A discerning German writer, Herman Grimm, closes a volume of fifteen essays, with one on Ralph Waldo Emerson, written in 1861, approved in 1874. The essay is interesting, apart from its literary merit, as giving the impression made by Mr. Emerson on a foreigner to whom his reputation was unknown, and a man of culture to whom books and opinions rarely brought surprise. He saw a volume of the "Essays" lying on the table of an American acquaintance, looked into it, and was surprised that, being tolerably well practised in reading English, he understood next to nothing of the contents. He asked about the author, and, learning that he was highly esteemed in his own country, he opened the book again, read further, and was so much struck by passages here and there, that he borrowed it, carried it home, took down Webster's dictionary, and began reading in earnest. The extraordinary construction of the sentences, the apparent absence of logical continuity, the unexpected turns of thought, the use of original words, embarrassed him at first; but soon he discovered the secret and felt the charm. The man had fresh thoughts, employed a living speech, was a genuine person. The book was bought, read and re-read, "and now every time I take it up, I seem to take it up for the first time."
The power that the richest genius has in Shakspeare, Rafael, Goethe, Beethoven, to reconcile the soul to life, to give joy for heaviness, to dissipate fears, to transfigure care and toil, to convert lead into gold, and lift the veil that conceals the forms of hope, Grimm ascribes in the highest measure to Emerson.
"As I read, all seems old and familiar as if it was my own well-worn thought; all seems new as if it never occurred to me before. I found myself depending on the book and was provoked with myself for it. How could I be so captured and enthralled; so fascinated and bewitched? The writer was but a man like any other; yet, on taking up the volume again, the spell was renewed--I felt the pure air; the old weather-beaten motives recovered their tone."
To him Emerson seemed to stand on the ground of simple fact, which he accepted in all sincerity.
"He regards the world in its immediate aspect, with fresh vision; the thing done or occurring before him opens the way to serene heights. The living have precedence of the dead. Even the living of to-day of the Greeks of yesterday, nobly as the latter thought, moulded, chiselled, sang. For me was the breath of life, for me the rapture of spring, for me love and desire, for me the secret of wisdom and power." . . . "Emerson fills me with courage and confidence. He has read and observed, but he betrays no sign of toil. He presents familiar facts, but he places them in new lights and combinations. From every object the lines run straight out, connecting it with the central point of life. What I had hardly dared to think, it was so bold, he brings forth as quietly as if it was the most familiar commonplace. He is a perfect swimmer on the ocean of modern existence. He dreads no tempest, for he is sure that calm will follow it; he does not hate, contradict, or dispute, for he understands men and loves them. I look on with wonder to see how the hurly-burly of modern life subsides, and the elements gently betake themselves to their allotted places. Had I found but a single passage in his writings that was an exception to this rule, I should begin to suspect my judgment, and should say no further word; but long acquaintance confirms my opinion. As I think of this man, I have understood the devotion of pupils who would share any fate with their master, because his genius banished doubt and imparted life to all things."
Grimm tells us that one day he found Emerson's Essays in the hands of a lady to whom he had recommended them without effect. She had made a thousand excuses; had declared herself quite satisfied with Goethe who had all that Emerson could possibly have, and a great deal more; had expressed doubts whether, even if Emerson were all that his admirers represented, it was worth while to make a study of him. Besides, she had read in the book, and found only commonplace thoughts which had come to herself, and which she considered not of sufficient importance to express. So Emerson was neglected.
"On this occasion she made him the subject of conversation. She had felt that he was something remarkable. She had come upon sentences, many times, that opened the darkest recesses of thought. I listened quietly, but made no response. Not long afterwards she poured out to me her astonished admiration in such earnest and impassioned strain, that she made me feel as if I was the novice and she the apostle."
This experience was repeated again and again, and Grimm had the satisfaction of seeing the indifferent kindle, the adverse turn, the objectors yield. The praise was not universal indeed; there were stubborn dissentients who did not confess the charm, and declared that the enthusiasm was infatuation. Such remained unconverted. It was discovered that Emerson came to his own only, though his own were a large and increasing company.
The reasons of Grimm's admiration have been sufficiently indicated in the above extracts. They are good reasons, but they are not the best. They do not touch the deeper secret of power. That secret lies in the writer's pure and perfect idealism, in his absolute and perpetual faith in thoughts, his supreme confidence in the spiritual laws. He lives in the region of serene ideas; lives there all the day and all the year; not visiting the mount of vision occasionally, but setting up his tabernacle there, and passing the night among the stars that he may be up and dressed for the eternal sunrise. To such a spirit there is no night: "the darkness shineth as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike." There are no cloudy days. Tyndall's expression "in his case Poetry, with the joy of a bacchanal, takes her graver brother science by the hand, and cheers him with immortal laughter"--is singularly infelicitous in phrase, for it is as easy to associate night orgies with the dawn as the bacchanalian spirit with Emerson, who never riots and never laughs, but is radiant with a placid buoyancy that diffuses itself over his countenance and person. Mr. Emerson's characteristic trait is serenity. He is faithful to his own counsel, "Shun the negative side. Never wrong people with your contritions, nor with dismal views of politics or society. Never name sickness; even if you could trust yourself on that perilous topic, beware of unmuzzling a valetudinarian who will soon give you your fill of it." He seems to be perpetually saying "Good Morning."
