Personality and Habits of Life.--His Commission and Errand.--As a Lecturer.--His Use of Authorities.--Resemblance to Other Writers.--As influenced by Others.--His Place as a Thinker.--Idealism and Intuition.--Mysticism.--His Attitude respecting Science.--As an American.--His Fondness for Solitary Study.--His Patience and Amiability.--Feeling with which he was regarded.--Emerson and Burns.--His Religious Belief.--His Relations with Clergymen.--Future of his Reputation.--His Life judged by the Ideal Standard.
Emerson's earthly existence was in the estimate of his own philosophy so slight an occurrence in his career of being that his relations to the accidents of time and space seem quite secondary matters to one who has been long living in the companionship of his thought. Still, he had to be born, to take in his share of the atmosphere in which we are all immersed, to have dealings with the world of phenomena, and at length to let them all "soar and sing" as he left his earthly half-way house. It is natural and pardonable that we should like to know the details of the daily life which the men whom we admire have shared with common mortals, ourselves among the rest. But Emerson has said truly "Great geniuses have the shortest biographies. Their cousins can tell you nothing about them. They lived in their writings, and so their home and street life was trivial and commonplace."
The reader has had many extracts from Emerson's writings laid before him. It was no easy task to choose them, for his paragraphs are so condensed, so much in the nature of abstracts, that it is like distilling absolute alcohol to attempt separating the spirit of what he says from his undiluted thought. His books are all so full of his life to their last syllable that we might letter every volume Emersoniana, by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
From the numerous extracts I have given from Emerson's writings it may be hoped that the reader will have formed an idea for himself of the man and of the life which have been the subjects of these pages. But he may probably expect something like a portrait of the poet and moralist from the hand of his biographer, if the author of this Memoir may borrow the name which will belong to a future and better equipped laborer in the same field. He may not unreasonably look for some general estimate of the life work of the scholar and thinker of whom he has been reading. He will not be disposed to find fault with the writer of the Memoir if he mentions many things which would seem very trivial but for the interest they borrow from the individual to whom they relate.
Emerson's personal appearance was that of a scholar, the descendant of scholars. He was tall and slender, with the complexion which is bred in the alcove and not in the open air. He used to tell his son Edward that he measured six feet in his shoes, but his son thinks he could hardly have straightened himself to that height in his later years. He was very light for a man of his stature. He got on the scales at Cheyenne, on his trip to California, comparing his weight with that of a lady of the party. A little while afterwards he asked of his fellow-traveller, Professor Thayer, "How much did I weigh? A hundred and forty?" "A hundred and forty and a half," was the answer. "Yes, yes, a hundred and forty and a half! That half I prize; it is an index of better things!"
Emerson's head was not such as Schopenhauer insists upon for a philosopher. He wore a hat measuring six and seven eighths on the cephalometer used by hatters, which is equivalent to twenty-one inches and a quarter of circumference. The average size is from seven to seven and an eighth, so that his head was quite small in that dimension. It was long and narrow, but lofty, almost symmetrical, and of more nearly equal breadth in its anterior and posterior regions than many or most heads.
His shoulders sloped so much as to be commented upon for this peculiarity by Mr. Gilfillan, and like "Ammon's great son," he carried one shoulder a little higher than the other. His face was thin, his nose somewhat accipitrine, casting a broad shadow; his mouth rather wide, well formed and well closed, carrying a question and an assertion in its finely finished curves; the lower lip a little prominent, the chin shapely and firm, as becomes the corner-stone of the countenance. His expression was calm, sedate, kindly, with that look of refinement, centring about the lips, which is rarely found in the male New Englander, unless the family features have been for two or three cultivated generations the battlefield and the playground of varied thoughts and complex emotions as well as the sensuous and nutritive port of entry. His whole look was irradiated by an ever active inquiring intelligence. His manner was noble and gracious. Few of our fellow-countrymen have had larger opportunities of seeing distinguished personages than our present minister at the Court of St. James. In a recent letter to myself, which I trust Mr. Lowell will pardon my quoting, he says of Emerson:--
"There was a majesty about him beyond all other men I have known, and he habitually dwelt in that ampler and diviner air to which most of us, if ever, only rise in spurts."
From members of his own immediate family I have derived some particulars relating to his personality and habits which are deserving of record.
His hair was brown, quite fine, and, till he was fifty, very thick. His eyes were of the "strongest and brightest blue." The member of the family who tells me this says:--
"My sister and I have looked for many years to see whether any one else had such absolutely blue eyes, and have never found them except in sea-captains. I have seen three sea-captains who had them."
He was not insensible to music, but his gift in that direction was very limited, if we may judge from this family story. When he was in College, and the singing-master was gathering his pupils, Emerson presented himself, intending to learn to sing. The master received him, and when his turn came, said to him, "Chord!" "What?" said Emerson. "Chord! Chord! I tell you," repeated the master. "I don't know what you mean," said Emerson. "Why, sing! Sing a note." "So I made some kind of a noise, and the singing-master said, 'That will do, sir. You need not come again.'"
Emerson's mode of living was very simple: coffee in the morning, tea in the evening, animal food by choice only once a day, wine only when with others using it, but always pie at breakfast. "It stood before him and was the first thing eaten." Ten o'clock was his bed-time, six his hour of rising until the last ten years of his life, when he rose at seven. Work or company sometimes led him to sit up late, and this he could do night after night. He never was hungry,--could go any time from breakfast to tea without food and not know it, but was always ready for food when it was set before him.
He always walked from about four in the afternoon till tea-time, and often longer when the day was fine, or he felt that he should work the better.
It is plain from his writings that Emerson was possessed all his life long with the idea of his constitutional infirmity and insufficiency. He hated invalidism, and had little patience with complaints about ill-health, but in his poems, and once or twice in his letters to Carlyle, he expresses himself with freedom about his own bodily inheritance. In 1827, being then but twenty-four years old, he writes:--
"I bear in youth the sad infirmities That use to undo the limb and sense of age."Four years later:--
"Has God on thee conferred A bodily presence mean as Paul's, Yet made thee bearer of a word Which sleepy nations as with trumpet calls?"and again, in the same year:--
"Leave me, Fear, thy throbs are base, Trembling for the body's sake."---
Almost forty years from the first of these dates we find him bewailing in "Terminus" his inherited weakness of organization.
And in writing to Carlyle, he says:--
"You are of the Anakirn and know nothing of the debility and postponement of the blonde constitution."
Again, "I am the victim of miscellany--miscellany of designs, vast debility and procrastination."
He thought too much of his bodily insufficiencies, which, it will be observed, he refers to only in his private correspondence, and in that semi-nudity of self-revelation which is the privilege of poetry. His presence was fine and impressive, and his muscular strength was enough to make him a rapid and enduring walker.
Emerson's voice had a great charm in conversation, as in the lecture-room. It was never loud, never shrill, but singularly penetrating. He was apt to hesitate in the course of a sentence, so as to be sure of the exact word he wanted; picking his way through his vocabulary, to get at the best expression of his thought, as a well-dressed woman crosses the muddy pavement to reach the opposite sidewalk. It was this natural slight and not unpleasant semicolon pausing of the memory which grew upon him in his years of decline, until it rendered conversation laborious and painful to him.
He never laughed loudly. When he laughed it was under protest, as it were, with closed doors, his mouth shut, so that the explosion had to seek another respiratory channel, and found its way out quietly, while his eyebrows and nostrils and all his features betrayed the "ground swell," as Professor Thayer happily called it, of the half-suppressed convulsion. He was averse to loud laughter in others, and objected to Margaret Fuller that she made him laugh too much.
Emerson was not rich in some of those natural gifts which are considered the birthright of the New Englander. He had not the mechanical turn of the whittling Yankee. I once questioned him about his manual dexterity, and he told me he could split a shingle four ways with one nail, --which, as the intention is not to split it at all in fastening it to the roof of a house or elsewhere, I took to be a confession of inaptitude for mechanical works. He does not seem to have been very accomplished in the handling of agricultural implements either, for it is told in the family that his little son, Waldo, seeing him at work with a spade, cried out, "Take care, papa,--you will dig your leg."
