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Ralph Waldo Emerson by Oliver Wendell Holmes

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Shakespeare, Swedenborg, Goethe.

Here are a few of his poetical characterizations from "The Harp:"--

"And this at least I dare affirm,
Since genius too has bound and term,
There is no bard in all the choir,
Not Homer's self, the poet-sire,
Wise Milton's odes of pensive pleasure,
Or Shakespeare whom no mind can measure,
Nor Collins' verse of tender pain,
Nor Byron's clarion of disdain,
Scott, the delight of generous boys,
Or Wordsworth, Pan's recording voice,--
Not one of all can put in verse,
Or to this presence could rehearse
The sights and voices ravishing
The boy knew on the hills in spring."--

In the notice of "Parnassus" some of his preferences have been already

Comparisons between men of genius for the sake of aggrandizing the
one at the expense of the other are the staple of the meaner kinds of
criticism. No lover of art will clash a Venetian goblet against a Roman
amphora to see which is strongest; no lover of nature undervalues a
violet because it is not a rose. But comparisons used in the way of
description are not odious.

The difference between Emerson's poetry and that of the contemporaries
with whom he would naturally be compared is that of algebra and
arithmetic. He deals largely in general symbols, abstractions, and
infinite series. He is always seeing the universal in the particular.
The great multitude of mankind care more for two and two, something
definite, a fixed quantity, than for _a_ + _b's_ and _x^{2's}_,--symbols
used for undetermined amounts and indefinite possibilities. Emerson is
a citizen of the universe who has taken up his residence for a few days
and nights in this travelling caravansary between the two inns that
hang out the signs of Venus and Mars. This little planet could not
provincialize such a man. The multiplication-table is for the every day
use of every day earth-people, but the symbols he deals with are
too vast, sometimes, we must own, too vague, for the unilluminated
terrestrial and arithmetical intelligence. One cannot help feeling that
he might have dropped in upon us from some remote centre of spiritual
life, where, instead of addition and subtraction, children were taught
quaternions, and where the fourth dimension of space was as familiarly
known to everybody as a foot-measure or a yard-stick is to us. Not that
he himself dealt in the higher or the lower mathematics, but he saw the
hidden spiritual meaning of things as Professor Cayley or Professor
Sylvester see the meaning of their mysterious formulae. Without using
the Rosetta-stone of Swedenborg, Emerson finds in every phenomenon of
nature a hieroglyphic. Others measure and describe the monuments,--he
reads the sacred inscriptions. How alive he makes Monadnoc! Dinocrates
undertook to "hew Mount Athos to the shape of man" in the likeness of
Alexander the Great. Without the help of tools or workmen, Emerson makes
"Cheshire's haughty hill" stand before us an impersonation of kingly
humanity, and talk with us as a god from Olympus might have talked.

This is the fascination of Emerson's poetry; it moves in a world of
universal symbolism. The sense of the infinite fills it with its
majestic presence. It shows, also, that he has a keen delight in the
every-day aspects of nature. But he looks always with the eye of a poet,
never with that of the man of science. The law of association of ideas
is wholly different in the two. The scientific man connects objects in
sequences and series, and in so doing is guided by their collective
resemblances. His aim is to classify and index all that he sees and
contemplates so as to show the relations which unite, and learn the laws
that govern, the subjects of his study. The poet links the most remote
objects together by the slender filament of wit, the flowery chain of
fancy, or the living, pulsating cord of imagination, always guided by
his instinct for the beautiful. The man of science clings to his object,
as the marsupial embryo to its teat, until he has filled himself as full
as he can hold; the poet takes a sip of his dew-drop, throws his head
up like a chick, rolls his eyes around in contemplation of the heavens
above him and the universe in general, and never thinks of asking a
Linnaean question as to the flower that furnished him his dew-drop. The
poetical and scientific natures rarely coexist; Haller and Goethe are
examples which show that such a union may occur, but as a rule the poet
is contented with the colors of the rainbow and leaves the study of
Fraunhofer's lines to the man of science.

