1848-1853. AET. 45-50.
The "Massachusetts Quarterly Review;" Visit to Europe.--England. --Scotland.--France.--"Representative Men" published. I. Uses of Great Men. II. Plato; or, the Philosopher; Plato; New Readings. III. Swedenborg; or, the Mystic. IV. Montaigne; or, the Skeptic. V. Shakespeare; or, the Poet. VI. Napoleon; or, the Man of the World. VII. Goethe; or, the Writer.--Contribution to the "Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli."
A new periodical publication was begun in Boston in 1847, under the name of the "Massachusetts Quarterly Review." Emerson wrote the "Editor's Address," but took no further active part in it, Theodore Parker being the real editor. The last line of this address is characteristic: "We rely on the truth for aid against ourselves."
On the 5th of October, 1847, Emerson sailed for Europe on his second visit, reaching Liverpool on the 22d of that month. Many of his admirers were desirous that he should visit England and deliver some courses of lectures. Mr. Alexander Ireland, who had paid him friendly attentions during his earlier visit, and whose impressions of him in the pulpit have been given on a previous page, urged his coming. Mr. Conway quotes passages from a letter of Emerson's which show that he had some hesitation in accepting the invitation, not unmingled with a wish to be heard by the English audiences favorably disposed towards him.
"I feel no call," he said, "to make a visit of literary propagandism in England. All my impulses to work of that kind would rather employ me at home." He does not like the idea of "coaxing" or advertising to get him an audience. He would like to read lectures before institutions or friendly persons who sympathize with his studies. He has had a good many decisive tokens of interest from British men and women, but he doubts whether he is much and favorably known in any one city, except perhaps in London. It proved, however, that there was a very widespread desire to hear him, and applications for lectures flowed in from all parts of the kingdom.
From Liverpool he proceeded immediately to Manchester, where Mr. Ireland received him at the Victoria station. After spending a few hours with him, he went to Chelsea to visit Carlyle, and at the end of a week returned to Manchester to begin the series of lecturing engagements which had been arranged for him. Mr. Ireland's account of Emerson's visits and the interviews between him and many distinguished persons is full of interest, but the interest largely relates to the persons visited by Emerson. He lectured at Edinburgh, where his liberal way of thinking and talking made a great sensation in orthodox circles. But he did not fail to find enthusiastic listeners. A young student, Mr. George Cupples, wrote an article on these lectures from which, as quoted by Mr. Ireland, I borrow a single sentence,--one only, but what could a critic say more?
Speaking of his personal character, as revealed through his writings, he says: "In this respect, I take leave to think that Emerson is the most mark-worthy, the loftiest, and most heroic mere man that ever appeared." Emerson has a lecture on the superlative, to which he himself was never addicted. But what would youth be without its extravagances,--its preterpluperfect in the shape of adjectives, its unmeasured and unstinted admiration?
I need not enumerate the celebrated literary personages and other notabilities whom Emerson met in England and Scotland. He thought "the two finest mannered literary men he met in England were Leigh Hunt and De Quincey." His diary might tell us more of the impressions made upon him by the distinguished people he met, but it is impossible to believe that he ever passed such inhuman judgments on the least desirable of his new acquaintances as his friend Carlyle has left as a bitter legacy behind him. Carlyle's merciless discourse about Coleridge and Charles Lamb, and Swinburne's carnivorous lines, which take a barbarous vengeance on him for his offence, are on the level of political rhetoric rather than of scholarly criticism or characterization. Emerson never forgot that he was dealing with human beings. He could not have long endured the asperities of Carlyle, and that "loud shout of laughter," which Mr. Ireland speaks of as one of his customary explosions, would have been discordant to Emerson's ears, which were offended by such noisy manifestations.
During this visit Emerson made an excursion to Paris, which furnished him materials for a lecture on France delivered in Boston, in 1856, but never printed.
From the lectures delivered in England he selected a certain number for publication. These make up the volume entitled "Representative Men," which was published in 1850. I will give very briefly an account of its contents. The title was a happy one, and has passed into literature and conversation as an accepted and convenient phrase. It would teach us a good deal merely to consider the names he has selected as typical, and the ground of their selection. We get his classification of men considered as leaders in thought and in action. He shows his own affinities and repulsions, and, as everywhere, writes his own biography, no matter about whom or what he is talking. There is hardly any book of his better worth study by those who wish to understand, not Plato, not Plutarch, not Napoleon, but Emerson himself. All his great men interest us for their own sake; but we know a good deal about most of them, and Emerson holds the mirror up to them at just such an angle that we see his own face as well as that of his hero, unintentionally, unconsciously, no doubt, but by a necessity which he would be the first to recognize.
