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Title: Critical Miscellanies,  Vol. 1, Essay 5, Emerson
Author: Morley, John, 1838-1923
Language: English
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Essay 5: Emerson


Introductory                                                       293


Early days                                                         296

Takes charge of an Unitarian Church in Boston (1829)               297

Resigns the charge in 1832                                         298

Goes to Europe (1833)                                              299

Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Carlyle                                 300

Settles in Concord (1834)                                          301

Description of Concord by Clough                                   301

Death of his first wife                                            302

Income                                                             303

Hawthorne                                                          305

Thoreau                                                            305

Views on Solitude                                                  306

Effect of his address in the Divinity School of Harvard
(1838)                                                             307

Contributes to the _Dial_ (1840)                                   309

First series of his Essays published in 1841                       310

Second series three years later                                    310

Second visit to England (1847), and delivers lectures on
'Representative Men,' collected and published in 1850              310

Poems first collected in 1847; final version made in 1876          310

Essays and Lectures published in 1860, under general title
of _The Conduct of Life_                                           310

And the Civil War                                                  310

General retrospect of his life                                     312

Died April 27, 1882                                                312


Style of his writings                                              313

Manner as a lecturer                                               314

Dr. Holmes                                                         314

His use of words                                                   314

Sincerity                                                          316

And Landor                                                         316

Mr. Lowell                                                         316

Description of his library                                         317

A word or two about his verses                                     319


Hawthorne                                                          322

And Carlyle                                                        323

The friends of Universal Progress in 1840                          323

Bossuet                                                            324

Remarks on New England                                             325

One of the few moral reformers                                     327

Essays on 'Domestic Life,' on 'Behaviour,' and on
'Manners'                                                          329

Compared to Franklin and Chesterfield                              330

Is for faith before works                                          333

A systematic reasoner                                              335

The Emersonian faith abundantly justified                          337

Carlyle's letter to (June 4, 1871)                                 337

One remarkable result of his idealism                              341

On Death and Sin                                              342, 344

Conclusion                                                         346


A great interpreter of life ought not himself to need interpretation,
least of all can he need it for contemporaries. When time has wrought
changes of fashion, mental and social, the critic serves a useful turn
in giving to a poet or a teacher his true place, and in recovering ideas
and points of view that are worth preserving. Interpretation of this
kind Emerson cannot require. His books are no palimpsest, 'the prophet's
holograph, defiled, erased, and covered by a monk's.' What he has
written is fresh, legible, and in full conformity with the manners and
the diction of the day, and those who are unable to understand him
without gloss and comment are in fact not prepared to understand what it
is that the original has to say. Scarcely any literature is so entirely
unprofitable as the so-called criticism that overlays a pithy text with
a windy sermon. For our time at least Emerson may best be left to be his
own expositor.

Nor is Emerson, either, in the case of those whom the world has failed
to recognise, and whom therefore it is the business of the critic to
make known and to define. It is too soon to say in what particular
niche among the teachers of the race posterity will place him; enough
that in our own generation he has already been accepted as one of the
wise masters, who, being called to high thinking for generous ends, did
not fall below his vocation, but, steadfastly pursuing the pure search
for truth, without propounding a system or founding a school or
cumbering himself overmuch about applications, lived the life of the
spirit, and breathed into other men a strong desire after the right
governance of the soul. All this is generally realised and understood,
and men may now be left to find their way to the Emersonian doctrine
without the critic's prompting. Though it is only the other day that
Emerson walked the earth and was alive and among us, he is already one
of the privileged few whom the reader approaches in the mood of settled
respect, and whose names have surrounded themselves with an atmosphere
of religion.

It is not particularly profitable, again, to seek for Emerson one of the
labels out of the philosophic handbooks. Was he the prince of
Transcendentalists, or the prince of Idealists? Are we to look for the
sources of his thought in Kant or Jacobi, in Fichte or Schelling? How
does he stand towards Parmenides and Zeno, the Egotheism of the Sufis,
or the position of the Megareans? Shall we put him on the shelf with the
Stoics or the Mystics, with Quietist, Pantheist, Determinist? If life
were long, it might be worth while to trace Emerson's affinities with
the philosophic schools; to collect and infer his answers to the
everlasting problems of psychology and metaphysics; to extract a set of
coherent and reasoned opinions about knowledge and faculty, experience
and consciousness, truth and necessity, the absolute and the relative.
But such inquiries would only take us the further away from the essence
and vitality of Emerson's mind and teaching. In philosophy proper
Emerson made no contribution of his own, but accepted, apparently
without much examination of the other side, from Coleridge after Kant,
the intuitive, _à priori_ and realist theory respecting the sources of
human knowledge, and the objects that are within the cognisance of the
human faculties. This was his starting-point, and within its own sphere
of thought he cannot be said to have carried it any further. What he did
was to light up these doctrines with the rays of ethical and poetic
imagination. As it has been justly put, though Emersonian
transcendentalism is usually spoken of as a philosophy, it is more
justly regarded as a gospel.[1] But before dwelling more on this, let us
look into the record of his life, of which we may say in all truth that
no purer, simpler, and more harmonious story can be found in the annals
of far-shining men.

[Footnote 1: Frothingham's _Transcendentalism in New England: a
History_--a judicious, acute, and highly interesting piece of criticism.]


Ralph Waldo Emerson was born at Boston, May 25, 1803. He was of an
ancient and honourable English stock, who had transplanted themselves,
on one side from Cheshire and Bedfordshire, and on the other from Durham
and York, a hundred and seventy years before. For seven or eight
generations in a direct and unbroken line his forefathers had been
preachers and divines, not without eminence in the Puritan tradition of
New England. His second name came into the family with Rebecca Waldo,
with whom at the end of the seventeenth century one Edward Emerson had
intermarried, and whose family had fled from the Waldensian valleys and
that slaughter of the saints which Milton called on Heaven to avenge.
Every tributary, then, that made Emerson what he was, flowed not only
from Protestantism, but from 'the Protestantism of the Protestant
religion.' When we are told that Puritanism inexorably locked up the
intelligence of its votaries in a dark and straitened chamber, it is
worthy to be remembered that the genial, open, lucid, and most
comprehensive mind of Emerson was the ripened product of a genealogical
tree that at every stage of its growth had been vivified by Puritan sap.

Not many years after his birth, Emerson's mother was left a widow with
narrow means, and he underwent the wholesome training of frugality in
youth. When the time came, he was sent to Harvard. When Clough visited
America a generation later, the collegiate training does not appear to
have struck him very favourably. 'They learn French and history and
German, and a great many more things than in England, but only
imperfectly.' This was said from the standard of Rugby and Balliol, and
the method that Clough calls imperfect had merits of its own. The pupil
lost much in a curriculum that had a certain rawness about it, compared
with the traditional culture that was at that moment (1820) just
beginning to acquire a fresh hold within the old gray quadrangles of
Oxford. On the other hand, the training at Harvard struck fewer of those
superfluous roots in the mind, which are only planted that they may be
presently cast out again with infinite distraction and waste.

When his schooling was over, Emerson began to prepare himself for the
ministrations of the pulpit, and in 1826 and 1827 he preached in divers
places. Two years later he was ordained, and undertook the charge of an
important Unitarian Church in Boston. It was not very long before the
strain of forms, comparatively moderate as it was in the Unitarian body,
became too heavy to be borne. Emerson found that he could no longer
accept the usual view of the Communion Service, even in its least
sacramental interpretation. To him the rite was purely spiritual in
origin and intent, and at the best only to be retained as a
commemoration. The whole world, he said, had been full of idols and
ordinances and forms, when 'the Almighty God was pleased to qualify and
send forth a man to teach men that they must serve him with the heart;
that only that life was religious which was thoroughly good; that
sacrifice was smoke and forms were shadows. This man lived and died true
to that purpose; and now with his blessed word and life before us,
Christians must contend that it is a matter of vital importance, really
a duty, to commemorate him by a certain form, whether that form be
agreeable to their understandings or not. Is not this to make vain the
gift of God? Is not this to make men forget that not forms but
duties--not names but righteousness and love--are enjoined?'

He was willing to continue the service with that explanation, and on
condition that he should not himself partake of the bread and wine. The
congregation would fain have kept one whose transparent purity of soul
had attached more than his heresy had alienated. But the innovation was
too great, and Emerson resigned his charge (1832). For some five or six
years longer he continued occasionally to preach, and more than one
congregation would have accepted him. But doubts on the subject of
public prayer began to weigh upon his mind. He suspected the practice by
which one man offered up prayer vicariously and collectively for the
assembled congregation. Was not that too, like the Communion Service, a
form that tended to deaden the spirit? Under the influence of this and
other scruples he finally ceased to preach (1838), and told his friends
that henceforth he must find his pulpit in the platform of the
lecturer. 'I see not,' he said, 'why this is not the most flexible of
all organs of opinion, from its popularity and from its newness,
permitting you to say what you think, without any shackles of
proscription. The pulpit in our age certainly gives forth an obstructed
and uncertain sound; and the faith of those in it, if men of genius, may
differ so much from that of those under it as to embarrass the
conscience of the speaker, because so much is attributed to him from the
fact of standing there.' The lecture was an important discovery, and it
has had many consequences in American culture. Among the more
undesirable of them has been (certainly not in Emerson's own case) the
importation of the pulpit accent into subjects where one would be
happier with out it.

