Maurice G. (Maurice Garland) Fulton.

National ideals and problems; essays for college English online

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The high opinion which Arnold in this essay expresses for Emerson is all
the more convincing because it is entirely unprejudiced. Arnold's discussion
brings out the fact that Emerson's great achievement lay in impressing upon
Americans, apart from all theological speculations, the supreme importance
of the higher nature, the moral life, the intellectual being. As an American
critic, George Edward Woodberry, puts it, "He was closer to the soil in his
democracy, nearer to the plain people of the country, than any other man of
letters; and in his works he embodied more vitally the practical ideal of the
American industrious, successful, self-reliant, not embarrassed by the past,
not disturbed by the future, confident, not afraid. . . . The fortune of the
republic was for him not accumulated wealth but widespread welfare. He
was by birth a patriot, by tradition a Puritan democrat, and these views
were natural to him. His Americanism undoubtedly endears him to his
countrymen. But it is not within narrow limits of political or worldly wisdom
that his influence and teachings have their effect; but in the invigoration of
the personal life with which his pages are electric."]

Forty years ago, when I was an undergraduate at Oxford,
voices were in the air there which haunt my memory still.
Happy the man who in that susceptible season of youth hears
such voices! they are a possession to him forever. No such

I Matthew Arnold's Discourses in America.


voices as those which we heard in our youth at Oxford are sound-
ing there now. Oxford has more criticism now, more knowledge,
more light; but such voices as those of our youth it has no
longer. The name of Cardinal Newman is a great name to the
imagination still; his genius and his style are still things of power.
But he is over eighty years old; he is in the Oratory at Birming-
ham; he has adopted, for the doubts and difficulties which beset
men's minds today, a solution which, to speak frankly, is im-
possible. Forty years ago he was in the very prime of life; he
was close at hand to us at Oxford; he was preaching in St. Mary's
pulpit every Sunday; he seemed about to transform and to
renew what was for us the most national and natural institution
in the world, the Church of England. Who could resist the
charm of that spiritual apparition, gliding in the dim afternoon
light through the aisles of St. Mary's, rising into the pulpit, and
then, in the most entrancing of voices, breaking the silence with
words and thoughts which were a religious music subtle,
sweet, mournful? I seem to hear him still, saying: "After the
fever of life, after wearinesses and sicknesses, fightings and de-
spondings, langour and fretfulness, struggling and succeeding;
after all the changes and chances of this troubled, unhealthy
state at length comes death, at length the white throne of
God, at length the beatific vision." Or, if we followed him back
to his seclusion at Littlemore, that dreary village by the London
road, and to the house of retreat and the church which he built
there a mean house such as Paul might have lived in when he
was tent-making at Ephesus, a church plain and thinly sown with
worshipers who could resist him there either, welcoming back
to the severe joys of church fellowship, and of daily worship and
prayer, the firstlings of a generation which had well-nigh for-
gotten them? Again I seem to hear him: "The season is chill
and dark, and the breath of the morning is damp, and wor-
shipers are few; but all this befits those who are by their profes-
sion pentitents and mourners, watchers and pilgrims. More
dear to them that loneliness, more cheerful that severity, and
more bright that gloom, than all those aids and appliances of
luxury by which men nowadays attempt to make prayer less


disagreeable to them. True faith does not covet comforts; they
who realize that awful day, when they shall see Him face to
face whose eyes are as a flame of fire, will as little bargain to
pray pleasantly now as they will think of doing so then."