He used to regret that he had no ear for music. I have said enough about his verse, which often jars on a sensitive ear, showing a want of the nicest perception of harmonies and discords in the arrangement of the words.
There are stories which show that Emerson had a retentive memory in the earlier part of his life. It is hard to say from his books whether he had or not, for he jotted down such a multitude of things in his diary that this was a kind of mechanical memory which supplied him with endless materials of thought and subjects for his pen.
Lover and admirer of Plato as Emerson was, the doors of the academy, over which was the inscription [Greek: maedeis hageometraetos eseito]--Let no one unacquainted with geometry enter here,--would have been closed to him. All the exact sciences found him an unwilling learner. He says of himself that he cannot multiply seven by twelve with impunity.
In an unpublished manuscript kindly submitted to me by Mr. Frothingham, Emerson is reported as saying, "God has given me the seeing eye, but not the working hand." His gift was insight: he saw the germ through its envelop; the particular in the light of the universal; the fact in connection with the principle; the phenomenon as related to the law; all this not by the slow and sure process of science, but by the sudden and searching flashes of imaginative double vision. He had neither the patience nor the method of the inductive reasoner; he passed from one thought to another not by logical steps but by airy flights, which left no footprints. This mode of intellectual action when found united with natural sagacity becomes poetry, philosophy, wisdom, or prophecy in its various forms of manifestation. Without that gift of natural sagacity (odoratio quaedam venatica),--a good scent for truth and beauty,--it appears as extravagance, whimsicality, eccentricity, or insanity, according to its degree of aberration. Emerson was eminently sane for an idealist. He carried the same sagacity into the ideal world that Franklin showed in the affairs of common life.
He was constitutionally fastidious, and had to school himself to become able to put up with the terrible inflictions of uncongenial fellowships. We must go to his poems to get at his weaknesses. The clown of the first edition of "Monadnoc" "with heart of cat and eyes of bug," disappears in the after-thought of the later version of the poem, but the eye that recognized him and the nature that recoiled from him were there still. What must he not have endured from the persecutions of small-minded worshippers who fastened upon him for the interminable period between the incoming and the outgoing railroad train! He was a model of patience and good temper. We might have feared that he lacked the sensibility to make such intrusions and offences an annoyance. But when Mr. Frothingham gratifies the public with those most interesting personal recollections which I have had the privilege of looking over, it will be seen that his equanimity, admirable as it was, was not incapable of being disturbed, and that on rare occasions he could give way to the feeling which showed itself of old in the doom pronounced on the barren fig-tree.
Of Emerson's affections his home-life, and those tender poems in memory of his brothers and his son, give all the evidence that could be asked or wished for. His friends were all who knew him, for none could be his enemy; and his simple graciousness of manner, with the sincerity apparent in every look and tone, hardly admitted indifference on the part of any who met him were it but for a single hour. Even the little children knew and loved him, and babes in arms returned his angelic smile. Of the friends who were longest and most intimately associated with him, it is needless to say much in this place. Of those who are living, it is hardly time to speak; of those who are dead, much has already been written. Margaret Fuller,--I must call my early schoolmate as I best remember her,--leaves her life pictured in the mosaic of five artists,--Emerson himself among the number; Thoreau is faithfully commemorated in the loving memoir by Mr. Sanborn; Theodore Parker lives in the story of his life told by the eloquent Mr. Weiss; Hawthorne awaits his portrait from the master-hand of Mr. Lowell.
How nearly any friend, other than his brothers Edward and Charles, came to him, I cannot say, indeed I can hardly guess. That "majesty" Mr. Lowell speaks of always seemed to hedge him round like the divinity that doth hedge a king. What man was he who would lay his hand familiarly upon his shoulder and call him Waldo? No disciple of Father Mathew would be likely to do such a thing. There may have been such irreverent persons, but if any one had so ventured at the "Saturday Club," it would have produced a sensation like Brummel's "George, ring the bell," to the Prince Regent. His ideas of friendship, as of love, seem almost too exalted for our earthly conditions, and suggest the thought as do many others of his characteristics, that the spirit which animated his mortal frame had missed its way on the shining path to some brighter and better sphere of being.
Not so did Emerson appear among the plain working farmers of the village in which he lived. He was a good, unpretending fellow-citizen who put on no airs, who attended town-meetings, took his part in useful measures, was no great hand at farming, but was esteemed and respected, and felt to be a principal source of attraction to Concord, for strangers came flocking to the place as if it held the tomb of Washington.
What was the errand on which he visited our earth,--the message with which he came commissioned from the Infinite source of all life?
Every human soul leaves its port with sealed orders. These may be opened earlier or later on its voyage, but until they are opened no one can tell what is to be his course or to what harbor he is bound.
Emerson inherited the traditions of the Boston pulpit, such as they were, damaged, in the view of the prevailing sects of the country, perhaps by too long contact with the "Sons of Liberty," and their revolutionary notions. But the most "liberal" Boston pulpit still held to many doctrines, forms, and phrases open to the challenge of any independent thinker.
In the year 1832 this young priest, then a settled minister, "began," as was said of another,--"to be about thirty years of age." He had opened his sealed orders and had read therein:
Thou shalt not profess that which thou dost not believe.
Thou shalt not heed the voice of man when it agrees not with the voice of God in thine own soul.
Thou shalt study and obey the laws of the Universe and they will be thy fellow-servants.
Thou shalt speak the truth as thou seest it, without fear, in the spirit of kindness to all thy fellow-creatures, dealing with the manifold interests of life and the typical characters of history.
Nature shall be to thee as a symbol. The life of the soul, in conscious union with the Infinite, shall be for thee the only real existence.
This pleasing show of an external world through which thou art passing is given thee to interpret by the light which is in thee. Its least appearance is not unworthy of thy study. Let thy soul be open and thine eyes will reveal to thee beauty everywhere.
Go forth with thy message among thy fellow-creatures; teach them they must trust themselves as guided by that inner light which dwells with the pure in heart, to whom it was promised of old that they shall see God.
Teach them that each generation begins the world afresh, in perfect freedom; that the present is not the prisoner of the past, but that today holds captive all yesterdays, to compare, to judge, to accept, to reject their teachings, as these are shown by its own morning's sun.
To thy fellow-countrymen thou shalt preach the gospel of the New World, that here, here in our America, is the home of man; that here is the promise of a new and more excellent social state than history has recorded.
Thy life shall be as thy teachings, brave, pure, truthful, beneficent, hopeful, cheerful, hospitable to all honest belief, all sincere thinkers, and active according to thy gifts and opportunities.
He was true to the orders he had received. Through doubts, troubles, privations, opposition, he would not
"bate a jot Of heart or hope, but still bear up and steer Right onward."-
All through the writings of Emerson the spirit of these orders manifests itself. His range of subjects is very wide, ascending to the highest sphere of spiritual contemplation, bordering on that "intense inane" where thought loses itself in breathless ecstasy, and stooping to the homeliest maxims of prudence and the every-day lessons of good manners, And all his work was done, not so much
"As ever in his great Taskmaster's eye,"
as in the ever-present sense of divine companionship.
He was called to sacrifice his living, his position, his intimacies, to a doubt, and he gave them all up without a murmur. He might have been an idol, and he broke his own pedestal to attack the idolatry which he saw all about him. He gave up a comparatively easy life for a toilsome and trying one; he accepted a precarious employment, which hardly kept him above poverty, rather than wear the golden padlock on his lips which has held fast the conscience of so many pulpit Chrysostoms. Instead of a volume or two of sermons, bridled with a text and harnessed with a confession of faith, he bequeathed us a long series of Discourses and Essays in which we know we have his honest thoughts, free from that professional bias which tends to make the pulpit teaching of the fairest-minded preacher follow a diagonal of two forces,--the promptings of his personal and his ecclesiastical opinions.
Without a church or a pulpit, he soon had a congregation. It was largely made up of young persons of both sexes, young by nature, if not in years, who, tired of routine and formulae, and full of vague aspirations, found in his utterances the oracles they sought. To them, in the words of his friend and neighbor Mr. Alcott, he
"Sang his full song of hope and lofty cheer."
Nor was it only for a few seasons that he drew his audiences of devout listeners around him. Another poet, his Concord neighbor, Mr. Sanborn, who listened to him many years after the first flush of novelty was over, felt the same enchantment, and recognized the same inspiring life in his words, which had thrilled the souls of those earlier listeners.