Though far from being a man of science, Emerson was a realist in the
best sense of that word. But his realities reached to the highest
heavens: like Milton,--

"He passed the flaming bounds of place and time;
The living throne, the sapphire blaze
Where angels tremble while they gaze,

Everywhere his poetry abounds in celestial imagery. If Galileo had been
a poet as well as an astronomer, he would hardly have sowed his verse
thicker with stars than we find them in the poems of Emerson.

Not less did Emerson clothe the common aspects of life with the colors
of his imagination. He was ready to see beauty everywhere:--

"Thou can'st not wave thy staff in air,
Or dip thy paddle in the lake,
But it carves the bow of beauty there,
And the ripples in rhyme the oar forsake."

He called upon the poet to

"Tell men what they knew before;
Paint the prospect from their door."

And his practice was like his counsel. He saw our plain New England life
with as honest New England eyes as ever looked at a huckleberry-bush or
into a milking-pail.

This noble quality of his had its dangerous side. In one of his exalted
moods he would have us

"Give to barrows, trays and pans
Grace and glimmer of romance."

But in his Lecture on "Poetry and Imagination," he says:--

"What we once admired as poetry has long since come to be a sound
of tin pans; and many of our later books we have outgrown. Perhaps
Homer and Milton will be tin pans yet."

The "grace and glimmer of romance" which was to invest the tin pan are
forgotten, and he uses it as a belittling object for comparison. He
himself was not often betrayed into the mistake of confounding the
prosaic with the poetical, but his followers, so far as the "realists"
have taken their hint from him, have done it most thoroughly. Mr.
Whitman enumerates all the objects he happens to be looking at as if
they were equally suggestive to the poetical mind, furnishing his reader
a large assortment on which he may exercise the fullest freedom of
selection. It is only giving him the same liberty that Lord Timothy
Dexter allowed his readers in the matter of punctuation, by leaving all
stops out of his sentences, and printing at the end of his book a page
of commas, semicolons, colons, periods, notes of interrogation and
exclamation, with which the reader was expected to "pepper" the pages as
he might see fit.

French realism does not stop at the tin pan, but must deal with the
slop-pail and the wash-tub as if it were literally true that

"In the mud and scum of things
There alway, alway something sings."

Happy were it for the world if M. Zola and his tribe would stop even
there; but when they cross the borders of science into its infected
districts, leaving behind them the reserve and delicacy which the
genuine scientific observer never forgets to carry with him, they
disgust even those to whom the worst scenes they describe are too
wretchedly familiar. The true realist is such a man as Parent du
Chatelet; exploring all that most tries the senses and the sentiments,
and reporting all truthfully, but soberly, chastely, without needless
circumstance, or picturesque embellishment, for a useful end, and not
for a mere sensational effect.

What a range of subjects from "The Problem" and "Uriel" and
"Forerunners" to "The Humble-Bee" and "The Titmouse!" Nor let the reader
who thinks the poet must go far to find a fitting theme fail to read the
singularly impressive home-poem, "Hamatreya," beginning with the names
of the successive owners of a piece of land in Concord,--probably the
same he owned after the last of them:--

"Bulkeley, Hunt, Willard, Hosmer, Meriam, Flint,"

and ending with the austere and solemn "Earth-Song."

Full of poetical feeling, and with a strong desire for poetical
expression, Emerson experienced a difficulty in the mechanical part
of metrical composition. His muse picked her way as his speech did in
conversation and in lecturing. He made desperate work now and then with
rhyme and rhythm, showing that though a born poet he was not a born
singer. Think of making "feeble" rhyme with "people," "abroad" with
"Lord," and contemplate the following couplet which one cannot make
rhyme without actual verbicide:--

"Where feeds the moose, and walks the surly bear,
And up the tall mast runs the woodpeck"-are!

And how could prose go on all-fours more unmetrically than this?

"In Adirondac lakes
At morn or noon the guide rows bare-headed."

It was surely not difficult to say--

"At morn or noon bare-headed rows the guide."
And yet while we note these blemishes, many of us will confess that we
like his uncombed verse better, oftentimes, than if it were trimmed more
neatly and disposed more nicely. When he is at his best, his lines flow
with careless ease, as a mountain stream tumbles, sometimes rough and
sometimes smooth, but all the more interesting for the rocks it runs
against and the grating of the pebbles it rolls over.