Somewhere or other I have spoken of those "last enchant-
ments" of the Middle Age which Oxford sheds around us, and
here they were! But there were other voices sounding in our
ear besides Newman's. There was the puissant voice of Carlyle;
so sorely strained, over-used, and misused since, but then fresh,
comparatively sound, and reaching our hearts with true, pathetic
eloquence. Who can forget the emotion of receiving in its first
freshness such a sentence as that sentence of Carlyle upon
Edward Irving, then just dead: "Scotland sent him forth a
herculean man; our mad Babylon wore and wasted him with all
her engines and it took her twelve years!" A greater voice
still the greatest voice of the century came to us in those
youthful years through Carlyle: the voice of Goethe. To this
day such is the force of youthful associations I read the
Wilhelm Meister with more pleasure in Carlyle's translation than
in the original. The large, liberal view of human life in Wilhelm
Meister, how novel it was to the Englishman in those days ! and
it was salutary, too, and educative for him, doubtless, as well as
novel. But what moved us most in Wilhelm Meister was that
which, after all, will always move the young most the poetry,
the eloquence. Never, surely, was Carlyle's prose so beautiful
and pure as in his rendering of the Youths' dirge over Mignon !
"Well is our treasure now laid up, the fair image of the past.
Here sleeps it in the marble, undecaying; in your hearts, also, it
lives, it works. Travel, travel, back into life ! Take along with
you this holy earnestness, for earnestness alone makes life
eternity." Here we had the voice of the great Goethe; not the
stiff, and hindered, and frigid, and factitious Goethe who speaks
to us too often from those sixty volumes of his, but of the great
Goethe, and the true one.

And besides those voices, there came to us in that old Oxford
time a voice also from this side of the Atlantic a clear and pure
voice, which for my ear, at any rate, brought a strain as new,


and moving, and unforgettable, as the strain of Newman, or
Carlyle, or Goethe. Mr. Lowell has well described the apparition
of Emerson to your young generation here, hi that distant time
of which I am speaking, and of his workings upon them. He
was your Newman, your man of soul and genius visible to you
hi the flesh, speaking to your bodily ears, a present object for
your heart and imagination. That is surely the most potent of
all influences! nothing can come up to it. To us at Oxford
Emerson was but a voice speaking from three thousand miles
away. But so well he spoke that from that time forth Boston
Bay and Concord were names invested to my ear with a senti-
ment akin to that which invests for me the names of Oxford and
of Weimar; and snatches of Emerson's strain fixed themselves in
my mind as imperishably as any of the eloquent words which I
have been just now quoting. "Then dies the man in you; then
once more perish the buds of art, poetry, and science, as they
have died already in a thousand thousand men." "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."
"Trust thyself ! every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept
the place the Divine Providence has found for you, the society
of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men
have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the
genius of their age; betraying their perception that the Eternal
was stirring at their heart, working through their hands, pre-
dominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must
accept in the highest spirit the same transcendent destiny; and
not pinched in a corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution,
but redeemers and benefactors, pious aspirants to be noble
clay plastic under the Almighty effort, let us advance and
advance on chaos and the dark!" These lofty sentences of
Emerson, and a hundred others of like strain, I never have lost
out of my memory; I never can lose them.

At last I find myself in Emerson's own country, and looking
upon Boston Bay. Naturally I revert to the friend of my youth.
It is not always pleasant to ask oneself questions about the
friends of one's youth; they cannot always well support it.


Carlyle, for instance, in my judgment, cannot well support such
a return upon him. Yet we should make the return; we should
part with our illusions; we should know the truth. When I come
to this country, where Emerson now counts for so much, and
where such high claims are made for him, I pull myself together,
and ask myself what the truth about this object of my youthful
admiration really is. Improper elements often come into our
estimate of men. We have lately seen a German critic make
Goethe the greatest of all poets, because Germany is now the
greatest of military powers, and wants a poet to match. Then,
too, America is a young country; and young countries, like
young persons, are apt sometimes to evince in their literary
judgments a want of scale and measure. I set myself, therefore,
resolutely to come at a real estimate of Emerson, and with a
leaning even to strictness rather than to indulgence. That is the
safer course. Time has no indulgence; any veils of illusion which
we may have left around an object because we loved it, Time is
sure to strip away.

I was reading the other day a notice of Emerson by a serious
and interesting American critic. Fifty or sixty passages in
Emerson's poems, says this critic who had doubtless himself
been nourished on Emerson's writings, and held them justly
dear fifty or sixty passages from Emerson's poems have already
entered into English speech as matter of familiar and universally
current quotation. Here is a specimen of that personal sort of
estimate which, for my part, even in speaking of authors dear
to me, I would try to avoid. What is the kind of phrase of which
we may fairly say that it has entered into English speech as
matter of familiar quotation? Such a phrase, surely, as the
"Patience on a monument" of Shakspere; as the "Darkness
visible" of Milton; as the "Where ignorance is bliss" of Gray.
Of not one single passage in Emerson's poetry can it be truly
said that it has become a familiar quotation like phrases of
this kind. It is not enough that it should be familiar to his
admirers, familiar hi New England, familiar even throughout
the United States; it must be familiar to all readers and lovers
of English poetry. Of not more than one or two passages in


