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Emerson Post by :Merry_V Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :October 2011 Read :1776

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There are men whose charm is in their entirety. Their words occasionally utter what their looks invariably express. We read their thoughts by the light of their smiles. Not to see and hear these men is not to know them, and criticism without personal knowledge is in their case mutilation. Those who did know them listen in despair to the half-hearted praise and clumsy disparagement of critical strangers, and are apt to exclaim, as did the younger Pitt, when some extraneous person was expressing wonder at the enormous reputation of Fox, 'Ah! you have never been under the wand of the magician.'

Of such was Ralph Waldo Emerson. When we find so cool-brained a critic as Mr. Lowell writing and quoting thus of Emerson:

'Those who heard him while their natures were yet plastic, and their mental nerves trembled under the slightest breath of divine air, will never cease to feel and say:

'"Was never eye did see that face
Was never ear did hear that tongue,
Was never mind did mind his grace
That ever thought the travail long;
But eyes, and ears, and every thought
Were with his sweet perfections caught;"'

we recognise at once that the sooner we take off our shoes the better, for that the ground upon which we are standing is holy. How can we sufficiently honour the men who, in this secular, work-a-day world, habitually breathe

'An ampler ether, a diviner air,'
than ours!

But testimony of this kind, conclusive as it is upon the question of Emerson's personal influence, will not always be admissible in support of his claims as an author. In the long-run an author's only witnesses are his own books.

In Dr. Holmes's estimate of Emerson's books everyone must wish to concur. {1} These are not the days, nor is this dry and thirsty land of ours the place, when or where we can afford to pass by any well of spiritual influence. It is matter, therefore, for rejoicing that, in the opinion of so many good judges, Emerson's well can never be choked up. His essays, so at least we are told by no less a critic than Mr. Arnold, are the most valuable prose contributions to English literature of the century; his letters to Mr. Carlyle carried into all our homes the charm of a most delightful personality; the quaint melody of his poems abides in many ears. He would, indeed, be a churl who grudged Emerson his fame.


{1} See Life of Emerson, by O. W. Holmes.

But when we are considering a writer so full of intelligence as Emerson--one so remote and detached from the world's bluster and brag--it is especially incumbent upon us to charge our own language with intelligence, and to make sure that what we say is at least truth for us.

Were we at liberty to agree with Dr. Holmes in his unmeasured praise--did we, in short, find Emerson full of inspiration--our task would be as easy as it would be pleasant; but not entirely agreeing with Dr. Holmes, and somehow missing the inspiration, the difficulty we began by mentioning presses heavily upon us.

Pleasant reading as the introductory thirty-five pages of Dr. Holmes's book make, we doubt the wisdom of so very sketchy an account of Emerson's lineage and intellectual environment. Attracted towards Emerson everybody must be; but there are many who have never been able to get quit of an uneasy fear as to his 'staying power.' He has seemed to some of us a little thin and vague. A really great author dissipates all such fears. Read a page and they are gone. To inquire after the intellectual health of such a one would be an impertinence. Emerson hardly succeeds in inspiring this confidence, but is more like a clever invalid who says, and is encouraged by his friends to say, brilliant things, but of whom it would be cruel to expect prolonged mental exertion. A man, he himself has said, 'should give us a sense of mass.' He perhaps does not do so. This gloomy and possibly distorted view is fostered rather than discouraged by Dr. Holmes's introductory pages about Boston life and intellect. It does not seem to have been a very strong place. We lack performance. It is of small avail to write, as Dr. Holmes does, about 'brilliant circles,' and 'literary luminaries,' and then to pass on, and leave the circles circulating and the luminaries shining in vacuo. We want to know how they were brilliant, and what they illuminated. If you wish me to believe that you are witty I must really trouble you to make a joke. Dr. Holmes's own wit, for example, is as certain as the law of gravitation, but over all these pages of his hangs vagueness, and we scan them in vain for reassuring details.

