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Ralph Waldo Emerson: Great American Poet

by Moncure D. Conway

On the 30th day of April, 1882, Ralph Waldo Emerson was "gathered to his fathers," at Concord, Mass. The simple Hebrew phrase was never more appropriate, for his ancestors had founded the town and been foremost at every period of its remarkable history. More than two hundred and fifty years ago John Eliot, who had gone from the University of Cambridge, England, to be the "Apostle of the Indians," found on the banks of the Musketaquid a settlement of natives, into whose language he translated the New Testament. In 1634, the Rev. Peter Bulkeley, of Bedfordshire, whose Puritan proclivities brought him under the ban of Laud, migrated with a number of his parishioners to New England; these settled themselves at Musketaquid, which they named Concord. In the next year went, from County Durham probably, Thomas Emerson, whose son married a Bulkeley, and his grandson Rebecca Waldo, descendant of a family of the Waldenses. It was at Concord that the soldiers of George III. first met with resistance. Along the road where many Englishmen have walked with Emerson and Hawthorne, the retreat took place, and wounded soldiers were taken into homes they had invaded to learn the meaning of love to enemies. Some of these brave men never again left the village where they were so kindly nursed. Concord, with its thirteen hundred inhabitants, supplied Washington's army with wood and hay, and suffering Boston with grain and money, with a generosity that shines in American annals. Washington's headquarters were at Craigie House, so long the home of Longfellow, and the Harvard buildings being used as barracks, the university was transferred to Concord.

No mere literary estimate of Emerson's writings can adequately report the man or his work. The value placed upon him by Americans appears strangely exaggerated beside the contemporary English criticism. It were, indeed, easy to cite from European thinkers—Carlyle, Quinet, John Sterling, Arthur Clough, Tyndall, Herman Grimm—words concerning Emerson glowing as those of Margaret Fuller, Hawthorne, Curtis, Lowell, and other American authors; but if such tributes from individual minds are universally felt in America alone, to be simplest truth and soberness, it is because Emerson cannot be seen detached from the cumulative tendencies summed up in him, and from the indefinable revolution in which they found, and still find, expression.

The father of Emerson was a Unitarian preacher of fine culture, melodious voice, handsome person, and especially noted for his paramount interest in the ethical and universal element of religion. He died in 1811, at the age of forty-two, leaving his five sons, of whom Waldo, then eight years old, was the second, to the care of his young wife, who had been Ruth Haskins, of Boston. Emerson's early growth was under the fostering care of good and refined women. His mother has been described by one who knew her, the late Dr. Frothingham, as "of a discerning spirit, and a most courteous bearing; one who knew how to guide the affairs of her own house, as long as she was responsible for that, with the sweetest authority. Both her mind and character were of a superior order, and they set their stamp upon manners of peculiar softness and natural grace and quiet dignity." She was assisted in bringing up her family by her sister-in-law, Mary Emerson, a scholarly woman, well read in theology and philosophy, whose original ideas and sayings marked her as "a character." Another woman who exercised a great influence upon him was Sarah Bradford, afterward married to his relative, Samuel Ripley. She was as thorough a Greek scholar as any person in America, a good mathematician, and a diligent student of science. Many a Harvard student has she coached in that Old Manse where she resided until her death (1867), and where the writer of this has often listened with admiration to her extraordinary conversation. At the same time nothing could have exceeded the practical wisdom and tact with which her household was regulated. "She was absolutely without pedantry," said Emerson. "Nobody ever heard of her learning until a necessity came for its use, and then nothing could be more simple than her solution of the problem proposed to her." At eleven years of age, when Emerson was in the Latin school at Boston, he used to send his translations, generally poetic, to Sarah Bradford for criticism. The "Fates" of Michael Angelo, a large copy of which hung in Emerson's study, must sometimes have softened to the faces of the Ruth and Mary and Sarah, who spun for him the fine golden thread of destiny. Mrs. Emerson had the happiness of seeing four of her sons distinguished for their ability; indeed, it seemed for a time doubtful whether William, Waldo, Edward, or Charles promised the more brilliant career. When the two elder had graduated at Harvard University, they taught at school in order to aid the two younger in completing their course; but these two died prematurely. William was to have been the preacher of the family, but, while pursuing his studies in Germany, he found that he could not honestly follow his father's profession—albeit Goethe, whom he knew, sought to persuade him otherwise. He afterward became an eminent lawyer. His mother's disappointment at this probably led to Emerson's adoption of the profession that his brother had declined. He graduated at eighteen, with a reputation for classical knowledge, general literary culture, and elocution. He had won the Boylston prize for "declamation," and was chosen by his class to deliver the usual poem at graduation. I have heard him say that it was then his ambition to become a teacher of elocution, and that he still regarded it as a less humble aspiration than it might seem. Those who have sat under the spell of Emerson's discourse would certainly never associate anything commonly called rhetoric with him; but I derived, from conversation with him, that his discontent with conventionalisms of thought first took this form of dissatisfaction with the conventional oratory. He thought there might be taught an art of putting things so that they could not be gainsaid. But a man must really hold that which he is to state successfully. He startled me by saying, "I believe that a really eloquent man, though an atheist, or whatever his opinions, would be listened to by any educated congregation in Boston." No one, he said, could discover the charm of Channing's preaching by reading his sermons; there was the heart that rose up to meet him: here was something sufficient, and the multitude went off radiant, fed, satisfied. But Emerson was to teach the new art of eloquence by example.