This is not wholly a result of philosophy; it is rather a gift of nature. He is the descendant of eight generations of Puritan clergymen,--the inheritor of their thoughtfulness and contemplation, their spirit of inward and outward communion. The dogmatism fell away; the peaceful fruits of discipline remained, and flowered beautifully in his richly favored spirit. An elder brother William, whom it was a privilege to know, though lacking the genius of Waldo, was a natural idealist and wise saint. Charles, another brother, who died young and greatly lamented had the saintliness and the genius both. The "Dial" contained contributions from this young man, entitled "Notes from the Journal of a Scholar" that strongly suggest the genius of his eminent brother; a few passages from them may be interesting as throwing light on the secret of Emerson's inspiration.
"This afternoon we read Shakspeare. The verse so sank into me, that as I toiled my way home under the cloud of night, with the gusty music of the storm around and overhead, I doubted that it was all a remembered scene; that humanity was indeed one, a spirit continually reproduced, accomplishing a vast orbit, whilst individual men are but the points through which it passes."
"We each of us furnish to the angel who stands in the sun, a single observation. The reason why Homer is to me like dewy morning, is because I too lived while Troy was, and sailed in the hollow ships of the Grecians to sack the devoted town. The rosy-fingered dawn as it crimsoned the tops of Ida, the broad sea shore covered with tents, the Trojan hosts in their painted armor, and the rushing chariots of Diomed and Idomeneus,--all these I too saw: my ghost animated the frame of some nameless Argive; and Shakspeare, in King John, does but recall to me myself in the dress of another age, the sport of new accidents. I who am Charles, was sometime Romeo. In Hamlet I pondered and doubted. We forget what we have been, drugged by the sleepy bowl of the Present. But when a lively chord in the soul is struck, when the windows for a moment are unbarred, the long and varied past is recovered. We recognize it all; we are no more brief, ignoble creatures; we seize our immortality and bind together the related parts of our secular being."
From the second record of thoughts a passage may be taken, so precisely like paragraphs in the essays that they might have proceeded from the same mind:
"Let us not vail our bonnets to circumstance. If we act so, because we are so; if we sin from strong bias of temper and constitution, at least we have in ourselves the measure and the curb of our aberration. But if they who are around us sway us; if we think ourselves incapable of resisting the cords by which fathers and mothers and a host of unsuitable expectations and duties, falsely so called, seek to bind us,--into what helpless discord shall we not fall."
"I hate whatever is imitative in states of mind as well as in action. The moment I say to myself, 'I ought to feel thus and so,' life loses its sweetness, the soul her vigor and truth. I can only recover my genuine self by stopping short, refraining from every effort to shape my thought after a form, and giving it boundless freedom and horizon. Then, after oscillation more or less protracted, as the mind has been more or less forcibly pushed from its place, I fall again into my orbit and recognize myself, and find with gratitude that something there is in the spirit which changes not, neither is weary, but ever returns into itself; and partakes of the eternity of God."
Idealism is native to this temperament, the proper expression of its feeling. Emerson was preordained an idealist; he is one of the eternal men, bearing about him the atmosphere of immortal youth. He is now seventy-three years old, having been born in Boston May 25th, 1803; but his last volume, "Letters and Social Aims," shows the freshness of his first essays. The opening chapter, "Poetry and Imagination," has the emphasis and soaring confidence of undimmed years; and the closing one, "Immortality," sustains an unwearied flight among the agitations of this most hotly-debated of beliefs. The address before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge, in 1867, equals in moral grandeur and earnestness of appeal, in faithfulness to ideas and trust in principles, the addresses that made so famous the prime of his career. There is absolutely no abatement of heart or hope; if anything, the tone is richer and more assured than ever it was. During the season of his popularity as a lyceum lecturer, the necessity of making his discourse attractive and entertaining, brought into the foreground the play of his wit, and forced the graver qualities of his mind into partial concealment; but in later years, in the solitude of his study, the undertone of high purpose is heard again, in solemn reverberations, reminding us that the unseen realities are present still; that no opening into the eternal has ever been closed.