Earlier in the same year in which he retired from his church at Boston,
Emerson had lost his young wife. Though we may well believe that he bore
these agitations with self-control, his health suffered, and in the
spring of 1833 he started for Europe. He came to be accused of saying
captious things about travelling. There are three wants, he said, that
can never be satisfied: that of the rich who want something more; that
of the sick who want something different; and that of the traveller who
says, Anywhere but here. Their restlessness, he told his countrymen,
argued want of character. They were infatuated with 'the rococo toy of
Italy.' As if what was true anywhere were not true everywhere; and as
if a man, go where he will, can find more beauty or worth than he
carries. All this was said, as we shall see that much else was said by
Emerson, by way of reaction and protest against instability of soul in
the people around him. 'Here or nowhere,' said Goethe inversely to
unstable Europeans yearning vaguely westwards, 'here or nowhere is thine
America.' To the use of travel for its own ends, Emerson was of course
as much alive as other people. 'There is in every constitution a certain
solstice when the stars stand still in our inward firmament, and when
there is required some foreign force, some diversion or alteration, to
prevent stagnation. And as a medical remedy, travel seems one of the
best.' He found it so in 1833. But this and his two other voyages to
Europe make no Odyssey. When Voltaire was pressed to visit Rome, he
declared that he would be better pleased with some new and free English
book than with all the glories of amphitheatre and of arch. Emerson in
like manner seems to have thought more of the great writers whom he saw
in Europe than of buildings or of landscapes. 'Am I,' he said, 'who have
hung over their works in my chamber at home, not to see these men in the
flesh, and thank them, and interchange some thoughts with them?' The two
Englishmen to whom he owed most were Coleridge and Wordsworth; and the
younger writer, some eight years older than himself, in whom his
liveliest interest had been kindled, was Carlyle. He was fortunate
enough to have converse with all three, and he has told the world how
these illustrious men in their several fashions and degrees impressed
him.[2] It was Carlyle who struck him most. 'Many a time upon the sea,
in my homeward voyage, I remembered with joy the favoured condition of
my lonely philosopher,' cherishing visions more than divine 'in his
stern and blessed solitude.' So Carlyle, with no less cordiality,
declares that among the figures that he could recollect as visiting his
Nithsdale hermitage--'all like Apparitions now, bringing with them airs
from Heaven, or the blasts from the other region, there is not one of a
more undoubtedly supernal character than yourself; so pure and still,
with intents so charitable; and then vanishing too so soon into the
azure Inane, as an Apparition should.'

[Footnote 2: _English Traits_, 7-18. _Ireland_, 143-152. Froude's
_Carlyle_, ii. 355-359.]

       *       *       *       *       *

In external incident Emerson's life was uneventful. Nothing could be
simpler, of more perfect unity, or more free from disturbing episodes
that leaves scars on men. In 1834 he settled in old Concord, the home of
his ancestors, then in its third century. 'Concord is very bare,' wrote
Clough, who made some sojourn there in 1852, 'and so is the country in
general; it is a small sort of village, almost entirely of wood houses,
painted white, with Venetian blinds, green outside, with two white
wooden churches. There are some American elms of a weeping kind, and
sycamores, i.e. planes; but the wood is mostly pine--white pine and
yellow pine--somewhat scrubby, occupying the tops of the low banks, and
marshy hay-land between, very brown now. A little brook runs through to
the Concord River.'[3] The brook flowed across the few acres that were
Emerson's first modest homestead. 'The whole external appearance of the
place,' says one who visited him, 'suggests old-fashioned comfort and
hospitality. Within the house the flavour of antiquity is still more
noticeable. Old pictures look down from the walls; quaint blue-and-white
china holds the simple dinner; old furniture brings to mind the
generations of the past. At the right as you enter is Mr. Emerson's
library, a large square room, plainly furnished, but made pleasant by
pictures and sunshine. The homely shelves that line the walls are well
filled with books. There is a lack of showy covers or rich bindings, and
each volume seems to have soberly grown old in constant service. Mr.
Emerson's study is a quiet room upstairs.'

[Footnote 3: Clough's _Life and Letters_, i. 185.]

Fate did not spare him the strokes of the common lot. His first wife
died after three short years of wedded happiness. He lost a little son,
who was the light of his eyes. But others were born to him, and in all
the relations and circumstances of domestic life he was one of the best
and most beloved of men. He long carried in his mind the picture of
Carlyle's life at Craigenputtock as the ideal for the sage, but his own
choice was far wiser and happier, 'not wholly in the busy world, nor
quite beyond it.'

'Besides my house,' he told Carlyle in 1838, 'I have, I believe, 22,000
dollars, whose income in ordinary years is six per cent. I have no other
tithe or glebe except the income of my winter lectures, which was last
winter 800 dollars. Well, with this income, here at home, I am a rich
man. I stay at home and go abroad at my own instance, I have food,
warmth, leisure, books, friends. Go away from home, I am rich no longer.
I never have a dollar to spend on a fancy. As no wise man, I suppose,
ever was rich in the sense of _freedom to spend_, because of the
inundation of claims, so neither am I, who am not wise. But at home I am
rich--rich enough for ten brothers. My wife Lidian is an incarnation of
Christianity,--I call her Asia,--and keeps my philosophy from
Antinomianism; my mother, whitest, mildest, most conservative of ladies,
whose only exception to her universal preference for old things is her
son; my boy, a piece of love and sunshine, well worth my watching from
morning to night;--these, and three domestic women, who cook and sew and
run for us, make all my household. 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.

'In summer, with the aid of a neighbour, I manage my garden; and a week
ago I set out on the west side of my house forty young pine trees to
protect me or my son from the wind of January. The ornament of the place
is the occasional presence of some ten or twelve persons, good and wise,
who visit us in the course of the year.'

As time went on he was able to buy himself 'a new plaything'--a piece of
woodland, of more than forty acres, on the border of a little lake half
a mile wide or more, called Walden Pond. 'In these May days,' he told
Carlyle, then passionately struggling with his _Cromwell_, with the
slums of Chelsea at his back, 'when maples, poplars, oaks, birches,
walnut, and pine, are in their spring glory, I go thither every
afternoon, and cut with my hatchet an Indian path through the thicket,
all along the bold shore, and open the finest pictures' (1845).

He loved to write at 'large leisure in noble mornings, opened by prayer
or by readings of Plato, or whatsoever else is dearest to the Morning
Muse.' Yet he could not wholly escape the recluse's malady. He confesses
that he sometimes craves 'that stimulation which every capricious,
languid, and languescent study needs.' Carlyle's potent concentration
stirs his envy. The work of the garden and the orchard he found very
fascinating, eating up days and weeks; 'nay, a brave scholar should shun
it like gambling, and take refuge in cities and hotels from these
pernicious enchantments.'

In the doings of his neighbourhood he bore his part; he took a manly
interest in civil affairs, and was sensible, shrewd, and helpful in
matters of practical judgment. Pilgrims, sane and insane, the beardless
and the gray-headed, flocked to his door, far beyond the dozen persons
good and wise whom he had mentioned to Carlyle. 'Uncertain, troubled,
earnest wanderers through the midnight of the moral world beheld his
intellectual fire as a beacon burning on a hill-top, and climbing the
difficult ascent, looked forth into the surrounding obscurity more
hopefully than hitherto' (_Hawthorne_). To the most intractable of
Transcendental bores, worst species of the genus, he was never
impatient, nor denied himself; nor did he ever refuse counsel where the
case was not yet beyond hope. Hawthorne was for a time his neighbour
(1842-45). 'It was good,' says Hawthorne, 'to meet him in the
wood-paths, or sometimes in our avenue, with that pure intellectual
gleam diffused about his presence like the garment of a shining one; and
he so quiet, so simple, so without pretension, encountering each man
alive as if expecting to receive more than he could impart.'

