Works and Days.--Books.--Clubs.--Courage.--Success.--Old Age.--Other
Literary Labors.--Visit to California.--Burning of his House, and the
Story of its Rebuilding.--Third Visit to Europe.--His Reception at
Concord on his Return.
During three successive years, 1868, 1869, 1870, Emerson delivered a
series of Lectures at Harvard University on the "Natural History of the
Intellect." These Lectures, as I am told by Dr. Emerson, cost him a
great deal of labor, but I am not aware that they have been collected or
reported. They will be referred to in the course of this chapter, in an
extract from Prof. Thayer's "Western Journey with Mr. Emerson." He is
there reported as saying that he cared very little for metaphysics.
It is very certain that he makes hardly any use of the ordinary terms
employed by metaphysicians. If he does not hold the words "subject and
object" with their adjectives, in the same contempt that Mr. Ruskin
shows for them, he very rarely employs either of these expressions.
Once he ventures on the _not me_, but in the main he uses plain English
handles for the few metaphysical tools he has occasion to employ.
"Society and Solitude" was published in 1870. The first Essay in the
volume bears the same name as the volume itself.
In this first Essay Emerson is very fair to the antagonistic claims
of solitary and social life. He recognizes the organic necessity of
solitude. We are driven "as with whips into the desert." But there is
danger in this seclusion. "Now and then a man exquisitely made can live
alone and must; but coop up most men and you undo them.--Here again, as
so often, Nature delights to put us between extreme antagonisms, and
our safety is in the skill with which we keep the diagonal line.--The
conditions are met, if we keep our independence yet do not lose our
The Essay on "Civilization" is pleasing, putting familiar facts in a
very agreeable way. The framed or stone-house in place of the cave or
the camp, the building of roads, the change from war, hunting,
and pasturage to agriculture, the division of labor, the skilful
combinations of civil government, the diffusion of knowledge through the
press, are well worn subjects which he treats agreeably, if not with
"Right position of woman in the State is another index.--Place the
sexes in right relations of mutual respect, and a severe morality
gives that essential charm to a woman which educates all that
is delicate, poetic, and self-sacrificing; breeds courtesy and
learning, conversation and wit, in her rough mate, so that I have
thought a sufficient measure of civilization is the influence of
My attention was drawn to one paragraph for a reason which my reader
will readily understand, and I trust look upon good-naturedly:--
"The ship, in its latest complete equipment, is an abridgment and
compend of a nation's arts: the ship steered by compass and chart,
longitude reckoned by lunar observation and by chronometer, driven
by steam; and in wildest sea-mountains, at vast distances from
"'The pulses of her iron heart
Go beating through the storm.'"
I cannot be wrong, it seems to me, in supposing those two lines to be
an incorrect version of these two from a poem of my own called "The
"The beating of her restless heart
Still sounding through the storm."
It is never safe to quote poetry from memory, at least while the writer
lives, for he is ready to "cavil on the ninth part of a hair" where his
verses are concerned. But extreme accuracy was not one of Emerson's
special gifts, and vanity whispers to the misrepresented versifier that
'tis better to be quoted wrong
Than to be quoted not at all.
This Essay of Emerson's is irradiated by a single precept that is worthy
to stand by the side of that which Juvenal says came from heaven. How
could the man in whose thought such a meteoric expression suddenly
announced itself fail to recognize it as divine? It is not strange that
he repeats it on the page next the one where we first see it. Not having
any golden letters to print it in, I will underscore it for italics, and
doubly underscore it in the second extract for small capitals:--
"Now that is the wisdom of a man, in every instance of his labor,
to _hitch his wagon to a star_, and see his chore done by the gods
"'It was a great instruction,' said a saint in Cromwell's war, 'that
the best courages are but beams of the Almighty.' HITCH YOUR WAGON
TO A STAR. Let us not fag in paltry works which serve our pot and
bag alone. Let us not lie and steal. No god will help. We shall find
all their teams going the other way,--Charles's Wain, Great Bear,
Orion, Leo, Hercules: every god will leave us. Work rather for those
interests which the divinities honor and promote,--justice, love,
freedom, knowledge, utility."--
Charles's Wain and the Great Bear, he should have been reminded, are the
same constellation; the _Dipper_ is what our people often call it, and
the country folk all know "the pinters," which guide their eyes to the
I find in the Essay on "Art" many of the thoughts with which we are
familiar in Emerson's poem, "The Problem." It will be enough to cite
"We feel in seeing a noble building which rhymes well, as we do in
hearing a perfect song, that it is spiritually organic; that it had
a necessity in nature for being; was one of the possible forms in
the Divine mind, and is now only discovered and executed by the
artist, not arbitrarily composed by him. And so every genuine work
of art has as much reason for being as the earth and the sun.--
--"The Iliad of Homer, the songs of David, the odes of Pindar, the
tragedies of Aeschylus, the Doric temples, the Gothic cathedrals,
the plays of Shakspeare, all and each were made not for sport, but
in grave earnest, in tears and smiles of suffering and loving men.--
--"The Gothic cathedrals were built when the builder and the priest
and the people were overpowered by their faith. Love and fear laid
"Our arts are happy hits. We are like the musician on the lake,
whose melody is sweeter than he knows."
The discourse on "Eloquence" is more systematic, more professorial,
than many of the others. A few brief extracts will give the key to its
"Eloquence must be grounded on the plainest narrative. Afterwards,
it may warm itself until it exhales symbols of every kind and color,
speaks only through the most poetic forms; but, first and last, it
must still be at bottom a biblical statement of fact.--
"He who will train himself to mastery in this science of persuasion
must lay the emphasis of education, not on popular arts, but on
character and insight.--
--"The highest platform of eloquence is the moral sentiment.--
--"Its great masters ... were grave men, who preferred their
integrity to their talent, and esteemed that object for which they
toiled, whether the prosperity of their country, or the laws, or a
reformation, or liberty of speech, or of the press, or letters, or
morals, as above the whole world and themselves also."
"Domestic Life" begins with a picture of childhood so charming that it
sweetens all the good counsel which follows like honey round the rim of
the goblet which holds some tonic draught:--
"Welcome to the parents the puny struggler, strong in
his weakness, his little arms more irresistible than the
soldier's, his lips touched with persuasion which Chatham
and Pericles in manhood had not. His unaffected lamentations
when he lifts up his voice on high, or, more beautiful,
the sobbing child,--the face all liquid grief, as he tries to
swallow his vexation,--soften all hearts to pity, and to mirthful
and clamorous compassion. The small despot asks so little that
all reason and all nature are on his side. His ignorance is more
charming than all knowledge, and his little sins more bewitching
than any virtue. His flesh is angels' flesh, all alive.--All day,
between his three or four sleeps, he coos like a pigeon-house,
sputters and spurs and puts on his faces of importance; and when he
fasts, the little Pharisee fails not to sound his trumpet before
Emerson has favored his audiences and readers with what he knew about
"Farming." Dr. Emerson tells me that this discourse was read as an
address before the "Middlesex Agricultural Society," and printed in the
"Transactions" of that association. He soon found out that the hoe and
the spade were not the tools he was meant to work with, but he had some
general ideas about farming which he expressed very happily:--
"The farmer's office is precise and important, but you must not try
to paint him in rose-color; you cannot make pretty compliments to
fate and gravitation, whose minister he is.--This hard work will
always be done by one kind of man; not by scheming speculators, nor
by soldiers, nor professors, nor readers of Tennyson; but by men
of endurance, deep-chested, long-winded, tough, slow and sure, and
Emerson's chemistry and physiology are not profound, but they are
correct enough to make a fine richly colored poetical picture in his
imaginative presentation. He tells the commonest facts so as to make
them almost a surprise:--
"By drainage we went down to a subsoil we did not know, and have
found there is a Concord under old Concord, which we are now getting
the best crops from; a Middlesex under Middlesex; and, in fine, that
Massachusetts has a basement story more valuable and that promises
to pay a better rent than all the superstructure."
In "Works and Days" there is much good reading, but I will call
attention to one or two points only, as having a slight special interest
of their own. The first is the boldness of Emerson's assertions and
predictions in matters belonging to science and art. Thus, he speaks of
"the transfusion of the blood,--which, in Paris, it was claimed, enables
a man to change his blood as often as his linen!" And once more,
"We are to have the balloon yet, and the next war will be fought in the
Possibly; but it is perhaps as safe to predict that it will be fought on
wheels; the soldiers on bicycles, the officers on tricycles.
The other point I have marked is that we find in this Essay a prose
version of the fine poem, printed in "May-Day" under the title "Days." I
shall refer to this more particularly hereafter.
It is wronging the Essay on "Books" to make extracts from it. It is all
an extract, taken from years of thought in the lonely study and the
public libraries. If I commit the wrong I have spoken of, it is under
protest against myself. Every word of this Essay deserves careful
reading. But here are a few sentences I have selected for the reader's
"There are books; and it is practicable to read them because they
are so few.--
"I visit occasionally the Cambridge Library, and I can seldom go
there without renewing the conviction that the best of it all is
already within the four walls of my study at home.--
"The three practical rules which I have to offer are, 1. Never read
any book that is not a year old. 2. Never read any but famed books.
3. Never read any but what you like, or, in Shakspeare's phrase,--
"'No profit goes where is no pleasure ta'en;
In brief, Sir, study what you most affect.'"
