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Chapter 13

1878-1882. AET. 75-79.

Last Literary Labors.--Addresses and Essays.--"Lectures and Biographical Sketches."--"Miscellanies."

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The decline of Emerson's working faculties went on gently and gradually, but he was not condemned to entire inactivity. His faithful daughter, Ellen, followed him with assiduous, quiet, ever watchful care, aiding his failing memory, bringing order into the chaos of his manuscript, an echo before the voice whose words it was to shape for him when his mind faltered and needed a momentary impulse.

With her helpful presence and support he ventured from time to time to read a paper before a select audience. Thus, March 30, 1878, he delivered a Lecture in the Old South Church,--"Fortune of the Republic." On the 5th of May, 1879, he read a Lecture in the Chapel of Divinity College, Harvard University,--"The Preacher." In 1881 he read a paper on Carlyle before the Massachusetts Historical Society.--He also published a paper in the "North American Review," in 1878,--"The Sovereignty of Ethics," and one on "Superlatives," in "The Century" for February, 1882.

But in these years he was writing little or nothing. All these papers were taken from among his manuscripts of different dates. The same thing is true of the volumes published since his death; they were only compilations from his stores of unpublished matter, and their arrangement was the work of Mr. Emerson's friend and literary executor, Mr. Cabot. These volumes cannot be considered as belonging to any single period of his literary life.

Mr. Cabot prefixes to the tenth volume of Emerson's collected works, which bears the title, "Lectures and Biographical Sketches," the following:--

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"NOTE.

"Of the pieces included in this volume the following, namely, those from 'The Dial,' 'Character,' 'Plutarch,' and the biographical sketches of Dr. Ripley, of Mr. Hoar, and of Henry Thoreau, were printed by Mr. Emerson before I took any part in the arrangement of his papers. The rest, except the sketch of Miss Mary Emerson, I got ready for his use in readings to his friends, or to a limited public. He had given up the regular practice of lecturing, but would sometimes, upon special request, read a paper that had been prepared for him from his manuscripts, in the manner described in the Preface to 'Letters and Social Aims,'--some former lecture serving as a nucleus for the new. Some of these papers he afterwards allowed to be printed; others, namely, 'Aristocracy,' 'Education,' 'The Man of Letters,' 'The Scholar,' 'Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England,' 'Mary Moody Emerson,' are now published for the first time."

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Some of these papers I have already had occasion to refer to. From several of the others I will make one or two extracts,--a difficult task, so closely are the thoughts packed together.

From "Demonology":--

    "I say to the table-rappers

'I will believe Thou wilt not utter what thou dost not know,' And so far will I trust thee, gentle Kate!"

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"Meantime far be from me the impatience which cannot brook the supernatural, the vast; far be from me the lust of explaining away all which appeals to the imagination, and the great presentiments which haunt us. Willingly I too say Hail! to the unknown, awful powers which transcend the ken of the understanding."

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I will not quote anything from the Essay called "Aristocracy." But let him who wishes to know what the word means to an American whose life has come from New England soil, whose ancestors have breathed New England air for many generations, read it, and he will find a new interpretation of a very old and often greatly wronged appellation.

"Perpetual Forces" is one of those prose poems,--of his earlier epoch, I have no doubt,--in which he plays with the facts of science with singular grace and freedom.

What man could speak more fitly, with more authority of "Character," than Emerson? When he says, "If all things are taken away, I have still all things in my relation to the Eternal," we feel that such an utterance is as natural to his pure spirit as breathing to the frame in which it was imprisoned.

We have had a glimpse of Emerson as a school-master, but behind and far above the teaching drill-master's desk is the chair from which he speaks to us of "Education." Compare the short and easy method of the wise man of old,--"He that spareth his rod hateth his son," with this other, "Be the companion of his thought, the friend of his friendship, the lover of his virtue,--but no kinsman of his sin."

"The Superlative" will prove light and pleasant reading after these graver essays. [Greek: Maedhen agan]--ne quid nimis,--nothing in excess, was his precept as to adjectives.