The most remarkable of all his neighbours was Thoreau, who for a couple
of years lived in a hut which he had built for himself on the shore of
Walden Pond. If he had not written some things with a considerable charm
of style, Thoreau might have been wisely neglected as one of the crazy.
But Emerson was struck by the originality of his life, and thought it
well in time to edit the writings of one 'who was bred to no profession;
never married; lived alone; never went to Church; never voted; refused
to pay a tax to the State; ate no flesh, drank no wine, never knew the
use of tobacco; had no temptations to fight against, no appetites, no
passions, refused all invitations, preferred a good Indian to highly
cultivated people, and said he would rather go to Oregon than to
London.' The world has room for every type, so that it be not actively
noxious, and this whimsical egotist may well have his place in the
catalogue. He was, after all, in his life only a compendium, on a scale
large enough to show their absurdity, of all those unsocial notions
which Emerson in other manifestations found it needful to rebuke. Yet we
may agree that many of his paradoxes strike home with Socratic force to
the heart of a civilisation that wise men know to be too purely
material, too artificial, and too capriciously diffused.

Emerson himself was too sane ever to fall into the hermit's trap of
banishment to the rocks and echoes. 'Solitude,' he said, 'is
impracticable, and society fatal.' He steered his way as best he could
between these two irreconcilable necessities. He had, as we have seen,
the good sense to make for himself a calling which brought him into
healthy contact with bodies of men, and made it essential that he should
have his listeners in some degree in his mind, even when they were not
actually present to the eye. As a preacher Emerson has been described as
making a deep impression on susceptible hearers of a quiet mind, by 'the
calm dignity of his bearing, the absence of all oratorical effort, and
the singular simplicity and directness of a manner free from the least
trace of dogmatic assumption.' 'Not long before,' says this witness, 'I
had listened to a wonderful sermon by Chalmers, whose force and energy,
and vehement but rather turgid eloquence, carried for the moment all
before him--his audience becoming like clay in the hands of the potter.
But I must confess that the pregnant thoughts and serene self-possession
of the young Boston minister had a greater charm for me than all the
rhetorical splendours of Chalmers' (_Ireland_, 141).

At the lecturer's desk the same attraction made itself still more
effectually felt. 'I have heard some great speakers and some
accomplished orators,' Mr. Lowell says, 'but never any that so moved and
persuaded men as he. There is a kind of undertone in that rich barytone
of his that sweeps our minds from their foothold into deep waters with a
drift that we cannot and would not resist. Search for his eloquence in
his books and you will perchance miss it, but meanwhile you will find
that it has kindled all your thoughts.' The same effect was felt in its
degree wherever he went, and he took pains not to miss it. He had made a
study of his art, and was so skilful in his mastery of it that it seemed
as if anybody might do all that he did and do it as well--if only a
hundred failures had not proved the mistake.

In 1838 Emerson delivered an address in the Divinity School of Harvard,
which produced a gusty shower of articles, sermons, and pamphlets, and
raised him without will or further act of his to the high place of the
heresiarch. With admirable singleness of mind, he held modestly aloof.
'There is no scholar,' he wrote to a friend, 'less willing or less able
to be a polemic. I could not give account of myself if challenged. I
delight in telling what I think, but if you ask me how I dare say so, or
why it is so, I am the most helpless of men,' The year before, his
oration on the American Scholar had filled Carlyle with delight. It was
the first clear utterance, after long decades of years, in which he had
'heard nothing but infinite jangling and jabbering, and inarticulate
twittering and screeching.' Then Carlyle enjoined on his American friend
for rule of life, 'Give no ear to any man's praise or censure; know that
that is _not_ it; on the one side is as Heaven, if you have strength to
keep silent and climb unseen; yet on the other side, yawning always at
one's right hand and one's left, is the frightfullest Abyss and
Pandemonium' (Dec. 8, 1837). Emerson's temperament and his whole method
made the warning needless, and, as before, while 'vociferous platitude
was dinning his ears on all sides,' a whole world of thought was
'silently building itself in these calm depths.' But what would those
two divinities of his, Plato and Socrates, have said of a man who 'could
not give an account of himself if challenged'? Assuredly not every one
who saith Plato, Plato, is admitted to that ideal kingdom.

It was soon after this that the _Dial_ was projected. It had its origin
in the Transcendental Club, a little knot of speculative students at
Boston, who met four or five times a year at one another's houses to
discuss questions mainly theological, from more liberal points of view
than was at that time common, 'the air then in America getting a little
too close and stagnant.' The Club was first formed in 1836. The _Dial_
appeared in 1840, and went on for four years at quarterly intervals.
Emerson was a constant contributor, and for the last half of its
existence he acted as editor. 'I submitted,' he told Carlyle, 'to what
seemed a necessity of petty literary patriotism--I know not what else to
call it--and took charge of our thankless little _Dial_ here, without
subscribers enough to pay even a publisher, much less any labourer; it
has no penny for editor or contributor, nothing but abuse in the
newspapers, or, at best, silence; but it serves as a sort of portfolio,
to carry about a few poems or sentences which would otherwise be
transcribed or circulated, and we always are waiting until somebody
shall come and make it good. But I took it, and it took me and a great
deal of good time to a small purpose' (July 1, 1842). On the whole one
must agree that it was to small purpose. Emerson's name has reflected
lustre on the _Dial_, but when his contributions are taken out, and,
say, half a dozen besides, the residuum is in the main very poor stuff,
and some of it has a droll resemblance to the talk between Mrs. Hominy
and the Literary Ladies and the Honourable Elijah Pogram. Margaret
Fuller--the Miranda, Zenobia, Hypatia, Minerva of her time, and a truly
remarkable figure in the gallery of wonderful women--edited it for two
years, and contributed many a vivid, dashing, exuberant, ebullient page.
Her criticism of Goethe, for example, contains no final or valid word,
but it is fresh, cordial, and frank, and no other prose contributor,
again saving the one great name, has anything to say that is so
readable. Nearly all the rest is extinct, and the _Dial_ now finds
itself far away from the sunshine of human interest.

In 1841 the first series of Emerson's Essays was published, and three
years later the second. The Poems were first collected in 1847, but the
final version was not made until 1876. In 1847 Emerson paid his second
visit to England, and delivered his lectures on Representative Men,
collected and published in 1850. The books are said to have had a very
slow sale, but the essays and lectures published in 1860, with the
general title of _The Conduct of Life_, started with a sale of 2,500
copies, though that volume has never been considered by the Emersonian
adept to contain most of the pure milk of the Word.

Then came that great event in the history of men and institutions, the
Civil War. We look with anxiety for the part played by the serene
thinker when the hour had struck for violent and heroic action. Emerson
had hitherto been a Free Soiler; he had opposed the extension of
slavery; and he favoured its compulsory extinction, with compensation on
the plan of our own policy in the West Indies. He had never joined the
active Abolitionists, nor did he see 'that there was any particular
thing for him to do in it then.' 'Though I sometimes accept a popular
call, and preach on Temperance or the Abolition of Slavery, I am sure to
feel, before I have done with it, what an intrusion it is into another
sphere, and so much loss of virtue in my own' (_To Carlyle_, 1844). But
he missed no occasion of showing that in conviction and aim he was with
good men. The infirmities of fanatics never hid from him either the
transcendent purity of their motives or the grandeur of their cause.
This is ever the test of the scholar: whether he allows intellectual
fastidiousness to stand between him and the great issues of his time.
'Cannot the English,' he cried out to Carlyle, 'leave cavilling at petty
failures and bad manners and at the dunce part, and leap to the
suggestions and finger-pointings of the gods, which, above the
understanding, feed the hopes and guide the wills of men?' These
finger-pointings Emerson did not mistake. He spoke up for Garrison. John
Brown was several times in Concord, and found a hearty welcome in
Emerson's house. When Brown made his raid at Harper's Ferry, and the
crisis became gradually sharper, Emerson felt that the time had come,
and his voice was raised in clear tones. After the sword is drawn, it is
deeds not words that interest and decide; but whenever the word of the
student was needed Emerson was ready to give the highest expression to
all that was best in his countrymen's mood during that greatest ordeal
of our time. The inward regeneration of the individual had ever been the
key to his teaching, and this teaching had been one of the forces that,
like central fire in men's minds, nourished the heroism of the North in
its immortal battle.

The exaltation of national character produced by the Civil War opened
new and wider acceptance for a great moral and spiritual teacher, and
from the close of the war until his death in 1882, Emerson's ascendency
within his own sphere of action was complete, and the public recognition
of him universal. Of story, there is no more to tell. He pursued his old
way of reading, meditating, conversing, and public lecturing, almost to
the end. The afternoon of his life was cloudless as the earlier day, and
the shades of twilight fell in unbroken serenity. In his last years
there was a partial failure of his memory, and more than one pathetic
story is told of this tranquil and gradual eclipse. But 'to the last,
even when the events of yesterday were occasionally obscured, his memory
of the remote past was unclouded; he would tell about the friends of his
early and middle life with unbroken vigour.' So, tended in his home by
warm filial devotion, and surrounded by the reverent kindness of his
village neighbours, this wise and benign man slowly passed away (April
27, 1882).[4]

[Footnote 4: The reader who seeks full information about Emerson's life
will find it scattered in various volumes: among them are--

_Ralph Waldo Emerson_; by George Willis Cooke (Sampson Low & Co.,
1882)--a very diligent and instructive work.