In 1823, now twenty years of age, Emerson began his studies in theology. Though often attending lectures in Harvard Divinity College he never regularly entered there, but still sat at the feet of Channing, who took a deep personal interest in him. He was "approbated" by the Ministers' Association in 1826. His health having suffered by overwork he passed a winter in the South, and in the following year preached several Sundays at New Bedford, Mass., where he found some friends among the Quakers. He also preached for a time in Concord. In 1829 he was chosen minister of a large congregation in Boston. A venerable minister gave me an account of a sermon he heard from Emerson in those days, impressed on his memory by the vitality it infused in an old theme, and the simplicity with which it was delivered. The text was, "What is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" The emphasis was on the word "own;" and the general theme was, that to every man the great end of existence was the preservation and culture of his individual mind and character. Each man must be saved by his own inward redeemer; and the whole world was for each but a plastic material through which the individual spirit was to realize itself. Aspiration and thought become clear and real only by action and life. If knowledge lead not to action, it passes away, being preserved only on the condition of being used. "The last thing," said my informant, "that any of us who heard him would have predicted of the youth, whose quiet simplicity and piety captivated all, was that he would become the religious revolutionist of America."

And, indeed, so softly did the old religious forms slip away from Emerson, that when he informed his congregation that he could not longer administer the sacrament to them, they could not associate any formidable heresy with his position. They were loath to part with him. In the three years of his ministry he had reflected honor upon their pulpit. He had been active in the philanthropic work of Boston, was chaplain of the Legislature, and on the School Board. A few months after his settlement in Boston he had married Ellen Louisa Tucker and a few months before he gave up his pulpit she died. Under these circumstances of depression Emerson came on his first visit to Europe. The record of his pilgrimage to Coleridge's house at Highgate, to Rydal Mount, and to Craigenputtock, is given in Emerson's "English Traits." He came, hoping to find light upon more serious questions than any that had arisen between him and his Boston congregation; he returned with but one thing made clearer, namely that he had begun an ascent which each must climb alone.