"His was the task and his the lordly gift Our eyes, our hearts, bent earthward, to uplift."This was his power,--to inspire others, to make life purer, loftier, calmer, brighter. Optimism is what the young want, and he could no more help taking the hopeful view of the universe and its future than Claude could help flooding his landscapes with sunshine.
"Nature," published in 1836, "the first clear manifestation of his genius," as Mr. Norton calls it, revealed him as an idealist and a poet, with a tendency to mysticism. If he had been independent in circumstances, he would doubtless have developed more freely in these directions. But he had his living to get and a family to support, and he must look about him for some paying occupation. The lecture-room naturally presented itself to a scholar accustomed to speaking from the pulpit. This medium of communicating thought was not as yet very popular, and the rewards it offered were but moderate. Emerson was of a very hopeful nature, however, and believed in its possibilities.
--"I am always haunted with brave dreams of what might be accomplished in the lecture-room,--so free and so unpretending a platform,--a Delos not yet made fast. I imagine an eloquence of infinite variety, rich as conversation can be, with anecdote, joke, tragedy, epics and pindarics, argument and confession." So writes Emerson to Carlyle in 1841.
It would be as unfair to overlook the special form in which Emerson gave most of his thoughts to the world, as it would be to leave out of view the calling of Shakespeare in judging his literary character. Emerson was an essayist and a lecturer, as Shakespeare was a dramatist and a play-actor.
The exigencies of the theatre account for much that is, as it were, accidental in the writings of Shakespeare. The demands of the lecture-room account for many peculiarities which are characteristic of Emerson as an author. The play must be in five acts, each of a given length. The lecture must fill an hour and not overrun it. Both play and lecture must be vivid, varied, picturesque, stimulating, or the audience would tire before the allotted time was over.
Both writers had this in common: they were poets and moralists. They reproduced the conditions of life in the light of penetrative observation and ideal contemplation; they illustrated its duties in their breach and in their observance, by precepts and well-chosen portraits of character. The particular form in which they wrote makes little difference when we come upon the utterance of a noble truth or an elevated sentiment.
It was not a simple matter of choice with the dramatist or the lecturer in what direction they should turn their special gifts. The actor had learned his business on the stage; the lecturer had gone through his apprenticeship in the pulpit. Each had his bread to earn, and he must work, and work hard, in the way open before him. For twenty years the playwright wrote dramas, and retired before middle age with a good estate to his native town. For forty years Emerson lectured and published lectures, and established himself at length in competence in the village where his ancestors had lived and died before him. He never became rich, as Shakespeare did. He was never in easy circumstances until he was nearly seventy years old. Lecturing was hard work, but he was under the "base necessity," as he called it, of constant labor, writing in summer, speaking everywhere east and west in the trying and dangerous winter season.
He spoke in great cities to such cultivated audiences as no other man could gather about him, and in remote villages where he addressed plain people whose classics were the Bible and the "Farmer's Almanac." Wherever he appeared in the lecture-room, he fascinated his listeners by his voice and manner; the music of his speech pleased those who found his thought too subtle for their dull wits to follow.
When the Lecture had served its purpose, it came before the public in the shape of an Essay. But the Essay never lost the character it borrowed from the conditions under which it was delivered; it was a lay sermon,--concio ad populum. We must always remember what we are dealing with. "Expect nothing more of my power of construction,--no ship-building, no clipper, smack, nor skiff even, only boards and logs tied together."--"Here I sit and read and write, with very little system, and, as far as regards composition, with the most fragmentary result: paragraphs incompressible, each sentence an infinitely repellent particle." We have then a moralist and a poet appearing as a Lecturer and an Essayist, and now and then writing in verse. He liked the freedom of the platform. "I preach in the Lecture-room," he says, "and there it tells, for there is no prescription. You may laugh, weep, reason, sing, sneer, or pray, according to your genius." In England, he says, "I find this lecturing a key which opens all doors." But he did not tend to overvalue the calling which from "base necessity" he followed so diligently. "Incorrigible spouting Yankee," he calls himself; and again, "I peddle out all the wit I can gather from Time or from Nature, and am pained at heart to see how thankfully that little is received." Lecture-peddling was a hard business and a poorly paid one in the earlier part of the time when Emerson was carrying his precious wares about the country and offering them in competition with the cheapest itinerants, with shilling concerts and negro-minstrel entertainments. But one could get a kind of living out of it if he had invitations enough. I remember Emerson's coming to my house to know if I could fill his place at a certain Lyceum so that he might accept a very advantageous invitation in another direction. I told him that I was unfortunately engaged for the evening mentioned. He smiled serenely, saying that then he supposed he must give up the new stove for that season.
No man would accuse Emerson of parsimony of ideas. He crams his pages with the very marrow of his thought. But in weighing out a lecture he was as punctilious as Portia about the pound of flesh. His utterance was deliberate and spaced with not infrequent slight delays. Exactly at the end of the hour the lecture stopped. Suddenly, abruptly, but quietly, without peroration of any sort, always with "a gentle shock of mild surprise" to the unprepared listener. He had weighed out the full measure to his audience with perfect fairness.
[Greek: oste thalanta gunhae cheruhaetis halaethaes Aetestathmhon hechon echousa kahi heirion hamphis hanhelkei Ishazous ina paishin haeikhea misthon haraetai,]
or, in Bryant's version,
"as the scales Are held by some just woman, who maintains By spinning wool her household,--carefully She poises both the wool and weights, to make The balance even, that she may provide A pittance for her babes."---
As to the charm of his lectures all are agreed. It is needless to handle this subject, for Mr. Lowell has written upon it. Of their effect on his younger listeners he says, "To some of us that long past experience remains the most marvellous and fruitful we have ever had. Emerson awakened us, saved us from the body of this death. It is the sound of the trumpet that the young soul longs for, careless of what breath may fill it. Sidney heard it in the ballad of 'Chevy Chase,' and we in Emerson. Nor did it blow retreat, but called us with assurance of victory."
There was, besides these stirring notes, a sweet seriousness in Emerson's voice that was infinitely soothing. So might "Peace, be still," have sounded from the lips that silenced the storm. I remember that in the dreadful war-time, on one of the days of anguish and terror, I fell in with Governor Andrew, on his way to a lecture of Emerson's, where he was going, he said, to relieve the strain upon his mind. An hour passed in listening to that flow of thought, calm and clear as the diamond drops that distil from a mountain rock, was a true nepenthe for a careworn soul.
An author whose writings are like mosaics must have borrowed from many quarries. Emerson had read more or less thoroughly through a very wide range of authors. I shall presently show how extensive was his reading. No doubt he had studied certain authors diligently, a few, it would seem, thoroughly. But let no one be frightened away from his pages by the terrible names of Plotinus and Proclus and Porphyry, of Behmen or Spinoza, or of those modern German philosophers with whom it is not pretended that he had any intimate acquaintance. Mr. George Ripley, a man of erudition, a keen critic, a lover and admirer of Emerson, speaks very plainly of his limitations as a scholar.
"As he confesses in the Essay on 'Books,' his learning is second hand; but everything sticks which his mind can appropriate. He defends the use of translations, and I doubt whether he has ever read ten pages of his great authorities, Plato, Plutarch, Montaigne, or Goethe, in the original. He is certainly no friend of profound study any more than of philosophical speculation. Give him a few brilliant and suggestive glimpses, and he is content."
One correction I must make to this statement. Emerson says he has "contrived to read" almost every volume of Goethe, and that he has fifty-five of them, but that he has read nothing else in German, and has not looked into him for a long time. This was in 1840, in a letter to Carlyle. It was up-hill work, it may be suspected, but he could not well be ignorant of his friend's great idol, and his references to Goethe are very frequent.