_R.W.E._; by Alexander Ireland (Simpkin, Marshall, & Co. 1882),
described by Carlyle, and known by others, as 'full of energy and broad
sagacity and practicality; infinitely well affected to the man Emerson
too,'--and full moreover of that intellectual enthusiasm which in his
Scotch countrymen goes so often with their practicalities.

_Emerson, at Home and Abroad_; by Moncure D. Conway (Trübner & Co.,
1883): the work of a faithful disciple, who knew Emerson well, and has
here recorded many interesting anecdotes and traits.]


It cannot be truly said that Emerson is one of the writers who make
their way more easily into our minds by virtue of style. That his
writing has quality and flavour none but a pure pedant would deny. His
more fervent votaries, however, provoke us with a challenge that goes
far beyond this. They declare that the finish, charm, and beauty of the
writing are as worthy of remark as the truth and depth of the thought.
It is even 'unmatchable and radiant,' says one. Such exaggerations can
have no reference to any accepted standard. It would in truth, have been
a marvel if Emerson had excelled in the virtues of the written page, for
most of his published work was originally composed and used for the
platform. Everybody knows how different are the speaker's devices for
gaining possession of his audience, from the writer's means of winning,
persuading, and impressing the attention of his reader. The key to the
difference may be that in the speech the personality of the orator
before our eyes gives of itself that oneness and continuity of
communication, which the writer has to seek in the orderly sequence and
array of marshalled sentence and well-sustained period. One of the
traits that every critic notes in Emerson's writing, is that it is so
abrupt, so sudden in its transitions, so discontinuous, so
inconsecutive. Dislike of a sentence that drags made him unconscious of
the quality, that French critics name _coulant_. Everything is thrown in
just as it comes, and sometimes the pell-mell is enough to persuade us
that Pope did not exaggerate when he said that no one qualification is
so likely to make a good writer, as the power of rejecting his own

His manner as a lecturer, says Dr. Holmes, was an illustration of his
way of thinking. 'He would lose his place just as his mind would drop
its thought and pick up another, twentieth cousin or no relation at all
to it.' The same manner, whether we liken it to mosaic or to
kaleidoscope, marks his writing. It makes him hard to follow, oracular,
and enigmatical. 'Can you tell me,' asked one of his neighbour, while
Emerson was lecturing, 'what connection there is between that last
sentence and the one that went before, and what connection it all has
with Plato?' 'None, my friend, save in God!' This is excellent in a
seer, but less so in the writer.

Apart from his difficult staccato, Emerson is not free from secondary
faults. He uses words that are not only odd, but vicious in
construction; he is not always grammatically correct; he is sometimes
oblique, and he is often clumsy; and there is a visible feeling after
epigrams that do not always come. When people say that Emerson's style
must be good and admirable because it fits his thought, they forget that
though it is well that a robe should fit, there is still something to be
said about its cut and fashion.

No doubt, to borrow Carlyle's expression, 'the talent is not the chief
question here: the idea--that is the chief question.' We do not profess
to be of those to whom mere style is as dear as it was to Plutarch; of
him it was said that he would have made Pompey win the battle of
Pharsalia, if it could have given a better turn to a phrase. It would
not be worth while to speak of form in a thinker to whom our debt is so
large for his matter, if there were not so much bad literary imitation
of Emerson. Dr. Holmes mournfully admits that 'one who talks like
Emerson or like Carlyle soon finds himself surrounded by a crowd of
walking phonographs, who mechanically reproduce his mental and oral
accents. Emerson was before long talking in the midst of a babbling
Simonetta of echoes.' Inferior writers have copied the tones of the
oracle without first making sure of the inspiration. They forget that a
platitude is not turned into a profundity by being dressed up as a
conundrum. Pithiness in him dwindles into tenuity in them; honest
discontinuity in the master is made an excuse for finical incoherencies
in the disciples; the quaint, ingenious, and unexpected collocations of
the original degenerate in the imitators into a trick of unmeaning
surprise and vapid antithesis; and his pregnant sententiousness set the
fashion of a sententiousness that is not fertility but only hydropsy.
This curious infection, which has spread into divers forms of American
literature that are far removed from philosophy, would have been
impossible if the teacher had been as perfect in expression as he was
pure, diligent, and harmonious in his thinking.

Yet, as happens to all fine minds, there came to Emerson ways of
expression deeply marked with character. On every page there is set the
strong stamp of sincerity, and the attraction of a certain artlessness;
the most awkward sentence rings true; and there is often a pure and
simple note that touches us more than if it were the perfection of
elaborated melody. The uncouth procession of the periods discloses the
travail of the thought, and that too is a kind of eloquence. An honest
reader easily forgives the rude jolt or unexpected start, when it shows
a thinker faithfully working his way along arduous and unworn tracks.
Even at the roughest, Emerson often interjects a delightful cadence. As
he says of Landor, his sentences are cubes which will stand firm, place
them how or where you will. He criticised Swedenborg for being
superfluously explanatory, and having an exaggerated feeling of the
ignorance of men. 'Men take truths of this nature,' said Emerson, 'very
fast;' and his own style does no doubt very boldly take this capacity
for granted in us. In 'choice and pith of diction,' again, of which Mr.
Lowell speaks, he hits the mark with a felicity that is almost his own
in this generation. He is terse, concentrated, and free from the
important blunder of mistaking intellectual dawdling for meditation. Nor
in fine does his abruptness ever impede a true urbanity. The accent is
homely and the apparel plain, but his bearing has a friendliness, a
courtesy, a hospitable humanity, which goes nearer to our hearts than
either literary decoration or rhetorical unction. That modest and
lenient fellow-feeling which gave such charm to his companionship
breathes in his gravest writing, and prevents us from finding any page
of it cold or hard or dry.

Though Emerson was always urgent for 'the soul of the world, clean from
all vestige of tradition,' yet his work is full of literature. He at
least lends no support to the comforting fallacy of the indolent, that
originating power does not go with assimilating power. Few thinkers on
his level display such breadth of literary reference. Unlike Wordsworth,
who was content with a few tattered volumes on a kitchen shelf, Emerson
worked among books. When he was a boy he found a volume of Montaigne,
and he never forgot the delight and wonder in which he lived with it.
His library is described as filled with well-selected authors, with
curious works from the eastern world, with many editions in both Greek
and English of his favourite Plato; while portraits of Shakespeare,
Montaigne, Goethe, Dante, looked down upon him from the walls. Produce a
volume of Plato or of Shakespeare, he says somewhere, or '_only remind
us of their names_,' and instantly we come into a feeling of longevity.
That is the scholar's speech. Opening a single essay at random, we find
in it citations from Montesquieu, Schiller, Milton, Herodotus, Shelley,
Plutarch, Franklin, Bacon, Van Helmont, Goethe. So little does Emerson
lend himself to the idle vanity of seeking all the treasures of wisdom
in his own head, or neglecting the hoarded authority of the ages. It is
true that he held the unholy opinion that a translation is as good as
the original, or better. Nor need we suppose that he knew that pious
sensation of the book-lover, the feel of a library; that he had any of
the collector's amiable foolishness about rare editions; or that he
nourished festive thoughts of 'that company of honest old fellows in
their leathern jackets in his study,' as comrades in a sober old-world
conviviality. His books were for spiritual use, like maps and charts of
the mind of man, and not much for 'excellence of divertisement.' He had
the gift of bringing his reading to bear easily upon the tenor of his
musings, and knew how to use books as an aid to thinking, instead of
letting them take the edge off thought. There was assuredly nothing of
the compiler or the erudite collegian in him. It is a graver defect that
he introduces the great names of literature without regard for true
historical perspective in their place, either in relation to one
another, or to the special phases of social change and shifting time.
Still let his admirers not forget that Emerson was in his own way
Scholar no less than Sage.

A word or two must be said of Emerson's verses. He disclaimed, for his
own part, any belief that they were poems. Enthusiasts, however, have
been found to declare that Emerson 'moves more constantly than any
recent poet in the atmosphere of poesy. Since Milton and Spenser no
man--not even Goethe--has equalled Emerson in this trait.' _The
Problem_, according to another, 'is wholly unique, and transcends all
contemporary verse in grandeur of style.' Such poetry, they say, is like
Westminster Abbey, 'though the Abbey is inferior in boldness.' Yet,
strangely enough, while Emerson's poetic form is symbolised by the
flowing lines of Gothic architecture, it is also 'akin to Doric
severity.' With all the good will in the world, I do not find myself
able to rise to these heights; in fact, they rather seem to deserve
Wordsworth's description, as mere obliquities of admiration.

