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EMERSON AND HIS WRITINGS.
On introducing to the public the present edition of the works of EMERSON, some notice of their gifted author may not be unacceptable. His life, like that of many literary men, although rich in that mental history which may be read in his works, has in it few external incidents that demand special notice from the biographer.
RALPH WALDO EMERSON was born in 1803, at Boston, U. S. There seems a fitness in that being the native city of Emerson, which is not only the most intel. lectual of the Union, but has long been distinguished as the soil in which those opinions and tendencies that characterize his writings have taken deepest root. From his boyhood he seems to have exhibited the same original and thoughtful turn of mind that marks his later years. He made considerable proficiency in his studies, and took his degree, as Bachelor of Arts, at Harvard University, in his 18th year. He now began to devote some attention to theological pursuits. Holding a very exalted idea of the duties and responsibilities of the religious teacher, he had for some time felt a strong and growing dissatisfaction with the views of faith and practice generally inculcated in the pulpits of New England. His active and inquiring mind gave itself freely up to the investigation of theology; and this, at length, terminated in his becoming pastor of an Unitarian congregation in Boston. But a difference of opinion, that might have easily been foreseen in a mind like that of Emerson, with its dislike and impatience of mere forms, and indifference to “minor points and dogmas dim,” arose between the pastor and his flock. The result was the resignation, by the former, of his ministerial charge. He now began to devote him. self with greater ardour to purely literary pursuits, and accumulated those stores of learning, the variety and richness of which so frequently surprise and please us in his writings.
Since that period he has continued chiefly to reside in comparative retirement at Concord, in Massachussetts. Here have been penned the children of many a thoughtful ramble, amid the calm and beautiful Nature, to him so instinct with poetry and expression-most of those compositions that have long delighted us. From fortune Emerson has, we believe, received enough to place him beyond that thick and feverish atmosphere, where the freedom and honesty of the scholar gradually perish in his struggles with poverty, till he sinks into the mere caterer for the vulgar appetites of the hour.
His Essays, which, like the writings of Montaigne, might often be called soliloquies, so completely are they coloured by the personality of the writer, dwell chiefly on the great topics of life, such as love and friendship, nature and history, selfreliance, heroism, and intellect, as they present themselves to the individual mind; as they can give it helps and admonitions, whereby it may attain a clearer vision, a nobler spiritual growth. All things he views in this aspect. What hopes, what insight into the “method of nature," what inspiration they can give him, is the sole measure of their worth. Thus, physical appearances only become of interest as media for teaching certain spiritual truths; and to the same eye, however diverse they may seem, they but repeat the same lessons.
With Emerson the great study, to which all science and inquiry should converge and minister, is the knowledge, the training, the development, of whatever is most manly in the man-most noble and enduring in the human soul. With him, the chief disgrace in the world is, “not to be a unit; not to be reckoned one character; not to yield that peculiar fruit which each man was created to bear; to be reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand of the party, the section, to which we belong; and our opinion predicated geographically, as the north or the south.” And to further this formation of a high individual character is his chief aim. He has no full and exact system of metaphysics, nor seeks to class the mental powers with phrenological accuracy; scarcely indeed stops to inquire into the details of how we
shall train up those faculties which it may please the philosophers to assign us; but he pours out, in continuous stream, the wealth of his own experience, in full faith, that, to many a poor brother struggling towards the light, these revelations of the manner in which the world and human life appear to, and affect, a solitary New England thinker, cannot fail to have some interest for him also, and may, perhaps, incite him anew to hopeful and earnest effort.
In explaining and enforcing still further his leading idea, the lessons Emerson most frequently inculcates are these: that, under all circumstances, we should possess a grand self-reliance, coupled with a reverent attention and obedience to the voice of our moral nature-that, heedless of mere custom and courtesy, wealth or ease, we should strive to attain a noble simplicity, and truthful. ness of life and language-that, while books and teachers, facts and systems, may aid us much, they must ever be servants, to aid us if they can, but in no case masters, to mould our free and natural thoughts into their forms—and that, above all, we should keep our minds in a constant state of receptivity for that divine thought or idea, which, underlying the sensuous appearances and mechanical uses of things, has for us manifold teachings, that are the truest and highest ends of this “real work-day world.” Only in proportion to a man's reception of the voice of Deity, thus speaking, is he great, is he true, in impulse and action; does he stand in unison with the order of the universe.
