Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Ralph Waldo Emerson online

. (page 5 of 26)
Online LibraryOliver Wendell HolmesRalph Waldo Emerson → online text (page 5 of 26)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

dust that is covered by their turf.

Such was the place which the advent of Emerson made the Delphi of New
England and the resort of many pilgrims from far-off regions.

On his return from Europe in the winter of 1833-4, Mr. Emerson began to
appear before the public as a lecturer. His first subjects, "Water," and
the "Relation of Man to the Globe," were hardly such as we should have
expected from a scholar who had but a limited acquaintance with physical
and physiological science. They were probably chosen as of a popular
character, easily treated in such a way as to be intelligible and
entertaining, and thus answering the purpose of introducing him
pleasantly to the new career he was contemplating. These lectures are
not included in his published works, nor were they ever published, so
far as I know. He gave three lectures during the same winter, relating
the experiences of his recent tour in Europe. Having made himself at
home on the platform, he ventured upon subjects more congenial to his
taste and habits of thought than some of those earlier topics. In 1834
he lectured on Michael Angelo, Milton, Luther, George Fox, and Edmund
Burke. The first two of these lectures, though not included in his
collected works, may be found in the "North American Review" for 1837
and 1838. The germ of many of the thoughts which he has expanded in
prose and verse may be found in these Essays.

The _Cosmos_ of the Ancient Greeks, the _piu nel' uno_, "The Many in
One," appear in the Essay on Michael Angelo as they also appear in his
"Nature." The last thought takes wings to itself and rises in the little
poem entitled "Each and All." The "Rhodora," another brief poem, finds
itself foreshadowed in the inquiry, "What is Beauty?" and its answer,
"This great Whole the understanding cannot embrace. Beauty may be felt.
It may be produced. But it cannot be defined." And throughout this Essay
the feeling that truth and beauty and virtue are one, and that Nature is
the symbol which typifies it to the soul, is the inspiring sentiment.
_Noscitur a sociis_ applies as well to a man's dead as to his living
companions. A young friend of mine in his college days wrote an essay on
Plato. When he mentioned his subject to Mr. Emerson, he got the caution,
long remembered, "When you strike at a _King_, you must kill him."
He himself knew well with what kings of thought to measure his own
intelligence. What was grandest, loftiest, purest, in human character
chiefly interested him. He rarely meddles with what is petty or ignoble.
Like his "Humble Bee," the "yellow-breeched philosopher," whom he speaks
of as

"Wiser far than human seer,"

and says of him,

"Aught unsavory or unclean
Hath my insect never seen,"

he goes through the world where coarser minds find so much that is
repulsive to dwell upon,

"Seeing only what is fair,
Sipping only what is sweet."

Why Emerson selected Michael Angelo as the subject of one of his
earliest lectures is shown clearly enough by the last sentence as
printed in the Essay.

"He was not a citizen of any country; he belonged to the human race;
he was a brother and a friend to all who acknowledged the beauty
that beams in universal nature, and who seek by labor and
self-denial to approach its source in perfect goodness."

Consciously or unconsciously men describe themselves in the characters
they draw. One must have the mordant in his own personality or he will
not take the color of his subject. He may force himself to picture that
which he dislikes or even detests; but when he loves the character he
delineates, it is his own, in some measure, at least, or one of which he
feels that its possibilities and tendencies belong to himself. Let us
try Emerson by this test in his "Essay on Milton:" -

"It is the prerogative of this great man to stand at this hour
foremost of all men in literary history, and so (shall we not say?)
of all men, in the power to _inspire_. Virtue goes out of him into
others." ... "He is identified in the mind with all select and holy
images, with the supreme interests of the human race." - "Better than
any other he has discharged the office of every great man, namely,
to raise the idea of Man in the minds of his contemporaries and of
posterity, - to draw after nature a life of man, exhibiting such a
composition of grace, of strength, and of virtue as poet had not
described nor hero lived. Human nature in these ages is indebted to
him for its best portrait. Many philosophers in England, France, and
Germany, have formally dedicated their study to this problem; and
we think it impossible to recall one in those countries who
communicates the same vibration of hope, of self-reverence, of
piety, of delight in beauty, which the name of Milton awakes."