Emerson's poetry can it, I think, be truly said, that they stand
ever-present in the memory of even many lovers of English
poetry. A great number of passages from his poetry are no
doubt perfectly familiar to the mind and lips of the critic whom
I have mentioned, and perhaps a wide circle of American readers.
But this is a very different thing from being matter of universal
quotation, like the phrases of the legitimate poets.

And, hi truth, one of the legitimate poets, Emerson, in my
opinion, is not. His poetry Js-interesting, it makes one think;
but it is not the poetry of one of the born poets. J say it of him
wiffi^eluctance, although I am sure that he would have said it
of himself; but I say it with reluctance, because I dislike giv-
ing pain to his admirers, and because all my own wish, too, is
to say of him what is favorable. But I regard myself, not as
speaking to please Emerson's admirers, not as speaking to please
myself; but rather, I repeat, as communing with Time and
Nature concerning the productions of this beautiful and rare
spirit, and as resigning what of him is by their unalterable decree
touched with caducity, in order the better to mark and secure
that in him which is immortal.

Milton says that poetry ought to be simple, sensuous, im-
passioned. Welly^merson'^pnetry is_seldorn_eil^er_smple,
or sensuous^ or impassioned._Jn general it lacks-directness; 4t
lacks concretenessj_it_lacks energy. His grammar is ofteiL-em-
barrassedyin particular, the want of clearly-marked distinction
between the subject and the object of his sentence is a frequent
causeuf obscurityln^him. A poem which shall be a plain^ forcible,
inevTtable^whole he hardly ever produces. Such good work as
the noblelirielTgTaven o'n the Concord Monument is the excep-
tion-with him; such ineffective work as the Fourth of July Ode
or the Boston Hymn is the rule. Even passages and single lines
of thorough plainness and commanding force are rare in his
poetry. They exist, of course; but when we meet with them
they give us a slight shock of surprise, so little has Emerson
accustomed us to them. Let me have the pleasure of quoting
one or two of these exceptional passages:


"So nigh is grandeur to our dust,

So near is God to man,
When Duty whispers low, Thou must,
The youth replies, / can"

Or again this:

"Though love repine and reason chafe,
There came a voice without reply:
"Tis man's perdition to be safe,
When for the truth he ought to die.' "

Excellent! but how seldom do we get from him a strain
blown so clearly and firmly! Take another passage where his
strain has not only clearness, it has also grace and beauty:

"And ever, when the happy child
In May beholds the blooming wild,
And hears in heaven the bluebird sing,
'Onward,' he cries, 'your baskets bring!
In the next field is air more mild,
And in yon hazy west is Eden's balmier spring.' "

In the style and cadence here there is a reminiscence, I think,
of Gray; at any rate the pureness, grace, and beauty of these
lines are worthy even of Gray. But Gray holds his high rank as
a poet, not merely by the beauty and grace of passages in his
poems; not merely by a diction generally pure in an age of im-
pure diction: he holds it, above all, by the power and skill with
which the evolution of his poems is conducted. Here is his
grand superiority to Collins, whose diction in his best poem, the
Ode to Evening, is purer than Gray's; but then the Ode to Evening
is like a river which loses itself in the sand, whereas Gray's best
poems have an evolution sure and satisfying. Emerson's May-
Day, from which I just now quoted, has no real evolution at all;
it is a series of observations. And, in general, his poems have no
evolution. Take, for example, his Titmouse. Here he has an
excellent subject; a^nd his observation of Nature, moreovp-j, is
always marvelously close and fine. But comparewhat he makes
of his meeting with Bis titmoustTwith whaT"Cowper oTjSunis
makes otEjlie^kind, of incident!^ One never quite amves~at