Emerson swears by no master. He admires, but always with a reservation. Plato comes nearest to being his idol, Shakespeare next. But he says of all great men: "The power which they communicate is not theirs. When we are exalted by ideas, we do not owe this to Plato, but to the idea, to which also Plato was debtor."
Emerson loves power as much as Carlyle does; he likes "rough and smooth," "scourges of God," and "darlings of the human race." He likes Julius Caesar, Charles the Fifth, of Spain, Charles the Twelfth, of Sweden, Richard Plantagenet, and Bonaparte.
"I applaud," he says, "a sufficient man, an officer equal to his office; captains, ministers, senators. I like a master standing firm on legs of iron, well born, rich, handsome, eloquent, loaded with advantages, drawing all men by fascination into tributaries and supporters of his power. Sword and staff, or talents sword-like or staff-like, carry on the work of the world. But I find him greater when he can abolish himself and all heroes by letting in this element of reason, irrespective of persons, this subtilizer and irresistible upward force, into our thoughts, destroying individualism; the power is so great that the potentate is nothing.--
"The genius of humanity is the right point of view of history. The qualities abide; the men who exhibit them have now more, now less, and pass away; the qualities remain on another brow.--All that respects the individual is temporary and prospective, like the individual himself, who is ascending out of his limits into a catholic existence."
No man can be an idol for one who looks in this way at all men. But Plato takes the first place in Emerson's gallery of six great personages whose portraits he has sketched. And of him he says:--
"Among secular books Plato only is entitled to Omar's fanatical compliment to the Koran, when he said, 'Burn the libraries; for their value is in this book.' Out of Plato come all things that are still written and debated among men of thought."--
"In proportion to the culture of men they become his scholars."--"How many great men Nature is incessantly sending up out of night to be his men!--His contemporaries tax him with plagiarism.--But the inventor only knows how to borrow. When we are praising Plato, it seems we are praising quotations from Solon and Sophron and Philolaus. Be it so. Every book is a quotation; and every house is a quotation out of all forests and mines and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors."
The reader will, I hope, remember this last general statement when he learns from what wide fields of authorship Emerson filled his storehouses.
A few sentences from Emerson will show us the probable source of some of the deepest thought of Plato and his disciples.
The conception of the fundamental Unity, he says, finds its highest expression in the religious writings of the East, especially in the Indian Scriptures. "'The whole world is but a manifestation of Vishnu, who is identical with all things, and is to be regarded by the wise as not differing from but as the same as themselves. I neither am going nor coming; nor is my dwelling in any one place; nor art thou, thou; nor are others, others; nor am I, I.' As if he had said, 'All is for the soul, and the soul is Vishnu; and animals and stars are transient paintings; and light is whitewash; and durations are deceptive; and form is imprisonment; and heaven itself a decoy.'" All of which we see reproduced in Emerson's poem "Brahma."--"The country of unity, of immovable institutions, the seat of a philosophy delighting in abstractions, of men faithful in doctrine and in practice to the idea of a deaf, unimplorable, immense fate, is Asia; and it realizes this faith in the social institution of caste. On the other side, the genius of Europe is active and creative: it resists caste by culture; its philosophy was a discipline; it is a land of arts, inventions, trade, freedom."--"Plato came to join, and by contact to enhance, the energy of each."
But Emerson says,--and some will smile at hearing him say it of another,--"The acutest German, the lovingest disciple, could never tell what Platonism was; indeed, admirable texts can be quoted on both sides of every great question from him."
The transcendent intellectual and moral superiorities of this "Euclid of holiness," as Emerson calls him, with his "soliform eye and his boniform soul,"--the two quaint adjectives being from the mint of Cudworth,--are fully dilated upon in the addition to the original article called "Plato: New Readings."