Emerson had the same lofty aim as Milton, "To raise the idea of man;"
he had "the power _to inspire_" in a pre√Ђminent degree. If ever a man
communicated those _vibrations_ he speaks of as characteristic of
Milton, it was Emerson. In elevation, purity, nobility of nature, he is
worthy to stand with the great poet and patriot, who began like him as a
school-master, and ended as the teacher in a school-house which had for
its walls the horizons of every region where English is spoken. The
similarity of their characters might be followed by the curious into
their fortunes. Both were turned away from the clerical office by a
revolt of conscience against the beliefs required of them; both lost
very dear objects of affection in early manhood, and mourned for them
in tender and mellifluous threnodies. It would be easy to trace many
parallelisms in their prose and poetry, but to have dared to name any
man whom we have known in our common life with the seraphic singer
of the Nativity and of Paradise is a tribute which seems to savor of
audacity. It is hard to conceive of Emerson as "an expert swordsman"
like Milton. It is impossible to think of him as an abusive
controversialist as Milton was in his controversy with Salmasius. But
though Emerson never betrayed it to the offence of others, he must have
been conscious, like Milton, of "a certain niceness of nature, an honest
haughtiness," which was as a shield about his inner nature. Charles
Emerson, the younger brother, who was of the same type, expresses the
feeling in his college essay on Friendship, where it is all summed up in
the line he quotes: -

"The hand of Douglas is his own."

It must be that in writing this Essay on Milton Emerson felt that he was
listening in his own soul to whispers that seemed like echoes from that
of the divine singer.

* * * * *

My friend, the Rev. James Freeman Clarke, a life-long friend of Emerson,
who understood him from the first, and was himself a great part in the
movement of which Emerson, more than any other man, was the leader, has
kindly allowed me to make use of the following letters: -


PLYMOUTH, MASS., March 12, 1834.

MY DEAR SIR, - As the day approaches when Mr. Lewis should leave
Boston, I seize a few moments in a friendly house in the first of
towns, to thank you heartily for your kindness in lending me the
valued manuscripts which I return. The translations excited me much,
and who can estimate the value of a good thought? I trust I am to
learn much more from you hereafter of your German studies, and much
I hope of your own. You asked in your note concerning Carlyle. My
recollections of him are most pleasant, and I feel great confidence
in his character. He understands and recognizes his mission. He is
perfectly simple and affectionate in his manner, and frank, as he
can well afford to be, in his communications. He expressed some
impatience of his total solitude, and talked of Paris as a
residence. I told him I hoped not; for I should always remember
him with respect, meditating in the mountains of Nithsdale. He was
cheered, as he ought to be, by learning that his papers were read
with interest by young men unknown to him in this continent; and
when I specified a piece which had attracted warm commendation from
the New Jerusalem people here, his wife said that is always the way;
whatever he has writ that he thinks has fallen dead, he hears of
two or three years afterward. - He has many, many tokens of Goethe's
regard, miniatures, medals, and many letters. If you should go to
Scotland one day, you would gratify him, yourself, and me, by your
visit to Craigenputtock, in the parish of Dunscore, near Dumfries.
He told me he had a book which he thought to publish, but was in
the purpose of dividing into a series of articles for "Fraser's
Magazine." I therefore subscribed for that book, which he calls the
"Mud Magazine," but have seen nothing of his workmanship in the two
last numbers. The mail is going, so I shall finish my letter another

Your obliged friend and servant,


CONCORD, MASS., November 25, 1834.