Taken as a whole, Emerson's poetry is of that kind which springs, not
from excitement of passion or feeling, but from an intellectual demand
for intense and sublimated expression. We see the step that lifts him
straight from prose to verse, and that step is the shortest possible.
The flight is awkward and even uncouth, as if nature had intended feet
rather than wings. It is hard to feel of Emerson, any more than
Wordsworth could feel of Goethe, that his poetry is inevitable. The
measure, the colour, the imaginative figures, are the product of search,
not of spontaneous movements of sensation and reflection combining in a
harmony that is delightful to the ear. They are the outcome of a
discontent with prose, not of that high-strung sensibility which compels
the true poet into verse. This must not be said without exception. _The
Threnody_, written after the death of a deeply loved child, is a
beautiful and impressive lament. Pieces like _Musquetaquid_, the
_Adirondacs_, the _Snowstorm_, _The Humble-Bee_, are pretty and pleasant
bits of pastoral. In all we feel the pure breath of nature, and

                     The primal mind,
   That flows in streams, that breathes in wind.

There is a certain charm of _naiveté_, that recalls the unvarnished
simplicity of the Italian painters before Raphael. But who shall say
that he discovers that 'spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling,' which
a great poet has made the fundamental element of poetry? There are too
few melodious progressions; the melting of the thought with natural
images and with human feeling is incomplete; we miss the charm of
perfect assimilation, fusion, and incorporation; and in the midst of all
the vigour and courage of his work, Emerson has almost forgotten that it
is part of the poet's business to give pleasure. It is true that
pleasure is sometimes undoubtedly to be had from verse that is not above
mediocrity, and Wordsworth once designed to write an essay examining why
bad poetry pleases. Poetry that pleases may be bad, but it is equally
true that no poetry which fails to please can be really good. Some one
says that gems of expression make Emerson's essays oracular and his
verse prophetic. But, to borrow Horace's well-known phrase, 'tis not
enough that poems should be sublime; _dulcia sunto_,--they must be
touching and sympathetic. Only a bold critic will say that this is a
mark of Emerson's poems. They are too naked, unrelated, and cosmic; too
little clad with the vesture of human associations. Light and shade do
not alternate in winning and rich relief, and as Carlyle found it, the
radiance is 'thin piercing,' leaving none of the sweet and dim recesses
so dear to the lover of nature. We may, however, well be content to
leave a man of Emerson's calibre to choose his own exercises. It is best
to suppose that he knew what he was about when he wandered into the
fairyland of verse, and that in such moments he found nothing better to
his hand. Yet if we are bidden to place him among the poets, it is
enough to open Keats at the _Ode to a Nightingale_, or Shelley at _The
Cloud_, the _Skylark_, or the _Sensitive Plant_, or Wordsworth at
_Tintern Abbey_, or Goethe at _Das Göttliche_, or Victor Hugo in the
_Contemplations_. Then in spite of occasional formality of rhythm and
artifice in ornament, we cannot choose but perceive how tuneful is their
music, how opulent the resources of their imagination, how various,
subtle, and penetrating their affinity for the fortunes and sympathies
of men, and next how modest a portion of all these rare and exquisite
qualifications reveals itself in the verse of Emerson.


Few minds of the first order that have busied themselves in
contemplating the march of human fortunes, have marched forward in a
straight line of philosophic speculation unbroken to the end. Like
Burke, like Coleridge, like Wordsworth, at a given point they have a
return upon themselves. Having mastered the truths of one side, their
eyes open to what is true on the other; the work of revolution finished
or begun, they experience fatigue and reaction. In Hawthorne's romance,
after Miles Coverdale had passed his spring and summer among the
Utopians of Blithedale, he felt that the time had come when he must for
sheer sanity's sake go and hold a little talk with the Conservatives,
the merchants, the politicians, 'and all those respectable old
blockheads, who still in this intangibility and mistiness of affairs
kept a death-grip on one or two ideas which had not come into vogue
since yesterday morning.' 'No sagacious man,' says Hawthorne, 'will long
retain his sagacity if he lives exclusively among reformers and
progressive people, without periodically returning into the settled
system of things, to correct himself by a new observation from that old
stand-point.' Yet good men rightly hoped that 'out of the very thoughts
that were wildest and most destructive might grow a wisdom, holy, calm,
and pure, and that should incarnate itself with the substance of a noble
and happy life.' Now that we are able to look back on the crisis of the
times that Hawthorne describes, we perceive that it was as he expected,
and that in the person of Emerson the ferment and dissolvency of thought
worked itself out in a strain of wisdom of the highest and purest.

In 1842 Emerson told Carlyle, in vindication of the _Dial_ and its
transcendentalisms, that if the direction of their speculations was as
deplorable as Carlyle declared, it was yet a remarkable fact for history
that all the bright young men and young women in New England, 'quite
ignorant of each other, take the world so, and come and make confession
to fathers and mothers--the boys, that they do not wish to go into
trade; the girls, that they do not like morning calls and evening
parties. They are all religious, but hate the churches; they reject all
the ways of living of other men, but have none to offer in their stead.'

It is worth while to transcribe from the _Dial_ itself the scene at one
of the many Bostonian Conventions of that date--the Friends of Universal
Progress, in 1840:--'The composition of the Assembly was rich and
various. The singularity and latitude of the summons drew together, from
all parts of New England, and also from the Middle States, men of every
shade of opinion, from the straightest orthodoxy to the wildest heresy,
and many persons whose church was a church of one member only. A great
variety of dialect and of costume was noticed; a great deal of
confusion, eccentricity, and freak appeared, as well as of zeal and
enthusiasm. If the Assembly was disorderly, it was picturesque. Madmen,
madwomen, men with beards, Dunkers, Muggletonians, Come-outers,
Groaners, Agrarians, Seventh-day Baptists, Quakers, Abolitionists,
Calvinists, Unitarians, and philosophers, all came successively to the
top, and seized their moment, if not their _hour_, wherein to chide or
pray or preach or protest. The faces were a study. The most daring
innovators, and the champions-until-death of the old cause, sat side by
side. The still living merit of the oldest New England families, glowing
yet after several generations, encountered the founders of families,
fresh merit emerging and expanding the brows to a new breadth, and
lighting a clownish face with sacred fire. The Assembly was
characterised by the predominance of a certain plain sylvan strength and
earnestness' (_Dial_, iii. 101).

If the shade of Bossuet could have looked down upon the scene, he would
have found fresh material for the sarcasms which a hundred and fifty
years before he had lavished on the Variations of the Protestant
Churches. Yet this curious movement, bleak and squalid as it may seem to
men nurtured in the venerable decorum of ecclesiastical tradition, was
at bottom identical with the yearning for stronger spiritual emotions,
and the cravings of religious zeal, that had in older times filled
monasteries, manned the great orders, and sent wave upon wave of
pilgrims and crusaders to holy places. 'It is really amazing,' as was
said by Franklin or somebody else of his fashion of utilitarianism,
'that one of the passions which it is hardest to develop in man is the
passion for his own material comfort and temporal well-being.'

Emerson has put on record this mental intoxication of the progressive
people around him, with a pungency that might satisfy the Philistines
themselves.[5] From 1820 to 1844, he said, New England witnessed a
general criticism and attack on institutions, and in all practical
activities a gradual withdrawal of tender consciences from the social
organisations. Calvinists and Quakers began to split into old school and
new school. Goethe and the Germans became known. Swedenborg, in spite of
his taint of craziness, by the mere prodigy of his speculations, began
'to spread himself into the minds of thousands'--including in no
unimportant degree the mind of Emerson himself.[6] Literary criticism
counted for something in the universal thaw, and even the genial
humanity of Dickens helped to break up the indurations of old theology.
Most powerful of all was the indirect influence of science. Geology
disclosed law in an unsuspected region, and astronomy caused men to
apprehend that 'as the earth is not the centre of the Universe, so it is
not the special scene or stage on which the drama of divine justice is
played before the assembled angels of heaven.'

[Footnote 5: _New England Reformers: Essays_, ii. 511-519.]

[Footnote 6: The Swedenborgians--'a sect which, I think, must contribute
more than all other sects to the new faith, which must come out of
all.'--_To Carlyle_, 1834.]

A temper of scrutiny and dissent broke out in every direction. In
almost every relation men and women asked themselves by what right
Conformity levied its tax, and whether they were not false to their own
consciences in paying it. 'What a fertility of projects for the
salvation of the world! One apostle thought that all men should go to
farming; and another thought that no man should buy or sell--that use of
money was the cardinal evil; another thought the mischief was in our
diet--that we eat and drink damnation. These made unleavened bread, and
were foes to the death to fermentation. Others attacked the system of
agriculture, the use of animal manures in farming, and the tyranny of
man over brute instinct. These abuses polluted his food. The ox must be
taken from the plough, and the horse from the cart; the hundred acres of
the farm must be spaded, and the man must walk wherever boats and
locomotives will not carry him.... Others assailed particular
vocations.... Others attacked the institution of marriage as the
fountain of social evils.... Who gave me the money with which I bought
my coat? Why should professional labour and that of the counting-house
be paid so disproportionately to the labour of the porter and the
woodsawer? Am I not too protected a person? Is there not a wide
disparity between the lot of me and the lot of thee, my poor brother, my
poor sister?'

