Emerson's Genius

IT is a matter for congratulation that the task of preparing the biography1 which was to bring Emerson more distinctly into the light, and reveal him even, we suspect, to some who thought they already knew him well, should have fallen to one who could be intimate with Emerson’s thought, and yet, in his own mental habit, has a strong bent toward systematizing. Mr. Cabot has not assumed the function of an interpreter who conceives it his business to construct a consistent Emerson, although he has used the topical method somewhat in treating of certain marked phases of Emerson’s thought and life, such as transcendentalism and religion ; but he early convinces the reader of his ability and honesty in stating Emerson’s thought and relations to society. His wise selection of material and careful arrangement inspire confidence ; in a word, Mr. Cabot shows himself to have that true historical method which marshals facts so that they carry their own inevitable conclusions. This is as valuable in biography as in history; and while the manner of much contemporary biographic work is in the effacement of the biographer, the present subject is plainly one which calls for something more than a collection of letters and diaries. It demands a clear insight, a power to follow clues, and in general a capacity to bring a natural order out of what to many would have been a chaotic mass of material.

The reader will find Mr. Cabot’s memoir most serviceable for supplying that one guide to a study of Emerson’s works which was most needed : the disclosure, namely, of Emerson’s conscious relation to his own thought. In this respect the book before us is admirable. Mr. Cabot appears to have perceived the need, and to have lost no opportunity for adding to the image, which now stands in far clearer light than before, — the image of Emerson as he was to himself. Only as that is well apprehended may the student hope to solve some of the problems of Emerson’s personality in its relation to the men and institutions of his time.

The chronicle of the poet’s external life offers few incidents, and the reader is at first disposed to demur at being supplied with so little material for reconstructing the career. But a moment’s reflection shows that here Mr. Cabot was in full sympathy with his subject, and very judicious in the proportionate treatment. Thus the early years of penury, of struggle, of movement, while the hero was ascertaining his proper function, are given with considerable detail; after that, the mere accidents of travel or lecturing tours are properly subordinated, and one’s attention is drawn to that interior life of the spirit which found its embodiment in words rather than in adventure. There is almost scorn for such detail in the biographer’s quiet mention of the straitened circumstances of Emerson’s boyhood, when he and his brother Edward had but one great-coat between them ; and it is only by incidental and scarcely more than allusive references that the hard struggle for maintenance, which continued through most of Emerson’s life, is intimated to the reader. We wish that this fact of the poet’s narrow means had been more plainly stated : it was not necessary to give details, but a clearer presentation of the close economy of the Emerson household would have brought into stronger light that noble superiority to circumstance, that fidelity to a high calling, which were dominant elements in Emerson’s nature. When he wrote,

“Things are in the saddle,
And ride mankind,”

his own life was a stronger protest, even, than his words.

There is no break to be detected in the continuity of Emerson’s life, scarcely any of those vacillations of purpose, those sudden wayward impulses, which are like the change of voice when a boy becomes a man. The idealist was always there, and the genuineness of a style which was peculiarly his becomes more apparent as one detects its notes in the early letters which are given. If he drew after any pattern, it was that of his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, who seems to have entered into his life more emphatically than any one. Mr. Cabot points out one of the characteristics of her influence in forcing a certain concentration of intellectual life; and in speaking of it, he hints that all the Emerson boys suffered somewhat from the strain laid upon them. “ In Ralph’s case the drawback came in another shape. Want of ‘ that part of education which is conducted in the nursery and the playground, in fights and frolics, in business and politics,’ — leaving him without the help of the free-masonries which these things establish, — no doubt exaggerated the idealist’s tendency to fence himself off from contact with men, and made it an effort for him, in afterlife, to meet them on common terms in every-day intercourse.” Yet this was but a miniature of his whole life. Once and again in his writings, as instanced by the brief quotation just given, Emerson looks wistfully toward the solid ground on which he sees his fellow-men walking, while he himself, by some fatality of his nature, must needs move above the surface. “ The man of his aspirations,” as Mr. Cabot well says, “ was not the moralist, sitting aloof on the heights of philosophy, and overlooking the affairs of men from a distance, but the man of the world, in the true sense of the phrase; the man of both worlds, the public soul, with all his doors open, with equal facility of reception and of communication.” This, as we said, is suggested by his writings, but it is even more clearly brought out in his correspondence.