Emerson has a good deal to say about conversation in his Essay on
"Clubs," but nothing very notable on the special subject of the Essay.
Perhaps his diary would have something of interest with reference to the
"Saturday Club," of which he was a member, which, in fact, formed itself
around him as a nucleus, and which he attended very regularly. But he
was not given to personalities, and among the men of genius and of
talent whom he met there no one was quieter, but none saw and heard and
remembered more. He was hardly what Dr. Johnson would have called a
"clubable" man, yet he enjoyed the meetings in his still way, or he
would never have come from Concord so regularly to attend them. He gives
two good reasons for the existence of a club like that of which I have
"I need only hint the value of the club for bringing masters in
their several arts to compare and expand their views, to come to
an understanding on these points, and so that their united opinion
shall have its just influence on public questions of education and
"A principal purpose also is the hospitality of the club, as a means
of receiving a worthy foreigner with mutual advantage."
I do not think "public questions of education and politics" were very
prominent at the social meetings of the "Saturday Club," but "worthy
foreigners," and now and then one not so worthy, added variety to the
meetings of the company, which included a wide range of talents and
All that Emerson has to say about "Courage" is worth listening to, for
he was a truly brave man in that sphere of action where there are more
cowards than are found in the battle-field. He spoke his convictions
fearlessly; he carried the spear of Ithuriel, but he wore no breastplate
save that which protects him
"Whose armor is his honest thought,
And simple truth his utmost skill."
He mentions three qualities as attracting the wonder and reverence of
mankind: 1. Disinterestedness; 2. Practical Power; 3. Courage. "I need
not show how much it is esteemed, for the people give it the first rank.
They forgive everything to it. And any man who puts his life in peril in
a cause which is esteemed becomes the darling of all men."--There are
good and inspiriting lessons for young and old in this Essay or Lecture,
which closes with the spirited ballad of "George Nidiver," written "by a
lady to whom all the particulars of the fact are exactly known."
Men will read any essay or listen to any lecture which has for its
subject, like the one now before me, "Success." Emerson complains of the
same things in America which Carlyle groaned over in England:--
"We countenance each other in this life of show, puffing
advertisement, and manufacture of public opinion; and excellence is
lost sight of in the hunger for sudden performance and praise.--
"Now, though I am by no means sure that the reader will assent to
all my propositions, yet I think we shall agree in my first rule for
success,--that we shall drop the brag and the advertisement and take
Michael Angelo's course, 'to confide in one's self and be something
of worth and value.'"
Reading about "Success" is after all very much like reading in old books
of alchemy. "How not to do it," is the lesson of all the books and
treatises. Geber and Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon and Raymond Lully, and
the whole crew of "pauperes alcumistae," all give the most elaborate
directions showing their student how to fail in transmuting Saturn into
Luna and Sol and making a billionaire of himself. "Success" in its
vulgar sense,--the gaining of money and position,--is not to be reached
by following the rules of an instructor. Our "self-made men," who govern
the country by their wealth and influence, have found their place by
adapting themselves to the particular circumstances in which they were
placed, and not by studying the broad maxims of "Poor Richard," or any
other moralist or economist.--For such as these is meant the cheap
cynical saying quoted by Emerson, "_Rien ne reussit mieux que le
But this is not the aim and end of Emerson's teaching:--
"I fear the popular notion of success stands in direct opposition
in all points to the real and wholesome success. One adores public
opinion, the other private opinion; one fame, the other desert; one
feats, the other humility; one lucre, the other love; one monopoly,
and the other hospitality of mind."
And so, though there is no alchemy in this Lecture, it is profitable
reading, assigning its true value to the sterling gold of character,
the gaining of which is true success, as against the brazen idol of the
The Essay on "Old Age" has a special value from its containing two
personal reminiscences: one of the venerable Josiah Quincy, a brief
mention; the other the detailed record of a visit in the year 1825,
Emerson being then twenty-two years old, to ex-President John Adams,
soon after the election of his son to the Presidency. It is enough to
allude to these, which every reader will naturally turn to first of all.
But many thoughts worth gathering are dropped along these pages. He
recounts the benefits of age; the perilous capes and shoals it has
weathered; the fact that a success more or less signifies little, so
that the old man may go below his own mark with impunity; the feeling
that he has found expression,--that his condition, in particular and in
general, allows the utterance of his mind; the pleasure of completing
his secular affairs, leaving all in the best posture for the future:--
"When life has been well spent, age is a loss of what it can well
spare, muscular strength, organic instincts, gross bulk, and works
that belong to these. But the central wisdom which was old in
infancy is young in fourscore years, and dropping off obstructions,
leaves in happy subjects the mind purified and wise. I have heard
that whoever loves is in no condition old. I have heard that
whenever the name of man is spoken, the doctrine of immortality is
announced; it cleaves to his constitution. The mode of it baffles
our wit, and no whisper comes to us from the other side. But the
inference from the working of intellect, hiving knowledge, hiving
skill,--at the end of life just ready to be born,--affirms the
inspirations of affection and of the moral sentiment."
Other literary labors of Emerson during this period were the
Introduction to "Plutarch's Morals" in 1870, and a Preface to William
Ellery Channing's Poem, "The Wanderer," in 1871. He made a speech at
Howard University, Washington, in 1872.
In the year 1871 Emerson made a visit to California with a very pleasant
company, concerning which Mr. John M. Forbes, one of whose sons married
Emerson's daughter Edith, writes to me as follows. Professor James B.
Thayer, to whom he refers, has more recently written and published an
account of this trip, from which some extracts will follow Mr. Forbes's
BOSTON, February 6, 1884.
MY DEAR DR.,--What little I can give will be of a very rambling
One of the first memories of Emerson which comes up is my meeting
him on the steamboat at returning from Detroit East. I persuaded him
to stop over at Niagara, which he had never seen. We took a carriage
and drove around the circuit. It was in early summer, perhaps in
1848 or 1849. When we came to Table Rock on the British side, our
driver took us down on the outer part of the rock in the carriage.
We passed on by rail, and the next day's papers brought us the
telegraphic news that Table Rock had fallen over; perhaps we were
among the last persons on it!
About 1871 I made up a party for California, including Mr. Emerson,
his daughter Edith, and a number of gay young people. We drove with
B----, the famous Vermont coachman, up to the Geysers, and then made
the journey to the Yosemite Valley by wagon and on horseback. I wish
I could give you more than a mere outline picture of the sage at
this time. With the thermometer at 100 degrees he would sometimes
drive with the buffalo robes drawn up over his knees, apparently
indifferent to the weather, gazing on the new and grand scenes
of mountain and valley through which we journeyed. I especially
remember once, when riding down the steep side of a mountain, his
reins hanging loose, the bit entirely out of the horse's mouth,
without his being aware that this was an unusual method of riding
Pegasus, so fixed was his gaze into space, and so unconscious was
he, at the moment, of his surroundings.
In San Francisco he visited with us the dens of the opium smokers,
in damp cellars, with rows of shelves around, on which were
deposited the stupefied Mongolians; perhaps the lowest haunts of
humanity to be found in the world. The contrast between them and
the serene eye and undisturbed brow of the sage was a sight for all
When we reached Salt Lake City on our way home he made a point of
calling on Brigham Young, then at the summit of his power. The
Prophet, or whatever he was called, was a burly, bull-necked man of
hard sense, really leading a great industrial army. He did not seem
to appreciate who his visitor was, at any rate gave no sign of so
doing, and the chief interest of the scene was the wide contrast
between these leaders of spiritual and of material forces.
I regret not having kept any notes of what was said on this and
other occasions, but if by chance you could get hold of Professor
J.B. Thayer, who was one of our party, he could no doubt give you
some notes that would be valuable.
Perhaps the latest picture that remains in my mind of our friend is
his wandering along the beaches and under the trees at Naushon, no
doubt carrying home large stealings from my domain there, which lost
none of their value from being transferred to his pages. Next to
his private readings which he gave us there, the most notable
recollection is that of his intense amusement at some comical songs
which our young people used to sing, developing a sense of humor
which a superficial observer would hardly have discovered, but which
you and I know he possessed in a marked degree.
Professor James B. Thayer's little book, "A Western Journey with Mr.
Emerson," is a very entertaining account of the same trip concerning
which Mr. Forbes wrote the letter just given. Professor Thayer kindly
read many of his notes to me before his account was published, and
allows me to make such use of the book as I see fit. Such liberty must
not be abused, and I will content myself with a few passages in which
Emerson has a part. No extract will interest the reader more than the
"'How _can_ Mr. Emerson,' said one of the younger members of the
party to me that day, 'be so agreeable, all the time, without
getting tired!' It was the _naive_ expression of what we all had
felt. There was never a more agreeable travelling companion; he was
always accessible, cheerful, sympathetic, considerate, tolerant; and
there was always that same respectful interest in those with whom
he talked, even the humblest, which raised them in their own
estimation. One thing particularly impressed me,--the sense that he
seemed to have of a certain great amplitude of time and leisure. It
was the behavior of one who really _believed_ in an immortal life,
and had adjusted his conduct accordingly; so that, beautiful and
grand as the natural objects were, among which our journey lay, they
were matched by the sweet elevation of character, and the spiritual
charm of our gracious friend. Years afterwards, on that memorable
day of his funeral at Concord, I found that a sentence from his own
Essay on Immortality haunted my mind, and kept repeating itself
all the day long; it seemed to point to the sources of his power:
'Meantime the true disciples saw through the letter the doctrine of
eternity, which dissolved the poor corpse, and Nature also, and gave
grandeur to the passing hour.'"