"Shall we study the mathematics of the sphere," he says to the Cambridge scholars, "and not its causal essence also? Nature is a fable, whose moral blazes through it. There is no use in Copernicus, if the robust periodicity of the solar system does not show its equal perfection in the mental sphere--the periodicity, the compensating errors, the grand reactions. I shall never believe that centrifugence and centripetence balance, unless mind heats and meliorates, as well as the surface and soil of the globe."
"On this power, this all-dissolving unity, the emphasis of heaven and earth is laid. Nature is brute, but as this soul quickens it; nature always the effect, mind the flowing cause. Mind carries the law; history is the slow and atomic unfolding."
"All vigor is contagious, and when we see creation, we also begin to create. Depth of character, height of genius, can only find nourishment in this soil. The miracles of genius always rest on profound convictions which refuse to be analyzed. Enthusiasm is the leaping lightning, not to be measured by the horse-power of the understanding. Hope never spreads her golden wings but on unfathomable seas."
"We wish to put the ideal rules into practice, to offer liberty instead of chains, and see whether liberty will not disclose its proper checks; believing that a free press will prove safer than the censorship; to ordain free trade, and believe that it will not bankrupt us; universal suffrage, believing that it will not carry us to mobs or back to kings again."
"Every inch of the mountains is scarred by unimaginable convulsions, yet the new day is purple with the bloom of youth and love. Look out into the July night, and see the broad belt of silver flame which flashes up the half of heaven, fresh and delicate as the bonfires of the meadow flies. Yet the powers of numbers cannot compute its enormous age--lasting as time and space--embosomed in time and space. And time and space, what are they? Our first problems, which we ponder all our lives through, and leave where we found them; whose outrunning immensity, the old Greeks believed, astonished the gods themselves; of whose dizzy vastitudes, all the worlds of God are a mere dot on the margin; impossible to deny, impossible to believe. Yet the moral element in man counterpoises this dismaying immensity and bereaves it of terror."
Emerson has been called the prince of Transcendentalists. It is nearer the truth to call him the prince of idealists. A Transcendentalist, in the technical sense of the term, it cannot be clearly affirmed that he was. Certainly he cannot be reckoned a disciple of Kant, or Jacobi, or Fichte, or Schelling. He calls no man master; he receives no teaching on authority. It is not certain that he ever made a study of the Transcendental philosophy in the works of its chief exposition. In his lecture on "The Transcendentalist," delivered in 1842, he conveys the impression that it is idealism--active and protesting--an excited reaction against formalism, tradition, and conventionalism in every sphere. As such, he describes it with great vividness and beauty. But as such merely, it was not apprehended by metaphysicians like James Walker, theologians like Parker or preachers like William Henry Channing.
Emerson does not claim for the soul a special faculty, like faith or intuition, by which truths of the spiritual order are perceived, as objects are perceived by the senses. He contends for no doctrines, whether of God or the hereafter, or the moral law, on the credit of such interior revelation. He neither dogmatizes nor defines. On the contrary, his chief anxiety seems to be to avoid committing himself to opinions; to keep all questions open; to close no avenue in any direction to the free ingress and egress of the mind. He gives no description of God that will class him as theist or pantheist; no definition of immortality that justifies his readers in imputing to him any form of the popular belief in regard to it. Does he believe in personal immortality? It is impertinent to ask. He will not be questioned; not because he doubts, but because his beliefs are so rich, various and many-sided, that he is unwilling, by laying emphasis on any one, to do an apparent injustice to others. He will be held to no definitions; he will be reduced to no final statements. The mind must have free range. Critics complain of the tantalizing fragmentariness of his writing; it is evidence of the shyness and modesty of his mind. He dwells in principles, and will not be cabined in beliefs. He needs the full expanse of the Eternal Reason. In the chapter on Worship--"Conduct of Life," p. 288, he writes thus:
"Of immortality, the soul, when well employed, is incurious; it is so well, that it is sure it will be well; it asks no questions of the Supreme Power; 'tis a higher thing to confide, that if it is best we should live, we shall live--it is higher to have this conviction than to have the lease of indefinite centuries, and millenniums and æons. Higher than the question of our duration, is the question of our deserving. Immortality will come to such as are fit for it, and he who would be a great soul in future, must be a great soul now. It is a doctrine too great to rest on any legend, that is, on any man's experience but our own. It must be proved, if at all, from our own activity and designs, which imply an interminable future for their play."
The discourse on Immortality, which closes the volume, "Letters and Social Aims," moves on with steady power, towards the conclusion of belief. Emerson really seems about to commit himself; he argues and affirms, with extraordinary positiveness. Of skepticism, on the subject, he says:
"I admit that you shall find a good deal of skepticism in the streets and hotels, and places of coarse amusement. But that is only to say that the practical faculties are faster developed than the spiritual. Where there is depravity there is a slaughter-house style of thinking. One argument of future life is the recoil of the mind in such company--our pain at every skeptical statement."
