Speaking of his personal character, as revealed through his writings, he says: "In this respect, I take leave to think that Emerson is the most mark-worthy, the loftiest, and most heroic mere man that ever appeared." Emerson has a lecture on the superlative, to which he himself was never addicted. But what would youth be without its extravagances,—its preterpluperfect in the shape of adjectives, its unmeasured and unstinted admiration?
I need not enumerate the celebrated literary personages and other notabilities whom Emerson met in England and Scotland. He thought "the two finest mannered literary men he met in England were Leigh Hunt and De Quincey." His diary might tell us more of the impressions made upon him by the distinguished people he met, but it is impossible to believe that he ever passed such inhuman judgments on the least desirable of his new acquaintances as his friend Carlyle has left as a bitter legacy behind him. Carlyle's merciless discourse about Coleridge and Charles Lamb, and Swinburne's carnivorous lines, which take a barbarous vengeance on him for his offence, are on the level of political rhetoric rather than of scholarly criticism or characterization. Emerson never forgot that he was dealing with human beings. He could not have long endured the asperities of Carlyle, and that "loud shout of laughter," which Mr. Ireland speaks of as one of his customary explosions, would have been discordant to Emerson's ears, which were offended by such noisy manifestations.
During this visit Emerson made an excursion to Paris, which furnished him materials for a lecture on France delivered in Boston, in 1856, but never printed.
From the lectures delivered in England he selected a certain number for publication. These make up the volume entitled "Representative Men," which was published in 1850. I will give very briefly an account of its contents. The title was a happy one, and has passed into literature and conversation as an accepted and convenient phrase. It would teach us a good deal merely to consider the names he has selected as typical, and the ground of their selection. We get his classification of men considered as leaders in thought and in action. He shows his own affinities and repulsions, and, as everywhere, writes his own biography, no matter about whom or what he is talking. There is hardly any book of his better worth study by those who wish to understand, not Plato, not Plutarch, not Napoleon, but Emerson himself. All his great men interest us for their own sake; but we know a good deal about most of them, and Emerson holds the mirror up to them at just such an angle that we see his own face as well as that of his hero, unintentionally, unconsciously, no doubt, but by a necessity which he would be the first to recognize.
Emerson swears by no master. He admires, but always with a reservation. Plato comes nearest to being his idol, Shakespeare next. But he says of all great men: "The power which they communicate is not theirs. When we are exalted by ideas, we do not owe this to Plato, but to the idea, to which also Plato was debtor."
Emerson loves power as much as Carlyle does; he likes "rough and smooth," "scourges of God," and "darlings of the human race." He likes Julius Caesar, Charles the Fifth, of Spain, Charles the Twelfth, of Sweden, Richard Plantagenet, and Bonaparte.
"I applaud," he says, "a sufficient man, an officer equal to his office; captains, ministers, senators. I like a master standing firm on legs of iron, well born, rich, handsome, eloquent, loaded with advantages, drawing all men by fascination into tributaries and supporters of his power. Sword and staff, or talents sword-like or staff-like, carry on the work of the world. But I find him greater when he can abolish himself and all heroes by letting in this element of reason, irrespective of persons, this subtilizer and irresistible upward force, into our thoughts, destroying individualism; the power is so great that the potentate is nothing.—
"The genius of humanity is the right point of view of history. The qualities abide; the men who exhibit them have now more, now less, and pass away; the qualities remain on another brow.—All that respects the individual is temporary and prospective, like the individual himself, who is ascending out of his limits into a catholic existence."
No man can be an idol for one who looks in this way at all men. But Plato takes the first place in Emerson's gallery of six great personages whose portraits he has sketched. And of him he says:—
"Among secular books Plato only is entitled to Omar's fanatical compliment to the Koran, when he said, 'Burn the libraries; for their value is in this book.' Out of Plato come all things that are still written and debated among men of thought."—
"In proportion to the culture of men they become his scholars."—"How many great men Nature is incessantly sending up out of night to be his men!—His contemporaries tax him with plagiarism.—But the inventor only knows how to borrow. When we are praising Plato, it seems we are praising quotations from Solon and Sophron and Philolaus. Be it so. Every book is a quotation; and every house is a quotation out of all forests and mines and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors."
The reader will, I hope, remember this last general statement when he learns from what wide fields of authorship Emerson filled his storehouses.
A few sentences from Emerson will show us the probable source of some of the deepest thought of Plato and his disciples.
The conception of the fundamental Unity, he says, finds its highest expression in the religious writings of the East, especially in the Indian Scriptures. "'The whole world is but a manifestation of Vishnu, who is identical with all things, and is to be regarded by the wise as not differing from but as the same as themselves. I neither am going nor coming; nor is my dwelling in any one place; nor art thou, thou; nor are others, others; nor am I, I.' As if he had said, 'All is for the soul, and the soul is Vishnu; and animals and stars are transient paintings; and light is whitewash; and durations are deceptive; and form is imprisonment; and heaven itself a decoy.'" All of which we see reproduced in Emerson's poem "Brahma."—"The country of unity, of immovable institutions, the seat of a philosophy delighting in abstractions, of men faithful in doctrine and in practice to the idea of a deaf, unimplorable, immense fate, is Asia; and it realizes this faith in the social institution of caste. On the other side, the genius of Europe is active and creative: it resists caste by culture; its philosophy was a discipline; it is a land of arts, inventions, trade, freedom."—"Plato came to join, and by contact to enhance, the energy of each."
But Emerson says,—and some will smile at hearing him say it of another,—"The acutest German, the lovingest disciple, could never tell what Platonism was; indeed, admirable texts can be quoted on both sides of every great question from him."
The transcendent intellectual and moral superiorities of this "Euclid of holiness," as Emerson calls him, with his "soliform eye and his boniform soul,"—the two quaint adjectives being from the mint of Cudworth,—are fully dilated upon in the addition to the original article called "Plato: New Readings."