'Mild orthodoxy, ripened in Unitarian sunshine,' does not sound very appetising, though we are assured by Dr. Holmes that it is 'a very agreeable aspect of Christianity.' Emerson himself does not seem to have found it very lively, for in 1832, after three years' experience of the ministry of the 'Second Church' of Boston, he retires from it, not tumultuously or with any deep feeling, but with something very like a yawn. He concludes his farewell sermon to his people as follows:

'Having said this I have said all. I have no hostility to this
institution. {2} I am only stating my want of sympathy with it.'


{2} The institution referred to was the Eucharist.

Dr. Holmes makes short work of Emerson's childhood. He was born in Boston on the 25th May, 1803, and used to sit upon a wall and drive his mother's cow to pasture. In fact, Dr. Holmes adds nothing to what we already knew of the quiet and blameless life that came to its appointed end on the 27th April, 1882. On the completion of his college education, Emerson became a student of theology, and after a turn at teaching, was ordained, in March, 1829, minister of the 'Second Church' in Boston. In September of the same year he married; and the death of his young wife, in February, 1832, perhaps quickened the doubts and disinclinations which severed his connection with his 'Church' on the 9th September, 1832. The following year he visited Europe for the first time, and made his celebrated call upon Carlyle at Craigenputtock, and laid the keel of a famous friendship. In the summer of 1834 he settled at Concord. He married again, visited England again, wrote essays, delivered lectures, made orations, published poems, carried on a long and most remarkable correspondence with Carlyle, enjoyed after the most temperate and serene of fashions many things and much happiness. And then he died.

'Can you emit sparks?' said the cat to the ugly duckling in the fairy tale, and the poor abashed creature had to admit that it could not. Emerson could emit sparks with the most electrical of cats. He is all sparks and shocks. If one were required to name the most non-sequacious author one had ever read, I do not see how one could help nominating Emerson. But, say some of his warmest admirers, 'What then? It does not matter!' It appears to me to matter a great deal.

A wise author never allows his reader's mind to be at large, but casts about from the very first how to secure it all for himself. He takes you (seemingly) into his confidence, perhaps pretends to consult you as to the best route, but at all events points out to you the road, lying far ahead, which you are to travel in his company. How carefully does a really great writer, like Dr. Newman or M. Renan, explain to you what he is going to do and how he is going to do it! His humour, wit, and fancy, however abundant they may be, spring up like wayside flowers, and do but adorn and render more attractive the path along which it is his object to conduct you. The reader's mind, interested from the beginning, and desirous of ascertaining whether the author keeps his word and adheres to his plan, feels the glow of healthy exercise, and pays a real though unconscious attention. But Emerson makes no terms with his readers--he gives them neither thread nor clue, and thus robs them of one of the keenest pleasures of reading--the being beforehand with your author, and going shares with him in his own thoughts.

If it be said that it is manifestly unfair to compare a mystical writer like Emerson with a polemical or historical one, I am not concerned to answer the objection, for let the comparison be made with whom you will, the unparalleled non-sequaciousness of Emerson is as certain as the Correggiosity of Correggio. You never know what he will be at. His sentences fall over you in glittering cascades, beautiful and bright, and for the moment refreshing, but after a very brief while the mind, having nothing to do on its own account but to remain wide open, and see what Emerson sends it, grows first restive and then torpid. Admiration gives way to astonishment, astonishment to bewilderment, and bewilderment to stupefaction.

'Napoleon is not a man, but a system,' once said, in her most impressive tones, Madame de Stael to Sir James Mackintosh, across a dinner-table. 'Magnificent!' murmured Sir James. 'But what does she mean?' whispered one of those helplessly commonplace creatures who, like the present writer, go about spoiling everything. 'Mass! I cannot tell!' was the frank acknowledgment and apt Shakspearian quotation of Mackintosh. Emerson's meaning, owing to his non-sequacious style, is often very difficult to apprehend. Hear him for a moment on 'Experience':

'I gossip for my hour concerning the eternal politic. I have seen many fair pictures, not in vain. A wonderful time I have lived in. I am not the novice I was fourteen, nor yet seven years ago. Let who will ask, Where is the fruit? I find a private fruit sufficient. This is a fruit, that I should not ask for a rash effect from meditations, counsels, and the hiving of truths.'