MY DEAR SIR, - Miss Peabody has kindly sent me your manuscript piece
on Goethe and Carlyle. I have read it with great pleasure and a
feeling of gratitude, at the same time with a serious regret that it
was not published. I have forgotten what reason you assigned for not
printing it; I cannot think of any sufficient one. Is it too late
now? Why not change its form a little and annex to it some account
of Carlyle's later pieces, to wit: "Diderot," and "Sartor Resartus."
The last is complete, and he has sent it to me in a stitched
pamphlet. Whilst I see its vices (relatively to the reading public)
of style, I cannot but esteem it a noble philosophical poem,
reflecting the ideas, institutions, men of this very hour. And it
seems to me that it has so much wit and other secondary graces as
must strike a class who would not care for its primary merit, that
of being a sincere exhortation to seekers of truth. If you still
retain your interest in his genius (as I see not how you can avoid,
having understood it and cooperated with it so truly), you will be
glad to know that he values his American readers very highly;
that he does not defend this offensive style of his, but calls it
questionable tentative; that he is trying other modes, and is about
publishing a historical piece called "The Diamond Necklace," as a
part of a great work which he meditates on the subject of the French
Revolution. He says it is part of his creed that history is poetry,
could we tell it right. He adds, moreover, in a letter I have
recently received from him, that it has been an odd dream that he
might end in the western woods. Shall we not bid him come, and be
Poet and Teacher of a most scattered flock wanting a shepherd? Or,
as I sometimes think, would it not be a new and worse chagrin to
become acquainted with the extreme deadness of our community to
spiritual influences of the higher kind? Have you read Sampson
Reed's "Growth of the Mind"? I rejoice to be contemporary with that
man, and cannot wholly despair of the society in which he lives;
there must be some oxygen yet, and La Fayette is only just dead.

Your friend, R. WALDO EMERSON.

It occurs to me that 't is unfit to send any white paper so far as
to your house, so you shall have a sentence from Carlyle's letter.

[This may be found in Carlyle's first letter, dated 12th August, 1834.]
Dr. Le Baron Russell, an intimate friend of Emerson for the greater part
of his life, gives me some particulars with reference to the publication
of "Sartor Resartus," which I will repeat in his own words: -

"It was just before the time of which I am speaking [that of
Emerson's marriage] that the 'Sartor Resartus' appeared in 'Fraser.'
Emerson lent the numbers, or the collected sheets of 'Fraser,' to
Miss Jackson, and we all had the reading of them. The excitement
which the book caused among young persons interested in the
literature of the day at that time you probably remember. I was
quite carried away by it, and so anxious to own a copy, that I
determined to publish an American edition. I consulted James Munroe
& Co. on the subject. Munroe advised me to obtain a subscription to
a sufficient number of copies to secure the cost of the publication.
This, with the aid of some friends, particularly of my classmate,
William Silsbee, I readily succeeded in doing. When this was
accomplished, I wrote to Emerson, who up to this time had taken no
part in the enterprise, asking him to write a preface. (This is the
Preface which appears in the American edition, James Munroe & Co.,
1836. It was omitted in the third American from the second London
edition,[1] by the same publishers, 1840.) Before the first edition
appeared, and after the subscription had been secured, Munroe & Co.
offered to assume the whole responsibility of the publication, and
to this I assented.

[Footnote 1: Revised and corrected by the author.]

"This American edition of 1836 was the first appearance of the
'Sartor' in either country, as a distinct edition. Some copies of
the sheets from 'Fraser,' it appears, were stitched together and sent
to a few persons, but Carlyle could find no English publisher willing
to take the responsibility of printing the book. This shows, I think,
how much more interest was taken in Carlyle's writings in this country
than in England."

On the 14th of May, 1834, Emerson wrote to Carlyle the first letter of
that correspondence which has since been given to the world under the
careful editorship of Mr. Charles Norton. This correspondence lasted
from the date mentioned to the 2d of April, 1872, when Carlyle wrote his
last letter to Emerson. The two writers reveal themselves as being in
strong sympathy with each other, in spite of a radical difference of
temperament and entirely opposite views of life. The hatred of unreality
was uppermost with Carlyle; the love of what is real and genuine with
Emerson. Those old moralists, the weeping and the laughing philosophers,
find their counterparts in every thinking community. Carlyle did not
weep, but he scolded; Emerson did not laugh, but in his gravest moments
there was a smile waiting for the cloud to pass from his forehead. The
Duet they chanted was a Miserere with a Te Deum for its Antiphon; a _De_
_Profundis_ answered by a _Sursum Corda_. "The ground of my existence
is black as death," says Carlyle. "Come and live with me a year," says
Emerson, "and if you do not like New England well enough to stay, one of
these years; (when the 'History' has passed its ten editions, and been
translated into as many languages) I will come and dwell with you."