To his aunt Emerson wrote, always sure of a recipient of his thought, and some measure of her influence over him may be taken by the freedom and fullness with which he tried his speculations on her. Hence, also, his letters to her are especially valuable as marking the high tide of his mind, and disclosing movements more important for making up an estimate of his nature than he was probably aware. Thus there is a fine letter to Miss Emerson, written when loitering in Alexandria, on his return from a health-seeking trip in the South. Emerson was twenty-four years old at the time, apparently had just found his place as a preacher, and was looked upon with growing interest in this capacity. “ It occurs to me lately,” he writes, “ that we have a great many capacities which we lack time and occasion to improve. If I read the Bride of Lammermoor, a thousand imperfect suggestions arise in my mind, to which if I could give heed, I should be a novelist. When I chance to light upon a verse of genuine poetry, — it may be in a corner of a newspaper, — a forcible sympathy awakens a legion of little goblins in the recesses of the soul, and if I had leisure to attend to the fine, tiny rabble I should straightway be a poet. In my day-dreams I do often hunger and thirst to be a painter ; besides all the spasmodic attachments I indulge to each of the sciences and each province of letters. They all in turn play the coquette with my imagination, and it may be I shall die at the last a forlorn bachelor, jilted of them all. But all that makes these reveries noticeable is the indirect testimony they seem to bear to the most desirable attributes of human nature. If it has so many conatus (seekings after), as the philosophic term is, they are not in vain, but point to a duration ample enough for the entire satisfaction of them all.”

Here the conclusion interests us less than the hint which the whole passage gives of Emerson’s appropriation of the world, of his growing sense of power and his expansion of nature. It was not an argument for immortality which he was constructing; it was an attestation of his own indestructible personality. He was aware of the movement of his wings ; he felt them beat the air ; physically he was weak, but he was already testing his spiritual body, and discovering what reaches of vision and flight were possible to it. The very experience of a first journey from home, and especially of that return which always quickens the pulse of a live man, reinforced this interior excursion, and produced an exhilaration which may have been momentary in its extreme exaltation, but clearly marks an epoch in Emerson’s spiritual life. Listen to the confidence which he commits to his diary at this time : —

June, 1827. Although I strive to keep my soul in a polite equilibrium, I belong to the good sect of the Seekers, and conceive that the dissolution of the body will have a wonderful effect on the opinions of all creed-mongers. How the flimsy sophistries that have covered nations — unclean cobwebs that have reached their long dangling threads over whole ages, issuing from the dark bowels of Athanasius and Calvin — will shrink to nothing at that sun-burst of truth ! And nobody will be more glad than Athanasius and Calvin. In my frigidest moments, when I put behind me the subtler evidences, and set Christianity in the light of a piece of human history, — much as Confucius or Solyman might regard it, — I believe myself immortal. The beam of the balance trembles, to be sure, but settles always on the right side. For otherwise all things look so silly. The sun is silly, and the connection of beings and worlds such mad nonsense. I say this, I say that in pure reason I believe my immortality, because I have read and heard often that the doctrine hangs wholly on Christianity. This, to be sure, brings safety, but I think I get bare life without.”

The whole period bounded in his life by his entrance upon the ministry and his resignation of his charge is interesting for the hints which it gives of the working of his mind. Those eight years were the making of Emerson. Then he found his latitude and longitude, and his after-life was in the main the expansion of the thoughts then entertained. We wish his poems were dated. They could scarcely have been so desultory in composition as the essays ; and even if they were subjected to revision and verbal changes, the thought in each could hardly have been altered. Mr. Cabot would have conferred an important favor on students of Emerson if he had given in one of his appendices a list of Emerson’s poems, with the dates of their production. We are greatly mistaken if they would not have thrown interesting light on the recondite subject of Emerson’s growth in consciousness.