The Old Manse was built in 1767 for Emerson's grandfather, who had become minister of Concord church. Emerson's father was the first child born in it, and used to claim that he was "in arms" on the field when the British were repulsed, being six years old when the fight occurred close to the windows. In this house we now find Emerson, at the age of thirty-one, studying Plato and Plotinus, and the English mystics, but also, with Sarah Ripley, studying Goethe and savants of the new school, like Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire. Here was conceived his first book, "Nature." This essay was published in 1836, the same year in which he wrote the Concord hymn, since annually sung, with its line about "the shot heard round the world." The little book was not at once heard so far, but it proved also the first shot of a revolution. A writer in the Saturday Review speaks of "the great men whom America and England have jointly lost"—Emerson and Darwin—and remarks that "some of those who have been forward in taking up and advancing the impulse given by Darwin, not only on the general ground where it started, but as a source of energy in the wider application of scientific thought, have once and again openly declared that they owe not a little to Emerson." This just remark may be illustrated by Dr. Tyndall's words, in 1873: "The first time I ever knew Waldo Emerson was when, years ago, I picked up at a stall a copy of his 'Nature'; I read it with such delight, and I have never ceased to read it; and if anyone can be said to have given the impulse to my mind it is Emerson; whatever I have done the world owes him." But there is still more significance in this matter. In 1836, when Darwin returned from his voyage round the world, Emerson's "Nature" appeared, in which the new world discovered by the Englishman was ideally recognized by the American.

In 1835 Emerson was married to Lidian Jackson, sister of the late Dr. C. T. Jackson, well known in connection with the discovery of anæsthetics. The Concord house and farm were now purchased, and Emerson's mother came to reside with him. The first works of Emerson brought to his doors those strange pilgrims whom Hawthorne has described in his "Mosses from an old Manse." Lover of solitude as he was, the new teacher had never the heart to send empty from his door anyone of those dejected people groping for the light who sought him out. Mrs. Emerson, a lady of refined sensibilities and profoundly religious nature, must often have been severely tried by these throngs, but not even delicate health prevented her from exercising a large and beautiful hospitality to these spiritually lame, halt, and heart-sick who came to receive a healing touch. Though never ruffled, Emerson was not defenceless before boorish intruders. On one occasion a boisterous declaimer against "the conventionalities," who kept on his hat in the drawing-room after invitation to lay it aside, was told, "We will continue the conversation in the garden," and was genially taken out of doors to enter them no more. Few were the sane, as he told me, who visited him in those earlier days, but the unsane were pretty generally those whose first instinct under any new light is to get it into a tabernacle. Fortunately for Emerson and his household, some of his ablest friends conceived the idea of founding a new society on his principles at Brook Farm, near Boston; but, unfortunately for that community, the unsane folk flocked to it, and it was speedily brought to nought. Some able men, like George Ripley, George Curtis, and Charles Dana, belonged to that community in their youth, but probably Hawthorne wrote the experience of all of them when, just after leaving it, he entered in his note-book (1841), "Really I should judge it to be twenty years since I left Brook Farm.... It already looks like a dream behind me. The real Me was never a member of the community; there had been a spectral appearance there, sounding the horn at daybreak, and milking the cows, and hoeing the potatoes, and raking hay, toiling in the sun, and doing me the honor to assume my name. But this spectre was not myself." The Transcendental Club, too, which preceded this, and which met a few times at the house of Dr. Channing (who tried to comprehend the new ideas, and was always the friend of Emerson), failed. The quarterly magazine that was started, the Dial, did more. Four volumes of it appeared, and to this day they are so interesting that it is a wonder they have not been reprinted; but the serene hours thereon marked were speedily succeeded by days of strife and storm, in which the writers of that periodical were summoned to be leaders. Emerson remained in his home. He now and then visited Brook Farm, but was shrewd enough to foresee its catastrophe from the first. The child who sought her lost butterfly with tears, not knowing that it was softly perched upon her head, had a counterpart in the many enthusiasts, who continued to seek in communities or new sects the beauty which had floated before their eyes; but some there were who made the happier discovery that a quiet New England village, with its cultivated families, in whose Town Hall Emerson taught, was ideal enough. Gradually Prospero drew around him the spirits to which he was related, and Concord became the intellectual centre of the country.