One of Emerson's glories is, that while wise enough to discern the peril
and folly of these excesses, he was under no temptation to fall back. It
was giddy work, but he kept his eye on the fixed stars. Certainly
Emerson was not assailed by the stress of mighty and violent events, as
Burke and Wordsworth were in some sense turned into reactionaries by the
calamities of revolution in France. The 'distemper of enthusiasm,' as
Shaftesbury would have called it, took a mild and harmless form in New
England: there the work in hand was not the break-up of a social system,
but only the mental evolution of new ideals, the struggle of an ethical
revival, and the satisfaction of a livelier spirit of scruple. In face
of all delirations, Emerson kept on his way of radiant sanity and
perfect poise. Do not, he warned his enthusiasts, expend all energy on
some accidental evil, and so lose sanity and power of benefit. '_It is
of little moment that one or two or twenty errors of our social system
be corrected, but of much that the man be in his senses._ Society gains
nothing whilst a man, not himself renovated, attempts to renovate things
around him; he has become tediously good in some particular, but
negligent or narrow in the rest, and hypocrisy and vanity are often the
disgusting result. It is handsomer to remain in the establishment,
better than the establishment, and conduct that in the best manner, than
to make a sally against evil by some single improvement, without
supporting it by a total regeneration.'

Emerson, then, is one of the few moral reformers whose mission lay in
calming men rather than in rousing them, and in the inculcation of
serenity rather than in the spread of excitement. Though he had been
ardent in protest against the life conventional, as soon as the protest
ran off into extravagance, instead of either following or withstanding
it with rueful petulancies, he delicately and successfully turned a
passing agitation into an enduring revival. The last password given by
the dying Antonine to the officer of the watch was _Æquanimitas_. In a
brighter, wider, and more living sense than was possible even to the
noblest in the middle of the second century, this, too, was the
watchword of the Emersonian teaching. Instead of cultivating the
tormenting and enfeebling spirit of scruple, instead of multiplying
precepts, he bade men not to crush their souls out under the burden of
Duty; they are to remember that a wise life is not wholly filled up by
commandments to do and to abstain from doing. Hence, we have in Emerson
the teaching of a vigorous morality without the formality of dogma and
the deadly tedium of didactics. If not laughter, of which only
Shakespeare among the immortals has a copious and unfailing spring,
there is at least gaiety in every piece, and a cordial injunction to men
to find joy in their existence to the full. Happiness is with him an aim
that we are at liberty to seek directly and without periphrasis.
Provided men do not lose their balance by immersing themselves in their
pleasures, they are right, according to Emerson, in pursuing them. But
joy is no neighbour to artificial ecstasy. What Emerson counsels the
poet, he intended in its own way and degree for all men. The poet's
habit of living, he says beautifully, should be set on a key so low
that the commonest influences should delight him. 'That spirit which
suffices quiet hearts, which seems to come forth to such from every dry
knoll of sere grass, from every pine-stump and half-embedded stone on
which the dull March sun shines, comes forth to the poor and hungry, and
such as are of simple taste. If thou fill thy brain with Boston and New
York, with fashion and covetousness, and wilt stimulate thy jaded senses
with wine and French coffee, thou shalt find no radiance of wisdom in
the lonely waste of the pinewoods' (ii. 328).

It was perhaps the same necessity of having to guide men away from the
danger of transcendental aberrations, while yet holding up lofty ideals
of conduct, that made Emerson say something about many traits of conduct
to which the ordinary high-flying moralist of the treatise or the pulpit
seldom deigns to stoop. The essays on Domestic Life, on Behaviour, on
Manners, are examples of the attention that Emerson paid to the right
handling of the outer conditions of a wise and brave life. With him
small circumstances are the occasions of great qualities. The parlour
and the counting-house are as fit scenes for fortitude, self-control,
considerateness, and vision, as the senate or the battlefield. He
re-classifies the virtues. No modern, for example, has given so
remarkable a place to Friendship among the sacred necessities of
well-endowed character. Neither Plato nor Cicero, least of all Bacon,
has risen to so noble and profound a conception of this most strangely
commingled of all human affections. There is no modern thinker, again,
who makes Beauty--all that is gracious, seemly, and becoming--so
conspicuous and essential a part of life. It would be inexact to say
that Emerson blended the beautiful with the precepts of duty or of
prudence into one complex sentiment, as the Greeks did, but his theory
of excellence might be better described than any other of modern times
by the [Greek: kalokagathia], the virtue of the true gentleman, as set
down in Plato and Aristotle.

So untrue is it that in his quality of Sage Emerson always haunted the
perilous altitudes of Transcendentalism, 'seeing nothing under him but
the everlasting snows of Himalaya, the Earth shrinking to a Planet, and
the indigo Firmament sowing itself with daylight stars.' He never thinks
it beneath his dignity to touch a point of minor morals, or to say a
good word for what he somewhere calls subterranean prudence. Emerson
values mundane circumspection as highly as Franklin, and gives to
manners and rules of daily behaviour an importance that might have
satisfied Chesterfield. In fact, the worldly and the selfish are
mistaken when they assume that Common Sense is their special and
exclusive portion. The small Transcendentalist goes in search of truth
with the meshes of his net so large that he takes no fish. His
landscapes are all horizon. It is only the great idealists, like
Emerson, who take care not to miss the real.

The remedy for the break-down of the old churches would, in the mind of
the egotist, have been to found a new one. But Emerson knew well before
Carlyle told him, that 'no truly great man, from Jesus Christ downwards,
ever founded a sect--I mean wilfully intended founding one.' Not only
did he establish no sect, but he preached a doctrine that was positively
incompatible with the erection of any sect upon its base. His whole hope
for the world lies in the internal and independent resources of the
individual. If mankind is to be raised to a higher plane of happiness
and worth, it can only be by the resolution of each to live his own life
with fidelity and courage. The spectacle of one liberated from the
malign obstructions to free human character, is a stronger incentive to
others than exhortation, admonition, or any sum of philanthropical
association. If I, in my own person and daily walk, quietly resist
heaviness of custom, coldness of hope, timidity of faith, then without
wishing, contriving, or even knowing it, I am a light silently drawing
as many as have vision and are fit to walk in the same path. Whether I
do that or not, I am at least obeying the highest law of my own being.

In the appeal to the individual to be true to himself, Emerson does not
stand apart from other great moral reformers. His distinction lies in
the peculiar direction that he gives to his appeal. All those
regenerators of the individual, from Rousseau down to J.S. Mill, who
derived their first principles, whether directly or indirectly, from
Locke and the philosophy of sensation, experience, and acquisition,
began operations with the will. They laid all their stress on the
shaping of motives by education, institutions, and action, and placed
virtue in deliberateness and in exercise. Emerson, on the contrary,
coming from the intuitional camp, holds that our moral nature is
vitiated by any interference of our will. Translated into the language
of theology, his doctrine makes regeneration to be a result of grace,
and the guide of conscience to be the indwelling light; though, unlike
the theologians, he does not trace either of these mysterious gifts to
the special choice and intervention of a personal Deity. Impulsive and
spontaneous innocence is higher than the strength to conquer temptation.
The natural motions of the soul are so much better than the voluntary
ones. 'There is no such thing as manufacturing a strong will,' for all
great force is real and elemental. In all this Emerson suffers from the
limitations that are inseparable from pure spiritualism in all its
forms. As if the spiritual constitution were ever independent of the
material organisation bestowed upon the individual at the moment when he
is conceived, or of the social conditions that close about him from the
instant of his birth. The reaction, however, against what was
superficial in the school of the eighteenth century went to its extreme
length in Emerson, and blinded his eyes to the wisdom, the profundity,
and the fruitfulness of their leading speculations. It is enough for us
to note the fact in passing, without plunging into contention on the
merits. All thoughts are always ready, potentially if not actually. Each
age selects and assimilates the philosophy that is most apt for its
wants. Institutions needed regeneration in France, and so those thinkers
came into vogue and power who laid most stress on the efficacy of good
institutions. In Emerson's America, the fortunes of the country made
external circumstances safe for a man, and his chance was assured; so a
philosophy was welcomed which turned the individual inwards upon
himself, and taught him to consider his own character and spiritual
faculty as something higher than anything external could ever be.