Few readers will be satisfied with the Essay entitled "Swedenborg; or, the Mystic." The believers in his special communion as a revealer of divine truth will find him reduced to the level of other seers. The believers of the different creeds of Christianity will take offence at the statement that "Swedenborg and Behmen both failed by attaching themselves to the Christian symbol, instead of to the moral sentiment, which carries innumerable christianities, humanities, divinities in its bosom." The men of science will smile at the exorbitant claims put forward in behalf of Swedenborg as a scientific discoverer. "Philosophers" will not be pleased to be reminded that Swedenborg called them "cockatrices," "asps," or "flying serpents;" "literary men" will not agree that they are "conjurers and charlatans," and will not listen with patience to the praises of a man who so called them. As for the poets, they can take their choice of Emerson's poetical or prose estimate of the great Mystic, but they cannot very well accept both. In "The Test," the Muse says:—
"I hung my verses in the wind, Time and tide their faults may find; All were winnowed through and through, Five lines lasted good and true ... Sunshine cannot bleach the snow, Nor time unmake what poets know. Have you eyes to find the five Which five hundred did survive?"
In the verses which follow we learn that the five immortal poets referred to are Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Swedenborg, and Goethe.
And now, in the Essay we have just been looking at, I find that "his books have no melody, no emotion, no humor, no relief to the dead prosaic level. We wander forlorn in a lack-lustre landscape. No bird ever sang in these gardens of the dead. The entire want of poetry in so transcendent a mind betokens the disease, and like a hoarse voice in a beautiful person, is a kind of warning." Yet Emerson says of him that "He lived to purpose: he gave a verdict. He elected goodness as the clue to which the soul must cling in this labyrinth of nature."
Emerson seems to have admired Swedenborg at a distance, but seen nearer, he liked Jacob Behmen a great deal better.
"Montaigne; or, the Skeptic," is easier reading than the last-mentioned Essay. Emerson accounts for the personal regard which he has for Montaigne by the story of his first acquaintance with him. But no other reason was needed than that Montaigne was just what Emerson describes him as being.
"There have been men with deeper insight; but, one would say, never a man with such abundance of thought: he is never dull, never insincere, and has the genius to make the reader care for all that he cares for.
"The sincerity and marrow of the man reaches to his sentences. I know not anywhere the book that seems less written. It is the language of conversation transferred to a book. Cut these words and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.—
"Montaigne talks with shrewdness, knows the world and books and himself, and uses the positive degree; never shrieks, or protests, or prays: no weakness, no convulsion, no superlative: does not wish to jump out of his skin, or play any antics, or annihilate space or time, but is stout and solid; tastes every moment of the day; likes pain because it makes him feel himself and realize things; as we pinch ourselves to know that we are awake. He keeps the plain; he rarely mounts or sinks; likes to feel solid ground and the stones underneath. His writing has no enthusiasms, no aspiration; contented, self-respecting, and keeping the middle of the road. There is but one exception,—in his love for Socrates. In speaking of him, for once his cheek flushes and his style rises to passion."
The writer who draws this portrait must have many of the same characteristics. Much as Emerson loved his dreams and his dreamers, he must have found a great relief in getting into "the middle of the road" with Montaigne, after wandering in difficult by-paths which too often led him round to the point from which he started.
As to his exposition of the true relations of skepticism to affirmative and negative belief, the philosophical reader must be referred to the Essay itself.
In writing of "Shakespeare; or, the Poet," Emerson naturally gives expression to his leading ideas about the office of the poet and of poetry.
"Great men are more distinguished by range and extent than by originality." A poet has "a heart in unison with his time and country."—"There is nothing whimsical and fantastic in his production, but sweet and sad earnest, freighted with the weightiest convictions, and pointed with the most determined aim which any man or class knows of in his times."
When Shakespeare was in his youth the drama was the popular means of amusement. It was "ballad, epic, newspaper, caucus, lecture, Punch, and library, at the same time. The best proof of its vitality is the crowd of writers which suddenly broke into this field." Shakespeare found a great mass of old plays existing in manuscript and reproduced from time to time on the stage. He borrowed in all directions: "A great poet who appears in illiterate times absorbs into his sphere all the light which is anywhere radiating." Homer, Chaucer, Saadi, felt that all wit was their wit. "Chaucer is a huge borrower." Emerson gives a list of authors from whom he drew. This list is in many particulars erroneous, as I have learned from a letter of Professor Lounsbury's which I have had the privilege of reading, but this is a detail which need not delay us.
The reason why Emerson has so much to say on this subject of borrowing, especially when treating of Plato and of Shakespeare, is obvious enough. He was arguing in his own cause,—not defending himself, as if there were some charge of plagiarism to be met, but making the proud claim of eminent domain in behalf of the masters who knew how to use their acquisitions.
"Shakespeare is the only biographer of Shakespeare; and even he can tell nothing except to the Shakespeare in us."—"Shakespeare is as much out of the category of eminent authors as he is out of the crowd. A good reader can in a sort nestle into Plato's brain and think from thence; but not into Shakespeare's. We are still out of doors."
After all the homage which Emerson pays to the intellect of Shakespeare, he weighs him with the rest of mankind, and finds that he shares "the halfness and imperfection of humanity."
"He converted the elements which waited on his command into entertainment. He was master of the revels to mankind."
And so, after this solemn verdict on Shakespeare, after looking at the forlorn conclusions of our old and modern oracles, priest and prophet, Israelite, German, and Swede, he says: "It must be conceded that these are half views of half men. The world still wants its poet-priest, who shall not trifle with Shakespeare the player, nor shall grope in graves with Swedenborg the mourner; but who shall see, speak, and act with equal inspiration."
It is not to be expected that Emerson should have much that is new to say about "Napoleon; or, the Man of the World."
The stepping-stones of this Essay are easy to find:—
"The instinct of brave, active, able men, throughout the middle class everywhere, has pointed out Napoleon as the incarnate democrat.—
"Napoleon is thoroughly modern, and at the highest point of his fortunes, has the very spirit of the newspapers." As Plato borrowed, as Shakespeare borrowed, as Mirabeau "plagiarized every good thought, every good word that was spoken in France," so Napoleon is not merely "representative, but a monopolizer and usurper of other minds."
He was "a man of stone and iron,"—equipped for his work by nature as Sallust describes Catiline as being. "He had a directness of action never before combined with such comprehension. Here was a man who in each moment and emergency knew what to do next. He saw only the object; the obstacle must give way."
"When a natural king becomes a titular king everybody is pleased and satisfied."—
"I call Napoleon the agent or attorney of the middle class of modern society.—He was the agitator, the destroyer of prescription, the internal improver, the liberal, the radical, the inventor of means, the opener of doors and markets, the subverter of monopoly and abuse."
