The Conduct of Life

By R. W. EMERSON. Boston: Ticknor & Fields. 16mo. pp.288.
IT is a singular fact, that Mr. Emerson is the most steadily attractive lecturer in America. Into that somewhat cold-waterish region adventurers of the sensation kind come down now and then with a splash, to become disregarded King Logs before the next season. But Mr. Emerson always draws. A lecturer now for something like a quarter of a century, one of the pioneers of the lecturing system, the charm of his voice, his manner, and his matter has never lost its power over his earlier hearers, and continually winds new ones in its enchanting meshes. What they do not fully understand they take on trust, and listen, saying to themselves, as the old poet of Sir Philip Sidney,—
“ A sweet, attractive, kind of grace,
A full assurance given by looks,
Continual comfort in a face,
The lineaments of gospel books.”
We call it a singular fact, because we Yankees are thought to be fond of the spreadeagle style, and nothing can be more remote from that than his. We are reckoned a practical folk, who would rather hear about a new air-tight stove than about Plato; yet our favorite teacher’s practicality is not in the least of the Poor Richard variety. If he have any Buncombe constituency, it is that unrealized commonwealth of philosophers which Plotinus proposed to establish ; and if he were to make an almanac, his directions to farmers would be something like this : —“OCTOBER : Indian Summer; now is the time to get in your early Vedas.” What, then, is his secret? Is it not that he out-Yankees us all ? that his range includes us all ? that he is equally at home with the potato-disease and original sin, with pegging shoes and the Oversoul ? that, as we try all trades, so has he tried all cultures? and above all, that his mysticism gives us a counterpoise to our super-practicality ?
There is no man living to whom, as a writer, so many of us feel and thankfully acknowledge so great an indebtedness for ennobling impulses,—none whom so many cannot abide. What does he mean ? ask these last. Where is his system ? What is the use of it all ? What the deuse have we to do with Brahma ? Well, we do not propose to write an essay on Emerson at the fag-end of a February “Atlantic,” with Secession longing for somebody to hold it, and Chaos come again in the South Carolina teapot. We will only say that we have found grandeur and consolation in a starlit night without caring to ask what it meant, save grandeur and consolation ; we have liked Montaigne, as some ten generations before us have done, without thinking him so systematic as some more eminently tedious (or shall we say tediously eminent?) authors ; we have thought roses as good in their way as cabbages, though the latter would have made a better show in the witness-box, if cross-examined as to their usefulness ; and as for Brahma, why, he can take care of himself, and won’t bite us at any rate.
The bother with Mr. Emerson is, that, though he writes in prose, he is essentially a poet. If you undertake to paraphrase what he says, and to reduce it to words of one syllable for infant minds, you will make as sad work of it as the good monk with his analysis of Homer in the “ Epistolæ Obscurorum Virorum.” We look upon him as one of the few men of genius whom our age has produced, and there needs no better proof of it than his masculine faculty of fecundating other minds. Search for his eloquence in his books and you will perchance miss it, but meanwhile you will find that it has kindled all your thoughts. For choice and pith of language he belongs to a better age than ours, and might rub shoulders with Fuller and Browne, — though he does use that abominable word, reliable. His eye for a fine, telling phrase that will carry true is like that of a backwoodsman for a rifle ; and he will dredge you up a choice word from the ooze of Cotton Mather himself. A diction at once so rich and so homely as his we know not where to match in these days of writing by the page ; it is like homespun cloth-of-gold. The many cannot miss his meaning, and only the few can find it. It is the open secret of all true genius. What does he mean, quotha ? He means inspiring hints, a divining-rod to your deeper nature, “plain living and high thinking.”
We meant only to welcome this book, and not to review it. Doubtless we might pick our quarrel with it here and there ; but all that our readers care to know is, that it contains essays on Fate, Power, Wealth, Culture, Behavior, Worship, Considerations by the Way, Beauty, and Illusions. They need no invitation to Emerson. “ Would you know,” says Goethe, “the ripest cherries? Ask the boys and the blackbirds.” He does not advise you to inquire of the crows.