Random Reminiscences of Emerson

I CANNOT remember the time when Ralph Emerson and myself were not acquainted. Our earliest acquaintance must have neighbored to our babyhood. I recollect playing with him and the late Samuel Bradford ( Treasurer, years after, of the Reading Railroad), under my mother’s eye, on the floor in the old house where I was born, in Federal Street, Boston, when our ages ranged between six and eight. I was the eldest, Ralph the youngest.

For our A B C we went to a Dame’s school in Summer Street, opposite to Trinity Church, a homely wooden building then, with neither steeple nor tower. The rector was Dr. Gardiner, of whom it was told that, when a parishioner of his, the Hon. Mr. Lloyd, for a long time Massachusetts Senator, complained to him that he had made a wounding allusion to himself in his sermon, the doctor replied that he had not written a sermon for twenty years.

Although Emerson’s memory failed towards the last, he never forgot, I believe, a pocket handkerchief of mine which I brought to the school, emblazoned with prints illustrative of one of Mother Goose’s immortal stories. He referred to it more than once, in his old age.

What beautiful picture-books children have now ! Not so was it in our young days. One of the books from which we learned the alphabet had in it a picture of “the rude boy who got up into a man’s apple-tree.”So coarsely engraved was it that it was almost impossible to distinguish the boy’s head from the apples. The print, however, gave that play to the imagination which children love.

Emerson and I next went to a writingschool, to learn that art. We sat alongside each other ; and I can see him now, working hard, with his tongue out, moving in accord with his pen. Years after, when I received the first letter from him,

I marveled at the flowing hand he had achieved.

Even in those early days he wrote verses, chiefly patriotic, I remember, on the naval victories of the day, — the battle of The Constitution and The Guerriere, for example.

We were very proud of the stars and stripes, which puts me in mind : our national motto, " E pluribus unum,” does not mean, as I imagine it is generally un derstood, one made up of many, but one out of many. My friend, the late Edward Law, a Harvard man of the class of 1819, once suggested a finer motto for this nation, “ Inseparabilis, Insuperabilis,” which requires no knowledge of Latin to be understood.

My outspoken admiration for these early verses of Ralph was great, and I was repaid by his praises of my drawings. I was rather distinguished in those days for my artistic productions, which were chiefly horses. The Boston Hussars, who had at that time adopted a splendid new uniform, the delight of all the children, were my favorite models. The horses I drew could draw me, I suspect, far better than I them.

I am reminded here that when I was at St. Augustine, some years ago, and visited the Indians at that time confined in the fort, I found one of them busy with his pencil, drawing what a sharp eye might detect were meant for horses. As there was no hint of joints in the legs of the animals he drew. I fancied I could teach him. I took a pencil and dashed off a full-blooded barb. The Indian artist instantly rubbed out my picture, and pointed to his own work, exclaiming, “ Heap good ! ” There was no tomahawk lying about, so I withdrew, convinced that the Indians are hopelessly uncivilized.

To return to Emerson. It was when we were at writing-school that he composed a story in verse, to which he gave the name of Fortus, its hero. I have a vague impression that I illustrated it. I did illustrate, subsequently, a Hudibrastic account of a rebellion that broke out in college when I was there, written by a classmate of mine, Pierce by name. I fear the representations of some of the faculty looked like caricatures. They were honestly meant to by faithful likenesses.

Emerson was all genius, of miraculous insight. But he could not draw, nor sing, nor play, not even on a Jew’s-harp, a musical instrument popular among boys in those days. If, by some sleight of hand, or sleight of talent, — which is it? — one did any of such like things that he could not do, Emerson extolled him to the skies. This is the reason, I imagine, — so fond was he of praising, — why his swans turned out to be — not swans. In fact, he had no talent; only pure genius. He could not use our beautiful literary paper money. He had to coin his own language in the fire of his own genius. It was all bullion, without a particle of alloy ; solid gold. I once said in print, somewhere, that since Shakespeare no one had used words so grandly as Emerson. An English admirer of his, Mr. Ireland, quoted this remark, evidently regarding it as a bit of extravagant eulogy. When I first read that exquisite little poem of Emerson’s, The Titmouse, in which he tells of being lost in the woods in a New England snowstorm that raged around him so fiercely that he feared he should not get safely out of it, and a titmouse came, hopping from twig to twig, chirping as merrily as if he were overflowing with the enjovment of a balmy midsummer’s day, and the wee bird is described as