But he was without generous sentiments, "a boundless liar," and finishing in high colors the outline of his moral deformities, Emerson gives us a climax in two sentences which render further condemnation superfluous:—
"In short, when you have penetrated through all the circles of power and splendor, you were not dealing with a gentleman, at last, but with an impostor and rogue; and he fully deserves the epithet of Jupiter Scapin, or a sort of Scamp Jupiter.
"So this exorbitant egotist narrowed, impoverished, and absorbed the power and existence of those who served him; and the universal cry of France and of Europe in 1814 was, Enough of him; 'Assez de Bonaparte.'"
It was to this feeling that the French poet Barbier, whose death we have but lately seen announced, gave expression in the terrible satire in which he pictured France as a fiery courser bestridden by her spurred rider, who drove her in a mad career over heaps of rocks and ruins.
But after all, Carlyle's "carriere ouverte aux talens" is the expression for Napoleon's great message to mankind.
"Goethe; or, the Writer," is the last of the Representative Men who are the subjects of this book of Essays. Emerson says he had read the fifty-five volumes of Goethe, but no other German writers, at least in the original. It must have been in fulfilment of some pious vow that he did this. After all that Carlyle had written about Goethe, he could hardly help studying him. But this Essay looks to me as if he had found the reading of Goethe hard work. It flows rather languidly, toys with side issues as a stream loiters round a nook in its margin, and finds an excuse for play in every pebble. Still, he has praise enough for his author. "He has clothed our modern existence with poetry."—"He has said the best things about nature that ever were said.—He flung into literature in his Mephistopheles the first organic figure that has been added for some ages, and which will remain as long as the Prometheus.—He is the type of culture, the amateur of all arts and sciences and events; artistic, but not artist; spiritual, but not spiritualist.—I join Napoleon with him, as being both representatives of the impatience and reaction of nature against the morgue of conventions,—two stern realists, who, with their scholars, have severally set the axe at the root of the tree of cant and seeming, for this time and for all time."
This must serve as an ex pede guide to reconstruct the Essay which finishes the volume.
In 1852 there was published a Memoir of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, in which Emerson, James Freeman Clarke, and William Henry Channing each took a part. Emerson's account of her conversation and extracts from her letters and diaries, with his running commentaries and his interpretation of her mind and character, are a most faithful and vivid portraiture of a woman who is likely to live longer by what is written of her than by anything she ever wrote herself.
1858-1858. AEt. 50-55.
Lectures in various Places.—Anti-Slavery Addresses.—Woman. A Lecture read before the Woman's Rights Convention.—Samuel Hoar. Speech at Concord.—Publication of "English Traits."—The "Atlantic Monthly."—The "Saturday Club."
After Emerson's return from Europe he delivered lectures to different audiences,—one on Poetry, afterwards published in "Letters and Social Aims," a course of lectures in Freeman Place Chapel, Boston, some of which have been published, one on the Anglo-Saxon Race, and many others. In January, 1855, he gave one of the lectures in a course of Anti-Slavery Addresses delivered in Tremont Temple, Boston. In the same year he delivered an address before the Anti-Slavery party of New York. His plan for the extirpation of slavery was to buy the slaves from the planters, not conceding their right to ownership, but because "it is the only practical course, and is innocent." It would cost two thousand millions, he says, according to the present estimate, but "was there ever any contribution that was so enthusiastically paid as this would be?"
His optimism flowers out in all its innocent luxuriance in the paragraph from which this is quoted. Of course with notions like these he could not be hand in hand with the Abolitionists. He was classed with the Free Soilers, but he seems to have formed a party by himself in his project for buying up the negroes. He looked at the matter somewhat otherwise in 1863, when the settlement was taking place in a different currency,—in steel and not in gold:—
"Pay ransom to the owner, And fill the bag to the brim. Who is the owner? The slave is owner, And ever was. Pay him."
His sympathies were all and always with freedom. He spoke with indignation of the outrage on Sumner; he took part in the meeting at Concord expressive of sympathy with John Brown. But he was never in the front rank of the aggressive Anti-Slavery men. In his singular "Ode inscribed to W.H. Channing" there is a hint of a possible solution of the slavery problem which implies a doubt as to the permanence of the cause of all the trouble.
"The over-god Who marries Right to Might, Who peoples, unpeoples,— He who exterminates Races by stronger races, Black by white faces,— Knows to bring honey Out of the lion."
Some doubts of this kind helped Emerson to justify himself when he refused to leave his "honeyed thought" for the busy world where
"Things are of the snake."
The time came when he could no longer sit quietly in his study, and, to borrow Mr. Cooke's words, "As the agitation proceeded, and brave men took part in it, and it rose to a spirit of moral grandeur, he gave a heartier assent to the outward methods adopted."
* * * * *
No woman could doubt the reverence of Emerson for womanhood. In a lecture read to the "Woman's Rights Convention" in 1855, he takes bold, and what would then have been considered somewhat advanced, ground in the controversy then and since dividing the community. This is the way in which he expresses himself:
"I do not think it yet appears that women wish this equal share in public affairs. But it is they and not we that are to determine it. Let the laws he purged of every barbarous remainder, every barbarous impediment to women. Let the public donations for education be equally shared by them, let them enter a school as freely as a church, let them have and hold and give their property as men do theirs;—and in a few years it will easily appear whether they wish a voice in making the laws that are to govern them. If you do refuse them a vote, you will also refuse to tax them,—according to our Teutonic principle, No representation, no tax.—The new movement is only a tide shared by the spirits of man and woman; and you may proceed in the faith that whatever the woman's heart is prompted to desire, the man's mind is simultaneously prompted to accomplish."
Emerson was fortunate enough to have had for many years as a neighbor, that true New England Roman, Samuel Hoar. He spoke of him in Concord before his fellow-citizens, shortly after his death, in 1856. He afterwards prepared a sketch of Mr. Hoar for "Putnam's Magazine," from which I take one prose sentence and the verse with which the sketch concluded:—
"He was a model of those formal but reverend manners which make what is called a gentleman of the old school, so called under an impression that the style is passing away, but which, I suppose, is an optical illusion, as there are always a few more of the class remaining, and always a few young men to whom these manners are native."
The single verse I quote is compendious enough and descriptive enough for an Elizabethan monumental inscription.
"With beams December planets dart His cold eye truth and conduct scanned; July was in his sunny heart, October in his liberal hand."