Emerson's quotations are like the miraculous draught of fishes. I hardly know his rivals except Burton and Cotton Mather. But no one would accuse him of pedantry. Burton quotes to amuse himself and his reader; Mather quotes to show his learning, of which he had a vast conceit; Emerson quotes to illustrate some original thought of his own, or because another writer's way of thinking falls in with his own,--never with a trivial purpose. Reading as he did, he must have unconsciously appropriated a great number of thoughts from others. But he was profuse in his references to those from whom he borrowed,--more profuse than many of his readers would believe without taking the pains to count his authorities. This I thought it worth while to have done, once for all, and I will briefly present the results of the examination. The named references, chiefly to authors, as given in the table before me, are three thousand three hundred and ninety-three, relating to eight hundred and sixty-eight different individuals. Of these, four hundred and eleven are mentioned more than once; one hundred and fifty-five, five times or more; sixty-nine, ten times or more; thirty-eight, fifteen times or more; and twenty-seven, twenty times or more. These twenty-seven names alone, the list of which is here given, furnish no less than one thousand and sixty-five references.
Authorities. Number of times mentioned. Shakespeare.....112 Napoleon.........84 Plato............81 Plutarch.........70 Goethe...........62 Swift............49 Bacon............47 Milton...........46 Newton...........43 Homer............42 Socrates.........42 Swedenborg.......40 Montaigne........30 Saadi............30 Luther...........30 Webster..........27 Aristotle........25 Hafiz............25 Wordsworth.......25 Burke............24 Saint Paul.......24 Dante............22 Shattuck (Hist. of Concord).......21 Chaucer..........20 Coleridge........20 Michael Angelo...20 The name of Jesus occurs fifty-four times.-
It is interesting to observe that Montaigne, Franklin, and Emerson all show the same fondness for Plutarch.
Montaigne says, "I never settled myself to the reading of any book of solid learning but Plutarch and Seneca."
Franklin says, speaking of the books in his father's library, "There was among them Plutarch's Lives, which I read abundantly, and I still think that time spent to great advantage."
Emerson says, "I must think we are more deeply indebted to him than to all the ancient writers."
Studies of life and character were the delight of all these four moralists. As a judge of character, Dr. Hedge, who knew Emerson well, has spoken to me of his extraordinary gift, and no reader of "English Traits" can have failed to mark the formidable penetration of the intellect which looked through those calm cerulean eyes.
Noscitur a sociis is as applicable to the books a man most affects as well as to the companions he chooses. It is with the kings of thought that Emerson most associates. As to borrowing from his royal acquaintances his ideas are very simple and expressed without reserve.
"All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote."
What Emerson says of Plutarch applies very nearly to himself.
"In his immense quotation and allusion we quickly cease to discriminate between what he quotes and what he invents. We sail on his memory into the ports of every nation, enter into every private property, and do not stop to discriminate owners, but give him the praise of all."
Mr. Ruskin and Lord Tennyson have thought it worth their while to defend themselves from the charge of plagiarism. Emerson would never have taken the trouble to do such a thing. His mind was overflowing with thought as a river in the season of flood, and was full of floating fragments from an endless variety of sources. He drew ashore whatever he wanted that would serve his purpose. He makes no secret of his mode of writing. "I dot evermore in my endless journal, a line on every knowable in nature; but the arrangement loiters long, and I get a brick-kiln instead of a house." His journal is "full of disjointed dreams and audacities." Writing by the aid of this, it is natural enough that he should speak of his "lapidary style" and say "I build my house of boulders."
"It is to be remembered," says Mr. Ruskin, "that all men who have sense and feeling are continually helped: they are taught by every person they meet, and enriched by everything that falls in their way. The greatest is he who has been oftenest aided; and if the attainments of all human minds could be traced to their real sources, it would be found that the world had been laid most under contribution by the men of most original powers, and that every day of their existence deepened their debt to their race, while it enlarged their gifts to it."
The reader may like to see a few coincidences between Emerson's words and thoughts and those of others.
Some sayings seem to be a kind of family property. "Scorn trifles" comes from Aunt Mary Moody Emerson, and reappears in her nephew, Ralph Waldo.--"What right have you, Sir, to your virtue? Is virtue piecemeal? This is a jewel among the rags of a beggar." So writes Ralph Waldo Emerson in his Lecture "New England Reformers."--"Hiding the badges of royalty beneath the gown of the mendicant, and ever on the watch lest their rank be betrayed by the sparkle of a gem from under their rags." Thus wrote Charles Chauncy Emerson in the "Harvard Register" nearly twenty years before.
"The hero is not fed on sweets, Daily his own heart he eats."The image comes from Pythagoras via Plutarch.
Now and then, but not with any questionable frequency, we find a sentence which recalls Carlyle.
"The national temper, in the civil history, is not flashy or whiffling. The slow, deep English mass smoulders with fire, which at last sets all its borders in flame. The wrath of London is not French wrath, but has a long memory, and in hottest heat a register and rule."
Compare this passage from "English Traits" with the following one from Carlyle's "French Revolution":--
"So long this Gallic fire, through its successive changes of color and character, will blaze over the face of Europe, and afflict and scorch all men:--till it provoke all men, till it kindle another kind of fire, the Teutonic kind, namely; and be swallowed up, so to speak, in a day! For there is a fire comparable to the burning of dry jungle and grass; most sudden, high-blazing: and another fire which we liken to the burning of coal, or even of anthracite coal, but which no known thing will put out."
"O what are heroes, prophets, men But pipes through which the breath of man doth blow A momentary music."The reader will find a similar image in one of Burns's letters, again in one of Coleridge's poetical fragments, and long before any of them, in a letter of Leibnitz.
"He builded better than he knew"
is the most frequently quoted line of Emerson. The thought is constantly recurring in our literature. It helps out the minister's sermon; and a Fourth of July Oration which does not borrow it is like the "Address without a Phoenix" among the Drury Lane mock poems. Can we find any trace of this idea elsewhere?
In a little poem of Coleridge's, "William Tell," are these two lines:
"On wind and wave the boy would toss Was great, nor knew how great he was."The thought is fully worked out in the celebrated Essay of Carlyle called "Characteristics." It reappears in Emerson's poem "Fate."
"Unknown to Cromwell as to me Was Cromwell's measure and degree; Unknown to him as to his horse, If he than his groom is better or worse."
It is unnecessary to illustrate this point any further in this connection. In dealing with his poetry other resemblances will suggest themselves. All the best poetry the world has known is full of such resemblances. If we find Emerson's wonderful picture, "Initial Love" prefigured in the "Symposium" of Plato, we have only to look in the "Phaedrus" and we we shall find an earlier sketch of Shakespeare's famous group,--
"The lunatic, the lover, and the poet."-
Sometimes these resemblances are nothing more than accidental coincidences; sometimes the similar passages are unconsciously borrowed from another; sometimes they are paraphrases, variations, embellished copies, éditions de luxe of sayings that all the world knows are old, but which it seems to the writer worth his while to say over again. The more improved versions of the world's great thoughts we have, the better, and we look to the great minds for them. The larger the river the more streams flow into it. The wide flood of Emerson's discourse has a hundred rivers and thousands of streamlets for its tributaries.
It was not from books only that he gathered food for thought and for his lectures and essays. He was always on the lookout in conversation for things to be remembered. He picked up facts one would not have expected him to care for. He once corrected me in giving Flora Temple's time at Kalamazoo. I made a mistake of a quarter of a second, and he set me right. He was not always so exact in his memory, as I have already shown in several instances. Another example is where he speaks of Quintus Curtius, the historian, when he is thinking of Mettus Curtius, the self-sacrificing equestrian. Little inaccuracies of this kind did not concern him much; he was a wholesale dealer in illustrations, and could not trouble himself about a trifling defect in this or that particular article.
Emerson was a man who influenced others more than others influenced him. Outside of his family connections, the personalities which can be most easily traced in his own are those of Carlyle, Mr. Alcott, and Thoreau. Carlyle's harsh virility could not be without its effect on his valid, but sensitive nature. Alcott's psychological and physiological speculations interested him as an idealist. Thoreau lent him a new set of organs of sense of wonderful delicacy. Emerson looked at nature as a poet, and his natural history, if left to himself, would have been as vague as that of Polonius. But Thoreau had a pair of eyes which, like those of the Indian deity, could see the smallest emmet on the blackest stone in the darkest night,--or come nearer to seeing it than those of most mortals. Emerson's long intimacy with him taught him to give an outline to many natural objects which would have been poetic nebulae to him but for this companionship. A nicer analysis would detect many alien elements mixed with his individuality, but the family traits predominated over all the external influences, and the personality stood out distinct from the common family qualities. Mr. Whipple has well said: "Some traits of his mind and character may be traced back to his ancestors, but what doctrine of heredity can give us the genesis of his genius? Indeed the safest course to pursue is to quote his own words, and despairingly confess that it is the nature of genius 'to spring, like the rainbow daughter of Wonder, from the invisible, to abolish the past and refuse all history.'"