Few readers will be satisfied with the Essay entitled "Swedenborg; or, the Mystic." The believers in his special communion as a revealer of divine truth will find him reduced to the level of other seers. The believers of the different creeds of Christianity will take offence at the statement that "Swedenborg and Behmen both failed by attaching themselves to the Christian symbol, instead of to the moral sentiment, which carries innumerable christianities, humanities, divinities in its bosom." The men of science will smile at the exorbitant claims put forward in behalf of Swedenborg as a scientific discoverer. "Philosophers" will not be pleased to be reminded that Swedenborg called them "cockatrices," "asps," or "flying serpents;" "literary men" will not agree that they are "conjurers and charlatans," and will not listen with patience to the praises of a man who so called them. As for the poets, they can take their choice of Emerson's poetical or prose estimate of the great Mystic, but they cannot very well accept both. In "The Test," the Muse says:--
"I hung my verses in the wind, Time and tide their faults may find; All were winnowed through and through, Five lines lasted good and true ... Sunshine cannot bleach the snow, Nor time unmake what poets know. Have you eyes to find the five Which five hundred did survive?"-
In the verses which follow we learn that the five immortal poets referred to are Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Swedenborg, and Goethe.
And now, in the Essay we have just been looking at, I find that "his books have no melody, no emotion, no humor, no relief to the dead prosaic level. We wander forlorn in a lack-lustre landscape. No bird ever sang in these gardens of the dead. The entire want of poetry in so transcendent a mind betokens the disease, and like a hoarse voice in a beautiful person, is a kind of warning." Yet Emerson says of him that "He lived to purpose: he gave a verdict. He elected goodness as the clue to which the soul must cling in this labyrinth of nature."
Emerson seems to have admired Swedenborg at a distance, but seen nearer, he liked Jacob Behmen a great deal better.
"Montaigne; or, the Skeptic," is easier reading than the last-mentioned Essay. Emerson accounts for the personal regard which he has for Montaigne by the story of his first acquaintance with him. But no other reason was needed than that Montaigne was just what Emerson describes him as being.
"There have been men with deeper insight; but, one would say, never a man with such abundance of thought: he is never dull, never insincere, and has the genius to make the reader care for all that he cares for.
"The sincerity and marrow of the man reaches to his sentences. I know not anywhere the book that seems less written. It is the language of conversation transferred to a book. Cut these words and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.--
"Montaigne talks with shrewdness, knows the world and books and himself, and uses the positive degree; never shrieks, or protests, or prays: no weakness, no convulsion, no superlative: does not wish to jump out of his skin, or play any antics, or annihilate space or time, but is stout and solid; tastes every moment of the day; likes pain because it makes him feel himself and realize things; as we pinch ourselves to know that we are awake. He keeps the plain; he rarely mounts or sinks; likes to feel solid ground and the stones underneath. His writing has no enthusiasms, no aspiration; contented, self-respecting, and keeping the middle of the road. There is but one exception,--in his love for Socrates. In speaking of him, for once his cheek flushes and his style rises to passion."
The writer who draws this portrait must have many of the same characteristics. Much as Emerson loved his dreams and his dreamers, he must have found a great relief in getting into "the middle of the road" with Montaigne, after wandering in difficult by-paths which too often led him round to the point from which he started.
As to his exposition of the true relations of skepticism to affirmative and negative belief, the philosophical reader must be referred to the Essay itself.
In writing of "Shakespeare; or, the Poet," Emerson naturally gives expression to his leading ideas about the office of the poet and of poetry.
"Great men are more distinguished by range and extent than by originality." A poet has "a heart in unison with his time and country."--"There is nothing whimsical and fantastic in his production, but sweet and sad earnest, freighted with the weightiest convictions, and pointed with the most determined aim which any man or class knows of in his times."
When Shakespeare was in his youth the drama was the popular means of amusement. It was "ballad, epic, newspaper, caucus, lecture, Punch, and library, at the same time. The best proof of its vitality is the crowd of writers which suddenly broke into this field." Shakespeare found a great mass of old plays existing in manuscript and reproduced from time to time on the stage. He borrowed in all directions: "A great poet who appears in illiterate times absorbs into his sphere all the light which is anywhere radiating." Homer, Chaucer, Saadi, felt that all wit was their wit. "Chaucer is a huge borrower." Emerson gives a list of authors from whom he drew. This list is in many particulars erroneous, as I have learned from a letter of Professor Lounsbury's which I have had the privilege of reading, but this is a detail which need not delay us.
The reason why Emerson has so much to say on this subject of borrowing, especially when treating of Plato and of Shakespeare, is obvious enough. He was arguing in his own cause,--not defending himself, as if there were some charge of plagiarism to be met, but making the proud claim of eminent domain in behalf of the masters who knew how to use their acquisitions.