This extract will be appropriately followed by another alluding to the
"The next evening, Sunday, the twenty-third, Mr. Emerson read his
address on 'Immortality,' at Dr. Stebbins's church. It was the first
time that he had spoken on the Western coast; never did he speak
better. It was, in the main, the same noble Essay that has since
"At breakfast the next morning we had the newspaper, the 'Alta
California.' It gave a meagre outline of the address, but praised it
warmly, and closed with the following observations: 'All left the
church feeling that an elegant tribute had been paid to the creative
genius of the Great First Cause, and that a masterly use of the
English language had contributed to that end.'"
The story used to be told that after the Reverend Horace Holley had
delivered a prayer on some public occasion, Major Ben. Russell, of ruddy
face and ruffled shirt memory, Editor of "The Columbian Centinel,"
spoke of it in his paper the next day as "the most eloquent prayer ever
addressed to a Boston audience."
The "Alta California's" "elegant tribute" is not quite up to this
"'The minister,' said he, 'is in no danger of losing his position;
he represents the moral sense and the humanities.' He spoke of his
own reasons for leaving the pulpit, and added that 'some one had
lately come to him whose conscience troubled him about retaining the
name of Christian; he had replied that he himself had no difficulty
about it. When he was called a Platonist, or a Christian, or a
Republican, he welcomed it. It did not bind him to what he did
not like. What is the use of going about and setting up a flag of
"I made bold to ask him what he had in mind in naming his recent
course of lectures at Cambridge, 'The Natural History of the
Intellect.' This opened a very interesting conversation; but, alas!
I could recall but little of it,--little more than the mere hintings
of what he said. He cared very little for metaphysics. But he
thought that as a man grows he observes certain facts about his own
mind,--about memory, for example. These he had set down from time
to time. As for making any methodical history, he did not undertake
Emerson met Brigham Young at Salt Lake City, as has been mentioned, but
neither seems to have made much impression upon the other. Emerson spoke
of the Mormons. Some one had said, "They impress the common people,
through their imagination, by Bible-names and imagery." "Yes," he said,
"it is an after-clap of Puritanism. But one would think that after this
Father Abraham could go no further."
The charm of Boswell's Life of Johnson is that it not merely records
his admirable conversation, but also gives us many of those lesser
peculiarities which are as necessary to a true biography as lights and
shades to a portrait on canvas. We are much obliged to Professor Thayer
therefore for the two following pleasant recollections which he has been
good-natured enough to preserve for us, and with which we will take
leave of his agreeable little volume:--
"At breakfast we had, among other things, pie. This article at
breakfast was one of Mr. Emerson's weaknesses. A pie stood before
him now. He offered to help somebody from it, who declined; and
then one or two others, who also declined; and then Mr.----; he too
declined. 'But Mr.----!' Mr. Emerson remonstrated, with humorous
emphasis, thrusting the knife under a piece of the pie, and putting
the entire weight of his character into his manner,--'but Mr.----,
_what is pie for_?'"
A near friend of mine, a lady, was once in the cars with Emerson, and
when they stopped for the refreshment of the passengers he was very
desirous of procuring something at the station for her solace. Presently
he advanced upon her with a cup of tea in one hand and a wedge of pie in
the other,--such a wedge! She could hardly have been more dismayed
if one of Caesar's _cunei_, or wedges of soldiers, had made a charge
Yet let me say here that pie, often foolishly abused, is a good
creature, at the right time and in angles of thirty or forty degrees. In
semicircles and quadrants it may sometimes prove too much for delicate
stomachs. But here was Emerson, a hopelessly confirmed pie-eater, never,
so far as I remember, complaining of dyspepsia; and there, on the other
side, was Carlyle, feeding largely on wholesome oatmeal, groaning with
indigestion all his days, and living with half his self-consciousness
habitually centred beneath his diaphragm.
Like his friend Carlyle and like Tennyson, Emerson had a liking for a
whiff of tobacco-smoke:--
"When alone," he said, "he rarely cared to finish a whole cigar. But
in company it was singular to see how different it was. To one who
found it difficult to meet people, as he did, the effect of a cigar
was agreeable; one who is smoking may be as silent as he likes, and
yet be good company. And so Hawthorne used to say that he found it.
On this journey Mr. Emerson generally smoked a single cigar after
our mid-day dinner, or after tea, and occasionally after both. This
was multiplying, several times over, anything that was usual with
him at home."
Professor Thayer adds in a note:--
"Like Milton, Mr. Emerson 'was extraordinary temperate in his Diet,'
and he used even less tobacco. Milton's quiet day seems to have
closed regularly with a pipe; he 'supped,' we are told, 'upon ...
some light thing; and after a pipe of tobacco and a glass of water
went to bed.'"
As Emerson's name has been connected with that of Milton in its nobler
aspects, it can do no harm to contemplate him, like Milton, indulging in
this semi-philosophical luxury.
One morning in July, 1872, Mr. and Mrs. Emerson woke to find their room
filled with smoke and fire coming through the floor of a closet in the
room over them. The alarm was given, and the neighbors gathered and did
their best to put out the flames, but the upper part of the house was
destroyed, and with it were burned many papers of value to Emerson,
including his father's sermons. Emerson got wet and chilled, and it
seems too probable that the shock hastened that gradual loss of memory
which came over his declining years.
His kind neighbors did all they could to save his property and relieve
his temporary needs. A study was made ready for him in the old Court
House, and the "Old Manse," which had sheltered his grandfather, and
others nearest to him, received him once more as its tenant.
On the 15th of October he spoke at a dinner given in New York in honor
of James Anthony Froude, the historian, and in the course of this same
month he set out on his third visit to Europe, accompanied by his
daughter Ellen. We have little to record of this visit, which was
suggested as a relief and recreation while his home was being refitted
for him. He went to Egypt, but so far as I have learned the Sphinx had
no message for him, and in the state of mind in which he found himself
upon the mysterious and dream-compelling Nile it may be suspected that
the landscape with its palms and pyramids was an unreal vision,--that,
as to his Humble-bee,
"All was picture as he passed."
But while he was voyaging his friends had not forgotten him. The
sympathy with him in his misfortune was general and profound. It did not
confine itself to expressions of feeling, but a spontaneous movement
organized itself almost without effort. If any such had been needed, the
attached friend whose name is appended to the Address to the Subscribers
to the Fund for rebuilding Mr. Emerson's house would have been as
energetic in this new cause as he had been in the matter of procuring
the reprint of "Sartor Resartus." I have his kind permission to publish
the whole correspondence relating to the friendly project so happily
_To the Subscribers to the Fund for the Rebuilding of Mr. Emerson's
House, after the Fire of July_ 24, 1872:
The death of Mr. Emerson has removed any objection which may have
before existed to the printing of the following correspondence. I
have now caused this to be done, that each subscriber may have the
satisfaction of possessing a copy of the touching and affectionate
letters in which he expressed his delight in this, to him, most
unexpected demonstration of personal regard and attachment, in the
offer to restore for him his ruined home.
No enterprise of the kind was ever more fortunate and successful in
its purpose and in its results. The prompt and cordial response to
the proposed subscription was most gratifying. No contribution was
solicited from any one. The simple suggestion to a few friends of
Mr. Emerson that an opportunity was now offered to be of service
to him was all that was needed. From the first day on which it was
made, the day after the fire, letters began to come in, with cheques
for large and small amounts, so that in less than three weeks I
was enabled to send to Judge Hoar the sum named in his letter as
received by him on the 13th of August, and presented by him to Mr.
Emerson the next morning, at the Old Manse, with fitting words.
Other subscriptions were afterwards received, increasing the amount
on my book to eleven thousand six hundred and twenty dollars. A part
of this was handed directly to the builder at Concord. The balance
was sent to Mr. Emerson October 7, and acknowledged by him in his
letter of October 8, 1872.
All the friends of Mr. Emerson who knew of the plan which was
proposed to rebuild his house, seemed to feel that it was a
privilege to be allowed to express in this way the love and
veneration with which he was regarded, and the deep debt of
gratitude which they owed to him, and there is no doubt that a much
larger amount would have been readily and gladly offered, if it had
been required, for the object in view.
Those who have had the happiness to join in this friendly
"conspiracy" may well take pleasure in the thought that what they
have done has had the effect to lighten the load of care and anxiety
which the calamity of the fire brought with it to Mr. Emerson, and
thus perhaps to prolong for some precious years the serene and noble
life that was so dear to all of us.
My thanks are due to the friends who have made me the bearer of this
message of good-will.
LE BARON RUSSELL.
BOSTON, May 8, 1882.
BOSTON, August 13, 1872.
DEAR MR. EMERSON:
It seems to have been the spontaneous desire of your friends, on
hearing of the burning of your house, to be allowed the pleasure of
A few of them have united for this object, and now request your
acceptance of the amount which I have to-day deposited to your order
at the Concord Bank, through the kindness of our friend, Judge Hoar.
They trust that you will receive it as an expression of sincere
regard and affection from friends, who will, one and all, esteem it
a great privilege to be permitted to assist in the restoration of
And if, in their eagerness to participate in so grateful a work,
they may have exceeded the estimate of your architect as to what
is required for that purpose, they beg that you will devote the
remainder to such other objects as may be most convenient to you.