His enumeration of "the few simple elements of the natural faith," is as clear and cogent as was ever made. He urges the delight in permanence and stability, in immense spaces and reaches of time. "Every thing is prospective, and man is to live hereafter." He urges that:
"The implanting of a desire indicates that the gratification of that desire is in the constitution of the creature that feels it; the wish for food; the wish for motion; the wish for sleep, for society, for knowledge, are not random whims, but grounded in the structure of the creature, and meant to be satisfied by food; by motion; by sleep; by society; by knowledge. If there is the desire to live, and in larger sphere, with more knowledge and power, it is because life and knowledge and power are good for us, and we are the natural depositaries of these gifts."
He ranks as a hint of endless being the novelty which perpetually attends life:
"The soul does not age with the body." "Every really able man, in whatever direction he work--a man of large affairs--an inventor, a statesman, an orator, a poet, a painter--if you talk sincerely with him, considers his work, however much admired, as far short of what it should be. What is this 'Better,' this flying ideal but the perpetual promise of his Creator?"
The prophecy of the intellect is enunciated in stirring tones:
"All our intellectual action, not promises but bestows a feeling of absolute existence. We are taken out of time, and breathe a purer air. I know not whence we draw the assurance of prolonged life: of a life which shoots that gulf we call death, and takes hold of what is real and abiding, by so many claims as from our intellectual history." "As soon as thought is exercised, this belief is inevitable; as soon as virtue glows, this belief confirms itself. It is a kind of summary or completion of man."
This reads very much like encouragement to the popular persuasion, yet it comes far short of it; indeed, does not, at any point touch it. The immortality is claimed for the moral and spiritual by whom thought is exercised, in whom virtue glows--for none beside--and for these, the individual conscious existence is not asserted. In the midst of the high argument occur sentences like these:
"I confess that everything connected with our personality fails. Nature never spares the individual. We are always balked of a complete success. No prosperity is promised to that. We have our indemnity only in the success of that to which we belong. That is immortal, and we only through that." "Future state is an illusion for the ever present state. It is not length of life, but depth of life. It is not duration, but a taking of the soul out of time, as all high action of the mind does; when we are living in the sentiments we ask no questions about time. The spiritual world takes place--that which is always the same."
Goethe is quoted to the same purpose:
"It is to a thinking being quite impossible to think himself non-existent, ceasing to think and live; so far does every one carry in himself the proof of immortality and quite spontaneously. But so soon as the man will be objective and go out of himself, so soon as he dogmatically will grasp a personal duration to bolster up in cockney fashion that inward assurance, he is lost in contradiction."
It is thought worth while to dwell so long on this point, because it furnishes a perfect illustration of Emerson's intellectual attitude towards beliefs, its entire sincerity, disinterestedness and modesty. The serenity of his faith makes it impossible for him to be a controversialist. He never gave a sweeter or more convincing proof of this than in the sermon he preached on the Communion Supper, which terminated his connection with his Boston parish, and with it his relations to the Christian ministry, after a short service of less than four years. The rite in question was held sacred by his sect, as a personal memorial of Jesus perpetuated according to his own request. To neglect it was still regarded as a reproach; to dispute its authority was considered contumacious; to declare it obsolete and useless, an impediment to spiritual progress, a hindrance to Christian growth, was to excite violent animosities, and call down angry rebuke. Yet this is what Mr. Emerson deliberately did. That the question of retaining a minister who declined to bless and distribute the bread and wine, was debated at all, was proof of the extraordinary hold he had on his people. Through the crisis he remained unruffled, calm and gracious as in the sunniest days. On the evening when the church were considering his final proposition, with such result as he clearly foresaw, he sat with a brother clergyman talking pleasantly on literature and general topics, never letting fall a hint of the impending judgment, until, as he rose to leave, he said gently, "this is probably the last time we shall meet as brethren in the same calling," added a few words in explanation of the remark, and passed into the street.
The sermon alluded to was a model of lucid, orderly and simple statement, so plain that the young men and women of the congregation could understand it; so deep and elevated that experienced believers were fed; learned enough, without a taint of pedantry; bold, without a suggestion of audacity; reasonable, without critical sharpness or affectation of mental superiority; rising into natural eloquence in passages that contained pure thought, but for the most part flowing in unartificial sentences that exactly expressed the speaker's meaning and no more. . . . Mr. Emerson's . . . farewell letter to the parish is also printed here.
BOSTON, 22d December, 1832.
To the Second Church and Society:
CHRISTIAN FRIENDS:--Since the formal resignation of my official relation to you in my communication to the proprietors in September, I had waited anxiously for an opportunity of addressing you once more from the pulpit, though it were only to say, let us part in peace and in the love of God. The state of my health has prevented, and continues to prevent me from so doing. I am now advised to seek the benefit of a sea voyage. I cannot go away without a brief parting word to friends who have shown me so much kindness, and to whom I have felt myself so dearly bound.