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Two sentences from "The Sovereignty of Ethics" will go far towards reconciling elderly readers who have not forgotten the Westminster Assembly's Catechism with this sweet-souled dealer in spiritual dynamite:--

"Luther would cut his hand off sooner than write theses against the pope if he suspected that he was bringing on with all his might the pale negations of Boston Unitarianism.--

"If I miss the inspiration of the saints of Calvinism, or of Platonism, or of Buddhism, our times are not up to theirs, or, more truly, have not yet their own legitimate force."

So, too, this from "The Preacher":--

"All civil mankind have agreed in leaving one day for contemplation against six for practice. I hope that day will keep its honor and its use.--The Sabbath changes its forms from age to age, but the substantial benefit endures."

The special interest of the Address called "The Man of Letters" is, that it was delivered during the war. He was no advocate for peace where great principles were at the bottom of the conflict:--

"War, seeking for the roots of strength, comes upon the moral aspects at once.--War ennobles the age.--Battle, with the sword, has cut many a Gordian knot in twain which all the wit of East and West, of Northern and Border statesmen could not untie."

"The Scholar" was delivered before two Societies at the University of Virginia so late as the year 1876. If I must select any of its wise words, I will choose the questions which he has himself italicized to show his sense of their importance:--

"For all men, all women, Time, your country, your condition, the invisible world are the interrogators: Who are you? What do you? Can you obtain what you wish? Is there method in your consciousness? Can you see tendency in your life? Can you help any soul?

"Can he answer these questions? Can he dispose of them? Happy if you can answer them mutely in the order and disposition of your life! Happy for more than yourself, a benefactor of men, if you can answer them in works of wisdom, art, or poetry; bestowing on the general mind of men organic creations, to be the guidance and delight of all who know them."

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The Essay on "Plutarch" has a peculiar value from the fact that Emerson owes more to him than to any other author except Plato, who is one of the only two writers quoted oftener than Plutarch. Mutato nomine, the portrait which Emerson draws of the Greek moralist might stand for his own:--

    "Whatever is eminent in fact or in fiction, in opinion, in
    character, in institutions, in science--natural, moral, or
    metaphysical, or in memorable sayings drew his attention and came to
    his pen with more or less fulness of record.

"A poet in verse or prose must have a sensuous eye, but an intellectual co-perception. Plutarch's memory is full and his horizon wide. Nothing touches man but he feels to be his.

"Plutarch had a religion which Montaigne wanted, and which defends him from wantonness; and though Plutarch is as plain spoken, his moral sentiment is always pure.--

"I do not know where to find a book--to borrow a phrase of Ben Jonson's--'so rammed with life,' and this in chapters chiefly ethical, which are so prone to be heavy and sentimental.--His vivacity and abundance never leave him to loiter or pound on an incident.--

"In his immense quotation and allusion we quickly cease to discriminate between what he quotes and what he invents.--'Tis all Plutarch, by right of eminent domain, and all property vests in this emperor.

"It is in consequence of this poetic trait in his mind, that I confess that, in reading him, I embrace the particulars, and carry a faint memory of the argument or general design of the chapter; but he is not less welcome, and he leaves the reader with a relish and a necessity for completing his studies.

"He is a pronounced idealist, who does not hesitate to say, like another Berkeley, 'Matter is itself privation.'--

"Of philosophy he is more interested in the results than in the method. He has a just instinct of the presence of a master, and prefers to sit as a scholar with Plato than as a disputant.

"His natural history is that of a lover and poet, and not of a physicist.

"But though curious in the questions of the schools on the nature and genesis of things, his extreme interest in every trait of character, and his broad humanity, lead him constantly to Morals, to the study of the Beautiful and Good. Hence his love of heroes, his rule of life, and his clear convictions of the high destiny of the soul. La Harpe said that 'Plutarch is the genius the most naturally moral that ever existed.'

"Plutarch thought 'truth to be the greatest good that man can receive, and the goodliest blessing that God can give.'

"All his judgments are noble. He thought with Epicurus that it is more delightful to do than to receive a kindness.