"Shakespeare is the only biographer of Shakespeare; and even he can tell nothing except to the Shakespeare in us."--"Shakespeare is as much out of the category of eminent authors as he is out of the crowd. A good reader can in a sort nestle into Plato's brain and think from thence; but not into Shakespeare's. We are still out of doors."
After all the homage which Emerson pays to the intellect of Shakespeare, he weighs him with the rest of mankind, and finds that he shares "the halfness and imperfection of humanity."
"He converted the elements which waited on his command into entertainment. He was master of the revels to mankind."
And so, after this solemn verdict on Shakespeare, after looking at the forlorn conclusions of our old and modern oracles, priest and prophet, Israelite, German, and Swede, he says: "It must be conceded that these are half views of half men. The world still wants its poet-priest, who shall not trifle with Shakespeare the player, nor shall grope in graves with Swedenborg the mourner; but who shall see, speak, and act with equal inspiration."
It is not to be expected that Emerson should have much that is new to say about "Napoleon; or, the Man of the World."
The stepping-stones of this Essay are easy to find:--
"The instinct of brave, active, able men, throughout the middle class everywhere, has pointed out Napoleon as the incarnate democrat.--
"Napoleon is thoroughly modern, and at the highest point of his fortunes, has the very spirit of the newspapers." As Plato borrowed, as Shakespeare borrowed, as Mirabeau "plagiarized every good thought, every good word that was spoken in France," so Napoleon is not merely "representative, but a monopolizer and usurper of other minds."
He was "a man of stone and iron,"--equipped for his work by nature as Sallust describes Catiline as being. "He had a directness of action never before combined with such comprehension. Here was a man who in each moment and emergency knew what to do next. He saw only the object; the obstacle must give way."
"When a natural king becomes a titular king everybody is pleased and satisfied."--
"I call Napoleon the agent or attorney of the middle class of modern society.--He was the agitator, the destroyer of prescription, the internal improver, the liberal, the radical, the inventor of means, the opener of doors and markets, the subverter of monopoly and abuse."
But he was without generous sentiments, "a boundless liar," and finishing in high colors the outline of his moral deformities, Emerson gives us a climax in two sentences which render further condemnation superfluous:--
"In short, when you have penetrated through all the circles of power and splendor, you were not dealing with a gentleman, at last, but with an impostor and rogue; and he fully deserves the epithet of Jupiter Scapin, or a sort of Scamp Jupiter.
"So this exorbitant egotist narrowed, impoverished, and absorbed the power and existence of those who served him; and the universal cry of France and of Europe in 1814 was, Enough of him; 'Assez de Bonaparte.'"
It was to this feeling that the French poet Barbier, whose death we have but lately seen announced, gave expression in the terrible satire in which he pictured France as a fiery courser bestridden by her spurred rider, who drove her in a mad career over heaps of rocks and ruins.
But after all, Carlyle's "carrière ouverte aux talens" is the expression for Napoleon's great message to mankind.
"Goethe; or, the Writer," is the last of the Representative Men who are the subjects of this book of Essays. Emerson says he had read the fifty-five volumes of Goethe, but no other German writers, at least in the original. It must have been in fulfilment of some pious vow that he did this. After all that Carlyle had written about Goethe, he could hardly help studying him. But this Essay looks to me as if he had found the reading of Goethe hard work. It flows rather languidly, toys with side issues as a stream loiters round a nook in its margin, and finds an excuse for play in every pebble. Still, he has praise enough for his author. "He has clothed our modern existence with poetry."--"He has said the best things about nature that ever were said.--He flung into literature in his Mephistopheles the first organic figure that has been added for some ages, and which will remain as long as the Prometheus.--He is the type of culture, the amateur of all arts and sciences and events; artistic, but not artist; spiritual, but not spiritualist.--I join Napoleon with him, as being both representatives of the impatience and reaction of nature against the morgue of conventions,--two stern realists, who, with their scholars, have severally set the axe at the root of the tree of cant and seeming, for this time and for all time."
This must serve as an ex pede guide to reconstruct the Essay which finishes the volume.
In 1852 there was published a Memoir of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, in which Emerson, James Freeman Clarke, and William Henry Channing each took a part. Emerson's account of her conversation and extracts from her letters and diaries, with his running commentaries and his interpretation of her mind and character, are a most faithful and vivid portraiture of a woman who is likely to live longer by what is written of her than by anything she ever wrote herself.