Our connection has been very short; I had only begun my work. It is now brought to a sudden close; and I look back, I own, with a painful sense of weakness, to the little service I have been able to render, after so much expectation on my part,--to the checkered space of time, which domestic affliction and personal infirmities have made yet shorter and more unprofitable.
As long as he remains in the same place, every man flatters himself, however keen may be his sense of his failures and unworthiness, that he shall yet accomplish much; that the future shall make amends for the past; that his very errors shall prove his instructors,--and what limit is there to hope? But a separation from our place, the close of a particular career of duty, shuts the book, bereaves us of this hope, and leaves us only to lament how little has been done.
Yet, my friends, our faith in the great truths of the New Testament makes the change of places and circumstances of less account to us, by fixing our attention upon that which is unalterable. I find great consolation in the thought that the resignation of my present relations makes so little change to myself. I am no longer your minister, but am not the less engaged, I hope, to the love and service of the same eternal cause, the advancement, namely, of the Kingdom of God in the hearts of men. The tie that binds each of us to that cause is not created by our connexion, and cannot be hurt by our separation. To me, as one disciple, is the ministry of truth, as far as I can discern and declare it, committed; and I desire to live nowhere and no longer than that grace of God is imparted to me--the liberty to seek and the liberty to utter it.
And, more than this, I rejoice to believe that my ceasing to exercise the pastoral office among you does not make any real change in our spiritual relation to each other. Whatever is most desirable and excellent therein, remains to us. For, truly speaking, whoever provokes me to a good act or thought, has given me a pledge of his fidelity to virtue,--he has come under bonds to adhere to that cause to which we are jointly attached. And so I say to all you who have been my counsellors and coöperators in our Christian walk, that I am wont to see in your faces the seals and certificates of our mutual obligations. If we have conspired from week to week in the sympathy and expression of devout sentiments; if we have received together the unspeakable gift of God's truth; if we have studied together the sense of any divine word; or striven together in any charity; or conferred together for the relief or instruction of any brother; if together we have laid down the dead in a pious hope; or held up the babe into the baptism of Christianity; above all, if we have shared in any habitual acknowledgment of that benignant God, whose omnipresence raises and glorifies the meanest offices and the lowest ability, and opens heaven in every heart that worships him,--then indeed are we united, we are mutually debtors to each other of faith and hope, engaged to persist and confirm each other's hearts in obedience to the Gospel. We shall not feel that the nominal changes and little separations of this world can release us from the strong cordage of this spiritual bond. And I entreat you to consider how truly blessed will have been our connexion, if in this manner, the memory of it shall serve to bind each one of us more strictly to the practice of our several duties.
It remains to thank you for the goodness you have uniformly extended towards me, for your forgiveness of many defects, and your patient and even partial acceptance of every endeavor to serve you; for the liberal provision you have ever made for my maintenance; and for a thousand acts of kindness which have comforted and assisted me.
To the proprietors I owe a particular acknowledgment, for their recent generous vote for the continuance of my salary, and hereby ask their leave to relinquish this emolument at the end of the present month.
And now, brethren and friends, having returned into your hands the trust you have honored me with,--the charge of public and private instruction in this religious society--I pray God, that, whatever seed of truth and virtue we have sown and watered together, may bear fruit unto eternal life. I commend you to the Divine Providence. May He grant you, in your ancient sanctuary the service of able and faithful teachers. May He multiply to your families and to your persons, every genuine blessing; and whatever discipline may be appointed to you in this world, may the blessed hope of the resurrection, which He has planted in the constitution of the human soul, and confirmed and manifested by Jesus Christ, be made good to you beyond the grave. In this faith and hope I bid you farewell.
Your affectionate servant,
RALPH WALDO EMERSON.
Mr. Emerson's place is among poetic, not among philosophic minds. He belongs to the order of imaginative men. The imagination is his organ. His reading, which is very extensive in range, has covered this department more completely than any. He is at home with the seers, Swedenborg, Plotinus, Plato, the books of the Hindus, the Greek mythology, Plutarch, Chaucer, Shakspeare, Henry More, Hafiz; the books called sacred by the religious world; "books of natural science, especially those written by the ancients,--geography, botany, agriculture, explorations of the sea, of meteors, of astronomy"; he recommends "the deep books." Montaigne has been a favorite author on account of his sincerity. He thinks Hindu books the best gymnastics for the mind.
His estimate of the function of the poetic faculty is given in his latest volume.