Very sincerely yours,
LE BARON RUSSELL.
CONCORD, August 14, 1872.
DR. LE B. RUSSELL:
_Dear Sir_,--I received your letters, with the check for ten
thousand dollars inclosed, from Mr. Barrett last evening. This
morning I deposited it to Mr. Emerson's credit in the Concord
National Bank, and took a bank book for him, with his little balance
entered at the top, and this following, and carried it to him with
your letter. I told him, by way of prelude, that some of his friends
had made him treasurer of an association who wished him to go to
England and examine Warwick Castle and other noted houses that
had been recently injured by fire, in order to get the best ideas
possible for restoration, and then to apply them to a house which
the association was formed to restore in this neighborhood.
When he understood the thing and had read your letter, he seemed
very deeply moved. He said that he had been allowed so far in life
to stand on his own feet, and that he hardly knew what to say,--that
the kindness of his friends was very great. I said what I thought
was best in reply, and told him that this was the spontaneous act of
friends, who wished the privilege of expressing in this way their
respect and affection, and was done only by those who thought it a
privilege to do so. I mentioned Hillard as you desired, and also
Mrs. Tappan, who, it seems, had written to him and offered any
assistance he might need, to the extent of five thousand dollars,
I think it is all right, but he said he must see the list of
contributors, and would then say what he had to say about it. He
told me that Mr. F.C. Lowell, who was his classmate and old friend,
Mr. Bangs, Mrs. Gurney, and a few other friends, had already sent
him five thousand dollars, which he seemed to think was as much as
he could bear. This makes the whole a very gratifying result, and
perhaps explains the absence of some names on your book.
I am glad that Mr. Emerson, who is feeble and ill, can learn what a
debt of obligation his friends feel to him, and thank you heartily
for what you have done about it. Very truly yours,
CONCORD, August 16, 1872.
MY DEAR LE BARON:
I have wondered and melted over your letter and its accompaniments
till it is high time that I should reply to it, if I can. My
misfortunes, as I have lived along so far in this world, have been
so few that I have never needed to ask direct aid of the host of
good men and women who have cheered my life, though many a gift has
come to me. And this late calamity, however rude and devastating,
soon began to look more wonderful in its salvages than in its ruins,
so that I can hardly feel any right to this munificent endowment
with which you, and my other friends through you, have astonished
me. But I cannot read your letter or think of its message without
delight, that my companions and friends bear me so noble a
good-will, nor without some new aspirations in the old heart toward
a better deserving. Judge Hoar has, up to this time, withheld from
me the names of my benefactors, but you may be sure that I shall not
rest till I have learned them, every one, to repeat to myself at
night and at morning.
Your affectionate friend and debtor,
DR. LE BARON RUSSELL
CONCORD, October 8, 1872.
MY DEAR DOCTOR LE BARON:
I received last night your two notes, and the cheque, enclosed in
one of them, for one thousand and twenty dollars.
Are my friends bent on killing me with kindness? No, you will say,
but to make me live longer. I thought myself sufficiently loaded
with benefits already, and you add more and more. It appears that
you all will rebuild my house and rejuvenate me by sending me in my
old days abroad on a young man's excursion.
I am a lover of men, but this recent wonderful experience of their
tenderness surprises and occupies my thoughts day by day. Now that
I have all or almost all the names of the men and women who have
conspired in this kindness to me (some of whom I have never
personally known), I please myself with the thought of meeting each
and asking, Why have we not met before? Why have you not told me
that we thought alike? Life is not so long, nor sympathy of thought
so common, that we can spare the society of those with whom we best
agree. Well, 'tis probably my own fault by sticking ever to my
solitude. Perhaps it is not too late to learn of these friends a
Thank them for me whenever you meet them, and say to them that I am
not wood or stone, if I have not yet trusted myself so far as to go
to each one of them directly.
My wife insists that I shall also send her acknowledgments to them
Yours and theirs affectionately,
DR. LE BARON KUSSELL.
The following are the names of the subscribers to the fund for
rebuilding Mr. Emerson's house:--
Mrs. Anne S. Hooper.
Miss Alice S. Hooper.
Mrs. Caroline Tappan.
Miss Ellen S. Tappan.
Miss Mary A. Tappan.
Mr. T.G. Appleton.
Mrs. Henry Edwards.
Miss Susan E. Dorr.
Mr. Edward Wigglesworth.
Mr. J. Elliot Cabot.
Mrs. Sarah S. Russell.
Friends in New York and Philadelphia, through Mr. Williams.
Mr. William Whiting.
Mr. Frederick Beck.
Mr. H.P. Kidder.
Mrs. Abel Adams.
Mrs. George Faulkner.
Hon. E.R. Hoar.
Mr. James B. Thayer.
Mr. John M. Forbes.
Mr. James H. Beal.
Mrs. Anna C. Lodge.
Mr. T. Jefferson Coolidge.
Mr. H.H. Hunnewell.
Mrs. S. Cabot.
Mr. James A. Dupee.
Mrs. Anna C. Lowell.
Mrs. M.F. Sayles.
Miss Helen L. Appleton.
J.R. Osgood & Co.
Mr. Richard Soule.
Mr. Francis Geo. Shaw.
Dr. R.W. Hooper.
Mr. William P. Mason.
Mr. William Gray.
Mr. Sam'l G. Ward.
Mr. J.I. Bowditch.
Mr. Geo. C. Ward.
Mrs. Luicia J. Briggs.
Mr. John E. Williams.
Dr. Le Baron Russell.
In May, 1873, Emerson returned to Concord. His friends and
fellow-citizens received him with every token of affection and
reverence. A set of signals was arranged to announce his arrival.
Carriages were in readiness for him and his family, a band greeted him
with music, and passing under a triumphal arch, he was driven to his
renewed old home amidst the welcomes and the blessings of his loving and
admiring friends and neighbors.
1873-1878. AET. 70-75.
Publication of "Parnassus."--Emerson Nominated as Candidate for the
Office of Lord Rector of Glasgow University.--Publication of
"Letters and Social Aims." Contents: Poetry and Imagination.--Social
Aims.--Eloquence.--Resources.--The Comic.--Quotation and
Originality.--Progress of Culture.--Persian Poetry.--Inspiration.--
Greatness.--Immortality.--Address at the Unveiling of the Statue of "The
Minute-Man" at Concord.--Publication of Collected Poems.
In December, 1874, Emerson published "Parnassus," a Collection of Poems
by British and American authors. Many readers may like to see his
subdivisions and arrangement of the pieces he has brought together.
They are as follows: "Nature."--"Human Life."--"Intellectual."
--"Contemplation."--"Moral and Religious."--"Heroic."--"Personal."
--"Pictures."--"Narrative Poems and Ballads."--"Songs."--"Dirges and
Pathetic Poems."--"Comic and Humorous."--"Poetry of Terror."--"Oracles
I have borrowed so sparingly from the rich mine of Mr. George Willis
Cooke's "Ralph Waldo Emerson, His Life, Writings, and Philosophy," that
I am pleased to pay him the respectful tribute of taking a leaf from his
"This collection," he says,
"was the result of his habit, pursued for many years, of copying
into his commonplace book any poem which specially pleased him. Many
of these favorites had been read to illustrate his lectures on
the English poets. The book has no worthless selections, almost
everything it contains bearing the stamp of genius and worth. Yet
Emerson's personality is seen in its many intellectual and serious
poems, and in the small number of its purely religious selections.
With two or three exceptions he copies none of those devotional
poems which have attracted devout souls.--His poetical sympathies
are shown in the fact that one third of the selections are from the
seventeenth century. Shakespeare is drawn on more largely than any
other, no less than eighty-eight selections being made from him. The
names of George Herbert, Herrick, Ben Jonson, and Milton frequently
appear. Wordsworth appears forty-three times, and stands next to
Shakespeare; while Burns, Byron, Scott, Tennyson, and Chaucer make
up the list of favorites. Many little known pieces are included, and
some whose merit is other than poetical.--This selection of poems
is eminently that of a poet of keen intellectual tastes. I
not popular in character, omitting many public favorites, and
introducing very much which can never be acceptable to the general
reader. The Preface is full of interest for its comments on many of
the poems and poets appearing in these selections."
I will only add to Mr. Cooke's criticism these two remarks: First, that
I have found it impossible to know under which of his divisions to look
for many of the poems I was in search of; and as, in the earlier copies
at least, there was no paged index where each author's pieces were
collected together, one had to hunt up his fragments with no little loss
of time and patience, under various heads, "imitating the careful search
that Isis made for the mangled body of Osiris." The other remark is that
each one of Emerson's American fellow-poets from whom he has quoted
would gladly have spared almost any of the extracts from the poems of
his brother-bards, if the editor would only have favored us with some
specimens of his own poetry, with a single line of which he has not seen
fit to indulge us.
In 1874 Emerson received the nomination by the independent party among
the students of Glasgow University for the office of Lord Rector. He
received five hundred votes against seven hundred for Disraeli, who was
elected. He says in a letter to Dr. J. Hutchinson Sterling:--
"I count that vote as quite the fairest laurel that has ever fallen
on me; and I cannot but feel deeply grateful to my young friends in
the University, and to yourself, who have been my counsellor and my
too partial advocate."
