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Chapter 15

Recollections of Emerson's Last Years.--Mr. Conway's Visits.--Extracts from Mr. Whitman's Journal.--Dr. Le Baron Russell's Visit.--Dr. Edward Emerson's Account.--Illness and Death.--Funeral Services.

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Mr. Conway gives the following account of two visits to Emerson after the decline of his faculties had begun to make itself obvious:--

"In 1875, when I stayed at his house in Concord for a little time, it was sad enough to find him sitting as a listener before those who used to sit at his feet in silence. But when alone with him he conversed in the old way, and his faults of memory seemed at times to disappear. There was something striking in the kind of forgetfulness by which he suffered. He remembered the realities and uses of things when he could not recall their names. He would describe what he wanted or thought of; when he could not recall 'chair' he could speak of that which supports the human frame, and 'the implement that cultivates the soil' must do for plough.--

"In 1880, when I was last in Concord, the trouble had made heavy strides. The intensity of his silent attention to every word that was said was painful, suggesting a concentration of his powers to break through the invisible walls closing around them. Yet his face was serene; he was even cheerful, and joined in our laughter at some letters his eldest daughter had preserved, from young girls, trying to coax autograph letters, and in one case asking for what price he would write a valedictory address she had to deliver at college. He was still able to joke about his 'naughty memory;' and no complaint came from him when he once rallied himself on living too long. Emerson appeared to me strangely beautiful at this time, and the sweetness of his voice, when he spoke of the love and providence at his side, is quite indescribable."--

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One of the later glimpses we have of Emerson is that preserved in the journal of Mr. Whitman, who visited Concord in the autumn of 1881. Mr. Ireland gives a long extract from this journal, from which I take the following:--

"On entering he had spoken very briefly, easily and politely to several of the company, then settled himself in his chair, a trifle pushed back, and, though a listener and apparently an alert one, remained silent through the whole talk and discussion. And so, there Emerson sat, and I looking at him. A good color in his face, eyes clear, with the well-known expression of sweetness, and the old clear-peering aspect quite the same."

Mr. Whitman met him again the next day, Sunday, September 18th, and records:--

"As just said, a healthy color in the cheeks, and good light in the eyes, cheery expression, and just the amount of talking that best suited, namely, a word or short phrase only where needed, and almost always with a smile."

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Dr. Le Baron Russell writes to me of Emerson at a still later period:--

"One incident I will mention which occurred at my last visit to Emerson, only a few months before his death. I went by Mrs. Emerson's request to pass a Sunday at their house at Concord towards the end of June. His memory had been failing for some time, and his mind as you know was clouded, but the old charm of his voice and manner had never left him. On the morning after my arrival Mrs. Emerson took us into the garden to see the beautiful roses in which she took great delight. One red rose of most brilliant color she called our attention to especially; its 'hue' was so truly 'angry and brave' that I involuntarily repeated Herbert's line,--

'Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye,'--

from the verses which Emerson had first repeated to me so long ago. Emerson looked at the rose admiringly, and then as if by a sudden impulse lifted his hat gently, and said with a low bow, 'I take off my hat to it.'"

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Once a poet, always a poet. It was the same reverence for the beautiful that he had shown in the same way in his younger days on entering the wood, as Governor Rice has told us the story, given in an earlier chapter.

I do not remember Emerson's last time of attendance at the "Saturday Club," but I recollect that he came after the trouble in finding words had become well marked. "My memory hides itself," he said. The last time I saw him, living, was at Longfellow's funeral. I was sitting opposite to him when he rose, and going to the side of the coffin, looked intently upon the face of the dead poet. A few minutes later he rose again and looked once more on the familiar features, not apparently remembering that he had just done so. Mr. Conway reports that he said to a friend near him, "That gentleman was a sweet, beautiful soul, but I have entirely forgotten his name."