"Poetry is the perpetual endeavor to express the spirit of the thing; to pass the brute body, and search the life and reason which causes it to exist; to see that the object is always flowing away, whilst the spirit or necessity which causes it subsists." "The poet contemplates the central identity; sees it undulate and roll this way and that, with divine flowings, through remotest things; and following it, can detect essential resemblances in natures never before compared." "Poetry is faith. To the poet the world is virgin soil; all is practicable; the men are ready for virtue; it is always time to do right. He is the true recommencer, or Adam in the garden again." "He is the healthy, the wise, the fundamental, the manly man, seer of the secret; against all the appearance, he sees and reports the truth, namely, that the soul generates matter. And poetry is the only verity, the expression of a sound mind, speaking after the ideal, not after the apparent." "Whilst common sense looks at things or visible nature as real and final facts, poetry, or the imagination which dictates it, is a second sight, looking through these and using them as types or words for thoughts which they signify."
By the poet, Emerson is careful to say that he means the potential or ideal man, not found now in any one person.
The upshot of it all is that soul is supreme. Not the soul, as if that term designated a constituent part of each man's nature.
"All goes to show that the soul is not an organ, but animates and exercises all the organs; is not a function, like the power of memory, of calculation, of comparison, but uses these as hands and feet; is not a faculty, but a light; is not the intellect or the will, but the master of the intellect and the will; is the background of our being, in which they lie--an immensity not possessed, and that cannot be possessed. From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all. A man is the façade of a temple, wherein all wisdom and all good abide."
We stand now at the centre of Emerson's philosophy. His thoughts are few and pregnant; capable of infinite expansion, illustration and application. They crop out on almost every page of his characteristic writings; are iterated and reiterated in every form of speech; and put into gems of expression that may be worn on any part of the person. His prose and his poetry are aglow with them. They make his essays oracular, and his verse prophetic. By virtue of them his best books belong to the sacred literature of the race; by virtue of them, but for the lack of artistic finish of rhythm and rhyme, he would be the chief of American poets.
The first article in Mr. Emerson's faith is the primacy of Mind. That Mind is supreme, eternal, absolute, one, manifold, subtle, living, immanent in all things, permanent, flowing, self-manifesting; that the universe is the result of mind, that nature is the symbol of mind; that finite minds live and act through concurrence with infinite mind. This idea recurs with such frequency that, but for Emerson's wealth of observation, reading, wit, mental variety and buoyancy, his talent for illustration, gift at describing details, it would weary the reader. As it is, we delight to follow the guide through the labyrinth of his expositions, and gaze on the wonderful phantasmagoria that he exhibits.
His second article is the connection of the individual intellect with the primal mind, and its ability to draw thence wisdom, will, virtue, prudence, heroism, all active and passive qualities. This belief, as being the more practical, has even more exuberant expression than the other:
"The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure that it is profane to seek to interpose helps. Whenever a mind is simple, and receives a divine wisdom, all things pass away--means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now, and absorbs past and future into the present hour."
"Let man learn the revelation of all nature and all thought to his heart; this, namely: that the highest dwells with him; that the sources of nature are in his own mind, if the sentiment of duty is there."
"Ineffable is the union of man and God in every act of the soul; the simplest person who, in his integrity, worships God, becomes God; yet for ever and ever the influx of this better and universal self is new and unsearchable."
"We are wiser than we know. If we will not interfere with our thought, but will act entirely, or see how the thing stands in God, we know the particular thing, and every thing, and every man. For the Maker of all things and all persons stands behind us, and casts His dread omniscience through us over things."
"The only mode of obtaining an answer to the questions of the senses, is to forego all low curiosity, and, accepting the tide of being which floats us into the secret of nature, work and live, work and live, and all unawares the advancing soul has built and forged for itself a new condition, and the question and the answer are one."
"We are all discerners of spirits. That diagnosis lies aloft in our life or unconscious power."
"We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime, within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One
. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one."
"All the forms are fugitive,
But the substances survive;
Ever fresh the broad creation--
A divine improvisation,
From the heart of God proceeds,
A single will, a million deeds.
Once slept the world an egg of stone,
And pulse and sound, and light was none;
And God said 'Throb,' and there was motion,
And the vast mass became vast ocean.
Onward and on, the eternal Pan,
Who layeth the world's incessant plan,
Halteth never in one shape,
But forever doth escape,
Like wave or flame, into new forms
Of gem and air, of plants and worms.
I that to-day am a pine,
Yesterday was a bundle of grass.
He is free and libertine,
Pouring of his power, the wine
To every age--to every race;
Unto every race and age
He emptieth the beverage
Unto each and unto all--
Maker and original.
The world is the ring of his spells,
And the play of his miracles.
As he giveth to all to drink,
Thus or thus they are, and think.
He giveth little, or giveth much,
To make them several, or such.
With one drop sheds form and feature;
With the second a special nature;
The third adds heat's indulgent spark;
The fourth gives light, which eats the dark;
In the fifth drop himself he flings,
And conscious Law is King of kings.