Mr. Cabot informs us in his Prefatory Note to "Letters and Social Aims,"
that the proof sheets of this volume, now forming the eighth of the
collected works, showed even before the burning of his house and the
illness which followed from the shock, that his loss of memory and of
mental grasp was such as to make it unlikely that he would in any case
have been able to accomplish what he had undertaken. Sentences, even
whole pages, were repeated, and there was a want of order beyond what
even he would have tolerated:--
"There is nothing here that he did not write, and he gave his
full approval to whatever was done in the way of selection and
arrangement; but I cannot say that he applied his mind very closely
to the matter."
This volume contains eleven Essays, the subjects of which, as just
enumerated, are very various. The longest and most elaborate paper is
that entitled "Poetry and Imagination." I have room for little more than
the enumeration of the different headings of this long Essay. By these
it will be seen how wide a ground it covers. They are "Introductory;"
"Poetry;" "Imagination;" "Veracity;" "Creation;" "Melody, Rhythm, Form;"
"Bards and Trouveurs;" "Morals;" "Transcendency." Many thoughts with
which we are familiar are reproduced, expanded, and illustrated in this
Essay. Unity in multiplicity, the symbolism of nature, and others of his
leading ideas appear in new phrases, not unwelcome, for they look fresh
in every restatement. It would be easy to select a score of pointed
sayings, striking images, large generalizations. Some of these we find
repeated in his verse. Thus:--
"Michael Angelo is largely filled with the Creator that made and
makes men. How much of the original craft remains in him, and he a
And so in the well remembered lines of "The Problem":--
"Himself from God he could not free."
"He knows that he did not make his thought,--no, his thought made him,
and made the sun and stars."
"Art might obey but not surpass.
The passive Master lent his hand
To the vast soul that o'er him planned."
Hope is at the bottom of every Essay of Emerson's as it was at the
bottom of Pandora's box:--
"I never doubt the riches of nature, the gifts of the future, the
immense wealth of the mind. O yes, poets we shall have, mythology,
symbols, religion of our own.
--"Sooner or later that which is now life shall be poetry, and every
fair and manly trait shall add a richer strain to the song."
Under the title "Social Aims" he gives some wise counsel concerning
manners and conversation. One of these precepts will serve as a
specimen--if we have met with it before it is none the worse for wear:--
"Shun the negative side. Never worry people with; your contritions,
nor with dismal views of politics or society. Never name sickness;
even if you could trust yourself on that perilous topic, beware of
unmuzzling a valetudinarian, who will give you enough of it."
We have had one Essay on "Eloquence" already. One extract from this new
discourse on the same subject must serve our turn:--
"These are ascending stairs,--a good voice, winning manners, plain
speech, chastened, however, by the schools into correctness; but
we must come to the main matter, of power of statement,--know your
fact; hug your fact. For the essential thing is heat, and heat comes
of sincerity. Speak what you know and believe; and are personally in
it; and are answerable for every word. Eloquence is _the power to_
_translate a truth into language perfectly intelligible to the
person to whom you speak_."
The italics are Emerson's.
If our learned and excellent John Cotton used to sweeten his mouth
before going to bed with a bit of Calvin, we may as wisely sweeten and
strengthen our sense of existence with a morsel or two from Emerson's
Essay on "Resources":--
"A Schopenhauer, with logic and learning and wit, teaching
pessimism,--teaching that this is the worst of all possible worlds,
and inferring that sleep is better than waking, and death than
sleep,--all the talent in the world cannot save him from being
odious. But if instead of these negatives you give me affirmatives;
if you tell me that there is always life for the living; that what
man has done man can do; that this world belongs to the energetic;
that there is always a way to everything desirable; that every man
is provided, in the new bias of his faculty, with a key to
nature, and that man only rightly knows himself as far as he has
experimented on things,--I am invigorated, put into genial and
working temper; the horizon opens, and we are full of good-will and
gratitude to the Cause of Causes."
The Essay or Lecture on "The Comic" may have formed a part of a series
he had contemplated on the intellectual processes. Two or three sayings
in it will show his view sufficiently:--
"The essence of all jokes, of all comedy, seems to be an honest or
well-intended halfness; a non-performance of what is pretended to
be performed, at the same time that one is giving loud pledges of
"If the essence of the Comic be the contrast in the intellect
between the idea and the false performance, there is good reason why
we should be affected by the exposure. We have no deeper interest
than our integrity, and that we should be made aware by joke and by
stroke of any lie we entertain. Besides, a perception of the comic
seems to be a balance-wheel in our metaphysical structure. It
appears to be an essential element in a fine character.--A rogue
alive to the ludicrous is still convertible. If that sense is lost,
his fellow-men can do little for him."
These and other sayings of like purport are illustrated by
well-preserved stories and anecdotes not for the most part of very
"Quotation and Originality" furnishes the key to Emerson's workshop. He
believed in quotation, and borrowed from everybody and every book. Not
in any stealthy or shame-faced way, but proudly, royally, as a king
borrows from one of his attendants the coin that bears his own image and
"All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and woof of every
moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two
strands.--We quote not only books and proverbs, but arts, sciences,
religion, customs, and laws; nay, we quote temples and houses,
tables and chairs by imitation.--
"The borrowing is often honest enough and comes of magnanimity and
stoutness. A great man quotes bravely, and will not draw on his
invention when his memory serves him with a word as good.
"Next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of
--"The Progress of Culture," his second Phi Beta Kappa oration, has
already been mentioned.
--The lesson of self-reliance, which he is never tired of inculcating,
is repeated and enforced in the Essay on "Greatness."
"There are certain points of identity in which these masters agree.
Self-respect is the early form in which greatness appears.--Stick to
your own; don't inculpate yourself in the local, social, or national
crime, but follow the path your genius traces like the galaxy of
heaven for you to walk in.
"Every mind has a new compass, a new direction of its own,
differencing its genius and aim from every other mind.--We call this
specialty the _bias_ of each individual. And none of us will ever
accomplish anything excellent or commanding except when he listens
to this whisper which is heard by him alone."
If to follow this native bias is the first rule, the second is
concentration.--To the bias of the individual mind must be added the
most catholic receptivity for the genius of others.
"Shall I tell you the secret of the true scholar? It is this: Every
man I meet is my master in some point, and in that I learn of
"The man whom we have not seen, in whom no regard of self degraded
the adorer of the laws,--who by governing himself governed others;
sportive in manner, but inexorable in act; who sees longevity in his
cause; whose aim is always distinct to him; who is suffered to be
himself in society; who carries fate in his eye;--he it is whom we
seek, encouraged in every good hour that here or hereafter he shall
What has Emerson to tell us of "Inspiration?"
"I believe that nothing great or lasting can be done except by
inspiration, by leaning on the secret augury.--
"How many sources of inspiration can we count? As many as our
affinities. But to a practical purpose we may reckon a few of
I will enumerate them briefly as he gives them, but not attempting to
reproduce his comments on each:--
1. Health. 2. The experience of writing letters. 3. The renewed
sensibility which comes after seasons of decay or eclipse of the
faculties. 4. The power of the will. 5. Atmospheric causes, especially
the influence of morning. 6. Solitary converse with nature. 7. Solitude
of itself, like that of a country inn in summer, and of a city hotel
in winter. 8. Conversation. 9. New poetry; by which, he says, he means
chiefly old poetry that is new to the reader.
"Every book is good to read which sets the reader in a working
What can promise more than an Essay by Emerson on "Immortality"? It is
to be feared that many readers will transfer this note of interrogation
to the Essay itself. What is the definite belief of Emerson as expressed
in this discourse,--what does it mean? We must tack together such
sentences as we can find that will stand for an answer:--
"I think all sound minds rest on a certain preliminary conviction,
namely, that if it be best that conscious personal life shall
continue, it will continue; if not best, then it will not; and we,
if we saw the whole, should of course see that it was better so."
This is laying the table for a Barmecide feast of nonentity, with the
possibility of a real banquet to be provided for us. But he continues:--
"Schiller said, 'What is so universal as death must be benefit.'"
He tells us what Michael Angelo said, how Plutarch felt, how Montesquieu
thought about the question, and then glances off from it to the terror
of the child at the thought of life without end, to the story of the two
skeptical statesmen whose unsatisfied inquiry through a long course of
years he holds to be a better affirmative evidence than their failure
to find a confirmation was negative. He argues from our delight in
permanence, from the delicate contrivances and adjustments of created
things, that the contriver cannot be forever hidden, and says at last
"Everything is prospective, and man is to live hereafter. That the
world is for his education is the only sane solution of the enigma."
But turn over a few pages and we may read:--
"I confess that everything connected with our personality fails.
Nature never spares the individual; we are always balked of a
complete success; no prosperity is promised to our self-esteem. We
have our indemnity only in the moral and intellectual reality to
which we aspire. That is immortal, and we only through that. The
soul stipulates for no private good. That which is private I see not
to be good. 'If truth live, I live; if justice live, I live,'
said one of the old saints, 'and these by any man's suffering are
enlarged and enthroned.'"
Once more we get a dissolving view of Emerson's creed, if such a word
applies to a statement like the following:--
--"I mean that I am a better believer, and all serious souls are
better believers in the immortality than we can give grounds for.
The real evidence is too subtle, or is higher than we can write down
in propositions, and therefore Wordsworth's 'Ode' is the best modern
essay on the subject."