“ this atom in full breath
Hurling defiance at vast death,”

I turned, without a moment’s delay, to my Shakespeare Concordance, to discover whether or not Emerson had borrowed from Shakespeare that epithet “vast” as applied to death, so true to the situation, to the all-surrounding storm, threatening death everywhere. The phrase was not in the Concordance. Thoroughly and genuinely Shakespearean as it is, it is Emerson’s own.

When we were in college, — Emerson was a year after me, — Rhetoric was all the rage. No one was more completely under the spell than he. A finely turned sentence, a happy figure of speech, threw us into a spasm of enthusiasm. Edward Everett was a master in that line. As Emerson said in one of his lectures here in Philadelphia, the boys of those college days got by heart passages of Everett’s sermons and addresses. Here is an instance in point, which I quote from my boyish memory. Everett was hardly more than a boy himself when he was ordained pastor of Brattle Street Church,—only nineteen years of age. He preached once in the college chapel. One of the things he said, apropos I do not recollect of what, ran thus : “ In the Capuchin church in Vienna sixty-six emperors are sleeping ; none of your mushroom emperors, but men whose fathers and grandfathers were kings.” I do not think Emerson ever became insensible to the charm of the Everetts. There was a younger brother of Edward. John, a brilliant, promising youth, remarkably like Edward in person, voice, and mind. He died young. Emerson told me that his own elder brother, William, once had a quarrel with John Everett (the two were classmates), which was made up, after exchanging notes. Emerson quoted with great admiration a passage in one of John Everett’s notes in which the writer referred to “ trifles that children resent, and boys magnify.” When John Everett’s class was graduated, he delivered the class oration. It set all college wild. Here is a specimen of it, — it was published, but I quote from memory : “ Love of our country. We too have our love (alas that it is no other !), like the fabled spirit of the Frozen Ocean, in appearance more beautiful than the fairest of the daughters of earth. The rose of beauty was bright on her cheek, and perfection dwelt in the symmetry of her form. But no sigh of passion ever agitated her marble bosom, and when her accents fell upon the air they froze it to snow with their icy coldness. Such is the love we bear our country. There is nothing noble in its nature, nor generous in its operation.” This sounds now, to my ears, like a fairy strain from far away.

Emerson was a right loyal friend. I preached my first sermons in Boston in 1823, being then twenty-one years of age. Emerson once came to hear me. The next day I got a letter from him that tore my preaching all to shreds, — not a whole piece left. I dare say he was not really so hard on me as it seemed then. Self-love is so tender, so thinskinned, that it cannot for the moment distinguish the prick of a pin from the stab of a dagger. There was no coating of sugar on the pill, no credit given me for anything. I found it hard to keep in mind that “ Faithful are the wounds of a friend.”

After my faithful friend’s death. Dr. Hedge told me that Mr. Cabot, Emerson’s literary executor and admirable biographer, sent, him some of Emerson’s old — or rather, young — sermons, to see whether there were any that should be published. Among them was one on the duty of “going to meeting in the afternoon.” And this, forsooth, from one who, after he left the pulpit, neglected to go to meeting even in the forenoon. He preached grandly for me here in Philadelphia, before he gave up the pastoral office. I suppose he used the best of his sermons in his lectures. I am very sorry I did not keep that stinging letter. I should have kept it, had I known what a power Emerson was to become in the world. One cannot now take up a book that has not some word of his in it. The prime minister of the king of Greece, it is reported, reads a page or two of Emerson every morning, — proof that ancient Greece still lives in modern, and a good example to prime ministers. Had I known what Emerson was to become, I should have been his Boswell.