Emerson's place as a thinker is somewhat difficult to fix. He cannot properly be called a psychologist. He made notes and even delivered lectures on the natural history of the intellect; but they seem to have been made up, according to his own statement, of hints and fragments rather than of the results of systematic study. He was a man of intuition, of insight, a seer, a poet, with a tendency to mysticism. This tendency renders him sometimes obscure, and once in a while almost, if not quite, unintelligible. We can, for this reason, understand why the great lawyer turned him over to his daughters, and Dr. Walter Channing complained that his lecture made his head ache. But it is not always a writer's fault that he is not understood. Many persons have poor heads for abstractions; and as for mystics, if they understand themselves it is quite as much as can be expected. But that which is mysticism to a dull listener may be the highest and most inspiring imaginative clairvoyance to a brighter one. It is to be hoped that no reader will take offence at the following anecdote, which may be found under the title "Diogenes," in the work of his namesake, Diogenes Laertius. I translate from the Latin version.
"Plato was talking about ideas, and spoke of mensality and cyathity [tableity, and gobletity]. 'I can see a table and a goblet,' said the cynic, 'but I can see no such things as tableity and gobletity.' 'Quite so,' answered Plato, 'because you have the eyes to see a goblet and a table with, but you have not the brains to understand tableity and gobletity.'"
This anecdote may be profitably borne in mind in following Emerson into the spheres of intuition and mystical contemplation.
Emerson was an idealist in the Platonic sense of the word, a spiritualist as opposed to a materialist. He believes, he says, "as the wise Spenser teaches," that the soul makes its own body. This, of course, involves the doctrine of preexistence; a doctrine older than Spenser, older than Plato or Pythagoras, having its cradle in India, fighting its way down through Greek philosophers and Christian fathers and German professors, to our own time, when it has found Pierre Leroux, Edward Beecher, and Brigham Young among its numerous advocates. Each has his fancies on the subject. The geography of an undiscovered country and the soundings of an ocean that has never been sailed over may belong to romance and poetry, but they do not belong to the realm of knowledge.
That the organ of the mind brings with it inherited aptitudes is a simple matter of observation. That it inherits truths is a different proposition. The eye does not bring landscapes into the world on its retina,--why should the brain bring thoughts? Poetry settles such questions very simply by saying it is so.
The poet in Emerson never accurately differentiated itself from the philosopher. He speaks of Wordsworth's Ode on the Intimations of Immortality as the high-water mark of the poetry of this century. It sometimes seems as if he had accepted the lofty rhapsodies of this noble Ode as working truths.
"Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home."In accordance with this statement of a divine inheritance from a preexisting state, the poet addresses the infant:--
"Mighty prophet! Seer blest! On whom those truths do rest Which we are toiling all our lives to find."--These are beautiful fancies, but the philosopher will naturally ask the poet what are the truths which the child has lost between its cradle and the age of eight years, at which Wordsworth finds the little girl of whom he speaks in the lines,--
"A simple child-- That lightly draws its breath And feels its life in every limb,-- What should it know of death?"-
What should it, sure enough, or of any other of those great truths which Time with its lessons, and the hardening of the pulpy brain can alone render appreciable to the consciousness? Undoubtedly every brain has its own set of moulds ready to shape all material of thought into its own individual set of patterns. If the mind comes into consciousness with a good set of moulds derived by "traduction," as Dryden called it, from a good ancestry, it may be all very well to give the counsel to the youth to plant himself on his instincts. But the individual to whom this counsel is given probably has dangerous as well as wholesome instincts. He has also a great deal besides the instincts to be considered. His instincts are mixed up with innumerable acquired prejudices, erroneous conclusions, deceptive experiences, partial truths, one-sided tendencies. The clearest insight will often find it hard to decide what is the real instinct, and whether the instinct itself is, in theological language, from God or the devil. That which was a safe guide for Emerson might not work well with Lacenaire or Jesse Pomeroy. The cloud of glory which the babe brings with it into the world is a good set of instincts, which dispose it to accept moral and intellectual truths,--not the truths themselves. And too many children come into life trailing after them clouds which are anything but clouds of glory.
It may well be imagined that when Emerson proclaimed the new doctrine,--new to his young disciples,--of planting themselves on their instincts, consulting their own spiritual light for guidance,--trusting to intuition,--without reference to any other authority, he opened the door to extravagances in any unbalanced minds, if such there were, which listened to his teachings. Too much was expected out of the mouths of babes and sucklings. The children shut up by Psammetichus got as far as one word in their evolution of an original language, but bekkos was a very small contribution towards a complete vocabulary. "The Dial" was well charged with intuitions, but there was too much vagueness, incoherence, aspiration without energy, effort without inspiration, to satisfy those who were looking for a new revelation.
The gospel of intuition proved to be practically nothing more or less than this: a new manifesto of intellectual and spiritual independence. It was no great discovery that we see many things as truths which we cannot prove. But it was a great impulse to thought, a great advance in the attitude of our thinking community, when the profoundly devout religious free-thinker took the ground of the undevout and irreligious free-thinker, and calmly asserted and peaceably established the right and the duty of the individual to weigh the universe, its laws and its legends, in his own balance, without fear of authority, or names, or institutions.
All this brought its dangers with it, like other movements of emancipation. For the Fay ce que voudras of the revellers of Medmenham Abbey, was substituted the new motto, Pense ce que voudras. There was an intoxication in this newly proclaimed evangel which took hold of some susceptible natures and betrayed itself in prose and rhyme, occasionally of the Bedlam sort. Emerson's disciples were never accused of falling into the more perilous snares of antinomianism, but he himself distinctly recognizes the danger of it, and the counterbalancing effect of household life, with its curtain lectures and other benign influences. Extravagances of opinion cure themselves. Time wore off the effects of the harmless debauch, and restored the giddy revellers to the regimen of sober thought, as reformed spiritual inebriates.
Such were some of the incidental effects of the Emersonian declaration of independence. It was followed by a revolutionary war of opinion not yet ended or at present like to be. A local outbreak, if you will, but so was throwing the tea overboard. A provincial affair, if the Bohemian press likes that term better, but so was the skirmish where the gun was fired the echo of which is heard in every battle for freedom all over the world.
Too much has been made of Emerson's mysticism. He was an intellectual rather than an emotional mystic, and withal a cautious one. He never let go the string of his balloon. He never threw over all his ballast of common sense so as to rise above an atmosphere in which a rational being could breathe. I found in his library William Law's edition of Jacob Behmen. There were all those wonderful diagrams over which the reader may have grown dizzy,--just such as one finds on the walls of lunatic asylums,--evidences to all sane minds of cerebral strabismus in the contrivers of them. Emerson liked to lose himself for a little while in the vagaries of this class of minds, the dangerous proximity of which to insanity he knew and has spoken of. He played with the incommunicable, the inconceivable, the absolute, the antinomies, as he would have played with a bundle of jack-straws. "Brahma," the poem which so mystified the readers of the "Atlantic Monthly," was one of his spiritual divertisements. To the average Western mind it is the nearest approach to a Torricellian vacuum of intelligibility that language can pump out of itself. If "Rejected Addresses" had not been written half a century before Emerson's poem, one would think these lines were certainly meant to ridicule and parody it.
"The song of Braham is an Irish howl; Thinking is but an idle waste of thought, And nought is everything and everything is nought."Braham, Hazlitt might have said, is so obviously the anagram of Brahma that dulness itself could not mistake the object intended.
Of course no one can hold Emerson responsible for the "Yoga" doctrine of Brahmanism, which he has amused himself with putting in verse. The oriental side of Emerson's nature delighted itself in these narcotic dreams, born in the land of the poppy and of hashish. They lend a peculiar charm to his poems, but it is not worth while to try to construct a philosophy out of them. The knowledge, if knowledge it be, of the mystic is not transmissible. It is not cumulative; it begins and ends with the solitary dreamer, and the next who follows him has to build his own cloud-castle as if it were the first aerial edifice that a human soul had ever constructed.