Dr. Edward Emerson has very kindly furnished me, in reply to my request, with information regarding his father's last years which will interest every one who has followed his life through its morning and midday to the hour of evening shadows.

"May-Day," which was published in 1867, was made up of the poems written since his first volume appeared. After this he wrote no poems, but with some difficulty fitted the refrain to the poem "Boston," which had remained unfinished since the old Anti-slavery days. "Greatness," and the "Phi Beta Kappa Oration" of 1867, were among his last pieces of work. His College Lectures, "The Natural History of the Intellect," were merely notes recorded years before, and now gathered and welded together. In 1876 he revised his poems, and made the selections from them for the "Little Classic" edition of his works, then called "Selected Poems." In that year he gave his "Address to the Students of the University of Virginia." This was a paper written long before, and its revision, with the aid of his daughter Ellen, was accomplished with much difficulty.

The year 1867 was about the limit of his working life. During the last five years he hardly answered a letter. Before this time it had become increasingly hard for him to do so, and he always postponed and thought he should feel more able the next day, until his daughter Ellen was compelled to assume the correspondence. He did, however, write some letters in 1876, as, for instance, the answer to the invitation of the Virginia students.

Emerson left off going regularly to the "Saturday Club" probably in 1875. He used to depend on meeting Mr. Cabot there, but after Mr. Cabot began to come regularly to work on "Letters and Social Aims," Emerson, who relied on his friendly assistance, ceased attending the meetings. The trouble he had in finding the word he wanted was a reason for his staying away from all gatherings where he was called upon to take a part in conversation, though he the more willingly went to lectures and readings and to church. His hearing was very slightly impaired, and his sight remained pretty good, though he sometimes said letters doubled, and that "M's" and "N's" troubled him to read. He recognized the members of his own family and his old friends; but, as I infer from this statement, he found a difficulty in remembering the faces of new acquaintances, as is common with old persons.

He continued the habit of reading,--read through all his printed works with much interest and surprise, went through all his manuscripts, and endeavored, unsuccessfully, to index them. In these Dr. Emerson found written "Examined 1877 or 1878," but he found no later date.

In the last year or two he read anything which he picked up on his table, but he read the same things over, and whispered the words like a child. He liked to look over the "Advertiser," and was interested in the "Nation." He enjoyed pictures in books and showed them with delight to guests.

All this with slight changes and omissions is from the letter of Dr. Emerson in answer to my questions. The twilight of a long, bright day of life may be saddening, but when the shadow falls so gently and gradually, with so little that is painful and so much that is soothing and comforting, we do not shrink from following the imprisoned spirit to the very verge of its earthly existence.

But darker hours were in the order of nature very near at hand. From these he was saved by his not untimely release from the imprisonment of the worn-out bodily frame.

In April, 1882, Emerson took a severe cold, and became so hoarse that he could hardly speak. When his son, Dr. Edward Emerson, called to see him, he found him on the sofa, feverish, with more difficulty of expression than usual, dull, but not uncomfortable. As he lay on his couch he pointed out various objects, among others a portrait of Carlyle "the good man,--my friend." His son told him that he had seen Carlyle, which seemed to please him much. On the following day the unequivocal signs of pneumonia showed themselves, and he failed rapidly. He still recognized those around him, among the rest Judge Hoar, to whom he held out his arms for a last embrace. A sharp pain coming on, ether was administered with relief. And in a little time, surrounded by those who loved him and whom he loved, he passed quietly away. He lived very nearly to the completion of his seventy-ninth year, having been born May 25, 1803, and his death occurring on the 27th of April, 1882.

Mr. Ireland has given a full account of the funeral, from which are, for the most part, taken the following extracts:--

"The last rites over the remains of Ralph Waldo Emerson took place at Concord on the 30th of April. A special train from Boston carried a large number of people. Many persons were on the street, attracted by the services, but were unable to gain admission to the church where the public ceremonies were held. Almost every building in town bore over its entrance-door a large black and white rosette with other sombre draperies. The public buildings were heavily draped, and even the homes of the very poor bore outward marks of grief at the loss of their friend and fellow-townsman.