Section 2. In September, 1835, Emerson was married to Miss Lydia
Jackson, of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The wedding took place in the fine
old mansion known as the Winslow House, Dr. Le Baron Russell and his
sister standing up with the bridegroom and his bride. After their
marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Emerson went to reside in the house in which
he passed the rest of his life, and in which Mrs. Emerson and their
daughter still reside. This is the "plain, square, wooden house," with
horse-chestnut trees in the front yard, and evergreens around it, which
has been so often described and figured. It is without pretensions, but
not without an air of quiet dignity. A full and well-illustrated account
of it and its arrangements and surroundings is given in "Poets' Homes,"
by Arthur Gilman and others, published by D. Lothrop & Company in 1879.

On the 12th of September, 1835, Emerson delivered an "Historical
Discourse, at Concord, on the Second Centennial Anniversary of
the Incorporation of the Town." There is no "mysticism," no
"transcendentalism" in this plain, straightforward Address. The facts
are collected and related with the patience and sobriety which became
the writer as one of the Dryasdusts of our very diligent, very useful,
very matter-of-fact, and for the most part judiciously unimaginative
Massachusetts Historical Society. It looks unlike anything else Emerson
ever wrote, in being provided with abundant foot-notes and an appendix.
One would almost as soon have expected to see Emerson equipped with
a musket and a knapsack as to find a discourse of his clogged with
annotations, and trailing a supplement after it. Oracles are brief and
final in their utterances. Delphi and Cumae are not expected to explain
what they say.

It is the habit of our New England towns to celebrate their own worthies
and their own deeds on occasions like this, with more or less of
rhetorical gratitude and self-felicitation. The discourses delivered
on these occasions are commonly worth reading, for there was never a
clearing made in the forest that did not let in the light on heroes and
heroines. Concord is on the whole the most interesting of all the inland
towns of New England. Emerson has told its story in as painstaking,
faithful a way as if he had been by nature an annalist. But with this
fidelity, we find also those bold generalizations and sharp picturesque
touches which reveal the poetic philosopher.

"I have read with care," he says, "the town records themselves.
They exhibit a pleasing picture of a community almost exclusively
agricultural, where no man has much time for words, in his search
after things; of a community of great simplicity of manners, and of
a manifest love of justice. I find our annals marked with a uniform
good sense. - The tone of the record rises with the dignity of the
event. These soiled and musty books are luminous and electric
within. The old town clerks did not spell very correctly, but
they contrive to make intelligible the will of a free and just
community." ... "The matters there debated (in town meetings) are
such as to invite very small consideration. The ill-spelled pages
of the town records contain the result. I shall be excused for
confessing that I have set a value upon any symptom of meanness and
private pique which I have met with in these antique books, as
proof that justice was done; that if the results of our history are
approved as wise and good, it was yet a free strife; if the
good counsel prevailed, the sneaking counsel did not fail to be
suggested; freedom and virtue, if they triumphed, triumphed in a
fair field. And so be it an everlasting testimony for them, and so
much ground of assurance of man's capacity for self-government."

There was nothing in this Address which the plainest of Concord's
citizens could not read understandingly and with pleasure. In fact Mr.
Emerson himself, besides being a poet and a philosopher, was also a
plain Concord citizen. His son tells me that he was a faithful attendant
upon town meetings, and, though he never spoke, was an interested and
careful listener to the debates on town matters. That respect for
"mother-wit" and for all the wholesome human qualities which reveals
itself all through his writings was bred from this kind of intercourse
with men of sense who had no pretensions to learning, and in whom, for
that very reason, the native qualities came out with less disguise in
their expression. He was surrounded by men who ran to extremes in their
idiosyncrasies; Alcott in speculations, which often led him into the
fourth dimension of mental space; Hawthorne, who brooded himself into
a dream - peopled solitude; Thoreau, the nullifier of civilization, who
insisted on nibbling his asparagus at the wrong end, to say nothing of
idolaters and echoes. He kept his balance among them all. It would
be hard to find a more candid and sober record of the result of
self-government in a small community than is contained in this simple
discourse, patient in detail, large in treatment, more effective than
any unsupported generalities about the natural rights of man, which
amount to very little unless men earn the right of asserting them by
attending fairly to their natural duties. So admirably is the working of
a town government, as it goes on in a well-disposed community, displayed
in the history of Concord's two hundred years of village life, that
one of its wisest citizens had portions of the address printed
for distribution, as an illustration of the American principle of