"Plutarch was well-born, well-conditioned--eminently social, he was a king in his own house, surrounded himself with select friends, and knew the high value of good conversation.--

"He had that universal sympathy with genius which makes all its victories his own; though he never used verse, he had many qualities of the poet in the power of his imagination, the speed of his mental associations, and his sharp, objective eyes. But what specially marks him, he is a chief example of the illumination of the intellect by the force of morals."

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How much, of all this would have been recognized as just and true if it had been set down in an obituary notice of Emerson!

I have already made use of several of the other papers contained in this volume, and will merely enumerate all that follow the "Plutarch." Some of the titles will be sure to attract the reader. They are "Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England;" "The Chardon Street Convention;" "Ezra Ripley, D.D.;" "Mary Moody Emerson;" "Samuel Hoar;" "Thoreau;" "Carlyle."--

Mr. Cabot prefaces the eleventh and last volume of Emerson's writings with the following "Note":--

"The first five pieces in this volume, and the 'Editorial Address' from the 'Massachusetts Quarterly Review,' were published by Mr. Emerson long ago. The speeches at the John Brown, the Walter Scott, and the Free Religious Association meetings were published at the time, no doubt with his consent, but without any active co-operation on his part. The 'Fortune of the Republic' appeared separately in 1879; the rest have never been published. In none was any change from the original form made by me, except in the 'Fortune of the Republic,' which was made up of several lectures for the occasion upon which it was read."

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The volume of "Miscellanies" contains no less than twenty-three pieces of very various lengths and relating to many different subjects. The five referred to as having been previously published are, "The Lord's Supper," the "Historical Discourse in Concord," the "Address at the Dedication of the Soldiers' Monument in Concord," the "Address on Emancipation in the British West Indies," and the Lecture or Essay on "War,"--all of which have been already spoken of.

Next in order comes a Lecture on the "Fugitive Slave Law." Emerson says, "I do not often speak on public questions.--My own habitual view is to the well-being of scholars." But he leaves his studies to attack the institution of slavery, from which he says he himself has never suffered any inconvenience, and the "Law," which the abolitionists would always call the "Fugitive Slave Bill." Emerson had a great admiration for Mr. Webster, but he did not spare him as he recalled his speech of the seventh of March, just four years before the delivery of this Lecture. He warns against false leadership:--

"To make good the cause of Freedom, you must draw off from all foolish trust in others.--He only who is able to stand alone is qualified for society. And that I understand to be the end for which a soul exists in this world,--to be himself the counter-balance of all falsehood and all wrong.--The Anglo-Saxon race is proud and strong and selfish.--England maintains trade, not liberty."

Cowper had said long before this:--

                    "doing good,
  Disinterested good, is not our trade."
And America found that England had not learned that trade when, fifteen years after this discourse was delivered, the conflict between the free and slave states threatened the ruin of the great Republic, and England forgot her Anti-slavery in the prospect of the downfall of "a great empire which threatens to overshadow the whole earth."

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It must be remembered that Emerson had never been identified with the abolitionists. But an individual act of wrong sometimes gives a sharp point to a blunt dagger which has been kept in its sheath too long:--

"The events of the last few years and months and days have taught us the lessons of centuries. I do not see how a barbarous community and a civilized community can constitute one State. I think we must get rid of slavery or we must get rid of freedom."

These were his words on the 26th of May, 1856, in his speech on "The Assault upon Mr. Sumner." A few months later, in his "Speech on the Affairs of Kansas," delivered almost five years before the first gun was fired at Fort Sumter, he spoke the following fatally prophetic and commanding words:--

"The hour is coming when the strongest will not be strong enough. A harder task will the new revolution of the nineteenth century be than was the revolution of the eighteenth century. I think the American Revolution bought its glory cheap. If the problem was new, it was simple. If there were few people, they were united, and the enemy three thousand miles off. But now, vast property, gigantic interests, family connections, webs of party, cover the land with a net-work that immensely multiplies the dangers of war.

"Fellow-citizens, in these times full of the fate of the Republic, I think the towns should hold town meetings, and resolve themselves into Committees of Safety, go into permanent sessions, adjourning from week to week, from month to month. I wish we could send the sergeant-at-arms to stop every American who is about to leave the country. Send home every one who is abroad, lest they should find no country to return to. Come home and stay at home while there is a country to save. When it is lost it will be time enough then for any who are luckless enough to remain alive to gather up their clothes and depart to some land where freedom exists."