In his latter days he was troubled with aphasia, which manifested itself in a strikingly characteristic way. His insight was so keen that he never could abide mere names. Most of us, when we are ill, find something to comfort us when the doctors give names to our sicknesses. Not so with Emerson. He penetrated beyond names, and dealt only with realities. Accordingly, when this infirmity of memory came upon him, he forgot the names of the most familiar things, but he could describe them so that one instantly knew what was meant. Once he was telling me about a friend of his in Concord, who, he said, was employed in — here he hesitated — in one of those places where you get money. “ A bank? ” “Oh, yes,”he replied, “ in the bank.” Speaking of another friend, he said, in like manner, that he was “ interested in those things that go to and fro.” “ Railroads ? ” I asked. “ Ah, yes, railroads,” was his answer. This decay of memory grew upon him so rapidly that to his nearest and dearest there was somewhat of reconciliation to his leaving them when he did. Had his life been prolonged, the time might have come when he would not have known his own kindred. Had that ever been the case, I am inclined to think that Samuel Bradford and I, associated as we were with his very earliest childhood, would have been the last that he would have failed to recognize.

Upon his first visit to England, where he lectured, Emerson was the guest of Carlyle. When the visit was over, friends there were curious to know how Carlyle and he got on together. The late Dr. William B. Carpenter, who visited this country some years ago, was one of these friends, and told me that Carlyle spoke of Emerson In terms so offensively disparaging that I will not repeat them, and for which, considering what Carlyle owed to Emerson, if for nothing else, I have never been able to forgive him. Carlyle, in his last days, spared no one. His bad humor has found an excuse in his dyspepsia, which is putting the cart before the horse. It was his bad humor that upset his digestion.

I am infinitely indebted to Carlyle’s writings. Sartor Resartus, and especially those fine articles of his in the Edinburgh Review, did much to determine my way of thinking. But was he faithful to his own convictions ? “ Strength is shown, not in spasms, but in stout bearing of burthens,” is one of his sayings. One burthen (a heavier could hardly have been laid on him) he did bear nobly, — the destruction of the manuscript of the first volume of his History of the French Revolution. But while magnifying silence, he kept talking on. Emerson, who had a boundless admiration for him, — I think it is apparent in their published correspondence, — said that Carlyle’s latter-day jeremiads could well have been spared. A long time ago Emerson sent me for perusal a budget of Carlyle’s letters, in one of which he said, “ I hear but one voice in all the world, and that comes to me from Concord.” The melancholy time came when the only voice Carlyle heard was his own. He had not Emerson’s insight. He saw God in the past. He was stone-blind to God in the present.

Carlyle was at the first more widely known in this country than in his own, owing to Emerson, who had Carlyle’s articles in the Reviews republished in this country. A few of us busied ourselves in procuring subscribers to the work, and succeeded so well that Emerson was able to send five hundred pounds to Carlyle, which enabled him to keep a horse. This alone should have secured his lasting gratitude to his American friend. When Emerson’s Essays were published in England, Carlyle wrote a preface to the book, the terms of which struck me at the time as lacking a generous, open-hearted appreciation of Emerson.

I doubt whether Emerson was ever better paid for his lectures than in Philadelphia. When I handed him a check for twelve hundred dollars for his six lectures, “ What a swindle ! ” was his exclamation.

In one of his lectures in this city a laughable circumstance occurred. He told the story of the Englishman and the Frenchman (when the story is told in France, it is said, the nationalities are reversed) who agreed to fight a duel in a room with all the lights put out. The Englishman fired up the chimney and brought down the Frenchman. After an interval, when the laughter had subsided, an old gentleman, whom the joke had just reached, hurst into a roar, which again brought down the house.