Emerson, as has been stated, at the beginning of his career had assumed the truth of evolution in nature. More and more this idea became fruitful to him. His friend Agassiz, on the appearance of "The Vestiges of Creation," had committed himself warmly against it, but Emerson felt certain that the future of science belonged to that principle, which he had reached by his poetic intuition. Nearly thirty years ago, when I was a member of Divinity College, the theology taught was still a slightly rationalistic Unitarianism and the science qualified by it (though Agassiz would not admit miracle). Some of the students were finding their real professor in Concord. On one evening we went out, travelling the seventeen miles in sleighs, to hear a lecture that was to have been given by him; it had been unavoidably postponed, but Emerson, hearing of our arrival, invited us to his house, and we had no reason to feel any disappointment. Nevertheless, Emerson wrote me that if I would make the preparations he would read an essay in my room. On that occasion Emerson read a paper on "Poetry," in which he stated fully and clearly the doctrine of evolution. This was five years before the appearance of the papers of Darwin and Wallace in the journal of the Linnæan Society (1858), though I find in Emerson's essay as published ("Letters and Social Aims," Chatto & Windus, 1876) that Darwin is mentioned; otherwise that essay is precisely the same that was read to us in 1853. I well remember how we were startled that afternoon by Emerson's emphatic declaration—"There is one animal, one plant, one matter, and one force." He said also: "Science does not know its debt to imagination. Goethe did not believe that a great naturalist could exist without this faculty. He was himself conscious of that help, which made him a prophet among doctors. From this vision he gave grave hints to the geologist, the botanist, and the optician." The name of Emerson would now be set beside that of Goethe by every man of science in America. While as yet "The Vestiges of Creation" was trampled on by preachers and professors, Emerson affirmed its principle to be true, and during some years, in which no recognized man of science ventured to accept Darwin's hypothesis, he sustained its claim by references to the scientific authorities of Europe. For the rest, this essay, read to us at Divinity College, did for some who heard it very much the same that the generalization of Darwin has done for vast numbers of minds. The harmony of nature and thought was in it, clouds floated into light, and though poets were present, it appeared the truest New World poem that we were gathered there around the seer in whose vision the central identity in nature flowed through man's reason, gently did away with discords through their promise of larger harmonies. That which the Brahmans found in the far East, our little company there in the West knew also—"From the poisonous tree of the world two species of fruit are produced, sweet as the waters of life: Love, or the society of beautiful souls, and Poetry, whose taste is like the immortal juice Vishnu." When Emerson had finished there was a hush of silence, the usual applause of his listeners; it seemed hardly broken when Otto Dresel performed some "songs without words."

Emerson was the first man of high social position in America who openly took the anti-slavery position. On May 29, 1831, he admitted an abolitionist to lecture on the subject in his church, six years before even Channing had committed himself to that side. Garrison was at that time regarded as a vulgar street-preacher of notions too wild to excite more than a smile. The despised group on Boston Common was first sheltered by Emerson, and this action was more significant because Emerson was chaplain of the Massachusetts Legislature. Emerson first drew the sympathy of scholars to that side. The voices of the two popular orators, Channing and Phillips, soon followed, and Longfellow began to write the anti-slavery poems collected in 1842. Emerson could not throw himself into any organization, nor did he encourage the scholars around him to do so; he believed that to elevate character, to raise the ethical standard, to inspire courage in the intellect of the country, would speedily make its atmosphere too pure for a slave to breathe. Fearless in vindicating those whose convictions led them to enlist for this particular struggle, Emerson saw in slavery one among many symptoms of the moral disease of the time. "The timidity of our public opinion," he said, "is our disease; or, shall I say, the absence of private opinion. Good nature is plentiful, but we want justice with heart of steel to fight down the proud. The private mind has the access to the totality of goodness and truth, that it may be a balance to a corrupt society; and to stand for the private verdict against popular clamor is the office of the noble. If a humane measure is propounded in behalf of the slave, or of the Irishman, or the Catholic, or for the succor of the poor, that sentiment, that project, will have the homage of the hero. That is his nobility, his oath of knighthood, to succor the helpless and oppressed; always to throw himself on the side of weakness, of youth, of hope, on the liberal, on the expansive side; never on the conserving, the timorous, the lock-and-bolt system. More than our good-will we may not be able to give. We have our own affairs, our own genius, which chain us to our proper work. We cannot give our life to the cause of the debtor, of the slave, or the pauper, as another is doing; but to one thing we are bound, not to blaspheme the sentiment and the work of that man, not to throw stumbling-blocks in the way of the abolitionist, the philanthropist, as the organs of influence and opinion are swift to do." Emerson had as much practical sagacity as genius; when he spoke these words (in a lecture on "The Young American," in Boston, 1844) he had reached a commanding position, carrying with it gravest responsibilities; the destinies of hundreds of young men and women were determined by his lectures. But with reference to the anti-slavery movement, he did more than he exacted from others, and recognized it as a far more important reform than others When, in 1835, Harriet Martineau was nearly mobbed in Boston, personal violence being threatened and no prominent citizen venturing to her side, Emerson and his brother Charles hastened to her defence. "At the time of the hubbub against me in Boston," she writes in her autobiography, "Charles Emerson stood alone in a large company in defence of the right of free thought and speech, and declared that he had rather see Boston in ashes than that I, or anybody else, should be debarred in any way from perfectly free speech. His brother Waldo invited me to be his guest in the midst of my unpopularity."