There is one trick of verse which Emerson occasionally, not very often,
indulges in. This is the crowding of a redundant syllable into a line.
It is a liberty which is not to be abused by the poet. Shakespeare, the
supreme artist, and Milton, the "mighty-mouth'd inventor of harmonies,"
knew how to use it effectively. Shelley employed it freely. Bryant
indulged in it occasionally, and wrote an article in an early number of
the "North American Review" in defence of its use. Willis was fond of
it. As a relief to monotony it may be now and then allowed,--may even
have an agreeable effect in breaking the monotony of too formal verse.
But it may easily become a deformity and a cause of aversion. A humpback
may add picturesqueness to a procession, but if there are too many
humpbacks in line we turn away from the sight of them. Can any ear
reconcile itself to the last of these three lines of Emerson's?

"Oh, what is Heaven but the fellowship
Of minds that each can stand against the world
By its own meek and incorruptible will?"

These lines that lift their backs up in the middle--span-worm lines, we
may call them--are not to be commended for common use because some great
poets have now and then admitted them. They have invaded some of our
recent poetry as the canker-worms gather on our elms in June. Emerson
has one or two of them here and there, but they never swarm on his
leaves so as to frighten us away from their neighborhood.

As for the violently artificial rhythms and rhymes which have reappeared
of late in English and American literature, Emerson would as soon have
tried to ride three horses at once in a circus as to shut himself up in
triolets, or attempt any cat's-cradle tricks of rhyming sleight of hand.

If we allow that Emerson is not a born singer, that he is a careless
versifier and rhymer, we must still recognize that there is something
in his verse which belongs, indissolubly, sacredly, to his thought. Who
would decant the wine of his poetry from its quaint and antique-looking
_lagena_?--Read his poem to the Aeolian harp ("The Harp") and his model
betrays itself:--

"These syllables that Nature spoke,
And the thoughts that in him woke
Can adequately utter none
Save to his ear the wind-harp lone.
Therein I hear the Parcae reel
The threads of man at their humming wheel,
The threads of life and power and pain,
So sweet and mournful falls the strain.
And best can teach its Delphian chord
How Nature to the soul is moored,
If once again that silent string,
As erst it wont, would thrill and ring."

There is no need of quoting any of the poems which have become familiar
to most true lovers of poetry. Emerson saw fit to imitate the Egyptians
by placing "The Sphinx" at the entrance of his temple of song. This poem
was not fitted to attract worshippers. It is not easy of comprehension,
not pleasing in movement. As at first written it had one verse in it
which sounded so much like a nursery rhyme that Emerson was prevailed
upon to omit it in the later versions. There are noble passages in it,
but they are for the adept and not for the beginner. A commonplace young
person taking up the volume and puzzling his or her way along will come
by and by to the verse:--

"Have I a lover
Who is noble and free?--
I would he were nobler
Than to love me."

The commonplace young person will be apt to say or think _c'est
magnifique, mais ce n'est pas_--_l'amour_.

The third poem in the volume, "The Problem," should have stood first in
order. This ranks among the finest of Emerson's poems. All his earlier
verse has a certain freshness which belongs to the first outburst
of song in a poetic nature. "Each and All," "The Humble-Bee," "The
Snow-Storm," should be read before "Uriel," "The World-Soul," or
"Mithridates." "Monadnoc" will be a good test of the reader's taste for
Emerson's poetry, and after this "Woodnotes."