Pleaseth him, the Eternal Child
To play his sweet will--glad and wild.
As the bee through the garden ranges,
From world to world the godhead changes;
As the sheep go feeding in the waste,
From form to form he maketh haste.
This vault, which glows immense with light,
Is the inn, where he lodges for a night.
What recks such Traveller, if the bowers
Which bloom and fade, like meadow flowers--
A bunch of fragrant lilies be,
Or the stars of eternity?
Alike to him, the better, the worse--
The glowing angel, the outcast corse.
Thou meetest him by centuries,
And lo! he passes like the breeze;
Thou seek'st in globe and galaxy,
He hides in pure transparency;
Thou askest in fountains, and in fires,
He is the essence that inquires.
He is the axis of the star;
He is the sparkle of the spar;
He is the heart of every creature;
He is the meaning of each feature;
And his mind is the sky,
Than all it holds, more deep, more high."
Mr. Emerson is never concerned to defend himself against the charge of pantheism, or the warning to beware lest he unsettle the foundations of morality, annihilate the freedom of the will, abolish the distinction between right and wrong and reduce personality to a mask. He makes no apology; he never explains; he trusts to affirmation, pure and simple. By dint of affirming all the facts that appear, he makes his contribution to the problem of solving all, and by laying incessant emphasis on the cardinal virtues of humility, fidelity, sincerity, obedience, aspiration, simple acquiescence in the will of the supreme power, he not only guards himself against vulgar misconception, but sustains the mind at an elevation that makes the highest hill-tops of the accepted morality disappear in the dead level of the plain.
The primary thoughts of his philosophy, if such it may be termed, Emerson takes with him wherever he goes. Does he study history, history is the autobiography of the Eternal Mind. The key is in the sentence that begins the Essay on History:
"There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same, and to all of the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has befallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind, is a party to all that is or can be done, for that is the only and sovereign agent." "This human mind wrote history, and this must read it. The sphinx must solve her own riddle. If the whole of history is in one man, it is all to be explained from individual experience. There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time. Of the universal mind each individual man is one more incarnation. All its properties consist in him. Each new fact in his private experience flashes a light on what great bodies of men have done, and the crises of his life refer to national crises." In the "Progress of Culture" the same sentiment recurs.
"What is the use of telegraphy? What of newspapers? To know in each social crisis how men feel in Kansas, in California, the wise man waits for no mails, reads no telegrams. He asks his own heart. If they are made as he is, if they breathe the same air, eat of the same wheat, have wives and children, he knows that their joy or resentment rises to the same point as his own. The inviolate soul is in perpetual telegraphic communication with the Source of events, has earlier information, a private despatch, which relieves him of the terror which presses on the rest of the community."
"We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience, and verifying them here. All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography. Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself,--must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it does not know."
In the appreciation of scientific facts the same method avails. Tyndall commends Emerson as "a poet and a profoundly religious man, who is really and entirely undaunted by the discoveries of science, past, present, or prospective." The praise seems to imply some misconception of Emerson's position. Tyndall intimates that Emerson is undaunted where others fear. But this is not so. No man deserves commendation for not dreading precisely what he desires. Emerson, by his principle, is delivered from the alarm of the religious man who has a creed to defend, and from the defiance of the scientific man who has creeds to assail. To him Nature is but the symbol of spirit; this the scientific men, by their discoveries, are continually proving. The faster they disclose facts, and the more accurately, the more brilliantly do they illustrate the lessons of the perfect wisdom. For the scientific method he professes no deep respect; for the scientific assumptions none whatever. He begins at the opposite end. They start with matter, he starts with mind. They feel their way up, he feels his way down. They observe phenomena, he watches thoughts. They fancy themselves to be gradually pushing away as illusions the so-called entities of the soul; he dwells serenely with those entities, rejoicing to see men paying jubilant honor to what they mean to overturn. The facts they bring in, chemical, physiological, biological, Huxley's facts, Helmholtz's, Darwin's, Tyndall's, Spencer's, the ugly facts which the theologians dispute, he accepts with eager hands, and uses to demonstrate the force and harmony of the spiritual laws.
"Science," he says, "was false by being unpoetical. It assumed to explain a reptile or mollusk, and isolated it,--which is hunting for life in graveyards; reptile or mollusk, or man or angel, only exists in system, in relation. The metaphysician, the poet, only sees each animal form as an inevitable step in the path of the creating mind." "The savans are chatty and vain; but hold them hard to principle and definition, and they become mute and near-sighted. What is motion? What is beauty? What is matter? What is life? What is force? Push them hard and they will not be loquacious. They will come to Plato, Proclus and Swedenborg. The invisible and imponderable is the sole fact." "The atomic theory is only an interior process produced, as geometers say, or the effect of a foregone metaphysical theory. Swedenborg saw gravity to be only an external of the irresistible attractions of affection and faith. Mountains and oceans we think we understand. Yes, so long as they are contented to be such, and are safe with the geologist; but when they are melted in Promethean alembics and come out men; and then melted again, come out woods, without any abatement, but with an exaltation of power!"