learning what the titmouse actually did for him at all, though
one feels a strong interest and desire to learn it; but one is
reduced to guessing, and cannot be quite sure that after all one
has guessed right. He is not plain and concrete enough hi
other words, not poet enough to be able to tell us. And a
failure of this kind goes through almost all his verse, keeps him
amid symbolism and allusion and the fringes of things, and, in
spite of his spiritual power, deeply impairs his poetic value.
Through the inestimable virtue of concreteness, a simple poem
like The Bridge of Longfellow, or the School Days of Mr. Whittier,
is of more poetic worth, perhaps, than all the verse of Emerson.
I do not, jhen, place Emerson among the great poets. But I
go further, and say that JQIo ppt place him among the great
writers, the great men of letters. Who are the grsat^men of
letters? They aremen like CiceroTHato^Bacpn, Pascal, Swift,
Voltaire writers wjttyjn the nrsFplace^a genius and instinct
for style; writers whose prose is by a kind of native necessity
true and sound. Now the style of Emerson, like the style of
his transcendentalist friends and of the Dial so continually the
style of Emerson is capable of falling into a strain like this,
which I take from the beginning of his Essay on Love: "Every
soul is a celestial being to every other soul. The heart has its
sabbaths and jubilees, in which the world appears as a hymeneal
feast, and all natural sounds and the circle of the seasons are
erotic odes and dances." Emerson altered this sentence in the
later editions. Like Wordsworth, he was in later hie fond of
altering; and in general his later alterations, like those of
Wordsworth, are not improvements. He softened the passage
in question, however, though without really mending it. I quote
it in its original and strongly marked form. Arthur Stanley
used to relate that about the year 1840, being in conversation
with some Americans in quarantine at Malta, and thinking to
please them, he declared his warm admiration for Emerson's
Essays, then recently published. However, the Americans
shook their heads, and told him that for home taste Emerson
was decidedly too greeny. We will hope, for their sakes, that the
sort of thing they had in their heads was such writing as I have


just quoted. Unsound it is, indeed, and in a style almost im-
possible to a born man of letters.

It is a curious thing, that quality of style which marks the
great writer, the born man of letters. It resides in the whole
tissue of one's work, and of his work regarded as a composition
for literary purposes. Brilliant and powerful passages in a man's
writings do not prove his possession of it; it lies in their whole
tissue. Emerson has passages of noble and pathetic eloquence,
such as those which I quoted at the beginning; he has passages
of shrewd and felicitous wit; he has crisp epigram; he has pas-
sages of exquisitely touched observation of nature. Yet he is not
a great writer; his style has not the requisite wholeness of good
tissue. Even Carlyle is not, in my judgment, a great writer.
He has surpassingly powerful qualities of expression, far more
powerful than Emerson's, and reminding one of the gifts of
expression of the great poets of even Shakspere himself.
What Emerson so admirably says of Carlyle's "devouring eyes
and portraying hand," "those thirsty eyes, those portrait-eating,
portrait-painting eyes of thine, those fatal perceptions," is
thoroughly true. What a description is Carlyle's of the first
publisher of Sartor Resartus, "to whom the idea of a new edition
of Sartor is frightful, or rather ludicrous, unimaginable;" of this
poor Fraser, in whose "wonderful world of Tory pamphleteers,
conservative Younger-brothers, Regent Street loungers, Crock-
ford gamblers, Irish Jesuits, drunken reporters, and miscella-
neous unclean persons (whom niter and much soap will not wash
clean), not a soul has expressed the smallest wish that way!"
What a portrait, again, of the well-beloved John Sterling ! "One,
and the best, of a small class extant here, who, nigh drowning in
a black wreck of Infidelity (lighted up by some glare of Radi-
calism only, now growing dim too), and about to perish, saved
themselves into a Coleridgian Shovel-Hattedness." What
touches hi the invitation of Emerson to London! "You shall
see blockheads by the million; Pickwick himself shall be visible
innocent young Dickens, reserved for a questionable fate. The
great Wordsworth shall talk till you yourself pronounce him to
be a bore. Southey's complexion is still healthy mahogany