In studying his poems we must not overlook the delicacy of many of their
descriptive portions. If in the flights of his imagination he is
like the strong-winged bird of passage, in his exquisite choice of
descriptive epithets he reminds me of the _tenui-rostrals._ His subtle
selective instinct penetrates the vocabulary for the one word he wants,
as the long, slender bill of those birds dives deep into the flower for
its drop of honey. Here is a passage showing admirably the two different
conditions: wings closed and the selective instinct picking out its
descriptive expressions; then suddenly wings flashing open and the
imagination in the firmament, where it is always at home. Follow the
pitiful inventory of insignificances of the forlorn being he describes
with a pathetic humor more likely to bring a sigh than a smile, and then
mark the grand hyperbole of the last two lines. The passage is from the
poem called "Destiny":--

"Alas! that one is born in blight,
Victim of perpetual slight:
When thou lookest on his face,
Thy heart saith 'Brother, go thy ways!
None shall ask thee what thou doest,
Or care a rush for what thou knowest.
Or listen when thou repliest,
Or remember where thou liest,
Or how thy supper is sodden;'
And another is born
To make the sun forgotten."

Of all Emerson's poems the "Concord Hymn" is the most nearly complete
and faultless,--but it is not distinctively Emersonian. It is such a
poem as Collins might have written,--it has the very movement and
melody of the "Ode on the Death of Mr. Thomson," and of the "Dirge in
Cymbeline," with the same sweetness and tenderness of feeling. Its one
conspicuous line,

"And fired the shot heard round the world,"

must not take to itself all the praise deserved by this perfect little
poem, a model for all of its kind. Compact, expressive, serene, solemn,
musical, in four brief stanzas it tells the story of the past, records
the commemorative act of the passing day, and invokes the higher Power
that governs the future to protect the Memorial-stone sacred to Freedom
and her martyrs.

These poems of Emerson's find the readers that must listen to them and
delight in them, as the "Ancient Mariner" fastened upon the man who must
hear him. If any doubter wishes to test his fitness for reading them,
and if the poems already mentioned are not enough to settle the
question, let him read the paragraph of "May-Day," beginning,--

"I saw the bud-crowned Spring go forth,"

"Sea-shore," the fine fragments in the "Appendix" to his published
works, called, collectively, "The Poet," blocks bearing the mark of
poetic genius, but left lying round for want of the structural instinct,
and last of all, that which is, in many respects, first of all, the
"Threnody," a lament over the death of his first-born son. This poem has
the dignity of "Lycidas" without its refrigerating classicism, and with
all the tenderness of Cowper's lines on the receipt of his mother's
picture. It may well compare with others of the finest memorial poems in
the language,--with Shelley's "Adonais," and Matthew Arnold's "Thyrsis,"
leaving out of view Tennyson's "In Memoriam" as of wider scope and
larger pattern.

Many critics will concede that there is much truth in Mr. Arnold's
remark on the want of "evolution" in Emerson's poems. One is struck
with the fact that a great number of fragments lie about his poetical
workshop: poems begun and never finished; scraps of poems, chips of
poems, paving the floor with intentions never carried out. One cannot
help remembering Coleridge with his incomplete "Christabel," and his
"Abyssinian Maid," and her dulcimer which she never got a tune out of.
We all know there was good reason why Coleridge should have been infirm
of purpose. But when we look at that great unfinished picture over which
Allston labored with the hopeless ineffectiveness of Sisyphus; when we
go through a whole gallery of pictures by an American artist in which
the backgrounds are slighted as if our midsummer heats had taken away
half the artist's life and vigor; when we walk round whole rooms full of
sketches, impressions, effects, symphonies, invisibilities, and other
apologies for honest work, it would not be strange if it should suggest
a painful course of reflections as to the possibility that there may be
something in our climatic or other conditions which tends to scholastic
and artistic anaemia and insufficiency,--the opposite of what we find
showing itself in the full-blooded verse of poets like Browning and on
the flaming canvas of painters like Henri Regnault. Life seemed lustier
in Old England than in New England to Emerson, to Hawthorne, and to
that admirable observer, Mr. John Burroughs. Perhaps we require another
century or two of acclimation.

Emerson never grappled with any considerable metrical difficulties.
He wrote by preference in what I have ventured to call the normal
respiratory measure,--octosyllabic verse, in which one common expiration
is enough and not too much for the articulation of each line. The "fatal
facility" for which this verse is noted belongs to it as recited and
also as written, and it implies the need of only a minimum of skill and
labor. I doubt if Emerson would have written a verse of poetry if he had
been obliged to use the Spenserian stanza. In the simple measures he
habitually employed he found least hindrance to his thought.