After settling in Concord, Emerson delivered courses of Lectures in
Boston during several successive winters; in 1835, ten Lectures on
English Literature; in 1836, twelve Lectures on the Philosophy of
History; in 1837, ten Lectures on Human Culture. Some of these lectures
may have appeared in print under their original titles; all of them
probably contributed to the Essays and Discourses which we find in his
published volumes.

On the 19th of April, 1836, a meeting was held to celebrate the
completion of the monument raised in commemoration of the Concord Fight.
For this occasion Emerson wrote the hymn made ever memorable by the
lines: -

Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The last line of this hymn quickens the heartbeats of every American,
and the whole hymn is admirable in thought and expression. Until the
autumn of 1838, Emerson preached twice on Sundays to the church at East
Lexington, which desired him to become its pastor. Mr. Cooke says that
when a lady of the society was asked why they did not settle a friend of
Emerson's whom he had urged them to invite to their pulpit, she replied:
"We are a very simple people, and can understand no one but Mr.
Emerson." He said of himself: "My pulpit is the Lyceum platform."
Knowing that he made his Sermons contribute to his Lectures, we need not
mourn over their not being reported.

In March, 1837, Emerson delivered in Boston a Lecture on War, afterwards
published in Miss Peabody's "Aesthetic Papers." He recognizes war as one
of the temporary necessities of a developing civilization, to disappear
with the advance of mankind: -

"At a certain stage of his progress the man fights, if he be of a
sound body and mind. At a certain high stage he makes no offensive
demonstration, but is alert to repel injury, and of an unconquerable
heart. At a still higher stage he comes into the region of holiness;
passion has passed away from him; his warlike nature is all
converted into an active medicinal principle; he sacrifices himself,
and accepts with alacrity wearisome tasks of denial and charity;
but being attacked, he bears it, and turns the other cheek, as one
engaged, throughout his being, no longer to the service of an
individual, but to the common good of all men."

In 1834 Emerson's brother Edward died, as already mentioned, in the West
India island where he had gone for his health. In his letter to Carlyle,
of November 12th of the same year, Emerson says: "Your letter, which
I received last week, made a bright light in a solitary and saddened
place. I had quite recently received the news of the death of a brother
in the island of Porto Rico, whose loss to me will be a lifelong
sorrow." It was of him that Emerson wrote the lines "In Memoriam," in
which he says, -

"There is no record left on earth
Save on tablets of the heart,
Of the rich, inherent worth,
Of the grace that on him shone
Of eloquent lips, of joyful wit;
He could not frame a word unfit,
An act unworthy to be done."

Another bereavement was too soon to be recorded. On the 7th of October,
1835, he says in a letter to Carlyle: -

"I was very glad to hear of the brother you describe, for I have one
too, and know what it is to have presence in two places. Charles
Chauncy Emerson is a lawyer now settled in this town, and, as I
believe, no better Lord Hamlet was ever. He is our Doctor on
all questions of taste, manners, or action. And one of the pure
pleasures I promise myself in the months to come is to make you two
gentlemen know each other."

Alas for human hopes and prospects! In less than a year from the date of
that letter, on the 17th of September, 1836, he writes to Carlyle: -

"Your last letter, dated in April, found me a mourner, as did your
first. I have lost out of this world my brother Charles, of whom I
have spoken to you, - the friend and companion of many years, the

Online LibraryOliver Wendell HolmesRalph Waldo Emerson → online text (page 5 of 26)