Emerson is faithful in applying his principle to social institutions and laws. His faith in ideal justice and love never blenches. In every emergency, political, civil, national, he has been true to his regenerating idea; true as a recreator from the inside, rather than as a reformer of the outside world. A profounder, more consistent, more uncompromising radical does not exist; a less heated, ruffled or anxious one cannot be thought of. He scarcely ever suggested measures, rarely joined in public assemblies, did not feel at home among politicians or agitators. But his thought never swerved from the line of perfect rectitude, his sympathies were always human. His heart was in the anti-slavery movement from the beginning. He was abroad in its stormy days, his steadfast bearing and cheerful countenance carrying hope whenever he appeared. His name stood with that of his wife in the list of signers to the call for the first National Woman's Rights Convention, in 1850. The Massachusetts Historical Society, the American Society of Arts and Sciences have honored themselves by electing him a member; the Alumni of Harvard University joyfully made him an overseer; he was proposed as rector of the University of Glasgow. Such confidence did the great idealist inspire, that he has been even called to the duty of Examiner at West Point Military Academy. His name is spoken in no company with other than respect, and his influence is felt in places where it is not acknowledged, and would be officially disavowed.
Mr. A. B. Alcott, a townsman of Mr. Emerson, and a close acquaintance, in his "Concord Days" says pleasant things of his friend, just and discerning things, as well as pleasant.
"Consider," he says, "how largely our letters have been enriched by his contributions. Consider, too, the change his views have wrought in our methods of thinking; how he has won over the bigot, the unbeliever, at least to tolerance and moderation, if not acknowledgment, by his circumspection and candor of statement." "A poet, speaking to individuals as few others can speak, and to persons in their privileged moments, he is heard as none others are. 'Tis every thing to have a true believer in the world, dealing with men and matters as if they were divine in idea and real in fact, meeting persons and events at a glance, directly, not at a millionth remove, and so passing fair and fresh into life and literature." "His compositions affect us, not as logic linked in syllogisms, but as voluntaries rather, as preludes, in which one is not tied to any design of air, but may vary his key or not at pleasure, as if improvised without any particular scope of argument; each period, paragraph, being a perfect note in itself, however it may chance chime with its accompaniments in the piece, as a waltz of wandering stars, a dance of Hesperus with Orion."
After this, one is surprised to hear Mr. Alcott say, "I know of but one subtraction from the pleasure the reading of his books--shall I say his conversation?--gives me; his pains to be impersonal or discreet, as if he feared any the least intrusion of himself were an offence offered to self-respect, the courtesy due to intercourse and authorship." To others this exquisite reserve, this delicate withdrawal behind his thought, has seemed not only one of Emerson's peculiar charms, but one of his most subtle powers. Personal magnetism is very delightful for the moment. The exhibition of attractive personal traits is interesting in the lecture room; sometimes in the parlor. The public, large or small, enjoy confidences. But in an age of personalities, voluntary and involuntary, the man who keeps his individual affairs in the background, tells nothing of his private history, holds in his own breast his petty concerns and opinions, and lets thoughts flow through him, as light streams through plate glass, is more than attractive--is noble, is venerable. To his impersonality in his books and addresses, Emerson owes perhaps a large measure of his extraordinary influence. You may search his volumes in vain for a trace of egotism. In the lecture room, he seems to be so completely under the spell of his idea, so wholly abstracted from his audience, that he is as one who waits for the thoughts to come, and drops them out one by one, in a species of soliloquy or trance. He is a bodiless idea. When he speaks or writes, the power is that of pure mind. The incidental, accidental, occasional, does not intrude. No abatement on the score of personal antipathy needs to be made. The thought is allowed to present and commend itself. Hence, when so many thoughts are forgotten, buried beneath affectation and verbiage, his gain in brilliancy and value as time goes on; and in an age of ephemeral literature his books find new readers, his mind exerts wider sway. That his philosophy can be recommended as a sound rule to live by for ordinary practitioners may be questioned. It is better as inspiration than as prescription. For maxims it were wiser to go to Bentham, Mill or Bain. The plodders had best keep to the beaten road. But for them who need an atmosphere for wings, who require the impulse of great motives, the lift of upbearing aspirations--for the imaginative, the passionate, the susceptible, who can achieve nothing unless they attempt the impossible--Emerson is the master. A single thrill sent from his heart to ours is worth more to the heart that feels it, than all the schedules of motive the utilitarian can offer.