Again to make a use which is not uninstructive of the old tongue,
Emerson is for faith before works. Nature, he says, will not have us
fret and fume. She does not like our benevolences, our churches, our
pauper-societies, much better than she likes our frauds and wars. They
are but so many yokes to the neck. Our painful labours are unnecessary
and fruitless. A higher law than that of our will regulates events. If
we look wider, things are all alike: laws and creeds and modes of living
are a travesty of truth. Only in our easy, simple, spontaneous action
are we strong, and by contenting ourselves with obedience we become
strong. Our real action is in our silent moments. Why should we be awed
by the name of Action? 'Tis a trick of the senses.[7]

[Footnote 7: _Essays_: Spiritual Laws, etc.]

Justification by faith has had a savour of antinomianism and
indifferency ever since the day when Saint Paul so emphatically denied
that he made void the law through faith, and said of certain
calumniators that their damnation was just. Emerson was open to the same
charge, and he knew it. In a passage already quoted, Emerson says
good-humouredly that his wife keeps his philosophy from running to
antinomianism He could not mistake the tendency of saying that, if you
look wider, things are all alike, and that we are in the grasp of a
higher law than our own will. On that side he only paints over in
rainbow colours the grim doctrine which the High Calvinist and the
Materialistic Necessarian hold in common.

All great minds perceive all things; the only difference lies in the
order in which they shall choose to place them. Emerson, for good reason
of his own, dwelt most on fate, character, and the unconscious and
hidden sources, but he writes many a page of vigorous corrective. It is
wholesome, he says, to man to look not at Fate, but the other way; the
practical view is the other. As Mill says of his wish to disbelieve the
doctrine of the formation of character by circumstances--'Remembering
the wish of Fox respecting the doctrine of resistance to governments,
that it might never be forgotten by Kings nor remembered by subjects, I
said that it would be a blessing if the doctrine of necessity could be
believed by all _quoad_ the characters of others, and disbelieved in
regard to their own.' So Emerson knew well enough that man's
consciousness of freedom, action, and power over outer circumstances
might be left to take care of itself, as the practical view generally
can. The world did not need him to tell it that a man's fortunes are a
part of his character. His task was the more far-reaching one of drawing
them to recognise that love is the important thing, not benevolent
works; that only impure men consider life as it is reflected in events,
opinions, and persons; that they fail to see the action until it is
done, whereas what is far better worth considering is that its moral
element præ-existed in the actor.

It would be easy to show that Emerson has not worked out his answers to
these eternal enigmas, for ever reproducing themselves in all ages, in
such a form as to defy the logician's challenge. He never shrinks from
inconsistent propositions. He was unsystematic on principle. 'He thought
that truth has so many facets that the best we can do is to notice each
in turn, without troubling ourselves whether they agree.' When we
remember the inadequateness of human language, the infirmities of our
vision, and all the imperfections of mental apparatus, the wise men will
not disdain even partial glimpses of a scene too vast and intricate to
be comprehended in a single map. To complain that Emerson is no
systematic reasoner is to miss the secret of most of those who have
given powerful impulses to the spiritual ethics of an age. It is not a
syllogism that turns the heart towards purification of life and aim; it
is not the logically enchained propositions of a _sorites_, but the
flash of illumination, the indefinable accent, that attracts masses of
men to a new teacher and a high doctrine. The teasing _ergoteur_ is
always right, but he never leads nor improves nor inspires.

Any one can see how this side of the Emersonian gospel harmonised with
the prepossessions of a new democracy. Trust, he said, to leading
instincts, not to traditional institutions, nor social ordering, nor the
formulæ of books and schools for the formation of character; the great
force is real and elemental. In art, Mr. Ruskin has explained the
palpable truth that semi-civilised nations can colour better than we do,
and that an Indian shawl and China vase are inimitable by us. 'It is
their glorious ignorance of all rules that does it; the pure and true
instincts have play, and do their work; and the moment we begin teaching
people any rules about colour, and make them do this or that, we crush
the instinct, generally for ever' (_Modern Painters_, iii. 91). Emerson
said what comes to the same thing about morals. The philosophy of
democracy, or the government of a great mixed community by itself, rests
on a similar assumption in politics. The foundations of a self-governed
society on a great scale are laid in leading instincts. Emerson was
never tired of saying that we are wiser than we know. The path of
science and of letters is not the way to nature. What was done in a
remote age by men whose names have resounded far, has no deeper sense
than what you and I do to-day. What food, or experience, or succour have
Olympiads and Consulates for the Esquimaux seal-hunter, for the Kanáka
in his canoe, for the fisherman, the stevedore, the porter? When he is
in this vein Emerson often approaches curiously near to Rousseau's
memorable and most potent paradox of 1750, that the sciences corrupt

[Footnote 8: What so good, asks Rousseau, 'as a sweet and precious
ignorance, the treasure of a pure soul at peace with itself, which
finds all its blessedness in inward retreat, in testifying to itself
its own innocence, and which feels no need of seeking a warped and
hollow happiness in the opinion of other people as to its

Most men will now agree that when the great fiery trial came, the
Emersonian faith and the democratic assumption abundantly justified
themselves. Even Carlyle wrote to Emerson at last (June 4, 1871): 'In my
occasional explosions against Anarchy, and my inextinguishable hatred of
_it_, I privately whisper to myself, "Could any Friedrich Wilhelm now,
or Friedrich, or most perfect Governor you could hope to realise, guide
forward what is America's essential task at present, faster or more
completely than 'Anarchic America' is now doing?" Such "Anarchy" has a
great deal to say for itself.'

The traits of comparison between Carlyle and Emerson may be regarded as
having been pretty nearly exhausted for the present, until time has
changed the point of view. In wit, humour, pathos, penetration, poetic
grandeur, and fervid sublimity of imagination, Carlyle is the superior
beyond measure. But Emerson is as much his superior in that high and
transparent sanity, which is not further removed from midsummer madness
than it is from a terrene and grovelling mediocrity. This sanity, among
other things, kept Emerson in line with the ruling tendencies of his
age, and his teaching brings all the aid that abstract teaching can,
towards the solution of the moral problems of modern societies. Carlyle
chose to fling himself headlong and blindfold athwart the great currents
of things, against all the forces and elements that are pushing modern
societies forward. Beginning in his earlier work with the same faith as
Emerson in leading instincts, he came to dream that the only leading
instinct worth thinking about is that of self-will, mastery, force, and
violent strength. Emerson was for basing the health of a modern
commonwealth on the only real strength, and the only kind of force that
can be relied upon, namely, the honest, manly, simple, and emancipated
character of the citizen. This gives to his doctrine a hold and a prize
on the work of the day, and makes him our helper. Carlyle's perverse
reaction had wrecked and stranded him when the world came to ask him for
direction. In spite of his resplendent genius, he had no direction to
give, and was only able in vague and turbid torrents of words to hide a
shallow and obsolete lesson. His confession to Emerson, quoted above,
looks as if at last he had found this out for himself.

If Emerson stood thus well towards the social and political drift of
events, his teaching was no less harmoniously related to the new and
most memorable drift of science which set in by his side. It is a
misconception to pretend that he was a precursor of the Darwinian
theory. Evolution, as a possible explanation of the ordering of the
universe, is a great deal older than either Emerson or Darwin. What
Darwin did was to work out in detail and with masses of minute evidence
a definite hypothesis of the specific conditions under which new forms
are evolved. Emerson, of course, had no definite hypothesis of this
sort, nor did he possess any of the knowledge necessary to give it
value. But it was his good fortune that some of his strongest
propositions harmonise with the scientific theory of the survival of the
fittest in the struggle for material existence. He connects his
exhortation to self-reliance with the law working in nature for
conservation and growth,--to wit, that 'Power is in nature the essential
measure of right,' and that 'Nature suffers nothing to remain in her
kingdom which cannot help itself.' The same strain is constantly
audible. Nature on every side, within us and without, is for ever
throwing out new forms and fresh varieties of living and thinking. To
her experiments in every region there is no end. Those succeed which
prove to have the best adaptation to the conditions. Let, therefore,
neither society nor the individual check experiment, originality, and
infinite variation. Such language, we may see, fits in equally well with
democracy in politics and with evolution in science. If, moreover,
modern science gives more prominence to one conception than another, it
is to that of the natural universe of force and energy, as One and a
Whole. This too is the great central idea with Emerson, repeated a
thousand times in prose and in verse, and lying at the very heart of his
philosophy. Newton's saying that 'the world was made at one cast'
delights him. 'The secret of the world is that its energies are
_solidaires_.' Nature 'publishes itself in creatures, reaching from
particles and spicula, through transformation on transformation to the
highest symmetries. A little heat, that is, a little motion, is all that
differences the bald dazzling white and deadly cold poles of the earth
from the prolific tropical climates.' Not only, as Professor Tyndall
says, is Emerson's religious sense entirely undaunted by the discoveries
of science; all such discoveries he comprehends and assimilates. 'By
Emerson scientific conceptions are continually transmuted into the finer
forms and warmer lines of an ideal world.'