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Two short speeches follow, one delivered at a meeting for the relief of the family of John Brown, on the 18th of November, 1859, the other after his execution:--

"Our blind statesmen," he says, "go up and down, with committees of vigilance and safety, hunting for the origin of this new heresy. They will need a very vigilant committee indeed to find its birthplace, and a very strong force to root it out. For the arch-Abolitionist, older than Brown, and older than the Shenandoah Mountains, is Love, whose other name is Justice, which was before Alfred, before Lycurgus, before Slavery, and will be after it."

From his "Discourse on Theodore Parker" I take the following vigorous sentence:--

"His commanding merit as a reformer is this, that he insisted beyond all men in pulpits,--I cannot think of one rival,--that the essence of Christianity is its practical morals; it is there for use, or it is nothing; and if you combine it with sharp trading, or with ordinary city ambitions to gloze over municipal corruptions, or private intemperance, or successful fraud, or immoral politics, or unjust wars, or the cheating of Indians, or the robbery of frontier nations, or leaving your principles at home to follow on the high seas or in Europe a supple complaisance to tyrants,--it is hypocrisy, and the truth is not in you; and no love of religious music, or of dreams of Swedenborg, or praise of John Wesley, or of Jeremy Taylor, can save you from the Satan which you are."

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The Lecture on "American Civilization," made up from two Addresses, one of which was delivered at Washington on the 31st of January, 1862, is, as might be expected, full of anti-slavery. That on the "Emancipation Proclamation," delivered in Boston in September, 1862, is as full of "silent joy" at the advent of "a day which most of us dared not hope to see,--an event worth the dreadful war, worth its costs and uncertainties."

From the "Remarks" at the funeral services for Abraham Lincoln, held in Concord on the 19th of April, 1865, I extract this admirably drawn character of the man:--

"He is the true history of the American people in his time. Step by step he walked before them; slow with their slowness, quickening his march by theirs, the true representative of this continent; an entirely public man; father of his country, the pulse of twenty millions throbbing in his heart, the thought of their minds articulated by his tongue."

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The following are the titles of the remaining contents of this volume: "Harvard Commemoration Speech;" "Editor's Address: Massachusetts Quarterly Review;" "Woman;" "Address to Kossuth;" "Robert Burns;" "Walter Scott;" "Remarks at the Organization of the Free Religious Association;" "Speech at the Annual Meeting of the Free Religious Association;" "The Fortune of the Republic." In treating of the "Woman Question," Emerson speaks temperately, delicately, with perfect fairness, but leaves it in the hands of the women themselves to determine whether they shall have an equal part in public affairs. "The new movement," he says, "is only a tide shared by the spirits of man and woman; and you may proceed in the faith that whatever the woman's heart is prompted to desire, the man's mind is simultaneously prompted to accomplish."

It is hard to turn a leaf in any book of Emerson's writing without finding some pithy remark or some striking image or witty comment which illuminates the page where we find it and tempts us to seize upon it for an extract. But I must content myself with these few sentences from "The Fortune of the Republic," the last address he ever delivered, in which his belief in America and her institutions, and his trust in the Providence which overrules all nations and all worlds, have found fitting utterance:--

    "Let the passion for America cast out the passion for Europe. Here
    let there be what the earth waits for,--exalted manhood. What this
    country longs for is personalities, grand persons, to counteract its
    materialities. For it is the rule of the universe that corn shall
    serve man, and not man corn.

"They who find America insipid,--they for whom London and Paris have spoiled their own homes, can be spared to return to those cities. I not only see a career at home for more genius than we have, but for more than there is in the world.

"Our helm is given up to a better guidance than our own; the course of events is quite too strong for any helmsman, and our little wherry is taken in tow by the ship of the great Admiral which knows the way, and has the force to draw men and states and planets to their good."

With this expression of love and respect for his country and trust in his country's God, we may take leave of Emerson's prose writings.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

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