In 1844, when Massachusetts citizen negroes had been taken to prison from ships in southern ports, Emerson delivered an oration on the anniversary of West Indian emancipation, and spoke sternly on the matter. "If such a damnable outrage can be committed on the person of a citizen with impunity, let the Governor break the broad seal of the State; he bears the sword in vain. The Governor of Massachusetts is a trifler, the State-House in Boston is a play-house; the General Court is a dishonored body, if they make laws which they cannot execute. The great-hearted Puritans have left no posterity." He demanded that the representatives of the State should demand of Congress the instant release, by force if necessary, of the imprisoned negro seamen, and their indemnification. As for dangers to the Union from such demands—"the Union is already at an end when the first citizen of Massachusetts is thus outraged." This address was a bugle, and it filled the anti-slavery ranks with fresh courage. The Herald of Freedom, reporting it at the time, says their eyes were filled with tears as this leader of New England literature came from his poetic solitude to join hands with them.

The service which students and literary men could render in those days was often the subject of anxious consultation, and Emerson never failed to counsel sacrifices for the public duty.

"When the ship is in a storm," he used to say, "the passengers must lend a hand, and even women tug at the ropes." When the Southern States began to secede, some frightened compromisers in the North hoped to soothe them by silencing the abolitionists; roughs were employed to fill the anti-slavery halls and drown every voice. Sometimes there was personal violence. During the war, in which many of his friends were slain, and his only son wounded, no man did better service than Emerson, with voice, pen, and means; and when it ended his counsels were of the utmost importance.

Emerson had a happy old age, and lived to see his golden sheaves around him. In the "Address" (1837), now historical, which brought the fulminations of the Unitarian pulpit and university upon him, in his thirty-fourth year, he admonished the American scholar that, "if the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him." And now America has, in his own history, the impressive confirmation of his faith. In just twenty-nine years from the time that sentence was uttered, the university which repudiated him made him an overseer and a doctor of laws, and a lecturer to the students, and he was the most universally beloved and honored man in America. Where he singly opened his church to abolitionists, he lived to see all churches anti-slavery and the slave set free. The white-robed sage lay in the church founded by his Puritan ancestors, enlarged by his own thought, above whose pulpit was a harp made of golden flowers, and on it an open book made of pinks, pansies, roses, with the word "Finis." Flowers were never more truly symbolical. His effective weapons against error and wrong were like those roses with which the angels, in Goethe's "Faust," drove away the demons, and his sceptre was made known by blossoming in his hand.

The following extract from a letter written by Emerson to one of his children, is reprinted from Cabot's "A Memoir of R. W. Emerson," by permission of the publisher, G. W. Dillingham.

"You are bound to be healthy and happy. I expect so much of you, of course, and neither allow for nor believe any rumors to the contrary. Please not to give the least countenance to any hobgoblin of the sick sort, but live out-of-doors and in the sea-bath and the sail-boat, and the saddle, and the wagon, and, best of all, in your shoes, so soon as they will obey you for a mile. For the great mother Nature will not quite tell her secret to the coach or the steamboat, but says, 'One to one, my dear, is my rule also, and I keep my enchantments and oracles for the religious soul coming alone, or as good as alone, in true love.'"

Book: Shattered Sighs