That these transmutations are often carried by Emerson to the extent of
vain and empty self-mystifications is hard to deny, even for those who
have most sympathy with the general scope of his teaching. There are
pages that to the present writer, at least, after reasonably diligent
meditation, remain mere abracadabra, incomprehensible and worthless.
For much of this in Emerson, the influence of Plato is mainly
responsible, and it may be noted in passing that his account of Plato
(_Representative Men_) is one of his most unsatisfactory performances.
'The title of Platonist,' says Mill, 'belongs by far better right to
those who have been nourished in, and have endeavoured to practise
Plato's mode of investigation, than to those who are distinguished only
by the adoption of certain dogmatical conclusions, drawn mostly from the
least intelligible of his works.' Nothing is gained by concealing that
not every part of Emerson's work will stand the test of the Elenchus,
nor bear reduction into honest and intelligible English.

One remarkable result of Emerson's idealism ought not to be passed over.
'The visible becomes the Bestial,' said Carlyle, 'when it rests not on
the invisible.' To Emerson all rested on the invisible, and was summed
up in terms of the invisible, and hence the Bestial was almost unknown
in his philosophic scheme. Nay, we may say that some mighty phenomena in
our universe were kept studiously absent from his mind. Here is one of
the profoundest differences between Emerson and most of those who, on as
high an altitude, have pondered the same great themes. A small trait
will serve for illustration. It was well known in his household that he
could not bear to hear of ailments. 'There is one topic,' he writes,
'peremptorily forbidden to all well-bred, to all rational mortals,
namely, their distempers. If you have not slept, or if you have slept,
or if you have headache, sciatica, or leprosy, or thunder-stroke, I
beseech you by all angels to hold your peace, and not pollute the
morning, to which all the housemates bring serene and pleasant thoughts,
by corruption and groans. Come out of the azure. Love the
day'--(_Conduct of Life_, 159).

If he could not endure these minor perturbations of the fair and smiling
face of daily life, far less did he willingly think of Death. Of nothing
in all the wide range of universal topics does Emerson say so little as
of that which has lain in sombre mystery at the very core of most
meditations on life, from Job and Solon down to Bacon and Montaigne.
Except in two beautiful poems, already mentioned, Death is almost
banished from his page. It is not the title or the subject of one of his
essays, only secondarily even of that on Immortality. Love, Friendship,
Prudence, Heroism, Experience, Manners, Nature, Greatness, and a score
of other matters--but none to show that he ever sat down to gather into
separate and concentrated shape his reflections on the terrifying
phantom that has haunted the mind of man from the very birth of time.

Pascal bade us imagine a number of men in chains and doomed to death;
some of them each day butchered in sight of the others; those who
remained watching their own lot in that of their fellows, and awaiting
their turn in anguish and helplessness. Such, he cried, is the pitiful
and desperate condition of man. But nature has other cruelties more
stinging than death. Mill, himself an optimist, yet declares the course
of natural phenomena to be replete with everything which, when committed
by human beings is most worthy of abhorrence, so that 'one who
endeavoured in his actions to imitate the natural course of things would
be universally seen and acknowledged to be the wickedest of men.' To man
himself, moreover, 'the most criminal actions are not more unnatural
than most of the virtues.' We need not multiply from poets and divines,
from moralists and sages, these grim pictures. The sombre melancholy,
the savage moral indignation, the passionate intellectual scorn, with
which life and the universe have filled strong souls, some with one
emotion and some with another, were all to Emerson in his habitual
thinking unintelligible and remote. He admits, indeed, that 'the disease
and deformity around us certify that infraction of natural,
intellectual, and moral laws, and often violation on violation to breed
such compound misery.' The way of Providence, he says in another place,
is a little rude, through earthquakes, fever, the sword of climate, and
a thousand other hints of ferocity in the interiors of nature.
Providence has a wild rough incalculable road to its end, and 'it is of
no use to try to white-wash its huge mixed instrumentalities, or to
dress up that terrific benefactor in a clean shirt and white neckcloth
of a student of divinity.' But he only drew from the thought of these
cruelties of the universe the practical moral that 'our culture must
not omit the arming of the man.' He is born into the state of war, and
will therefore do well to acquire a military attitude of soul. There is
perhaps no better moral than this of the Stoic, but greater
impressiveness might have marked the lesson, if our teacher had been
more indulgent to the man's sense of tragedy in that vast drama in which
he plays his piteous part.

In like manner, Emerson has little to say of that horrid burden and
impediment on the soul, which the churches call Sin, and which, by
whatever name we call it, is a very real catastrophe in the moral nature
of man. He had no eye, like Dante's, for the vileness, the cruelty, the
utter despicableness to which humanity may be moulded. If he saw them at
all, it was through the softening and illusive medium of generalised
phrases. Nor was he ever shocked and driven into himself by 'the immoral
thoughtlessness' of men. The courses of nature, and the prodigious
injustices of man in society, affect him with neither horror nor awe. He
will see no monster if he can help it. For the fatal Nemesis or terrible
Erinnyes, daughters of Erebus and Night, Emerson substitutes a
fair-weather abstraction named Compensation. One radical tragedy in
nature he admits--'the distinction of More and Less.' If I am poor in
faculty, dim in vision, shut out from opportunity, in every sense an
outcast from the inheritance of the earth, that seems indeed to be a
tragedy. 'But see the facts clearly and these mountainous inequalities
vanish. Love reduces them, as the sun melts the iceberg in the sea. The
heart and soul of all men being one, this bitterness of His and Mine
ceases. His is mine.' Surely words, words, words! What can be more idle,
when one of the world's bitter puzzles is pressed on the teacher, than
that he should betake himself to an altitude whence it is not visible,
and then assure us that it is not only invisible, but non-existent? This
is not to see the facts clearly, but to pour the fumes of obscuration
round them. When he comforts us by saying 'Love, and you shall be
loved,' who does not recall cases which make the Jean Valjean of Victor
Hugo's noble romance not a figment of the theatre, but an all too actual
type? The believer who looks to another world to redress the wrongs and
horrors of this; the sage who warns us that the law of life is
resignation, renunciation, and doing-without (_entbehren sollst
du_)--each of these has a foothold in common language. But to say that
all infractions of love and equity are speedily punished--punished by
fear--and then to talk of the perfect compensation of the universe, is
mere playing with words, for it does not solve the problem in the terms
in which men propound it. Emerson, as we have said, held the spirit of
System in aversion as fettering the liberal play of thought, just as in
morals, with greater boldness, he rebelled against a minute and cramping
interpretation of Duty. We are not sure that his own optimistic doctrine
did not play him the same tyrannical trick, by sealing his eyes to at
least one half of the actualities of nature and the gruesome
possibilities of things. It had no unimportant effect on Emerson's
thought that he was born in a new world that had cut itself loose from
old history. The black and devious ways through which the race has
marched are not real in North America, as they are to us in old Europe,
who live on the very site of secular iniquities, are surrounded by
monuments of historic crime, and find present and future entangled,
embittered, inextricably loaded both in blood and in institutions with
desperate inheritances from the past.

There are many topics, and those no mean topics, on which the best
authority is not the moralist by profession, as Emerson was, but the man
of the world. The world hardens, narrows, desiccates common natures, but
nothing so enriches generous ones. For knowledge of the heart of man, we
must go to those who were closer to the passions and interests of actual
and varied life than Emerson ever could have been--to Horace, Montaigne,
La Bruyère, Swift, Molière, even to Pope. If a hostile critic were to
say that Emerson looked at life too much from the outside, as the
clergyman is apt to do, we should condemn such a remark as a
disparagement, but we should understand what it is in Emerson that the
critic means. He has not the temperament of the great humorists, under
whatever planet they may have been born, jovial, mercurial, or
saturnine. Even his revolt against formalism is only a new fashion of
composure, and sometimes comes dangerously near to moral dilettantism.
The persistent identification of everything in nature with everything
else sometimes bewilders, fatigues, and almost afflicts us. Though he
warns us that our civilisation is not near its meridian, but as yet only
in the cock-crowing and the morning star, still all ages are much alike
with him: man is always man, 'society never advances,' and he does
almost as little as Carlyle himself to fire men with faith in social
progress as the crown of wise endeavour. But when all these deductions
have been made and amply allowed for, Emerson remains among the most
persuasive and inspiring of those who by word and example rebuke our
despondency, purify our sight, awaken us from the deadening slumbers of
convention and conformity, exorcise the pestering imps of vanity, and
lift men up from low thoughts and sullen moods of helplessness and


_Printed by_ R. & R. CLARK, LIMITED, _Edinburgh_.

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