This surely is an odd way of hiving truths. It follows from it that Emerson is more striking than suggestive. He likes things on a large scale--he is fond of ethnical remarks and typical persons. Notwithstanding his habit of introducing the names of common things into his discourses and poetry ('Hay, corn, roots, hemp, flax, apples, wool, and wood,' is a line from one of his poems), his familiarity therewith is evidently not great. 'Take care, papa,' cried his little son, seeing him at work with his spade, 'you will dig your leg.'

His essay on Friendship will not be found satisfactory. Here is a subject on which surely we are entitled to 'body.' The Over Soul was different; there it was easy to agree with Carlyle, who, writing to Emerson, says: 'Those voices of yours which I likened to unembodied souls and censure sometimes for having no body--how can they have a body? They are light rays darting upwards in the east!' But friendship is a word the very sight of which in print makes the heart warm. One remembers Elia: 'Oh! it is pleasant as it is rare to find the same arm linked in yours at forty which at thirteen helped it to turn over the Cicero De Amicitia, or some other tale of antique friendship which the young heart even then was burning to anticipate.' With this in your ear it is rather chilling to read, 'I do, then, with my friends as I do with my books. I would have them where I can find them, but I seldom use them. We must have society on our own terms, and admit or exclude it on the slightest cause. I cannot afford to speak much with my friend.' These are not genial terms.

For authors and books his affection, real as it was, was singularly impersonal. In his treatment of literary subjects, we miss the purely human touch, the grip of affection, the accent of scorn, that so pleasantly characterize the writings of Mr. Lowell. Emerson, it is to be feared, regarded a company of books but as a congeries of ideas. For one idea he is indebted to Plato, for another to Dr. Channing. Sartor Resartus, so Emerson writes, is a noble philosophical poem, but 'have you read Sampson Read's Growth of the Mind?' We read somewhere of 'Pindar, Raphael, Angelo, Dryden, and De Stael.' Emerson's notions of literary perspective are certainly 'very early.' Dr. Holmes himself is every bit as bad. In this very book of his, speaking about the dangerous liberty some poets--Emerson amongst the number--take of crowding a redundant syllable into a line, he reminds us 'that Shakspeare and Milton knew how to use it effectively; Shelley employed it freely: Bryant indulged in it; Willis was fond of it.' One has heard of the Republic of Letters, but this surely does not mean that one author is as good as another. 'Willis was fond of it.' I dare say he was, but we are not fond of Willis, and cannot help regarding the citation of his poetical example as an outrage.

None the less, if we will have but a little patience, and bid our occasional wonderment be still, and read Emerson at the right times and in small quantities, we shall not remain strangers to his charm. He bathes the universe in his thoughts. Nothing less than the Whole ever contented Emerson. His was no parochial spirit. He cries out:

'From air and ocean bring me foods,
From all zones and altitudes.'

How beautiful, too, are some of his sentences! Here is a bit from his essay on Shakspeare in Representative Men:

'It is the essence of poetry to spring like the rainbow daughter of Wonder from the invisible, to abolish the past, and refuse all history. Malone, Warburton, Dyce, and Collier have wasted their life. The famed theatres have vainly assisted. Betterton, Garrick, Kemble, Kean, and Macready dedicate their lives to his genius--him they crown, elucidate, obey, and express--the genius knows them not. The recitation begins, one golden word leaps out immortal from all this painful pedantry, and sweetly torments us with invitations to his own inaccessible homes.'

The words we have ventured to italicize seem to us to be of surpassing beauty, and to express what many a play-goer of late years must often have dimly felt.