Some passages of "Nature," "The Over-Soul," "The Sphinx," "Uriel," illustrate sufficiently this mood of spiritual exaltation. Emerson's calm temperament never allowed it to reach the condition he sometimes refers to,--that of ecstasy. The passage in "Nature" where he says "I become a transparent eyeball" is about as near it as he ever came. This was almost too much for some of his admirers and worshippers. One of his most ardent and faithful followers, whose gifts as an artist are well known, mounted the eyeball on legs, and with its cornea in front for a countenance and its optic nerve projecting behind as a queue, the spiritual cyclops was shown setting forth on his travels.
Emerson's reflections in the "transcendental" mood do beyond question sometimes irresistibly suggest the close neighborhood of the sublime to the ridiculous. But very near that precipitous border line there is a charmed region where, if the statelier growths of philosophy die out and disappear, the flowers of poetry next the very edge of the chasm have a peculiar and mysterious beauty. "Uriel" is a poem which finds itself perilously near to the gulf of unsounded obscurity, and has, I doubt not, provoked the mirth of profane readers; but read in a lucid moment, it is just obscure enough and just significant enough to give the voltaic thrill which comes from the sudden contacts of the highest imaginative conceptions.
Human personality presented itself to Emerson as a passing phase of universal being. Born of the Infinite, to the Infinite it was to return. Sometimes he treats his own personality as interchangeable with objects in nature,--he would put it off like a garment and clothe himself in the landscape. Here is a curious extract from "The Adirondacs," in which the reader need not stop to notice the parallelism with Byron's--
"The sky is changed,--and such a change! O night And storm and darkness, ye are wondrous strong."--Now Emerson:--
"And presently the sky is changed; O world! What pictures and what harmonies are thine! The clouds are rich and dark, the air serene, So like the soul of me, what if't were me?"We find this idea of confused personal identity also in a brief poem printed among the "Translations" in the Appendix to Emerson's Poems. These are the last two lines of "The Flute, from Hilali":--
"Saying, Sweetheart! the old mystery remains, If I am I; thou, thou, or thou art I?"The same transfer of personality is hinted in the line of Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind":
"Be thou, Spirit fierce, My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!"Once more, how fearfully near the abyss of the ridiculous! A few drops of alcohol bring about a confusion of mind not unlike this poetical metempsychosis.
The laird of Balnamoon had been at a dinner where they gave him cherry-brandy instead of port wine. In driving home over a wild tract of land called Munrimmon Moor his hat and wig blew off, and his servant got out of the gig and brought them to him. The hat he recognized, but not the wig. "It's no my wig, Hairy [Harry], lad; it's no my wig," and he would not touch it. At last Harry lost his patience: "Ye'd better tak' it, sir, for there's nae waile [choice] o' wigs on Munrimmon Moor." And in our earlier days we used to read of the bewildered market-woman, whose Ego was so obscured when she awoke from her slumbers that she had to leave the question of her personal identity to the instinct of her four-footed companion:--
"If it be I, he'll wag his little tail; And if it be not I, he'll loudly bark and wail."I have not lost my reverence for Emerson in showing one of his fancies for a moment in the distorting mirror of the ridiculous. He would doubtless have smiled with me at the reflection, for he had a keen sense of humor. But I take the opportunity to disclaim a jesting remark about "a foresmell of the Infinite" which Mr. Conway has attributed to me, who am innocent of all connection with it.
The mystic appeals to those only who have an ear for the celestial concords, as the musician only appeals to those who have the special endowment which enables them to understand his compositions. It is not for organizations untuned to earthly music to criticise the great composers, or for those who are deaf to spiritual harmonies to criticise the higher natures which lose themselves in the strains of divine contemplation. The bewildered reader must not forget that passage of arms, previously mentioned, between Plato and Diogenes.
Emerson looked rather askance at Science in his early days. I remember that his brother Charles had something to say in the "Harvard Register" (1828) about its disenchantments. I suspect the prejudice may have come partly from Wordsworth. Compare this verse of his with the lines of Emerson's which follow it.
"Physician art thou, one all eyes; Philosopher, a fingering slave, One that would peep and botanize Upon his mother's grave?"Emerson's lines are to be found near the end of the Appendix in the new edition of his works.
"Philosophers are lined with eyes within, And, being so, the sage unmakes the man. In love he cannot therefore cease his trade; Scarce the first blush has overspread his cheek, He feels it, introverts his learned eye To catch the unconscious heart in the very act. His mother died,--the only friend he had,-- Some tears escaped, but his philosophy Couched like a cat, sat watching close behind And throttled all his passion. Is't not like That devil-spider that devours her mate Scarce freed from her embraces?"The same feeling comes out in the Poem "Blight," where he says the "young scholars who invade our hills"
"Love not the flower they pluck, and know it not, And all their botany is Latin names;"and in "The Walk," where the "learned men" with their glasses are contrasted with the sons of Nature,--the poets are no doubt meant,--much to the disadvantage of the microscopic observers. Emerson's mind was very far from being of the scientific pattern. Science is quantitative,--loves the foot-rule and the balance,--methodical, exhaustive, indifferent to the beautiful as such. The poet is curious, asks all manner of questions, and never thinks of waiting for the answer, still less of torturing Nature to get at it. Emerson wonders, for instance,--
"Why Nature loves the number five,"
but leaves his note of interrogation without troubling himself any farther. He must have picked up some wood-craft and a little botany from Thoreau, and a few chemical notions from his brother-in-law, Dr. Jackson, whose name is associated with the discovery of artificial anaesthesia. It seems probable that the genial companionship of Agassiz, who united with his scientific genius, learning, and renown, most delightful social qualities, gave him a kinder feeling to men of science and their pursuits than he had entertained before that great master came among us. At any rate he avails himself of the facts drawn from their specialties without scruple when they will serve his turn. But he loves the poet always better than the scientific student of nature. In his Preface to the Poems of Mr. W.E. Channing, he says:--
"Here is a naturalist who sees the flower and the bud with a poet's curiosity and awe, and does not count the stamens in the aster, nor the feathers in the wood-thrush, but rests in the surprise and affection they awake."--
This was Emerson's own instinctive attitude to all the phenomena of nature.
Emerson's style is epigrammatic, incisive, authoritative, sometimes quaint, never obscure, except when he is handling nebulous subjects. His paragraphs are full of brittle sentences that break apart and are independent units, like the fragments of a coral colony. His imagery is frequently daring, leaping from the concrete to the abstract, from the special to the general and universal, and vice versa, with a bound that is like a flight. Here are a few specimens of his pleasing audacities:--
"There is plenty of wild azote and carbon unappropriated, but it is naught till we have made it up into loaves and soup."--
"He arrives at the sea-shore and a sumptuous ship has floored and carpeted for him the stormy Atlantic."--
"If we weave a yard of tape in all humility and as well as we can, long hereafter we shall see it was no cotton tape at all but some galaxy which we braided, and that the threads were Time and Nature."--
"Tapping the tempest for a little side wind."--
"The locomotive and the steamboat, like enormous shuttles, shoot every day across the thousand various threads of national descent and employment and bind them fast in one web."--
He is fond of certain archaisms and unusual phrases. He likes the expression "mother-wit," which he finds in Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and other old writers. He often uses the word "husband" in its earlier sense of economist. His use of the word "haughty" is so fitting, and it sounds so nobly from his lips, that we could wish its employment were forbidden henceforth to voices which vulgarize it. But his special, constitutional, word is "fine," meaning something like dainty, as Shakespeare uses it,--"my dainty Ariel,"--"fine Ariel." It belongs to his habit of mind and body as "faint" and "swoon" belong to Keats. This word is one of the ear-marks by which Emerson's imitators are easily recognized. "Melioration" is another favorite word of Emerson's. A clairvoyant could spell out some of his most characteristic traits by the aid of his use of these three words; his inborn fastidiousness, subdued and kept out of sight by his large charity and his good breeding, showed itself in his liking for the word "haughty;" his exquisite delicacy by his fondness for the word "fine," with a certain shade of meaning; his optimism in the frequent recurrence of the word "melioration."