"The services at the house, which were strictly private, occurred at 2.30, and were conducted by Rev. W.H. Furness of Philadelphia, a kindred spirit and an almost life-long friend. They were simple in character, and only Dr. Furness took part in them. The body lay in the front northeast room, in which were gathered the family and close friends of the deceased. The only flowers were contained in three vases on the mantel, and were lilies of the valley, red and white roses, and arbutus. The adjoining room and hall were filled with friends and neighbors.

"At the church many hundreds of persons were awaiting the arrival of the procession, and all the space, except the reserved pews, was packed. In front of the pulpit were simple decorations, boughs of pine covered the desk, and in their centre was a harp of yellow jonquils, the gift of Miss Louisa M. Alcott. Among the floral tributes was one from the teachers and scholars in the Emerson school. By the sides of the pulpit were white and scarlet geraniums and pine boughs, and high upon the wall a laurel wreath.

"Before 3.30 the pall-bearers brought in the plain black walnut coffin, which was placed before the pulpit. The lid was turned back, and upon it was put a cluster of richly colored pansies and a small bouquet of roses. While the coffin was being carried in, 'Pleyel's Hymn' was rendered on the organ by request of the family of the deceased. Dr. James Freeman Clarke then entered the pulpit. Judge E. Rockwood Hoar remained by the coffin below, and when the congregation became quiet, made a brief and pathetic address, his voice many times trembling with emotion."

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I subjoin this most impressive "Address" entire, from the manuscript with which Judge Hoar has kindly favored me:--

"The beauty of Israel is fallen in its high place! Mr. Emerson has died; and we, his friends and neighbors, with this sorrowing company, have turned aside the procession from his home to his grave,--to this temple of his fathers, that we may here unite in our parting tribute of memory and love.

"There is nothing to mourn for him. That brave and manly life was rounded out to the full length of days. That dying pillow was softened by the sweetest domestic affection; and as he lay down to the sleep which the Lord giveth his beloved, his face was as the face of an angel, and his smile seemed to give a glimpse of the opening heavens.

"Wherever the English language is spoken throughout the world his fame is established and secure. Throughout this great land and from beyond the sea will come innumerable voices of sorrow for this great public loss. But we, his neighbors and townsmen, feel that he was ours. He was descended from the founders of the town. He chose our village as the place where his lifelong work was to be done. It was to our fields and orchards that his presence gave such value; it was our streets in which the children looked up to him with love, and the elders with reverence. He was our ornament and pride.

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                    "'He is gone--is dust,--
      He the more fortunate! Yea, he hath finished!
      For him there is no longer any future.
      His life is bright--bright without spot it was
      And cannot cease to be. No ominous hour
      Knocks at his door with tidings of mishap.
      Far off is he, above desire and fear;
      No more submitted to the change and chance
      Of the uncertain planets.--

"'The bloom is vanished from my life, For, oh! he stood beside me like my youth; Transformed for me the real to a dream, Clothing the palpable and the familiar With golden exhalations of the dawn. Whatever fortunes wait my future toils, The beautiful is vanished and returns not.'

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"That lofty brow, the home of all wise thoughts and high aspirations,--those lips of eloquent music,--that great soul, which trusted in God and never let go its hope of immortality,--that large heart, to which everything that belonged to man was welcome,--that hospitable nature, loving and tender and generous, having no repulsion or scorn for anything but meanness and baseness,--oh, friend, brother, father, lover, teacher, inspirer, guide! is there no more that we can do now than to give thee this our hail and farewell!"

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Judge Hoar's remarks were followed by the congregation singing the hymns, "Thy will be done," "I will not fear the fate provided by Thy love." The Rev. Dr. Furness then read selections from the Scriptures.