Emerson’s desire to preach continued for some time after it had been demonstrated that there was no place for him in the institutional ministry. He seems to have made several efforts to adjust himself to his fellows through this form of association, and at last to have retired, baffled. In the condition of affairs in New England at the time, the ministry was the only possible profession for such a nature as Emerson’s, and in working into it and working out of it Emerson may be said to have been following an experimental course, hardly conscious of its full significance. He was finding himself by the process of elimination, and it is an interesting commentary on New England life, as well as upon Emerson’s personality, that this long and somewhat costly experiment should have been necessary.

The ministry was then, as it always had been in New England, the one recourse for the idealist. Literature there was none, and there was no literary vocation. In the intellectual growth of this province, so intense in its activity, and so comparatively independent of growth elsewhere, there had been a slow differentiation of functions going on. Not long before Emerson’s time the minister had released the politician and the lawyer, and these were now separate persons. In Emerson’s time itself a further separation took place, and the man of letters stood distinct. Emerson was an agent in this development, and as a consequence the choice in many minds between the ministry as a profession and the profession of letters is made earlier in life, and without that long experimental process which took place in Emerson’s case.

The very provincialism of the New England mind, while it enlarged the scope of the ministerial office, and caused that it finally was capable of dividing itself into several distinct offices of the higher life, missed the one fundamental, ineradicable notion of the ministry as disclosed in historic Christianity. It is interesting to note, therefore, that the rock of stumbling, which put an end to Emerson’s ecclesiastical career, was his inability to bring his congregation to take the one little step, which seemed so short, of giving up the sacrament of the eucharist. Refined as that sacrament had become in the conception of the people, it still held them sufficiently to forbid their treating it as unessential. To Emerson, who was an individual, and very lightly bound even by the association of his order, the step was not only easy, it was necessary. Individuals can always do what communities cannot, and Emerson, in breaking the last bond which connected him with institutional Christianity, was following his destiny, as the society which could not break this bond was half blindly obedient to a law which each member of the society, if isolated by thought as Emerson was, might have also disregarded. Emerson, in emancipating himself from the ministry, was freed from a profession ; and since the ministry had come to be regarded simply as a profession, which one might choose as he chose the law or medicine, he was fulfilling the behest of that voice within him whose whispers we have already noticed. To him, as to most of his associates, the ministry was no longer regarded as an order. All the while that he was under the cloak of this profession he was more or less consciously struggling to escape, and one detects in his observations on preaching the rapidly increasing selfknowledge which was soon to make it impossible for him to remain in the pulpit. Thus he notes in his diary at the outset: —

Sunday, April 24, 1824. I am beginning my professional studies. In a month I shall be legally a man; and I deliberately dedicate my time, my talents, and my hopes to the church. . . . I cannot dissemble that my abilities are below my ambition ; and I find that I judged by a false criterion when I measured my powers by my ability to understand and criticise the intellectual character of another. I have, or had, a strong imagination, and consequently a keen relish for the beauties of poetry. My reasoning faculty is proportionably weak; nor can I ever hope to write a Butler’s Analogy, or an Essay of Hume. Nor is it strange that with this confession I should choose theology; for the highest species of reasoning upon divine subjects is rather the fruit of a sort of moral imagination than of the reasoning machines, such as Locke, and Clarke, and David Hume.”

Here is a fumbling about, with his hand near, but not on, the handle of his being. Mark, now, how three years later, in a letter to his aunt, he has got upon the track of himself: “ I preach half of every Sunday. When I attended church on the other half of a Sunday, and the image in the pulpit was all of clay, and not of tunable metal, I said to myself that if men would avoid that general language and general manner in which they strive to hide all that is peculiar, and would say only what was uppermost in their own minds, after their own individual manner, every man would be interesting. Every man is a new creation, can do something best, has some intellectual modes and forms, or a character the general result of all, such as no other agent in the universe has : if he would exhibit that, it must needs be engaging, must be a curious study to every inquisitive mind. But whatever properties a man of narrow intellect feels to be peculiar he studiously hides ; he is ashamed or afraid of himself, and all his communications to men are unskillful plagiarisms from the common stock of thought and knowledge, and he is of course flat and tiresome.”