Wordsworth's "Ode" is a noble and beautiful dream; is it anything more?
The reader who would finish this Essay, which I suspect to belong to an
early period of Emerson's development, must be prepared to plunge
into mysticism and lose himself at last in an Oriental apologue. The
eschatology which rests upon an English poem and an Indian fable belongs
to the realm of reverie and of imagination rather than the domain of
On the 19th of April, 1875, the hundredth anniversary of the "Fight at
the Bridge," Emerson delivered a short Address at the unveiling of the
statue of "The Minute-Man," erected at the place of the conflict, to
commemorate the event. This is the last Address he ever wrote, though he
delivered one or more after this date. From the manuscript which lies
before me I extract a single passage:--
"In the year 1775 we had many enemies and many friends in England,
but our one benefactor was King George the Third. The time had
arrived for the political severance of America, that it might play
its part in the history of this globe, and the inscrutable divine
Providence gave an insane king to England. In the resistance of the
Colonies, he alone was immovable on the question of force. England
was so dear to us that the Colonies could only be absolutely
disunited by violence from England, and only one man could compel
the resort to violence. Parliament wavered, Lord North wavered, all
the ministers wavered, but the king had the insanity of one idea; he
was immovable, he insisted on the impossible, so the army was sent,
America was instantly united, and the Nation born."
There is certainly no mark of mental failure in this paragraph, written
at a period when he had long ceased almost entirely from his literary
Emerson's collected "Poems" constitute the ninth volume of the recent
collected edition of his works. They will be considered in a following
1878-1882. AET. 75-79.
Last Literary Labors.--Addresses and Essays.--"Lectures and Biographical
The decline of Emerson's working faculties went on gently and gradually,
but he was not condemned to entire inactivity. His faithful daughter,
Ellen, followed him with assiduous, quiet, ever watchful care, aiding
his failing memory, bringing order into the chaos of his manuscript, an
echo before the voice whose words it was to shape for him when his mind
faltered and needed a momentary impulse.
With her helpful presence and support he ventured from time to time
to read a paper before a select audience. Thus, March 30, 1878, he
delivered a Lecture in the Old South Church,--"Fortune of the Republic."
On the 5th of May, 1879, he read a Lecture in the Chapel of Divinity
College, Harvard University,--"The Preacher." In 1881 he read a paper on
Carlyle before the Massachusetts Historical Society.--He also published
a paper in the "North American Review," in 1878,--"The Sovereignty of
Ethics," and one on "Superlatives," in "The Century" for February, 1882.
But in these years he was writing little or nothing. All these papers
were taken from among his manuscripts of different dates. The same
thing is true of the volumes published since his death; they were
only compilations from his stores of unpublished matter, and their
arrangement was the work of Mr. Emerson's friend and literary executor,
Mr. Cabot. These volumes cannot be considered as belonging to any single
period of his literary life.
Mr. Cabot prefixes to the tenth volume of Emerson's collected works,
which bears the title, "Lectures and Biographical Sketches," the
"Of the pieces included in this volume the following, namely, those from
'The Dial,' 'Character,' 'Plutarch,' and the biographical sketches of
Dr. Ripley, of Mr. Hoar, and of Henry Thoreau, were printed by Mr.
Emerson before I took any part in the arrangement of his papers. The
rest, except the sketch of Miss Mary Emerson, I got ready for his use
in readings to his friends, or to a limited public. He had given up
the regular practice of lecturing, but would sometimes, upon special
request, read a paper that had been prepared for him from his
manuscripts, in the manner described in the Preface to 'Letters and
Social Aims,'--some former lecture serving as a nucleus for the new.
Some of these papers he afterwards allowed to be printed; others,
namely, 'Aristocracy,' 'Education,' 'The Man of Letters,' 'The Scholar,'
'Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England,' 'Mary Moody
Emerson,' are now published for the first time."
Some of these papers I have already had occasion to refer to. From
several of the others I will make one or two extracts,--a difficult
task, so closely are the thoughts packed together.
"I say to the table-rappers
'I will believe
Thou wilt not utter what thou dost not know,'
And so far will I trust thee, gentle Kate!"
"Meantime far be from me the impatience which cannot brook the
supernatural, the vast; far be from me the lust of explaining away
all which appeals to the imagination, and the great presentiments
which haunt us. Willingly I too say Hail! to the unknown, awful
powers which transcend the ken of the understanding."
I will not quote anything from the Essay called "Aristocracy." But let
him who wishes to know what the word means to an American whose life has
come from New England soil, whose ancestors have breathed New England
air for many generations, read it, and he will find a new interpretation
of a very old and often greatly wronged appellation.
"Perpetual Forces" is one of those prose poems,--of his earlier epoch,
I have no doubt,--in which he plays with the facts of science with
singular grace and freedom.
What man could speak more fitly, with more authority of "Character,"
than Emerson? When he says, "If all things are taken away, I have
still all things in my relation to the Eternal," we feel that such an
utterance is as natural to his pure spirit as breathing to the frame in
which it was imprisoned.
We have had a glimpse of Emerson as a school-master, but behind and far
above the teaching drill-master's desk is the chair from which he speaks
to us of "Education." Compare the short and easy method of the wise man
of old,--"He that spareth his rod hateth his son," with this other, "Be
the companion of his thought, the friend of his friendship, the lover of
his virtue,--but no kinsman of his sin."
"The Superlative" will prove light and pleasant reading after these
graver essays. [Greek: Maedhen agan]--_ne quid nimis_,--nothing in
excess, was his precept as to adjectives.
Two sentences from "The Sovereignty of Ethics" will go far towards
reconciling elderly readers who have not forgotten the Westminster
Assembly's Catechism with this sweet-souled dealer in spiritual
"Luther would cut his hand off sooner than write theses against the
pope if he suspected that he was bringing on with all his might the
pale negations of Boston Unitarianism.--
"If I miss the inspiration of the saints of Calvinism, or of
Platonism, or of Buddhism, our times are not up to theirs, or, more
truly, have not yet their own legitimate force."
So, too, this from "The Preacher":--
"All civil mankind have agreed in leaving one day for contemplation
against six for practice. I hope that day will keep its honor and
its use.--The Sabbath changes its forms from age to age, but the
substantial benefit endures."
The special interest of the Address called "The Man of Letters" is, that
it was delivered during the war. He was no advocate for peace where
great principles were at the bottom of the conflict:--
"War, seeking for the roots of strength, comes upon the moral
aspects at once.--War ennobles the age.--Battle, with the sword,
has cut many a Gordian knot in twain which all the wit of East and
West, of Northern and Border statesmen could not untie."
"The Scholar" was delivered before two Societies at the University of
Virginia so late as the year 1876. If I must select any of its wise
words, I will choose the questions which he has himself italicized to
show his sense of their importance:--
"For all men, all women, Time, your country, your condition, the
invisible world are the interrogators: _Who are you? What do you?
Can you obtain what you wish? Is there method in your consciousness?
Can you see tendency in your life? Can you help any soul_?
"Can he answer these questions? Can he dispose of them? Happy if you
can answer them mutely in the order and disposition of your life!
Happy for more than yourself, a benefactor of men, if you can answer
them in works of wisdom, art, or poetry; bestowing on the general
mind of men organic creations, to be the guidance and delight of all
who know them."
The Essay on "Plutarch" has a peculiar value from the fact that Emerson
owes more to him than to any other author except Plato, who is one of
the only two writers quoted oftener than Plutarch. _Mutato nomine_, the
portrait which Emerson draws of the Greek moralist might stand for his
"Whatever is eminent in fact or in fiction, in opinion, in
character, in institutions, in science--natural, moral, or
metaphysical, or in memorable sayings drew his attention and came to
his pen with more or less fulness of record.
"A poet in verse or prose must have a sensuous eye, but an
intellectual co-perception. Plutarch's memory is full and his
horizon wide. Nothing touches man but he feels to be his.
"Plutarch had a religion which Montaigne wanted, and which defends
him from wantonness; and though Plutarch is as plain spoken, his
moral sentiment is always pure.--
"I do not know where to find a book--to borrow a phrase of Ben
Jonson's--'so rammed with life,' and this in chapters chiefly
ethical, which are so prone to be heavy and sentimental.--His
vivacity and abundance never leave him to loiter or pound on an
"In his immense quotation and allusion we quickly cease to
discriminate between what he quotes and what he invents.--'Tis all
Plutarch, by right of eminent domain, and all property vests in this
"It is in consequence of this poetic trait in his mind, that I
confess that, in reading him, I embrace the particulars, and carry a
faint memory of the argument or general design of the chapter; but
he is not less welcome, and he leaves the reader with a relish and a
necessity for completing his studies.
"He is a pronounced idealist, who does not hesitate to say, like
another Berkeley, 'Matter is itself privation.'--
"Of philosophy he is more interested in the results than in the
method. He has a just instinct of the presence of a master, and
prefers to sit as a scholar with Plato than as a disputant.
"His natural history is that of a lover and poet, and not of a
"But though curious in the questions of the schools on the nature
and genesis of things, his extreme interest in every trait of
character, and his broad humanity, lead him constantly to Morals, to
the study of the Beautiful and Good. Hence his love of heroes, his
rule of life, and his clear convictions of the high destiny of the
soul. La Harpe said that 'Plutarch is the genius the most naturally
moral that ever existed.'