Emerson’s habit was, so I have heard, to jot down on scraps of paper the thoughts that came to him, and stow them away in pigeon-holes. When he was in want of a lecture, he culled it from these notes. But he had great trouble in finding titles for the essays, lectures, poems, that he wrote. Nearly fifty years ago I edited an annual, The Diadem, so entitled. Annuals, éditions de luxe, were all the fashion then. The Diadem was a quarto, illustrated by mezzotint engravings by Mr. Sartain. For the letterpress I put my friends under contribution. Some of Emerson’s poems first appeared in my annual. The manuscript of one which he sent me was entitled Loss and Gain, and then, in pencil, “or any other title,” — an unconscious imitation of Shakespeare, who did something of like sort when, possibly, embarrassed as to the titles of his plays; for example, Twelfth Night, or What You Will, As You Like It. Emerson’s poem itself is a perfect unity. The one idea of it is that virtue, the true, the good, must be worshiped for itself alone ; really. substantially, one — not theologically, but aesthetically — with the saying of the venerable Dr. Samuel Hopkins that no man can be saved who is not willing to be damned for the glory of God. A great truth strongly stated. There must be no alloy of self-regard in the worship of the perfect in religion or in art. Emerson appeared greatly amused, chuckling to himself, when I once asked him if he had not enough scraps to weld into a lecture. I had used the right word for his difficulty.

There are more things than one that Emerson has written that I do not comprehend. I do not know what he means when he says “ the soul knows not persons.” I am inclined to think the soul knows nothing else. I cannot reconcile this saying with his affirmation that ‘‘the principle of veneration never dies.” But I must submit to Coleridge’s rule, — When you cannot understand a, man’s ignorance, account yourself ignorant of his understanding. ’ Emerson was not bound to be consistent. “Consistency ” he says, — “it is a fool’s word. Say what you think to-day in words like cannon-balls, even though it contradicts what, you said yesterday.” He declared " Jesus to be the only soul in all history who has appreciated the worth of a man.”Again, he speaks of him as “the one man who was true to what is in you and in me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man. He said, in his jubilee of sublime emotion, I am divine. Through me God acts ; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me.” How one delights to quote Emerson !

I wish our young people who are forming clubs for the study of Emerson may have some curiosity to study the man of Nazareth, whom Kant pronounces the incarnation of the Absolute Reason; that is, of Religion.” 1

I question whether, if Jesus had never existed, we should ever have had an Emerson ; or, if we could have had Emerson, whether we should have understood him. There are not a few, nowadays, who appear to think that Jesus is behind the age. Behind the age! Why, there are sayings of his, plain enough, apparently, which many persons of education and position — marry, members of Congress — have not fathomed; as, for example, the definition he gives of the Sabbath, — “ The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” Thousands insist that the day is the sacred thing. For what reason ? Because God rested on the Sabbath? What man is so childish as to believe that God was ever fatigued ? Jesus said, when it was objected to him that he wrought works of humanity on the Sabbath, “ My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” If the seventh day is sacred in itself, by what authority have Christians dared to cease observing it, transferring the sanctity to the first day of the week ? The Sabbath day is not more sacred than any other day. The sacredness is in Man. Six days are sacred to labor, and one day in seven is sacred to whatever rests and exhilarates man’s weary limbs and brain. Strange is it that there should be any question about the opening of the Chicago Exhibition on the rest day. Were it decided to open that great, interesting, and instructive show only one day in the week, it should be, of all the days in the week, the day devoted to whatever rests and refreshes the weary and the hard-worked. When the question came up of keeping open on Sunday the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, the Roman Catholic, Archbishop Wood, recommended its being opened from noon till six P, M. on that day.

But I am growing garrulous. I must not preach. Pardon something, dear reader, to the force of habit. I early conceived a great admiration for Sydney Smith. His two volumes of sermons (1809) are among the most eloquent I know of. I made bold to write to him, when I was very considerably younger than I am now, to express my delight in his articles in the early numbers of the Edinburgh Review. Here is his answer, which I took as a hint to myself, and got it by heart:—

DEAR SIR, — I thank you for your approval of my trifling productions. I have always endeavored to write honestly, boldly, and for use, believing that sincerity and corage [sic] would make mediocrity respectable.

Yrs. SYDNEY SMITH.

I have nothing more to tell of Emerson. His biography has been faithfully written. Forever blessed be his memory!

William Henry Furness.

  1. See J. H. Whitmore’s Testimony of the Nineteenth Century to Jesus of Nazareth.