The Rev. James Freeman Clarke then delivered an "Address," from which I extract two eloquent and inspiring passages, regretting to omit any that fell from lips so used to noble utterances and warmed by their subject,--for there is hardly a living person more competent to speak or write of Emerson than this high-minded and brave-souled man, who did not wait until he was famous to be his admirer and champion.

"The saying of the Liturgy is true and wise, that 'in the midst of life we are in death.' But it is still more true that in the midst of death we are in life. Do we ever believe so much in immortality as when we look on such a dear and noble face, now so still, which a few hours ago was radiant with thought and love? 'He is not here: he is risen.' That power which we knew,--that soaring intelligence, that soul of fire, that ever-advancing spirit,--that cannot have been suddenly annihilated with the decay of these earthly organs. It has left its darkened dust behind. It has outsoared the shadow of our night. God does not trifle with his creatures by bringing to nothing the ripe fruit of the ages by the lesion of a cerebral cell, or some bodily tissue. Life does not die, but matter dies off from it. The highest energy we know, the soul of man, the unit in which meet intelligence, imagination, memory, hope, love, purpose, insight,--this agent of immense resource and boundless power,--this has not been subdued by its instrument. When we think of such an one as he, we can only think of life, never of death.

"Such was his own faith, as expressed in his paper on 'Immortality.' But he himself was the best argument for immortality. Like the greatest thinkers, he did not rely on logical proof, but on the higher evidence of universal instincts,--the vast streams of belief which flow through human thought like currents in the ocean; those shoreless rivers which forever roll along their paths in the Atlantic and Pacific, not restrained by banks, but guided by the revolutions of the globe and the attractions of the sun."

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"Let us then ponder his words:--

          'Wilt thou not ope thy heart to know
          What rainbows teach and sunsets show?
          Voice of earth to earth returned,
          Prayers of saints that inly burned,
          Saying, What is excellent
          As God lives, is permanent;
          Hearts are dust, hearts' loves remain;
          Hearts' love will meet thee again.

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House and tenant go to ground Lost in God, in Godhead found.'"

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After the above address a feeling prayer was offered by Rev. Howard M. Brown, of Brookline, and the benediction closed the exercises in the church. Immediately before the benediction, Mr. Alcott recited the following sonnet, which he had written for the occasion:---

      "His harp is silent: shall successors rise,
      Touching with venturous hand the trembling string,
      Kindle glad raptures, visions of surprise,
      And wake to ecstasy each slumbering thing?
      Shall life and thought flash new in wondering eyes,
      As when the seer transcendent, sweet, and wise,
      World-wide his native melodies did sing,
      Flushed with fair hopes and ancient memories?
      Ah, no! That matchless lyre shall silent lie:
      None hath the vanished minstrel's wondrous skill
      To touch that instrument with art and will.
      With him, winged poesy doth droop and die;
      While our dull age, left voiceless, must lament
      The bard high heaven had for its service sent."
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"Over an hour was occupied by the passing files of neighbors, friends, and visitors looking for the last time upon the face of the dead poet. The body was robed completely in white, and the face bore a natural and peaceful expression. From the church the procession took its way to the cemetery. The grave was made beneath a tall pine-tree upon the hill-top of Sleepy Hollow, where lie the bodies of his friends Thoreau and Hawthorne, the upturned sod being concealed by strewings of pine boughs. A border of hemlock spray surrounded the grave and completely lined its sides. The services here were very brief, and the casket was soon lowered to its final resting-place.

"The Rev. Dr. Haskins, a cousin of the family, an Episcopal clergyman, read the Episcopal Burial Service, and closed with the Lord's Prayer, ending at the words, 'and deliver us from evil.' In this all the people joined. Dr. Haskins then pronounced the benediction. After it was over the grandchildren passed the open grave and threw flowers into it."

So vanished from human eyes the bodily presence of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his finished record belongs henceforth to memory.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

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