"Plutarch thought 'truth to be the greatest good that man can
receive, and the goodliest blessing that God can give.'
"All his judgments are noble. He thought with Epicurus that it is
more delightful to do than to receive a kindness.
"Plutarch was well-born, well-conditioned--eminently social, he was
a king in his own house, surrounded himself with select friends, and
knew the high value of good conversation.--
"He had that universal sympathy with genius which makes all its
victories his own; though he never used verse, he had many qualities
of the poet in the power of his imagination, the speed of his mental
associations, and his sharp, objective eyes. But what specially
marks him, he is a chief example of the illumination of the
intellect by the force of morals."
How much, of all this would have been recognized as just and true if it
had been set down in an obituary notice of Emerson!
I have already made use of several of the other papers contained in this
volume, and will merely enumerate all that follow the "Plutarch." Some
of the titles will be sure to attract the reader. They are "Historic
Notes of Life and Letters in New England;" "The Chardon Street
Convention;" "Ezra Ripley, D.D.;" "Mary Moody Emerson;" "Samuel Hoar;"
Mr. Cabot prefaces the eleventh and last volume of Emerson's writings
with the following "Note":--
"The first five pieces in this volume, and the 'Editorial Address'
from the 'Massachusetts Quarterly Review,' were published by Mr.
Emerson long ago. The speeches at the John Brown, the Walter Scott,
and the Free Religious Association meetings were published at the
time, no doubt with his consent, but without any active co-operation
on his part. The 'Fortune of the Republic' appeared separately in
1879; the rest have never been published. In none was any change
from the original form made by me, except in the 'Fortune of the
Republic,' which was made up of several lectures for the occasion
upon which it was read."
The volume of "Miscellanies" contains no less than twenty-three pieces
of very various lengths and relating to many different subjects. The
five referred to as having been previously published are, "The Lord's
Supper," the "Historical Discourse in Concord," the "Address at the
Dedication of the Soldiers' Monument in Concord," the "Address on
Emancipation in the British West Indies," and the Lecture or Essay on
"War,"--all of which have been already spoken of.
Next in order comes a Lecture on the "Fugitive Slave Law." Emerson says,
"I do not often speak on public questions.--My own habitual view is to
the well-being of scholars." But he leaves his studies to attack the
institution of slavery, from which he says he himself has never suffered
any inconvenience, and the "Law," which the abolitionists would always
call the "Fugitive Slave _Bill_." Emerson had a great admiration for
Mr. Webster, but he did not spare him as he recalled his speech of the
seventh of March, just four years before the delivery of this Lecture.
He warns against false leadership:--
"To make good the cause of Freedom, you must draw off from all
foolish trust in others.--He only who is able to stand alone is
qualified for society. And that I understand to be the end for which
a soul exists in this world,--to be himself the counter-balance of
all falsehood and all wrong.--The Anglo-Saxon race is proud and
strong and selfish.--England maintains trade, not liberty."
Cowper had said long before this:--
Disinterested good, is not our trade."
And America found that England had not learned that trade when, fifteen
years after this discourse was delivered, the conflict between the free
and slave states threatened the ruin of the great Republic, and England
forgot her Anti-slavery in the prospect of the downfall of "a great
empire which threatens to overshadow the whole earth."
It must be remembered that Emerson had never been identified with the
abolitionists. But an individual act of wrong sometimes gives a sharp
point to a blunt dagger which has been kept in its sheath too long:--
"The events of the last few years and months and days have taught us
the lessons of centuries. I do not see how a barbarous community and
a civilized community can constitute one State. I think we must get
rid of slavery or we must get rid of freedom."
These were his words on the 26th of May, 1856, in his speech on "The
Assault upon Mr. Sumner." A few months later, in his "Speech on the
Affairs of Kansas," delivered almost five years before the first gun
was fired at Fort Sumter, he spoke the following fatally prophetic and
"The hour is coming when the strongest will not be strong enough.
A harder task will the new revolution of the nineteenth century be
than was the revolution of the eighteenth century. I think the
American Revolution bought its glory cheap. If the problem was new,
it was simple. If there were few people, they were united, and the
enemy three thousand miles off. But now, vast property, gigantic
interests, family connections, webs of party, cover the land with a
net-work that immensely multiplies the dangers of war.
"Fellow-citizens, in these times full of the fate of the Republic,
I think the towns should hold town meetings, and resolve themselves
into Committees of Safety, go into permanent sessions, adjourning
from week to week, from month to month. I wish we could send the
sergeant-at-arms to stop every American who is about to leave the
country. Send home every one who is abroad, lest they should find no
country to return to. Come home and stay at home while there is a
country to save. When it is lost it will be time enough then for any
who are luckless enough to remain alive to gather up their clothes
and depart to some land where freedom exists."
Two short speeches follow, one delivered at a meeting for the relief of
the family of John Brown, on the 18th of November, 1859, the other after
"Our blind statesmen," he says, "go up and down, with committees of
vigilance and safety, hunting for the origin of this new heresy.
They will need a very vigilant committee indeed to find its
birthplace, and a very strong force to root it out. For the
arch-Abolitionist, older than Brown, and older than the Shenandoah
Mountains, is Love, whose other name is Justice, which was before
Alfred, before Lycurgus, before Slavery, and will be after it."
From his "Discourse on Theodore Parker" I take the following vigorous
"His commanding merit as a reformer is this, that he insisted beyond
all men in pulpits,--I cannot think of one rival,--that the essence
of Christianity is its practical morals; it is there for use, or
it is nothing; and if you combine it with sharp trading, or with
ordinary city ambitions to gloze over municipal corruptions, or
private intemperance, or successful fraud, or immoral politics, or
unjust wars, or the cheating of Indians, or the robbery of frontier
nations, or leaving your principles at home to follow on the
high seas or in Europe a supple complaisance to tyrants,--it is
hypocrisy, and the truth is not in you; and no love of religious
music, or of dreams of Swedenborg, or praise of John Wesley, or of
Jeremy Taylor, can save you from the Satan which you are."
The Lecture on "American Civilization," made up from two Addresses, one
of which was delivered at Washington on the 31st of January, 1862, is,
as might be expected, full of anti-slavery. That on the "Emancipation
Proclamation," delivered in Boston in September, 1862, is as full of
"silent joy" at the advent of "a day which most of us dared not hope
to see,--an event worth the dreadful war, worth its costs and
From the "Remarks" at the funeral services for Abraham Lincoln, held
in Concord on the 19th of April, 1865, I extract this admirably drawn
character of the man:--
"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."
The following are the titles of the remaining contents of this volume:
"Harvard Commemoration Speech;" "Editor's Address: Massachusetts
Quarterly Review;" "Woman;" "Address to Kossuth;" "Robert Burns;"
"Walter Scott;" "Remarks at the Organization of the Free Religious
Association;" "Speech at the Annual Meeting of the Free Religious
Association;" "The Fortune of the Republic." In treating of the
"Woman Question," Emerson speaks temperately, delicately, with perfect
fairness, but leaves it in the hands of the women themselves to
determine whether they shall have an equal part in public affairs. "The
new movement," he says, "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
It is hard to turn a leaf in any book of Emerson's writing without
finding some pithy remark or some striking image or witty comment which
illuminates the page where we find it and tempts us to seize upon it for
an extract. But I must content myself with these few sentences from "The
Fortune of the Republic," the last address he ever delivered, in which
his belief in America and her institutions, and his trust in the
Providence which overrules all nations and all worlds, have found
"Let the passion for America cast out the passion for Europe. Here
let there be what the earth waits for,--exalted manhood. What this
country longs for is personalities, grand persons, to counteract its
materialities. For it is the rule of the universe that corn shall
serve man, and not man corn.
"They who find America insipid,--they for whom London and Paris have
spoiled their own homes, can be spared to return to those cities. I
not only see a career at home for more genius than we have, but for
more than there is in the world.
"Our helm is given up to a better guidance than our own; the course
of events is quite too strong for any helmsman, and our little
wherry is taken in tow by the ship of the great Admiral which knows
the way, and has the force to draw men and states and planets to
With this expression of love and respect for his country and trust
in his country's God, we may take leave of Emerson's prose writings.
The following "Prefatory Note" by Mr. Cabot introduces the ninth volume
of the series of Emerson's collected works:--
"This volume contains nearly all the pieces included in the POEMS
and MAY-DAY of former editions. In 1876 Mr. Emerson published a
selection from his poems, adding six new ones, and omitting many.
Of those omitted, several are now restored, in accordance with the
expressed wishes of many readers and lovers of them. Also some
pieces never before published are here given in an Appendix, on
various grounds. Some of them appear to have had Emerson's approval,
but to have been withheld because they were unfinished. These it
seemed best not to suppress, now that they can never receive their
completion. Others, mostly of an early date, remained unpublished
doubtless because of their personal and private nature. Some of
these seem to have an autobiographic interest sufficient to justify
their publication. Others again, often mere fragments, have been
admitted as characteristic, or as expressing in poetic form thoughts
found in the Essays.
"In coming to a decision in these cases, it seemed on the whole
preferable to take the risk of including too much rather than the
opposite, and to leave the task of further winnowing to the hands of
"As was stated in the Preface to the first volume of this edition of
Mr. Emerson's writings, the readings adopted by him in the "Selected
Poems" have not always been followed here, but in some cases
preference has been given to corrections made by him when he was in
fuller strength than at the time of the last revision.