We must not find fault with his semi-detached sentences until we quarrel with Solomon and criticise the Sermon on the Mount. The "point and surprise" which he speaks of as characterizing the style of Plutarch belong eminently to his own. His fertility of illustrative imagery is very great. His images are noble, or, if borrowed from humble objects, ennobled by his handling. He throws his royal robe over a milking-stool and it becomes a throne. But chiefly he chooses objects of comparison grand in themselves. He deals with the elements at first hand. Such delicacy of treatment, with such breadth and force of effect, is hard to match anywhere, and we know him by his style at sight. It is as when the slight fingers of a girl touch the keys of some mighty and many-voiced organ, and send its thunders rolling along the aisles and startling the stained windows of a great cathedral. We have seen him as an unpretending lecturer. We follow him round as he "peddles out all the wit he can gather from Time or from Nature," and we find that "he has changed his market cart into a chariot of the sun," and is carrying about the morning light as merchandise.
Emerson was as loyal an American, as thorough a New Englander, as home-loving a citizen, as ever lived. He arraigned his countrymen sharply for their faults. Mr. Arnold made one string of his epithets familiar to all of us,--"This great, intelligent, sensual, and avaricious America." This was from a private letter to Carlyle. In his Essay, "Works and Days," he is quite as outspoken: "This mendicant America, this curious, peering, itinerant, imitative America." "I see plainly," he says, "that our society is as bigoted to the respectabilities of religion and education as yours." "The war," he says, "gave back integrity to this erring and immoral nation." All his life long he recognized the faults and errors of the new civilization. All his life long he labored diligently and lovingly to correct them. To the dark prophecies of Carlyle, which came wailing to him across the ocean, he answered with ever hopeful and cheerful anticipations. "Here," he said, in words I have already borrowed, "is the home of man--here is the promise of a new and more excellent social state than history has recorded."
Such a man as Emerson belongs to no one town or province or continent; he is the common property of mankind; and yet we love to think of him as breathing the same air and treading the same soil that we and our fathers and our children have breathed and trodden. So it pleases us to think how fondly he remembered his birthplace; and by the side of Franklin's bequest to his native city we treasure that golden verse of Emerson's:--
"A blessing through the ages thus Shield all thy roofs and towers, GOD WITH THE FATHERS, SO WITH US, Thou darling town of ours!"Emerson sympathized with all generous public movements, but he was not fond of working in associations, though he liked well enough to attend their meetings as a listener and looker-on. His study was his workshop, and he preferred to labor in solitude. When he became famous he paid the penalty of celebrity in frequent interruptions by those "devastators of the day" who sought him in his quiet retreat. His courtesy and kindness to his visitors were uniform and remarkable. Poets who come to recite their verses and reformers who come to explain their projects are among the most formidable of earthly visitations. Emerson accepted his martyrdom with meek submission; it was a martyrdom in detail, but collectively its petty tortures might have satisfied a reasonable inquisitor as the punishment of a moderate heresy. Except in that one phrase above quoted he never complained of his social oppressors, so far as I remember, in his writings. His perfect amiability was one of his most striking characteristics, and in a nature fastidious as was his in its whole organization, it implied a self-command worthy of admiration.
The natural purity and elevation of Emerson's character show themselves in all that he writes. His life corresponded to the ideal we form of him from his writings. This it was which made him invulnerable amidst all the fierce conflicts his gentle words excited. His white shield was so spotless that the least scrupulous combatants did not like to leave their defacing marks upon it. One would think he was protected by some superstition like that which Voltaire refers to as existing about Boileau,--
"Ne disons pas mal de Nicolas,--cela porte malheur."
(Don't let us abuse Nicolas,--it brings ill luck.) The cooped-up dogmatists whose very citadel of belief he was attacking, and who had their hot water and boiling pitch and flaming brimstone ready for the assailants of their outer defences, withheld their missiles from him, and even sometimes, in a movement of involuntary human sympathy, sprinkled him with rose-water. His position in our Puritan New England was in some respects like that of Burns in Presbyterian Scotland. The dour Scotch ministers and elders could not cage their minstrel, and they could not clip his wings; and so they let this morning lark rise above their theological mists, and sing to them at heaven's gate, until he had softened all their hearts and might nestle in their bosoms and find his perch on "the big ha' bible," if he would,--and as he did. So did the music of Emerson's words and life steal into the hearts of our stern New England theologians, and soften them to a temper which would have seemed treasonable weakness to their stiff-kneed forefathers. When a man lives a life commended by all the Christian virtues, enlightened persons are not so apt to cavil at his particular beliefs or unbeliefs as in former generations. We do, however, wish to know what are the convictions of any such persons in matters of highest interest about which there is so much honest difference of opinion in this age of deep and anxious and devout religious scepticism.
It was a very wise and a very prudent course which was taken by Simonides, when he was asked by his imperial master to give him his ideas about the Deity. He begged for a day to consider the question, but when the time came for his answer he wanted two days more, and at the end of these, four days. In short, the more he thought about it, the more he found himself perplexed.
The name most frequently applied to Emerson's form of belief is Pantheism. How many persons who shudder at the sound of this word can tell the difference between that doctrine and their own professed belief in the omnipresence of the Deity?
Theodore Parker explained Emerson's position, as he understood it, in an article in the "Massachusetts Quarterly Review." I borrow this quotation from Mr. Cooke:--
"He has an absolute confidence in God. He has been foolishly accused of Pantheism, which sinks God in nature, but no man Is further from it. He never sinks God in man; he does not stop with the law, in matter or morals, but goes to the Law-giver; yet probably it would not be so easy for him to give his definition of God, as it would be for most graduates at Andover or Cambridge."
We read in his Essay, "Self-Reliance ": "This is the ultimate fact which we so quickly reach on this, as on every topic, the resolution of all into the ever-blessed ONE. Self-existence is the attribute of the Supreme Cause, and it constitutes the measure of good by the degree in which it enters into all lower forms."
The "ever-blessed ONE" of Emerson corresponds to the Father in the doctrine of the Trinity. The "Over-Soul" of Emerson is that aspect of Deity which is known to theology as the Holy Spirit. Jesus was for him a divine manifestation, but only as other great human souls have been in all ages and are to-day. He was willing to be called a Christian just as he was willing to be called a Platonist.
Explanations are apt not to explain much in dealing with subjects like this. "Canst thou by searching find out God? Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?" But on certain great points nothing could be clearer than the teaching of Emerson. He believed in the doctrine of spiritual influx as sincerely as any Calvinist or Swedenborgian. His views as to fate, or the determining conditions of the character, brought him near enough to the doctrine of predestination to make him afraid of its consequences, and led him to enter a caveat against any denial of the self-governing power of the will.
His creed was a brief one, but he carried it everywhere with him. In all he did, in all he said, and so far as all outward signs could show, in all his thoughts, the indwelling Spirit was his light and guide; through all nature he looked up to nature's God; and if he did not worship the "man Christ Jesus" as the churches of Christendom have done, he followed his footsteps so nearly that our good Methodist, Father Taylor, spoke of him as more like Christ than any man he had known.
Emerson was in friendly relations with many clergymen of the church from which he had parted. Since he left the pulpit, the lesson, not of tolerance, for that word is an insult as applied by one set of well-behaved people to another, not of charity, for that implies an impertinent assumption, but of good feeling on the part of divergent sects and their ministers has been taught and learned as never before. Their official Confessions of Faith make far less difference in their human sentiments and relations than they did even half a century ago. These ancient creeds are handed along down, to be kept in their phials with their stoppers fast, as attar of rose is kept in its little bottles; they are not to be opened and exposed to the atmosphere so long as their perfume,--the odor of sanctity,--is diffused from the carefully treasured receptacles,--perhaps even longer than that.
Out of the endless opinions as to the significance and final outcome of Emerson's religious teachings I will select two as typical.