Every true poet has an atmosphere as much as every great painter. The
golden sunshine of Claude and the pearly mist of Corot belonged to their
way of looking at nature as much as the color of their eyes and hair
belonged to their personalities. So with the poets; for Wordsworth the
air is always serene and clear, for Byron the sky is uncertain between
storm and sunshine. Emerson sees all nature in the same pearly mist
that wraps the willows and the streams of Corot. Without its own
characteristic atmosphere, illuminated by

"The light that never was on sea or land,"

we may have good verse but no true poem. In his poetry there is not
merely this atmosphere, but there is always a mirage in the horizon.

Emerson's poetry is eminently subjective,--if Mr. Ruskin, who hates the
word, will pardon me for using it in connection with a reference to two
of his own chapters in his "Modern Painters." These are the chapter
on "The Pathetic Fallacy," and the one which follows it "On Classical
Landscape." In these he treats of the transfer of a writer's mental or
emotional conditions to the external nature which he contemplates. He
asks his readers to follow him in a long examination of what he calls by
the singular name mentioned, "the pathetic fallacy," because, he says,
"he will find it eminently characteristic of the modern mind; and in the
landscape, whether of literature or art, he will also find the modern
painter endeavoring to express something which he, as a living creature,
imagines in the lifeless object, while the classical and mediaeval
painters were content with expressing the unimaginary and actual
qualities of the object itself."

Illustrations of Mr. Ruskin's "pathetic fallacy" may be found almost
anywhere in Emerson's poems. Here is one which offers itself without

"Daily the bending skies solicit man,
The seasons chariot him from this exile,
The rainbow hours bedeck his glowing wheels,
The storm-winds urge the heavy weeks along,
Suns haste to set, that so remoter lights
Beckon the wanderer to his vaster home."

The expression employed by Ruskin gives the idea that he is dealing with
a defect. If he had called the state of mind to which he refers the
_sympathetic illusion_, his readers might have looked upon it more

It would be a pleasant and not a difficult task to trace the
resemblances between Emerson's poetry and that of other poets. Two or
three such resemblances have been incidentally referred to, a few others
may be mentioned.

In his contemplative study of Nature he reminds us of Wordsworth, at
least in certain brief passages, but he has not the staying power of
that long-breathed, not to say long-winded, lover of landscapes. Both
are on the most intimate terms with Nature, but Emerson contemplates
himself as belonging to her, while Wordsworth feels as if she belonged
to him.

"Good-by, proud world,"

recalls Spenser and Raleigh. "The Humble-Bee" is strongly marked by the
manner and thought of Marvell. Marvell's

"Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade,"

may well have suggested Emerson's

"The green silence dost displace
With thy mellow, breezy bass."

"The Snow-Storm" naturally enough brings to mind the descriptions of
Thomson and of Cowper, and fragment as it is, it will not suffer by
comparison with either.

"Woodnotes," one of his best poems, has passages that might have been
found in Milton's "Comus;" this, for instance:--

"All constellations of the sky
Shed their virtue through his eye.
Him Nature giveth for defence
His formidable innocence."

Of course his Persian and Indian models betray themselves in many of
his poems, some of which, called translations, sound as if they were

So we follow him from page to page and find him passing through many
moods, but with one pervading spirit:--

"Melting matter into dreams,
Panoramas which I saw,
And whatever glows or seems
Into substance, into Law."

We think in reading his "Poems" of these words of Sainte-Beuve:--

"The greatest poet is not he who has done the best; it is he who
suggests the most; he, not all of whose meaning is at first obvious,
and who leaves you much to desire, to explain, to study; much to
complete in your turn."

Just what he shows himself in his prose, Emerson shows himself in his
verse. Only when he gets into rhythm and rhyme he lets us see more of
his personality, he ventures upon more audacious imagery, his flight is
higher and swifter, his brief crystalline sentences have dissolved and
pour in continuous streams. Where they came from, or whither they flow
to empty themselves, we cannot always say,--it is enough to enjoy them
as they flow by us.