Emerson's "English Traits," forming one volume of his works, was published in 1856. It is a thoroughly fresh and original book. It is not a tourist's guide, not a detailed description of sights which tired the traveller in staring at them, and tire the reader who attacks the wearying pages in which they are recorded. Shrewd observation there is indeed, but its strength is in broad generalization and epigrammatic characterizations. They are not to be received as in any sense final; they are not like the verifiable facts of science; they are more or less sagacious, more or less well founded opinions formed by a fair-minded, sharp-witted, kind-hearted, open-souled philosopher, whose presence made every one well-disposed towards him, and consequently left him well-disposed to all the world.
A glance at the table of contents will give an idea of the objects which Emerson proposed to himself in his tour, and which take up the principal portion of his record. Only one place is given as the heading of a chapter,—Stonehenge. The other eighteen chapters have general titles, Land, Race, Ability, Manners, and others of similar character.
He uses plain English in introducing us to the Pilgrim fathers of the British Aristocracy:—
"Twenty thousand thieves landed at Hastings. These founders of the House of Lords were greedy and ferocious dragoons, sons of greedy and ferocious pirates. They were all alike, they took everything they could carry; they burned, harried, violated, tortured, and killed, until everything English was brought to the verge of ruin. Such, however, is the illusion of antiquity and wealth, that decent and dignified men now existing boast their descent from these filthy thieves, who showed a far juster conviction of their own merits by assuming for their types the swine, goat, jackal, leopard, wolf, and snake, which they severally resembled."
The race preserves some of its better characteristics.
"They have a vigorous health and last well into middle and old age. The old men are as red as roses, and still handsome. A clear skin, a peach-bloom complexion, and good teeth are found all over the island."
English "Manners" are characterized, according to Emerson, by pluck, vigor, independence. "Every one of these islanders is an island himself, safe, tranquil, incommunicable." They are positive, methodical, cleanly, and formal, loving routine and conventional ways; loving truth and religion, to be sure, but inexorable on points of form.
"They keep their old customs, costumes, and pomps, their wig and mace, sceptre and crown. A severe decorum rules the court and the cottage. Pretension and vaporing are once for all distasteful. They hate nonsense, sentimentalism, and high-flown expressions; they use a studied plainness."
"In an aristocratical country like England, not the Trial by Jury, but the dinner is the capital institution."
"They confide in each other,—English believes in English."—"They require the same adherence, thorough conviction, and reality in public men."
"As compared with the American, I think them cheerful and contented. Young people in this country are much more prone to melancholy."
Emerson's observation is in accordance with that of Cotton Mather nearly two hundred years ago.
"New England, a country where splenetic Maladies are prevailing and pernicious, perhaps above any other, hath afforded numberless instances, of even pious people, who have contracted those Melancholy Indispositions, which have unhinged them from all service or comfort; yea, not a few persons have been hurried thereby to lay Violent Hands upon themselves at the last. These are among the unsearchable Judgments of God."
If there is a little exaggeration about the following portrait of the Englishman, it has truth enough to excuse its high coloring, and the likeness will be smilingly recognized by every stout Briton.
"They drink brandy like water, cannot expend their quantities of waste strength on riding, hunting, swimming, and fencing, and run into absurd follies with the gravity of the Eumenides. They stoutly carry into every nook and corner of the earth their turbulent sense; leaving no lie uncontradicted; no pretension unexamined. They chew hasheesh; cut themselves with poisoned creases, swing their hammock in the boughs of the Bohon Upas, taste every poison, buy every secret; at Naples, they put St. Januarius's blood in an alembic; they saw a hole into the head of the 'winking virgin' to know why she winks; measure with an English foot-rule every cell of the inquisition, every Turkish Caaba, every Holy of Holies; translate and send to Bentley the arcanum, bribed and bullied away from shuddering Bramins; and measure their own strength by the terror they cause."
This last audacious picture might be hung up as a prose pendant to Marvell's poetical description of Holland and the Dutch.
"A saving stupidity marks and protects their perception as the curtain of the eagle's eye. Our swifter Americans, when they first deal with English, pronounce them stupid; but, later, do them justice as people who wear well, or hide their strength.—High and low, they are of an unctuous texture.—Their daily feasts argue a savage vigor of body.—Half their strength they put not forth. The stability of England is the security of the modern world."
Perhaps nothing in any of his vigorous paragraphs is more striking than the suggestion that "if hereafter the war of races often predicted, and making itself a war of opinions also (a question of despotism and liberty coming from Eastern Europe), should menace the English civilization, these sea-kings may take once again to their floating castles and find a new home and a second millennium of power in their colonies."
In reading some of Emerson's pages it seems as if another Arcadia, or the new Atlantis, had emerged as the fortunate island of Great Britain, or that he had reached a heaven on earth where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal,—or if they do, never think of denying that they have done it. But this was a generation ago, when the noun "shoddy," and the verb "to scamp," had not grown such familiar terms to English ears as they are to-day. Emerson saw the country on its best side. Each traveller makes his own England. A Quaker sees chiefly broad brims, and the island looks to him like a field of mushrooms.
The transplanted Church of England is rich and prosperous and fashionable enough not to be disturbed by Emerson's flashes of light that have not come through its stained windows.
"The religion of England is part of good-breeding. When you see on the continent the well-dressed Englishman come into his ambassador's chapel, and put his face for silent prayer into his smooth-brushed hat, one cannot help feeling how much national pride prays with him, and the religion of a gentleman.
"The church at this moment is much to be pitied. She has nothing left but possession. If a bishop meets an intelligent gentleman, and reads fatal interrogation in his eyes, he has no resource but to take wine with him."
Sydney Smith had a great reverence for a bishop,—so great that he told a young lady that he used to roll a crumb of bread in his hand, from nervousness, when he sat next one at a dinner-table,—and if next an archbishop, used to roll crumbs with both hands,—-but Sydney Smith would have enjoyed the tingling felicity of this last stinging touch of wit, left as lightly and gracefully as a banderillero leaves his little gayly ribboned dart in the shoulders of the bull with whose unwieldy bulk he is playing.
Emerson handles the formalism and the half belief of the Established Church very freely, but he closes his chapter on Religion with soft-spoken words.
"Yet if religion be the doing of all good, and for its sake the suffering of all evil, souffrir de tout le monde, et ne faire souffrir personne, that divine secret has existed in England from the days of Alfred to those of Romilly, of Clarkson, and of Florence Nightingale, and in thousands who have no fame."
"English Traits" closes with Emerson's speech at Manchester, at the annual banquet of the "Free Trade Athenaeum." This was merely an occasional after-dinner reply to a toast which called him up, but it had sentences in it which, if we can imagine Milton to have been called up in the same way, he might well have spoken and done himself credit in their utterance.