brown, with a fleece of white hair, and eyes that seem running at
full gallop. Leigh Hunt, man of genius hi the shape of a cock-
ney, is my near neighbor, with good humor and no common
sense; old Rogers with his pale head, white, bare, and cold as
snow, with those large blue eyes, cruel, sorrowful, and that
sardonic shelf chin." How inimitable it all is! And, finally for
one must not go on forever, this version of a London Sunday,
with the public houses closed during the hours of divine service !
"It is silent Sunday; the populace not yet admitted to their
beer-shops, till the respectabilities conclude their rubric mum-
meries a much more audacious feat than beer." Yet even
Carlyle is not, hi my judgment, to be called a great writer; one
cannot think of ranking him with men like Cicero and Plato and
Swift and Voltaire. Emerson freely promises to Carlyle im-
mortality for his histories. They will not have it. Why? Because
the materials furnished to him by that devouring eye of his, and
that portraying hand, were not wrought hi and subdued by
him to what his work, regarded as a composition for literary
purposes, required. Occurring hi conversation, breaking out in
familiar correspondence, they are magnificent, inimitable;
nothing more is required of them; thus thrown out anyhow, they
serve their turn and fulfil their function. And, therefore, I
should not wonder if really Carlyle lived, in the long run, by
such an invaluable record as that correspondence between him
and Emerson, of which we owe the publication to Mr. Charles
Norton by this and not by his works, as Johnson lives hi
Boswell, not by his works. For Carlyle's sallies, as the staple of
a literary work, become wearisome; and as time more and more
applies to Carlyle's works its stringent test, this will be felt
more and more. Shakspere, Moliere, Swift they, too, had,
like Carlyle, the devouring eye and the portraying hand. But
they are great literary masters, they are supreme writers, be-
cause they knew how to work into a literary composition their
materials, and to subdue them to the purposes of literary effect.
Carlyle is too willful for this, too turbid, too vehement.

You will think I deal in nothing but negatives. I have been
saying that Emerson is not one of the great poets, the great


writers. He has not their quality of style. He is, however, the
propounder of a philosophy. The Platonic dialogues afford us
the example of exquisite literary form and treatment given to
philosophical ideas. Plato is at once a great literary man and a
great philosopher. If we speak carefully, we cannot call Aristotle
or Spinoza or Kant great literary men, or their productions
great literary works. But their work is arranged with such con-
structive power that they build a philosophy, and are justly
called great philosophical writers. Emerson cannot, I think, be
called with justice a great philosophical writer. He cannot
build; his arrangement of philosophical ideas has no progress in
it, no evolution ; he does not construct a philosophy. Emerson
himself knew the defects of his method, or rather want of method,
very well; indeed, he and Carlyle criticise themselves and one
another in a way which leaves little for anyone else to do in the
way of formulating their defects. Carlyle formulates perfectly
the defects of his friend's poetic and literary production when
he says of the Dial: "For me it is too ethereal, speculative,
theoretic; I will have all things condense themselves, take shape
and body, if they are to have my sympathy." And, speaking of
Emerson's Orations, he says: "I long to see some concrete
Thing, some Event, Man's Life, American Forest, or piece of
Creation, which this Emerson loves and wonders at, well
Emersonized depictured by Emerson, filled with the life of
Emerson, and cast forth from him, then to live by itself. If these
Orations balk me of this, how profitable soever they may be for
others, I will not love them." Emerson himself formulates per-
fectly the defect of his own philosophical productions when he
speaks of his "formidable tendency to the lapidary style. I
build my house of bowlders." "Here I sit and read and write,"
he says again, "with very little system, and, as far as regards
composition, with the most fragmentary result; paragraphs in-
comprehensible, each sentence an infinitely repellent particle."
Nothing can be truer; and the work of a Spinoza or Kant, of the
men who stand as great philosophical writers, does not proceed
in this wise.

Some people \\ H 1 yi that Ernerfton's poetry, indeed, is


tgo abstract, and his philosophy__tpp_ vague, but that his best
work is his English Traits. The English Traits are beyond
question very pleasant reading. It is easy to praise them, easy
to commend the author of them. But I insist on always trying
Emerson's work by the highest standards. I esteem him too
much to try his work by any other. Tried by the highest stand-
ards, and compared with the work of the excellent markers and
recorders of the traits of human life of writers like Montaigne,
La Bruyere, Addison the English Traits will not stand the

Online LibraryMaurice G. (Maurice Garland) FultonNational ideals and problems; essays for college English → online text (page 9 of 39)