Incompleteness--want of beginning, middle, and end,--is their too common
fault. His pages are too much like those artists' studios all hung round
with sketches and "bits" of scenery. "The Snow-Storm" and "Sea-Shore"
are "bits" out of a landscape that was never painted, admirable, so far
as they go, but forcing us to ask, "Where is the painting for which
these scraps are studies?" or "Out of what great picture have these
pieces been cut?"

We do not want his fragments to be made wholes,--if we did, what hand
could be found equal to the task? We do not want his rhythms and rhymes
smoothed and made more melodious. They are as honest as Chaucer's,
and we like them as they are, not modernized or manipulated by any
versifying drill-sergeant,--if we wanted them reshaped whom could we
trust to meddle with them?

His poetry is elemental; it has the rock beneath it in the eternal laws
on which it rests; the roll of deep waters in its grander harmonies; its
air is full of Aeolian strains that waken and die away as the breeze
wanders over them; and through it shines the white starlight, and
from time to time flashes a meteor that startles us with its sudden

After all our criticisms, our selections, our analyses, our comparisons,
we have to recognize that there is a charm in Emerson's poems
which cannot be defined any more than the fragrance of a rose or a
hyacinth,--any more than the tone of a voice which we should know from
all others if all mankind were to pass before us, and each of its
articulating representatives should call us by name.

All our crucibles and alembics leave unaccounted for the great mystery
of _style_. "The style is of [a part of] the man himself," said Buffon,
and this saying has passed into the stronger phrase, "The style is the

The "personal equation" which differentiates two observers is not
confined to the tower of the astronomer. Every human being is
individualized by a new arrangement of elements. His mind is a safe with
a lock to which only certain letters are the key. His ideas follow in
an order of their own. His words group themselves together in special
sequences, in peculiar rhythms, in unlooked-for combinations, the
total effect of which is to stamp all that he says or writes with
his individuality. We may not be able to assign the reason of the
fascination the poet we have been considering exercises over us. But
this we can say, that he lives in the highest atmosphere of thought;
that he is always in the presence of the infinite, and ennobles the
accidents of human existence so that they partake of the absolute and
eternal while he is looking at them; that he unites a royal dignity
of manner with the simplicity of primitive nature; that his words and
phrases arrange themselves, as if by an elective affinity of their own,
with a _curiosa felicitas_ which captivates and enthrals the reader who
comes fully under its influence, and that through all he sings as in all
he says for us we recognize the same serene, high, pure intelligence and
moral nature, infinitely precious to us, not only in themselves, but as
a promise of what the transplanted life, the air and soil and breeding
of this western world may yet educe from their potential virtues,
shaping themselves, at length, in a literature as much its own as the
Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

"Let us then ponder his words:--

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

* * * *

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

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

"His harp is silent: shall successors rise,
Touching with venturous hand the trembling string,
Kindle glad raptures, visions of surprise,
And wake to ecstasy each slumbering thing?
Shall life and thought flash new in wondering eyes,
As when the seer transcendent, sweet, and wise,
World-wide his native melodies did sing,
Flushed with fair hopes and ancient memories?
Ah, no! That matchless lyre shall silent lie:
None hath the vanished minstrel's wondrous skill
To touch that instrument with art and will.
With him, winged poesy doth droop and die;
While our dull age, left voiceless, must lament
The bard high heaven had for its service sent."

"Over an hour was occupied by the passing files of neighbors,
friends, and visitors looking for the last time upon the face of the
dead poet. The body was robed completely in white, and the face bore
a natural and peaceful expression. From the church the procession
took its way to the cemetery. The grave was made beneath a tall
pine-tree upon the hill-top of Sleepy Hollow, where lie the bodies
of his friends Thoreau and Hawthorne, the upturned sod being
concealed by strewings of pine boughs. A border of hemlock spray
surrounded the grave and completely lined its sides. The services
here were very brief, and the casket was soon lowered to its final

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.
Saint Paul.......24
Shattuck (Hist. of
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, _editions 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

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

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

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

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"

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