Dr. William Hague, long the honored minister of a Baptist church in Boston, where I had the pleasure of friendly acquaintance with him, has written a thoughtful, amiable paper on Emerson, which he read before the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. This Essay closes with the following sentence:--
"Thus, to-day, while musing, as at the beginning, over the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, we recognize now as ever his imperial genius as one of the greatest of writers; at the same time, his life work, as a whole, tested by its supreme ideal, its method and its fruitage, shows also a great waste of power, verifying the saying of Jesus touching the harvest of human life:
'HE THAT GATHERETH NOT WITH ME SCATTERETH ABROAD.'"
"But when Dean Stanley returned from America, it was to report," says Mr. Conway "('Macmillan,' June, 1879), that religion had there passed through an evolution from Edwards to Emerson, and that 'the genial atmosphere which Emerson has done so much to promote is shared by all the churches equally.'"
What is this "genial atmosphere" but the very spirit of Christianity? The good Baptist minister's Essay is full of it. He comes asking what has become of Emerson's "wasted power" and lamenting his lack of "fruitage," and lo! he himself has so ripened and mellowed in that same Emersonian air that the tree to which he belongs would hardly know him. The close-communion clergyman handles the arch-heretic as tenderly as if he were the nursing mother of a new infant Messiah. A few generations ago this preacher of a new gospel would have been burned; a little later he would been tried and imprisoned; less than fifty years ago he was called infidel and atheist; names which are fast becoming relinquished to the intellectual half-breeds who sometimes find their way into pulpits and the so-called religious periodicals.
It is not within our best-fenced churches and creeds that the self-governing American is like to find the religious freedom which the Concord prophet asserted with the strength of Luther and the sweetness of Melancthon, and which the sovereign in his shirt-sleeves will surely claim. Milton was only the precursor of Emerson when he wrote:--
"Neither is God appointed and confined, where and out of what place these his chosen shall be first heard to speak; for he sees not as man sees, chooses not as man chooses, lest we should devote ourselves again to set places and assemblies, and outward callings of men, planting our faith one while in the old convocation house, and another while in the Chapel at Westminster, when all the faith and religion that shall be there canonized is not sufficient without plain convincement, and the charity of patient instruction, to supple the least bruise of conscience, to edify the meanest Christian who desires to walk in the spirit and not in the letter of human trust, for all the number of voices that can be there made; no, though Harry the Seventh himself there, with all his liege tombs about him, should lend their voices from the dead, to swell their number."
The best evidence of the effect produced by Emerson's writings and life is to be found in the attention he has received from biographers and critics. The ground upon which I have ventured was already occupied by three considerable Memoirs. Mr. George Willis Cooke's elaborate work is remarkable for its careful and thorough analysis of Emerson's teachings. Mr. Moncure Daniel Conway's "Emerson at Home and Abroad" is a lively picture of its subject by one long and well acquainted with him. Mr. Alexander Ireland's "Biographical Sketch" brings together, from a great variety of sources, as well as from his own recollections, the facts of Emerson's history and the comments of those whose opinions were best worth reproducing. I must refer to this volume for a bibliography of the various works and Essays of which Emerson furnished the subject.
From the days when Mr. Whipple attracted the attention of our intelligent, but unawakened reading community, by his discriminating and appreciative criticisms of Emerson's Lectures, and Mr. Lowell drew the portrait of the New England "Plotinus-Montaigne" in his brilliant "Fable for Critics," to the recent essays of Mr. Matthew Arnold, Mr. John Morley, Mr. Henry Norman, and Mr. Edmund Clarence Stedman, Emerson's writings have furnished one of the most enduring pièces de résistance at the critical tables of the old and the new world.
He early won the admiration of distinguished European thinkers and writers: Carlyle accepted his friendship and his disinterested services; Miss Martineau fully recognized his genius and sounded his praises; Miss Bremer fixed her sharp eyes on him and pronounced him "a noble man." Professor Tyndall found the inspiration of his life in Emerson's fresh thought; and Mr. Arnold, who clipped his medals reverently but unsparingly, confessed them to be of pure gold, even while he questioned whether they would pass current with posterity. He found discerning critics in France, Germany, and Holland. Better than all is the testimony of those who knew him best. They who repeat the saying that "a prophet is not without honor save in his own country," will find an exception to its truth in the case of Emerson. Read the impressive words spoken at his funeral by his fellow-townsman, Judge Hoar; read the glowing tributes of three of Concord's poets,--Mr. Alcott, Mr. Channing, and Mr. Sanborn,--and it will appear plainly enough that he, whose fame had gone out into all the earth, was most of all believed in, honored, beloved, lamented, in the little village circle that centred about his own fireside.
It is a not uninteresting question whether Emerson has bequeathed to the language any essay or poem which will resist the flow of time like "the adamant of Shakespeare," and remain a classic like the Essays of Addison or Gray's Elegy. It is a far more important question whether his thought entered into the spirit of his day and generation, so that it modified the higher intellectual, moral, and religious life of his time, and, as a necessary consequence, those of succeeding ages. Corpora non agunt nisi soluta, and ideas must be dissolved and taken up as well as material substances before they can act. "That which thou sowest is not quickened except it die," or rather lose the form with which it was sown. Eight stanzas of four lines each have made the author of "The Burial of Sir John Moore" an immortal, and endowed the language with a classic, perfect as the most finished cameo. But what is the gift of a mourning ring to the bequest of a perpetual annuity? How many lives have melted into the history of their time, as the gold was lost in Corinthian brass, leaving no separate monumental trace of their influence, but adding weight and color and worth to the age of which they formed a part and the generations that came after them! We can dare to predict of Emerson, in the words of his old friend and disciple, Mr. Cranch:--
"The wise will know thee and the good will love, The age to come will feel thy impress given In all that lifts the race a step above Itself, and stamps it with the seal of heaven."It seems to us, to-day, that Emerson's best literary work in prose and verse must live as long as the language lasts; but whether it live or fade from memory, the influence of his great and noble life and the spoken and written words which were its exponents, blends, indestructible, with the enduring elements of civilization.
It is not irreverent, but eminently fitting, to compare any singularly pure and virtuous life with that of the great exemplar in whose footsteps Christendom professes to follow. The time was when the divine authority of his gospel rested chiefly upon the miracles he is reported to have wrought. As the faith in these exceptions to the general laws of the universe diminished, the teachings of the Master, of whom it was said that he spoke as never man spoke, were more largely relied upon as evidence of his divine mission. Now, when a comparison of these teachings with those of other religious leaders is thought by many to have somewhat lessened the force of this argument, the life of the sinless and self-devoted servant of God and friend of man is appealed to as the last and convincing proof that he was an immediate manifestation of the Divinity.
Judged by his life Emerson comes very near our best ideal of humanity. He was born too late for the trial of the cross or the stake, or even the jail. But the penalty of having an opinion of his own and expressing it was a serious one, and he accepted it as cheerfully as any of Queen Mary's martyrs accepted his fiery baptism. His faith was too large and too deep for the formulae he found built into the pulpit, and he was too honest to cover up his doubts under the flowing vestments of a sacred calling. His writings, whether in prose or verse, are worthy of admiration, but his manhood was the underlying quality which gave them their true value. It was in virtue of this that his rare genius acted on so many minds as a trumpet call to awaken them to the meaning and the privileges of this earthly existence with all its infinite promise. No matter of what he wrote or spoke, his words, his tones, his looks, carried the evidence of a sincerity which pervaded them all and was to his eloquence and poetry like the water of crystallization; without which they would effloresce into mere rhetoric. He shaped an ideal for the commonest life, he proposed an object to the humblest seeker after truth. Look for beauty in the world around you, he said, and you shall see it everywhere. Look within, with pure eyes and simple trust, and you shall find the Deity mirrored in your own soul. Trust yourself because you trust the voice of God in your inmost consciousness.
There are living organisms so transparent that we can see their hearts beating and their blood flowing through their glassy tissues. So transparent was the life of Emerson; so clearly did the true nature of the man show through it. What he taught others to be, he was himself. His deep and sweet humanity won him love and reverence everywhere among those whose natures were capable of responding to the highest manifestations of character. Here and there a narrow-eyed sectary may have avoided or spoken ill of him; but if He who knew what was in man had wandered from door to door in New England as of old in Palestine, we can well believe that one of the thresholds which "those blessed feet" would have crossed, to hallow and receive its welcome, would have been that of the lovely and quiet home of Emerson.
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