* * * * *
The total impression left by the book is that Emerson was fascinated by the charm of English society, filled with admiration of the people, tempted to contrast his New Englanders in many respects unfavorably with Old Englanders, mainly in their material and vital stamina; but with all this not blinded for a moment to the thoroughly insular limitations of the phlegmatic islander. He alternates between a turn of genuine admiration and a smile as at a people that has not outgrown its playthings. This is in truth the natural and genuine feeling of a self-governing citizen of a commonwealth where thrones and wigs and mitres seem like so many pieces of stage property. An American need not be a philosopher to hold these things cheap. He cannot help it. Madame Tussaud's exhibition, the Lord-Mayor's gilt coach, and a coronation, if one happens to be in season, are all sights to be seen by an American traveller, but the reverence which is born with the British subject went up with the smoke of the gun that fired the long echoing shot at the little bridge over the sleepy river which works its way along through the wide-awake town of Concord.
In November, 1857, a new magazine was established in Boston, bearing the name of "The Atlantic Monthly." Professor James Russell Lowell was editor-in-chief, and Messrs. Phillips and Sampson, who were the originators of the enterprise, were the publishers. Many of the old contributors to "The Dial" wrote for the new magazine, among them Emerson. He contributed twenty-eight articles in all, more than half of them verse, to different numbers, from the first to the thirty-seventh volume. Among them are several of his best known poems, such as "The Romany Girl," "Days," "Brahma," "Waldeinsamkeit," "The Titmouse," "Boston Hymn," "Saadi," and "Terminus."
At about the same time there grew up in Boston a literary association, which became at last well known as the "Saturday Club," the members dining together on the last Saturday of every month.
The Magazine and the Club have existed and flourished to the present day. They have often been erroneously thought to have some organic connection, and the "Atlantic Club" has been spoken of as if there was or had been such an institution, but it never existed.
Emerson was a member of the Saturday Club from the first; in reality before it existed as an empirical fact, and when it was only a Platonic idea. The Club seems to have shaped itself around him as a nucleus of crystallization, two or three friends of his having first formed the habit of meeting him at dinner at "Parker's," the "Will's Coffee-House" of Boston. This little group gathered others to itself and grew into a club as Rome grew into a city, almost without knowing how. During its first decade the Saturday Club brought together, as members or as visitors, many distinguished persons. At one end of the table sat Longfellow, florid, quiet, benignant, soft-voiced, a most agreeable rather than a brilliant talker, but a man upon whom it was always pleasant to look,—whose silence was better than many another man's conversation. At the other end of the table sat Agassiz, robust, sanguine, animated, full of talk, boy-like in his laughter. The stranger who should have asked who were the men ranged along the sides of the table would have heard in answer the names of Hawthorne, Motley, Dana, Lowell, Whipple, Peirce, the distinguished mathematician, Judge Hoar, eminent at the bar and in the cabinet, Dwight, the leading musical critic of Boston for a whole generation, Sumner, the academic champion of freedom, Andrew, "the great War Governor" of Massachusetts, Dr. Howe, the philanthropist, William Hunt, the painter, with others not unworthy of such company. And with these, generally near the Longfellow end of the table, sat Emerson, talking in low tones and carefully measured utterances to his neighbor, or listening, and recording on his mental phonograph any stray word worth remembering. Emerson was a very regular attendant at the meetings of the Saturday Club, and continued to dine at its table, until within a year or two of his death.
Unfortunately the Club had no Boswell, and its golden hours passed unrecorded.
1858-1863: AET. 55-60.
Essay on Persian Poetry.—Speech at the Burns Centennial Festival—Letter from Emerson to a Lady.—Tributes to Theodore Parker and to Thoreau.—Address on the Emancipation Proclamation.—Publication of "The Conduct of Life." Contents: Fate; Power; Wealth; Culture; Behavior; Worship; Considerations by the Way; Beauty; Illusions.
The Essay on Persian Poetry, published in the "Atlantic Monthly" in 1858, should be studied by all readers who are curious in tracing the influence of Oriental poetry on Emerson's verse. In many of the shorter poems and fragments published since "May-Day," as well as in the "Quatrains" and others of the later poems in that volume, it is sometimes hard to tell what is from the Persian from what is original.
On the 25th of January, 1859, Emerson attended the Burns Festival, held at the Parker House in Boston, on the Centennial Anniversary of the poet's birth. He spoke after the dinner to the great audience with such beauty and eloquence that all who listened to him have remembered it as one of the most delightful addresses they ever heard. Among his hearers was Mr. Lowell, who says of it that "every word seemed to have just dropped down to him from the clouds." Judge Hoar, who was another of his hearers, says, that though he has heard many of the chief orators of his time, he never witnessed such an effect of speech upon men. I was myself present on that occasion, and underwent the same fascination that these gentlemen and the varied audience before the speaker experienced. His words had a passion in them not usual in the calm, pure flow most natural to his uttered thoughts; white-hot iron we are familiar with, but white-hot silver is what we do not often look upon, and his inspiring address glowed like silver fresh from the cupel.
I am allowed the privilege of printing the following letter addressed to a lady of high intellectual gifts, who was one of the earliest, most devoted, and most faithful of his intimate friends:—
CONCORD, May 13, 1859.
Please, dear C., not to embark for home until I have despatched these lines, which I will hasten to finish. Louis Napoleon will not bayonet you the while,—keep him at the door. So long I have promised to write! so long I have thanked your long suffering! I have let pass the unreturning opportunity your visit to Germany gave to acquaint you with Gisela von Arnim (Bettina's daughter), and Joachim the violinist, and Hermann Grimm the scholar, her friends. Neither has E.,—wandering in Europe with hope of meeting you,—yet met. This contumacy of mine I shall regret as long as I live. How palsy creeps over us, with gossamer first, and ropes afterwards! and the witch has the prisoner when once she has put her eye on him, as securely as after the bolts are drawn.—Yet I and all my little company watch every token from you, and coax Mrs. H. to read us letters. I learned with satisfaction that you did not like Germany. Where then did Goethe find his lovers? Do all the women have bad noses and bad mouths? And will you stop in England, and bring home the author of "Counterparts" with you? Or did——write the novels and send them to London, as I fancied when I read them? How strange that you and I alone to this day should have his secret! I think our people will never allow genius, without it is alloyed by talent. But——is paralyzed by his whims, that I have ceased to hope from him. I could wish your experience of your friends were more animating than mine, and that there were any horoscope you could not cast from the first day. The faults of youth are never shed, no, nor the merits, and creeping time convinces ever the more of our impotence, and of the irresistibility of our bias. Still this is only science, and must remain science. Our praxis is never altered for that. We must forever hold our companions responsible, or they are not companions but stall-fed.