Finally, an entry in his journal at the beginning of the year in which he resigned his charge marks the last stage in his evolution as he is about to emerge from the chrysalis of the New England ministry: “ January 10, 1832. It is the best part of the man, I sometimes think, that revolts most against his being a minister. His good revolts from official goodness. If he never spoke or acted but with the full consent of his understanding, if the whole man acted always, how powerful would be every act and every word! Well, then, or ill, then, how much power he sacrifices by conforming himself to say or do in other folks’ time, instead of in his own ! The difficulty is that we do not make a world of our own, but fall into institutions already made, and have to accommodate ourselves to them to be useful at all; and this accommodation is, I say, a loss of so much integrity, and of course of so much power. But how shall the droning world get on if all its beaux esprits recalcitrate upon its approved forms and accepted institutions, and quit them all in order to be singleminded ? The double-refiners would produce at the other end the doubledamned.”

This last sentence is a felicitous expression of an eddy in his mental current, but he goes straight at the practical question which his whole nature was asking when, a few days later, he writes with great force and with profound intelligence of his own spiritual quandary : “ Every man hath his use, no doubt, and every one makes ever the effort, according to the energy of his own character, to suit his external condition to his inward constitution. If his external condition does not admit of such accommodation, he breaks the form of his life, and enters a new one which does. If it will admit of such accommodation, he gradually bends it to his mind. Thus Finney can preach, and so his prayers are short. Parkman can pray, and so his prayers are long. Lowell can visit, and so his church service is less. But what shall poor I do, who can neither visit, nor pray, nor preach, to my mind ? ”

Emerson broke the form of his life, and had to make a new one out of such stuff as his opportunities afforded. He lectured and he wrote, but in truth it mattered little just what form his occupation took. He had not left one profession to enter another ; he had cleared himself of professional life altogether, and, having been true to the higher law of his being, he had that reasonable content thereafter which comes to one who has attained full power of consciousness. Emerson never came nearer to telling the whole truth about himself than when he wrote to his betrothed on the eve of their marriage, in a discussion of the comparative merits of Concord and Plymouth as a place of residence : “I am born a poet, — of a low class without doubt, yet a poet. That is my nature and vocation. My singing, be sure, is very husky, and is for the most part in prose. Still I am a poet in the sense of a perceiver and dear lover of the harmonies that are in the soul and in matter, and specially of the correspondence between these and those. A sunset, a forest, a snow-storm, a certain riverview, are more to me than many friends, and do ordinarily divide my day with my books. Wherever I go, therefore, I guard and study my rambling propensities.” And again, in speaking of the efforts of Greeley and Brisbane to attach him to their Fourierite association : “ One must submit, yet I foresaw, in the moment when I encountered these two new friends here, that I cannot content them. They are bent on popular actions. I am, in all my theory, ethics, and politics, a poet, and of no more use in their New York than a rainbow or a firefly. Meantime, they fasten me in their thoughts to transcendentalism, whereof you know I am wholly guiltless, and which is spoken of as a known and fixed element, like salt or meal. So that I have to begin by endless disclaimers and explanations: ' I am not the man you take me for.’ ”

It is delightful to find in these volumes, after the determination of vocation, repeated illustrations of Emerson’s knowledge of himself, — that clear consciousness which he attained, not without effort, as we have seen, but also not with the violent throes of a man hardly born. The circumstances under which he came forward constituted the shell which he had to break, as we have tried to show, but his genius was always immanent, and prophetic from the start. It would be pleasant to point out the many external facts in Emerson’s behavior which are illustrated in these volumes : his home life, his habits of work, his relation to his neighbors, his notes of travel, his discovery of friends. There is abundant opportunity given for a near, friendly acquaintance with a man whom one would gladly have had for a neighbor ; but after all, these considerations recede, and there remains the weightier worth in the revelation which is afforded of the man himself in his self-discovery, in his expansion of nature, his growth of consciousness, in the very heart and secret of his genius. Rarely, we think, has biography made so signal an addition to our power of knowing a man who had already made himself familiar through words. By Mr. Cabot’s aid, it is as if a person with whom we had been talking for hours, who had endeared himself to us by the beauty and richness of his words and the nameless grace of his presence, should then unfold to us the process of his own spiritual being ; not that which made him common with men, but that which gave him distinction, individuality.

  1. A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson. By JAMES ELLIOT CABOT. In two volumes. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1887.