Patience should indeed be the motto for any Emerson reader who is not by nature 'author's kin.' For example, in the essay on Character, after reading, 'Everything in nature is bipolar, or has a positive and negative pole. There is a male and a female, a spirit and a fact, a north and a south. Spirit is the positive, the event is the negative; will is the north, action the south pole. Character may be ranked as having its natural place in the north'--how easy to lay the book down and read no more that day; but a moment's patience is amply rewarded, for but sixteen lines farther on we may read as follows: 'We boast our emancipation from many superstitions, but if we have broken any idols it is through a transfer of the idolatry. What have I gained that I no longer immolate a bull to Jove or to Neptune, or a mouse to Hecate; that I do not tremble before the Eumenides or the Catholic Purgatory, or the Calvinistic Judgment Day--if I quake at opinion, the public opinion as we call it, or the threat of assault or contumely, or bad neighbours, or poverty, or mutilation, or at the rumour of revolution or of wonder! If I quake, what matters it what I quake at?' Well and truly did Carlyle write to Emerson, 'You are a new era, my man, in your huge country.'

Emerson's poetry has at least one of the qualities of true poetry--it always pleases and occasionally delights. Great poetry it may not be, but it has the happy knack of slipping in between our fancies, and of clinging like ivy to the masonry of the thought-structure beneath which each one of us has his dwelling. I must be allowed room for two quotations, one from the stanzas called Give all to Love, the other from Wood Notes.

'Cling with life to the maid;
But when the surprise,
First shadow of surmise,
Flits across her bosom young
Of a joy apart from thee,
Free be she, fancy-free,
Nor thou detain her vesture's hem,
Nor the palest rose she flung
From her summer's diadem.
Though thou loved her as thyself,
As a self of purer clay,
Though her parting dims the day,
Stealing grace from all alive;
Heartily know
When half-gods go,
The gods arrive.'

The lines from Wood Notes run as follows:

'Come learn with me the fatal song
Which knits the world in music strong,
Whereto every bosom dances,
Kindled with courageous fancies;
Come lift thine eyes to lofty rhymes
Of things with things, of times with times,
Primal chimes of sun and shade,
Of sound and echo, man and maid;
The land reflected in the flood;
Body with shadow still pursued.
For nature beats in perfect tune
And rounds with rhyme her every rune;
Whether she work in land or sea
Or hide underground her alchemy.
Thou canst 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 rhymes the oar forsake.
Not unrelated, unaffied,
But to each thought and thing allied,
Is perfect nature's every part,
Rooted in the mighty heart.'

What place Emerson is to occupy in American literature is for America to determine. Some authoritative remarks on this subject are to be found in Mr. Lowell's essay on 'Thoreau,' in My Study Windows; but here at home, where we are sorely pressed for room, it is certain he must be content with a small allotment, where, however, he may for ever sit beneath his own vine and fig-tree, none daring to make him afraid. Emerson will always be the favourite author of somebody; and to be always read by somebody is better than to be read first by everybody and then by nobody. Indeed, it is hard to fancy a pleasanter destiny than to join the company of lesser authors. All their readers are sworn friends. They are spared the harsh discords of ill-judged praise and feigned rapture. Once or twice in a century some enthusiastic and expansive admirer insists upon dragging them from their shy retreats, and trumpeting their fame in the market-place, asserting, possibly with loud asseverations (after the fashion of Mr. Swinburne), that they are precisely as much above Otway and Collins and George Eliot as they are below Shakespeare and Hugo and Emily Bronte. The great world looks on good-humouredly for a moment or two, and then proceeds as before, and the disconcerted author is left free to scuttle back to his corner, where he is all the happier, sharing the raptures of the lonely student, for his brief experience of publicity.

Let us bid farewell to Emerson, who has bidden farewell to the world in the words of his own Good-bye:

'Good-bye to flattery's fawning face,
To grandeur with his wise grimace,
To upstart wealth's averted eye,
To supple office low and high,
To crowded halls, to court and street,
To frozen hearts and hasting feet,
To those who go and those who come,--
Good-bye, proud world, I'm going home,
I am going to my own hearth-stone
Bosomed in yon green hills, alone,
A secret nook in a pleasant land,
Whose groves the frolic fairies planned;
Where arches green the livelong day
Echo the blackbird's roundelay,
And vulgar feet have never trod,
A spot that is sacred to thought and God.'

(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: Emerson

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