I think, as we grow older, we decrease as individuals, and as if in an immense audience who hear stirring music, none essays to offer a new stave, but we only join emphatically in the chorus. We volunteer no opinion, we despair of guiding people, but are confirmed in our perception that Nature is all right, and that we have a good understanding with it. We must shine to a few brothers, as palms or pines or roses among common weeds, not from greater absolute value, but from a more convenient nature. But 'tis almost chemistry at last, though a meta-chemistry. I remember you were such an impatient blasphemer, however musically, against the adamantine identities, in your youth, that you should take your turn of resignation now, and be a preacher of peace. But there is a little raising of the eyebrow, now and then, in the most passive acceptance,—if of an intellectual turn. Here comes out around me at this moment the new June,—the leaves say June, though the calendar says May,—and we must needs hail our young relatives again, though with something of the gravity of adult sons and daughters receiving a late-born brother or sister. Nature herself seems a little ashamed of a law so monstrous, billions of summers, and now the old game again without a new bract or sepal. But you will think me incorrigible with my generalities, and you so near, and will be here again this summer; perhaps with A.W. and the other travellers. My children scan curiously your E.'s drawings, as they have seen them.
The happiest winds fill the sails of you and yours!
In the year 1860, Theodore Parker died, and Emerson spoke of his life and labors at the meeting held at the Music Hall to do honor to his memory. Emerson delivered discourses on Sundays and week-days in the Music Hall to Mr. Parker's society after his death. In 1862, he lost his friend Thoreau, at whose funeral he delivered an address which was published in the "Atlantic Monthly" for August of the same year. Thoreau had many rare and admirable qualities, and Thoreau pictured by Emerson is a more living personage than White of Selborne would have been on the canvas of Sir Joshua Reynolds.
The Address on the Emancipation Proclamation was delivered in Boston in September, 1862. The feeling that inspired it may be judged by the following extract:—
"Happy are the young, who find the pestilence cleansed out of the earth, leaving open to them an honest career. Happy the old, who see Nature purified before they depart. Do not let the dying die; hold them back to this world, until you have charged their ear and heart with this message to other spiritual societies, announcing the melioration of our planet:—
"'Incertainties now crown themselves assured, And Peace proclaims olives of endless age.'"
The "Conduct of Life" was published in 1860. The chapter on "Fate" might leave the reader with a feeling that what he is to do, as well as what he is to be and to suffer, is so largely predetermined for him, that his will, though formally asserted, has but a questionable fraction in adjusting him to his conditions as a portion of the universe. But let him hold fast to this reassuring statement:—
"If we must accept Fate, we are not less compelled to affirm liberty, the significance of the individual, the grandeur of duty, the power of character.—We are sure, that, though we know not how, necessity does comport with liberty, the individual with the world, my polarity with the spirit of the times."
But the value of the Essay is not so much in any light it throws on the mystery of volition, as on the striking and brilliant way in which the limitations of the individual and the inexplicable rule of law are illustrated.
"Nature is no sentimentalist,—does not cosset or pamper us. We must see that the world is rough and surly, and will not mind drowning a man or a woman; but swallows your ship like a grain of dust.—The way of Providence is a little rude. The habit of snake and spider, the snap of the tiger and other leapers and bloody jumpers, the crackle of the bones of his prey in the coil of the anaconda,—these are in the system, and our habits are like theirs. You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity,—expensive races,—race living at the expense of race.—Let us not deny it up and down. Providence has a wild, rough, incalculable road to its end, and it is of no use to try to whitewash its huge, mixed instrumentalities, or to dress up that terrific benefactor in a clean shirt and white neckcloth of a student in divinity."
Emerson cautions his reader against the danger of the doctrines which he believed in so fully:—
"They who talk much of destiny, their birth-star, etc., are in a lower dangerous plane, and invite the evils they fear."
But certainly no physiologist, no cattle-breeder, no Calvinistic predestinarian could put his view more vigorously than Emerson, who dearly loves a picturesque statement, has given it in these words, which have a dash of science, a flash of imagination, and a hint of the delicate wit that is one of his characteristics:—
"People are born with the moral or with the material bias;—uterine brothers with this diverging destination: and I suppose, with high magnifiers, Mr. Fraunhofer or Dr. Carpenter might come to distinguish in the embryo at the fourth day, this is a whig and that a free-soiler."
Let us see what Emerson has to say of "Power:"—
"All successful men have agreed in one thing—they were causationists. They believed that things went not by luck, but by law; that there was not a weak or a cracked link in the chain that joins the first and the last of things.
"The key to the age may be this, or that, or the other, as the young orators describe;—the key to all ages is,—Imbecility; imbecility in the vast majority of men at all times, and, even in heroes, in all but certain eminent moments; victims of gravity, custom, and fear. This gives force to the strong,—that the multitude have no habit of self-reliance or original action.—
"We say that success is constitutional; depends on a plus condition of mind and body, on power of work, on courage; that is of main efficacy in carrying on the world, and though rarely found in the right state for an article of commerce, but oftener in the supernatural or excess, which makes it dangerous and destructive, yet it cannot be spared, and must be had in that form, and absorbents provided to take off its edge."
The "two economies which are the best succedanea" for deficiency of temperament are concentration and drill. This he illustrates by example, and he also lays down some good, plain, practical rules which "Poor Richard" would have cheerfully approved. He might have accepted also the Essay on "Wealth" as having a good sense so like his own that he could hardly tell the difference between them.
"Wealth begins in a tight roof that keeps the rain and wind out; in a good pump that yields you plenty of sweet water; in two suits of clothes, so as to change your dress when you are wet; in dry sticks to burn; in a good double-wick lamp, and three meals; in a horse or locomotive to cross the land; in a boat to cross the sea; in tools to work with; in books to read; and so, in giving, on all sides, by tools and auxiliaries, the greatest possible extension to our powers, as if it added feet, and hands, and eyes, and blood, length to the day, and knowledge and good will. Wealth begins with these articles of necessity.—
"To be rich is to have a ticket of admission to the masterworks and chief men of each race.—
"The pulpit and the press have many commonplaces denouncing the thirst for wealth; but if men should take these moralists at their word, and leave off aiming to be rich, the moralists would rush to rekindle at all hazards this love of power in the people, lest civilization should be undone."