Not the least attractive portion of Emerson's writings are those Essays in which he comments on our social and domestic life. He delights to note that, despite all our selfishness, we have more real kindness than is ever spoken; and to him the affections are so divine and deifying-can so gild and gladden, and carry out the soul to so great heights of grandeur and heroism, and can impart so full and serene a pulse to our existence, that he, too, refuses the task of deciding the old quarrel for precedence between the Cherubim who know most, and the Seraphim who LOVE most. The soul that would make its alliances hallowed and enduring must rest them on a common harmony and nobleness of nature between itself and its object; must neither be desirous to intrude its own partialities and dislikes on its friend, nor show a smooth and hollow compliance towards his, and, in conserving its own freedom and plainness of speech, respect them in him also.
With Emerson, the sentiment of duty stands neither upon tradition nor common agreement, on the principle of "utility,” or “the preponderance of the moral sentiments acting with enlightened intellect.” For him it suffices that we feel the sublime emotion-WE OUGHT,—that, beyond all the mazes of doubtful disputation, the broad paths of virtue lie open, like a way of light, to the earnest seeker; and that he who pursues the True and the Good, has the aid of all nature to further his endeavours, and make his success as enduring as her laws. To him the apparent success of the cheat and the swindler is illusion and appearance only.
“In labour, as in life, there can be no cheating. The thief steals from himself; the swindler swindles himself. For the real price of labour is knowledge and virtue, whereof wealth and credit are signs. These signs, like paper-money, may be counterfeited or stolen, but that which they represent-namely, knowledge and virtue, cannot be counterfeited or stolen.” Unlike human laws, which are uncertain in overtaking the offender, ill-proportioned to the offence, and revengeful in their character,-those which the All Father has given to nature, with a grand and unerring certainty, dispense impartial reward and punishment in every case.
As Nature is his monitor and instructor, so also she appears to him the ever Beautiful and Sacred; soothing, consoling, and strengthening; the bringer of new faith, and hope, and light. For her simplest forms and humblest lessons, he has a fine observing eye, an open receptive soul. With him it is no holiday belief, but a deep religious conviction, that
“ Nature never did betray
Amid the woods and fields, under the clear sky, and with the fresh morning airs breathing life into him anew, the simple consciousness of existence carries with it an enjoyment so refined, that he hastens to give utterance to his emotions in language whose eloquence conveys them with unimpaired force and freshness to the reader.
A subject that frequently engages the attention of Emerson, is the position of the man of letters. Amid much admirable matter on this topic, there is one point that seems to him of much importance, and to which we have hitherto given little heednamely, the advantage to the scholar of some degree of physical labour. He conceives truly, that there is an education of the hands, an experience of a high and valuable order, which the closet alone can never supply. In his oration on Man Thinking, he also draws an able and just distinction between the mere student and the mẠN in the study: as between the mere farmer, whose thoughts are bounded by his acres, and man on the farm; man not dwarfed, or shorn of the fair complement of his man. hood, and reduced to a mere vegetable and plodding existence; but, reaping not only his corn, but the moral education which it should also bring. “ Among the multitude of scholars and authors," he observes, “we feel no hallowing presence; we are sensible of a knack and skill, rather than of inspiration.
The talent is some exaggerated faculty, some overgrown member, so that their strength is a disease.”
Emerson is himself a scholar of no mean order. He possesses a wide acquaintance with classic lore, and evinces a familiarity with writers hardly known by name to the general reader. He is also deeply read in our modern literature, more especially in the philosophers of Germany, and our own elder Dramatists; and even culls an occasional extract from the Orientals. Most catholic and hearty is his appreciation of that august brotherhood, who reveal to us the spirit of thu past, and, from its grey twilight sky, shine down on us with so serene a lustre. We find him extending the hand of fellowship to the cold majestic Zeno and—Zoroaster the mystic devotee; to Confucius and–Thomas Carlyle; to the great doubting Goethe and—the humble believing George Herbert. Alike, from ancient Mythology and modern Belief, from science and poetry, he draws materials to illustrate and embellish, to give force and precision to, his thought.
With a becoming reverence for the rich stores of knowledge bequeathed to us by the past, he has no unwise tenderness for its errors. Nothing is too venerable, but it must render itself for judgment to the mind of the inquirer. The hoar of antiquity cannot in any degree make it credible; and consenting tradition confers no infallibi. lity, no authority, that shall render further and fearless investigation unnecessary. His theory of books is noble. “They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book than be warped by it clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system. The one thing in the world of value, is the active soul—the soul free, sovereign, active.”