"A change in the arrangement of the stanzas of "May-Day," in the
part representative of the march of Spring, received his sanction as
bringing them more nearly in accordance with the events in Nature."
Emerson's verse has been a fertile source of discussion. Some have
called him a poet and nothing but a poet, and some have made so much of
the palpable defects of his verse that they have forgotten to recognize
its true claims. His prose is often highly poetical, but his verse is
something more than the most imaginative and rhetorical passages of his
prose. An illustration presently to be given will make this point clear.
Poetry is to prose what the so-called full dress of the ball-room is to
the plainer garments of the household and the street. Full dress, as
we call it, is so full of beauty that it cannot hold it all, and the
redundancy of nature overflows the narrowed margin of satin or velvet.
It reconciles us to its approach to nudity by the richness of its
drapery and ornaments. A pearl or diamond necklace or a blushing bouquet
excuses the liberal allowance of undisguised nature. We expect from the
fine lady in her brocades and laces a generosity of display which we
should reprimand with the virtuous severity of Tartuffe if ventured upon
by the waiting-maid in her calicoes. So the poet reveals himself under
the protection of his imaginative and melodious phrases,--the flowers
and jewels of his vocabulary.
Here is a prose sentence from Emerson's "Works and Days:"--
"The days are ever divine as to the first Aryans. They come and go
like muffled and veiled figures, sent from a distant friendly party;
but they say nothing, and if we do not use the gifts they bring,
they carry them as silently away."
Now see this thought in full dress, and then ask what is the difference
between prose and poetry:--
"Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.
To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdom, stars, and sky that holds them all.
I, in my pleached garden watched the pomp,
Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day
Turned and departed silent. I too late
Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn."
--Cinderella at the fireside, and Cinderella at the prince's ball! The
full dress version of the thought is glittering with new images like
bracelets and brooches and ear-rings, and fringed with fresh adjectives
like edges of embroidery. That one word _pleached,_ an heir-loom from
Queen Elizabeth's day, gives to the noble sonnet an antique dignity and
charm like the effect of an ancestral jewel. But mark that now the
poet reveals himself as he could not in the prosaic form of the first
extract. It is his own neglect of his great opportunity of which he
now speaks, and not merely the indolent indifference of others. It
is himself who is the object of scorn. Self-revelation of beauty
embellished by ornaments is the privilege of full dress; self-revelation
in the florid costume of verse is the divine right of the poet. Passion
that must express itself longs always for the freedom of rhythmic
utterance. And in spite of the exaggeration and extravagance which
shield themselves under the claim of poetic license, I venture to affirm
that "_In_ vino _veritas_" is not truer than _In_ carmine _veritas_.
As a further illustration of what has just been said of the
self-revelations to be looked for in verse, and in Emerson's verse more
especially, let the reader observe how freely he talks about his bodily
presence and infirmities in his poetry,--subjects he never referred to
in prose, except incidentally, in private letters.
Emerson is so essentially a poet that whole pages of his are like so
many litanies of alternating chants and recitations. His thoughts slip
on and off their light rhythmic robes just as the mood takes him, as was
shown in the passage I have quoted in prose and in verse. Many of the
metrical preludes to his lectures are a versified and condensed abstract
of the leading doctrine of the discourse. They are a curious instance of
survival; the lecturer, once a preacher, still wants his text; and finds
his scriptural motto in his own rhythmic inspiration.
Shall we rank Emerson among the great poets or not?
"The great poets are judged by the frame of mind they induce; and to
them, of all men, the severest criticism is due."
These are Emerson's words in the Preface to "Parnassus."
His own poems will stand this test as well as any in the language. They
lift the reader into a higher region of thought and feeling. This seems
to me a better test to apply to them than the one which Mr. Arnold cited
from Milton. The passage containing this must be taken, not alone, but
with the context. Milton had been speaking of "Logic" and of "Rhetoric,"
and spoke of poetry "as being less subtile and fine, but more simple,
sensuous, and passionate." This relative statement, it must not be
forgotten, is conditioned by what went before. If the terms are used
absolutely, and not comparatively, as Milton used them, they must be
very elastic if they would stretch widely enough to include all the
poems which the world recognizes as masterpieces, nay, to include some
of the best of Milton's own.
In spite of what he said about himself in his letter to Carlyle, Emerson
was not only a poet, but a very remarkable one. Whether a great poet
or not will depend on the scale we use and the meaning we affix to the
term. The heat at eighty degrees of Fahrenheit is one thing and the heat
at eighty degrees of Reaumur is a very different matter. The rank of
poets is a point of very unstable equilibrium. From the days of Homer to
our own, critics have been disputing about the place to be assigned to
this or that member of the poetic hierarchy. It is not the most popular
poet who is necessarily the greatest; Wordsworth never had half the
popularity of Scott or Moore. It is not the multitude of remembered
passages which settles the rank of a metrical composition as poetry.
Gray's "Elegy," it is true, is full of lines we all remember, and is a
great poem, if that term can be applied to any piece of verse of that
length. But what shall we say to the "Ars Poetica" of Horace? It is
crowded with lines worn smooth as old sesterces by constant quotation.
And yet we should rather call it a versified criticism than a poem in
the full sense of that word. And what shall we do with Pope's "Essay on
Man," which has furnished more familiar lines than "Paradise Lost" and
"Paradise Regained" both together? For all that, we know there is a
school of writers who will not allow that Pope deserves the name of
It takes a generation or two to find out what are the passages in
a great writer which are to become commonplaces in literature and
conversation. It is to be remembered that Emerson is one of those
authors whose popularity must diffuse itself from above downwards. And
after all, few will dare assert that "The Vanity of Human Wishes" is
greater as a poem than Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind," or Keats's "Ode
to a Nightingale," because no line in either of these poems is half so
often quoted as
"To point a moral or adorn a tale."
We cannot do better than begin our consideration of Emerson's poetry
with Emerson's own self-estimate. He says in a fit of humility, writing
"I do not belong to the poets, but only to a low department of
literature, the reporters, suburban men."
But Miss Peabody writes to Mr. Ireland:--
"He once said to me, 'I am not a great poet--but whatever is of me
_is a poet_.'"
These opposite feelings were the offspring of different moods and
Here is a fragment, written at the age of twenty-eight, in which his
self-distrust and his consciousness of the "vision," if not "the
faculty, divine," are revealed with the brave nudity of the rhythmic
"A dull uncertain brain,
But gifted yet to know
That God has cherubim who go
Singing an immortal strain,
Immortal here below.
I know the mighty bards,
I listen while they sing,
And now I know
The secret store
Which these explore
When they with torch of genius pierce
The tenfold clouds that cover
The riches of the universe
From God's adoring lover.
And if to me it is not given
To fetch one ingot thence
Of that unfading gold of Heaven
His merchants may dispense,
Yet well I know the royal mine
And know the sparkle of its ore,
Know Heaven's truth from lies that shine,--
Explored, they teach us to explore."
These lines are from "The Poet," a series of fragments given in the
"Appendix," which, with his first volume, "Poems," his second, "May-Day,
and other Pieces," form the complete ninth volume of the new series.
These fragments contain some of the loftiest and noblest passages to be
found in his poetical works, and if the reader should doubt which of
Emerson's self-estimates in his two different moods spoken of above had
most truth in it, he could question no longer after reading "The Poet."
Emerson has the most exalted ideas of the true poetic function, as this
passage from "Merlin" sufficiently shows:--
"Thy trivial harp will never please
Or fill my craving ear;
Its chords should ring as blows the breeze,
Free, peremptory, clear.
No jingling serenader's art
Nor tinkling of piano-strings
Can make the wild blood start
In its mystic springs;
The kingly bard
Must smite the chords rudely and hard,
As with hammer or with mace;
That they may render back
Artful thunder, which conveys
Secrets of the solar track,
Sparks of the supersolar blaze.
* * * * *
Great is the art,
Great be the manners of the bard.
He shall not his brain encumber
With the coil of rhythm and number;
But leaving rule and pale forethought
He shall aye climb
For his rhyme.
'Pass in, pass in,' the angels say,
'In to the upper doors,
Nor count compartments of the floors,
But mount to paradise
By the stairway of surprise.'"
And here is another passage from "The Poet," mentioned in the quotation
before the last, in which the bard is spoken of as performing greater
miracles than those ascribed to Orpheus:--
"A Brother of the world, his song
Sounded like a tempest strong
Which tore from oaks their branches broad,
And stars from the ecliptic road.
Time wore he as his clothing-weeds,
He sowed the sun and moon for seeds.
As melts the iceberg in the seas,
As clouds give rain to the eastern breeze,
As snow-banks thaw in April's beam,
The solid kingdoms like a dream
Resist in vain his motive strain,
They totter now and float amain.
For the Muse gave special charge
His learning should be deep and large,
And his training should not scant
The deepest lore of wealth or want:
His flesh should feel, his eyes should read
Every maxim of dreadful Need;
In its fulness he should taste
Life's honeycomb, but not too fast;
Full fed, but not intoxicated;
He should be loved; he should be hated;
A blooming child to children dear,
His heart should palpitate with fear."
We look naturally to see what poets were Emerson's chief favorites. In
his poems "The Test" and "The Solution," we find that the five whom
he recognizes as defying the powers of destruction are Homer, Dante,
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