Who can give better counsels on "Culture" than Emerson? But we must borrow only a few sentences from his essay on that subject. All kinds of secrets come out as we read these Essays of Emerson's. We know something of his friends and disciples who gathered round him and sat at his feet. It is not hard to believe that he was drawing one of those composite portraits Mr. Galton has given us specimens of when he wrote as follows:—
"The pest of society is egotism. This goitre of egotism is so frequent among notable persons that we must infer some strong necessity in nature which it subserves; such as we see in the sexual attraction. The preservation of the species was a point of such necessity that Nature has secured it at all hazards by immensely overloading the passion, at the risk of perpetual crime and disorder. So egotism has its root in the cardinal necessity by which each individual persists to be what he is.
"The antidotes against this organic egotism are, the range and variety of attraction, as gained by acquaintance with the world, with men of merit, with classes of society, with travel, with eminent persons, and with the high resources of philosophy, art, and religion: books, travel, society, solitude."
"We can ill spare the commanding social benefits of cities; they must be used; yet cautiously and haughtily,—and will yield their best values to him who can best do without them. Keep the town for occasions, but the habits should be formed to retirement. Solitude, the safeguard of mediocrity, is to genius the stern friend, the cold, obscure shelter, where moult the wings which will bear it farther than suns and stars."
We must remember, too, that "the calamities are our friends. Try the rough water as well as the smooth. Rough water can teach lessons worth knowing. Don't be so tender at making an enemy now and then. He who aims high, must dread an easy home and popular manners."
Emerson cannot have had many enemies, if any, in his calm and noble career. He can have cherished no enmity, on personal grounds at least. But he refused his hand to one who had spoken ill of a friend whom he respected. It was "the hand of Douglas" again,—the same feeling that Charles Emerson expressed in the youthful essay mentioned in the introduction to this volume.
Here are a few good sayings about "Behavior."
"There is always a best way of doing everything, if it be to boil an egg. Manners are the happy ways of doing things; each once a stroke of genius or of love,—now repeated and hardened into usage."
Thus it is that Mr. Emerson speaks of "Manners" in his Essay under the above title.
"The basis of good manners is self-reliance.—Manners require time, as nothing is more vulgar than haste.—
"Men take each other's measure, when they meet for the first time,—and every time they meet.—
"It is not what talents or genius a man has, but how he is to his talents, that constitutes friendship and character. The man that stands by himself, the universe stands by him also."
In his Essay on "Worship," Emerson ventures the following prediction:—
"The religion which is to guide and fulfil the present and coming ages, whatever else it be, must be intellectual. The scientific mind must have a faith which is science.—There will be a new church founded on moral science, at first cold and naked, a babe in a manger again, the algebra and mathematics of ethical law, the church of men to come, without shawms or psaltery or sackbut; but it will have heaven and earth for its beams and rafters; science for symbol and illustration; it will fast enough gather beauty, music, picture, poetry."
It is a bold prophecy, but who can doubt that all improbable and unverifiable traditional knowledge of all kinds will make way for the established facts of science and history when these last reach it in their onward movement? It may be remarked that he now speaks of science more respectfully than of old. I suppose this Essay was of later date than "Beauty," or "Illusions." But accidental circumstances made such confusion in the strata of Emerson's published thought that one is often at a loss to know whether a sentence came from the older or the newer layer.
We come to "Considerations by the Way." The common-sense side of Emerson's mind has so much in common with the plain practical intelligence of Franklin that it is a pleasure to find the philosopher of the nineteenth century quoting the philosopher of the eighteenth.
"Franklin said, 'Mankind are very superficial and dastardly: they begin upon a thing, but, meeting with a difficulty, they fly from it discouraged; but they have the means if they would employ them.'"
"Shall we judge a country by the majority, or by the minority? By the minority, surely." Here we have the doctrine of the "saving remnant," which we have since recognized in Mr. Matthew Arnold's well-remembered lecture. Our republican philosopher is clearly enough outspoken on this matter of the vox populi. "Leave this hypocritical prating about the masses. Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands, and need not to be flattered, but to be schooled. I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them."
Pere Bouhours asked a question about the Germans which found its answer in due time. After reading what Emerson says about "the masses," one is tempted to ask whether a philosopher can ever have "a constituency" and be elected to Congress? Certainly the essay just quoted from would not make a very promising campaign document. Perhaps there was no great necessity for Emerson's returning to the subject of "Beauty," to which he had devoted a chapter of "Nature," and of which he had so often discoursed incidentally. But he says so many things worth reading in the Essay thus entitled in the "Conduct of Life" that we need not trouble ourselves about repetitions. The Essay is satirical and poetical rather than philosophical. Satirical when he speaks of science with something of that old feeling betrayed by his brother Charles when he was writing in 1828; poetical in the flight of imagination with which he enlivens, entertains, stimulates, inspires,—or as some may prefer to say,—amuses his listeners and readers.
The reader must decide which of these effects is produced by the following passage:—
"The feat of the imagination is in showing the convertibility of everything into every other thing. Facts which had never before left their stark common sense suddenly figure as Eleusinian mysteries. My boots and chair and candlestick are fairies in disguise, meteors, and constellations. All the facts in Nature are nouns of the intellect, and make the grammar of the eternal language. Every word has a double, treble, or centuple use and meaning. What! has my stove and pepper-pot a false bottom? I cry you mercy, good shoe-box! I did not know you were a jewel-case. Chaff and dust begin to sparkle, and are clothed about with immortality. And there is a joy in perceiving the representative or symbolic character of a fact, which no base fact or event can ever give. There are no days so memorable as those which vibrated to some stroke of the imagination."
One is reminded of various things in reading this sentence. An ounce of alcohol, or a few whiffs from an opium-pipe, may easily make a day memorable by bringing on this imaginative delirium, which is apt, if often repeated, to run into visions of rodents and reptiles. A coarser satirist than Emerson indulged his fancy in "Meditations on a Broomstick," which My Lady Berkeley heard seriously and to edification. Meditations on a "Shoe-box" are less promising, but no doubt something could be made of it. A poet must select, and if he stoops too low he cannot lift the object he would fain idealize.
