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Essays, First Series by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Part 5 out of 5

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Nature transcends all our moods of thought, and its
secret we do not yet find. But the gallery stands at
the mercy of our moods, and there is a moment when
it becomes frivolous. I do not wonder that Newton,
with an attention habitually engaged on the paths of
planets and suns, should have wondered what the Earl
of Pembroke found to admire in "stone dolls." Sculpture
may serve to teach the pupil how deep is the secret of
form, how purely the spirit can translate its meanings
into that eloquent dialect. But the statue will look
cold and false before that new activity which needs
to roll through all things, and is impatient of
counterfeits and things not alive. Picture and sculpture
are the celebrations and festivities of form. But true
art is never fixed, but always flowing. The sweetest music
is not in the oratorio, but in the human voice when it
speaks from its instant life tones of tenderness, truth,
or courage. The oratorio has already lost its relation to
the morning, to the sun, and the earth, but that persuading
voice is in tune with these. All works of art should not
be detached, but extempore performances. A great man is
a new statue in every attitude and action. A beautiful
woman is a picture which drives all beholders nobly mad.
Life may be lyric or epic, as well as a poem or a romance.

A true announcement of the law of creation, if a
man were found worthy to declare it, would carry
art up into the kingdom of nature, and destroy its
separate and contrasted existence. The fountains
of invention and beauty in modern society are all
but dried up. A popular novel, a theatre, or a
ball-room makes us feel that we are all paupers in
the alms-house of this world, without dignity,
without skill or industry. Art is as poor and low.
The old tragic Necessity, which lowers on the brows
even of the Venuses and the Cupids of the antique,
and furnishes the sole apology for the intrusion of
such anomalous figures into nature,--namely, that
they were inevitable; that the artist was drunk with
a passion for form which he could not resist, and
which vented itself in these fine extravagances,--no
longer dignifies the chisel or the pencil. But the
artist and the connoisseur now seek in art the
exhibition of their talent, or an asylum from the
evils of life. Men are not well pleased with the
figure they make in their own imaginations, and they
flee to art, and convey their better sense in an
oratorio, a statue, or a picture. Art makes the same
effort which a sensual prosperity makes; namely to
detach the beautiful from the useful, to do up the
work as unavoidable, and, hating it, pass on to
enjoyment. These solaces and compensations, this
division of beauty from use, the laws of nature do
not permit. As soon as beauty is sought, not from
religion and love but for pleasure, it degrades the
seeker. High beauty is no longer attainable by him in
canvas or in stone, in sound, or in lyrical construction;
an effeminate, prudent, sickly beauty, which is not
beauty, is all that can be formed; for the hand can
never execute any thing higher than the character can
inspire.

The art that thus separates is itself first separated.
Art must not be a superficial talent, but must begin
farther back in man. Now men do not see nature to be
beautiful, and they go to make a statue which shall
be. They abhor men as tasteless, dull, and inconvertible,
and console themselves with color-bags and blocks of
marble. They reject life as prosaic, and create a death
which they call poetic. They despatch the day's weary
chores, and fly to voluptuous reveries. They eat and
drink, that they may afterwards execute the ideal. Thus
is art vilified; the name conveys to the mind its
secondary and bad senses; it stands in the imagination
as somewhat contrary to nature, and struck with death
from the first. Would it not be better to begin higher
up,--to serve the ideal before they eat and drink; to
serve the ideal in eating and drinking, in drawing the
breath, and in the functions of life? Beauty must come
back to the useful arts, and the distinction between
the fine and the useful arts be forgotten. If history
were truly told, if life were nobly spent, it would be
no longer easy or possible to distinguish the one from
the other. In nature, all is useful, all is beautiful.
It is therefore beautiful because it is alive, moving,
reproductive; it is therefore useful because it is
symmetrical and fair. Beauty will not come at the call
of a legislature, nor will it repeat in England or
America its history in Greece. It will come, as always,
unannounced, and spring up between the feet of brave
and earnest men. It is in vain that we look for genius
to reiterate its miracles in the old arts; it is its
instinct to find beauty and holiness in new and necessary
facts, in the field and road-side, in the shop and mill.
Proceeding from a religious heart it will raise to a
divine use the railroad, the insurance office, the joint-
stock company; our law, our primary assemblies, our
commerce, the galvanic battery, the electric jar, the
prism, and the chemist's retort; in which we seek now
only an economical use. Is not the selfish and even cruel
aspect which belongs to our great mechanical works, to
mills, railways, and machinery, the effect of the mercenary
impulses which these works obey? When its errands are noble
and adequate, a steamboat bridging the Atlantic between Old
and New England and arriving at its ports with the
punctuality of a planet, is a step of man into harmony with
nature. The boat at St. Petersburg, which plies along the
Lena by magnetism, needs little to make it sublime. When
science is learned in love, and its powers are wielded by
love, they will appear the supplements and continuations
of the material creation.

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