It has been remarked of Goethe, that his mind was too large and liberal, to accept the shackles of party, on any of the great questions of human interest. The reader who would determine whether or no Emerson believes thus and thus, in relation to the prevailing divisions of opinion, will find himself in a similar difficulty to the Germans with Goethe; and will possibly end his inquiry by terming Emerson, also, the "all-sided.” Truth is to him, not the monopoly of one class, or of many. It is present in all systems and dogmas, in greater or lesser proportion: complete in
But this view neither leads him to the indifference of the sceptic, nor the eclecticism of the modern French school, which, by carefully placing all systems in an alembic, can so easily distil the true philosophy. We find him in one lecture, admirable expounding the argument for Conservatism; in another, asserting the imprescriptible rights of the individual, against the oppression of a class, and rejoi. cing in the decay of kingly and aristocratic power: at one time he lingers with awe amid the fanes of an early religion, and would hear the oracle; and anon he expands and warms in the benign influences of Christian philanthropy, and finds in its humility, in its estimate of the great worth of the human soul, in the filial and affectionate nature of its piety, and in its exaltation of inward purity above mere
externals, a faith “worthy of all acceptation.” Now he loves to dwell on the dim pages of the past, and then begins to prophesy of a new literature, that, Titan-like, will yet arise, to hallow with its genius that mighty continent, where the enterprise of the Anglo-American has already conceived, and carried out, designs of commensurate vastness, for his commerce and physical well-being; but where he has yet to create for himself, in worthy spirit and form, a philosophy and history that shall animate him to a noble and true life; and has yet to sing his poetry in no weak and imitative strain. And to that new literature Emerson himself brings the noblest, the most original, and profound contribution that has yet proceeded from an American pen. He has a sturdy independence, both of thought and style, that gains, in freshness and vigour, what it wants in conformity to European standards and a smooth mediocrity. He finds a music in the ring of the woodman's axe in the primeval forest, and a rude virtue and promise in the Backwood settler; and a charm in a republican sim. plicity and earnestness of life, speech, and behaviour, which he would not exchange for the luxury and hollow courtesy of the city drawing-room, He would not underrate civilization, but exalt the man, and assert the sacredness and supreme value of the present hour and place, to a great soul.
Much of the charm of Emerson's writings lies in the exceedingly picturesque, and often beautiful language, in which he clothes his ideas. Many passages might be quoted in which he rises into the region of poetry. His style abounds in illustration and imagery. Though he does not cast about to express his convictions in polished phrase that shall win the general ear, but in words, forcible and strong as the thought he would utter, yet there is not unfrequently a certain measured and stately music in the structure of his sentences. In many places he combines, in a high degree, a poetical warmth and cultivated fancy, as when in describing a sunrise he concludes thus: “How does nature deify us with a few cheap elements! Give me health and a day, and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous. The dawn is my Assyria; the sunset and moonrise my Paphos, and unimaginable realms of Faerie ; broad noon shall be my England of the senses and the understanding; the night shall be my Germany of mystic philosophy and dreams!”
We cannot disguise the fact, that on a first perusal, Emerson offers many difficulties. Sometimes we fail to seize his meaning, from a looseness of language ; sometimes, from his omitting a link in the idea, in his haste to give to it utterance in the completed form; and often, because he is within the threshold of those higher speculations to which we recur again and again, but to feel, as we retire baffled from the inquiry, that in the human soul there are more mysteries than can be fathomed by its philosophy. But despite these drawbacks, he who approaches the study of the writings of Emerson, in that spirit of patient and reverent investigation which the utterances of one sincere and thoughtful mind demands of another, will be rewarded. Difficulties will disappear; and if a dimness seems to rest on the outlines of that calm colossal soul, we still discern enough to estimate aright its broad and noble proportions. And when we are compelled to dissent from his views, as dissent we sometimes must, we shall do it with respect for the convictions of another, so temperately stated.
In conclusion, we would repeat it, the writings of Emerson have a tendency most elevating, spiritual, and catholic. They are pervaded by a deep piety—by a love of all genial and healthy feelings-of all brave souls and heroic deeds-of all free and earnest thought and endeavour-of every movement that can aid the cause of human progress, which ever lies nearest his heart. And if we would in one sentence express what seems to us the chief excellence of Emerson, it would be, by quoting, as referable to his writings in a peculiar degree, those words, in which he so beautifully speaks of the “souls who made our souls wiser." “ We mark with light in the 'memory the few interviews we have had, in the dreary days of routine and of sin, with those souls who made our souls wiser; that spoke what we thought; that told us what we knew; that gave us leave to be what we inly were. Discharge to men the priestly office, and, present or absent, you shall be followed by their love as by an angel."