The habitual readers of Emerson do not mind an occasional over-statement, extravagance, paradox, eccentricity; they find them amusing and not misleading. But the accountants, for whom two and two always make four, come upon one of these passages and shut the book up as wanting in sanity. Without a certain sensibility to the humorous, no one should venture upon Emerson. If he had seen the lecturer's smile as he delivered one of his playful statements of a runaway truth, fact unhorsed by imagination, sometimes by wit, or humor, he would have found a meaning in his words which the featureless printed page could never show him.
The Essay on "Illusions" has little which we have not met with, or shall not find repeating itself in the Poems.
During this period Emerson contributed many articles in prose and verse to the "Atlantic Monthly," and several to "The Dial," a second periodical of that name published in Cincinnati. Some of these have been, or will be, elsewhere referred to.
1863-1868. AET. 60-65.
"Boston Hymn."—"Voluntaries."—Other Poems.—"May-Day and other Pieces."—"Remarks at the Funeral Services of Abraham Lincoln."—Essay on Persian Poetry.—Address at a Meeting of the Free Religious Association.—"Progress of Culture." Address before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University.—Course of Lectures in Philadelphia.—The Degree of LL.D. conferred upon Emerson by Harvard University.—"Terminus."
The "Boston Hymn" was read by Emerson in the Music Hall, on the first day of January, 1863. It is a rough piece of verse, but noble from beginning to end. One verse of it, beginning "Pay ransom to the owner," has been already quoted; these are the three that precede it:—
"I cause from every creature His proper good to flow: As much as he is and doeth So much shall he bestow.
"But laying hands on another To coin his labor and sweat, He goes in pawn to his victim For eternal years in debt.
"To-day unbind the captive, So only are ye unbound: Lift up a people from the dust, Trump of their rescue, sound!"
"Voluntaries," published in the same year in the "Atlantic Monthly," is more dithyrambic in its measure and of a more Pindaric elevation than the plain song of the "Boston Hymn."
"But best befriended of the God He who, in evil times, Warned by an inward voice, Heeds not the darkness and the dread, Biding by his rule and choice, Feeling only the fiery thread Leading over heroic ground, Walled with mortal terror round, To the aim which him allures, And the sweet heaven his deed secures. Peril around, all else appalling, Cannon in front and leaden rain Him duly through the clarion calling To the van called not in vain."
It is in this poem that we find the lines which, a moment after they were written, seemed as if they had been carved on marble for a thousand years:—
"So nigh is grandeur to our dust, So near is God to man, When Duty whispers low, Thou must, The youth replies, I can."
"Saadi" was published in the "Atlantic Monthly" in 1864, "My Garden" in 1866, "Terminus" in 1867. In the same year these last poems with many others were collected in a small volume, entitled "May-Day, and Other Pieces." The general headings of these poems are as follows: May-Day.—The Adirondacs.—Occasional and Miscellaneous Pieces.—Nature and Life.—Elements.—Quatrains.—Translations.—Some of these poems, which were written at long intervals, have been referred to in previous pages. "The Adirondacs" is a pleasant narrative, but not to be compared for its poetical character with "May-Day," one passage from which, beginning,
"I saw the bud-crowned Spring go forth,"
is surpassingly imaginative and beautiful. In this volume will be found "Brahma," "Days," and others which are well known to all readers of poetry.
Emerson's delineations of character are remarkable for high-relief and sharp-cut lines. In his Remarks at the Funeral Services for Abraham Lincoln, held in Concord, April 19, 1865, he drew the portrait of the homespun-robed chief of the Republic with equal breadth and delicacy:—
"Here was place for no holiday magistrate, no fair weather sailor; the new pilot was hurried to the helm in a tornado. In four years,—four years of battle-days,—his endurance, his fertility of resources, his magnanimity, were sorely tried and never found wanting. There, by his courage, his justice, his even temper, his fertile counsel, his humanity, he stood a heroic figure in the centre of a heroic epoch. He is the true history of the American people in his time. Step by step he walked before them; slow with their slowness, quickening his march by theirs, the true representative of this continent; an entirely public man; father of his country; the pulse of twenty millions throbbing in his heart, the thought of their minds articulated by his tongue."
In his "Remarks at the Organization of the Free Religious Association," Emerson stated his leading thought about religion in a very succinct and sufficiently "transcendental" way: intelligibly for those who wish to understand him; mystically to those who do not accept or wish to accept the doctrine shadowed forth in his poem, "The Sphinx."
—"As soon as every man is apprised of the Divine Presence within his own mind,—is apprised that the perfect law of duty corresponds with the laws of chemistry, of vegetation, of astronomy, as face to face in a glass; that the basis of duty, the order of society, the power of character, the wealth of culture, the perfection of taste, all draw their essence from this moral sentiment; then we have a religion that exalts, that commands all the social and all the private action."
Nothing could be more wholesome in a meeting of creed-killers than the suggestive remark,—
—"What I expected to find here was, some practical suggestions by which we were to reanimate and reorganize for ourselves the true Church, the pure worship. Pure doctrine always bears fruit in pure benefits. It is only by good works, it is only on the basis of active duty, that worship finds expression.—The interests that grow out of a meeting like this, should bind us with new strength to the old eternal duties."
In a later address before the same association, Emerson says:— "I object, of course, to the claim of miraculous dispensation,—certainly not to the doctrine of Christianity.—If you are childish and exhibit your saint as a worker of wonders, a thaumaturgist, I am repelled. That claim takes his teachings out of nature, and permits official and arbitrary senses to be grafted on the teachings."
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 superseding kings."
He repeats some of his fundamental formulae.
"The foundation of culture, as of character, is at last the moral sentiment.
"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 men."
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. —Civilization.—Art.—Eloquence.—Domestic Life.—Farming. —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 sympathy."
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 special brilliancy:—
"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 good women."
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 home,—
"'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 Steamboat:"
"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 themselves."—
"'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 North Star.
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 these passages:—
"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 every stone.—
"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 general purport:—
"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 him."
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 timely."
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 air."
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 consideration:—
"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 been speaking:—
"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 politics."
"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 callings.
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 succes."
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 market-place.
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 letter:—
BOSTON, February 6, 1884.
MY DEAR DR.,—What little I can give will be of a very rambling character.
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 beholders.
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 following:—
"'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 same subject.
"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 been printed.
"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 rhetorical altitude.
"'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 negation?'"
"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 it."
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:—