How Mr. Emerson Took It


ACCORDING to Goethe, doughty GÖtz von Berlichingen of the Iron Hand contrived to get on famously with a metallic substitute for his quondam member of bone, sinew, and nerve. But, then, Götz was not a piano virtuoso like Paderewski with no other gift but to trill with his fingers as Shelley’s skylark with its throat. Now hereby hangs my tale, a little reminiscence of an evening spent with Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Probably everybody who is subject to the peculiar creepy nervous sensation called “ goose flesh ” comes by it and its results in his own individual way. For one, I confess to especial liability to attacks of the kind at concerts, where the shivering thrills set running along the nerves by certain wails of the violin seem to fall into kindred vibration with those precipitated by a draft of cold air from a suddenly opened door. While listening enraptured to the rippling musical wavelets and rolling billows of a player like Paderewski, all at once by some diabolic “cantraip ” of atomic escapade my imagination is whirled off to a spectacle of veritable tragedy. For example, it is a raw and gusty March night outside. Whew ! how the wind blows and drives the snow ! Then in a trice I seem to see the weird magician himself as all alone, the concert over and the audience gone, he is making his way across the lower vestibule to go out on to the street. Just as with might and main he pushes open the great door, there comes a violent blast and, as he seizes with both hands the ponderous lid, it slams to. And there! there! there! those magic hands a crushed and mangled mass of bone and flesh. Paderewski gone forever ! His soul itself lies mangled there. Ah! the tragic is never the tragic till it drives home its shaft to the one central seat of irremediable loss and pain. How will the poor victim be able to bear up against so annihilating a blow ? Other men’s hands and mutilations can be replaced; some seemingly as easily as a wrenched-off lobster’s claw. But then the lobster will never be called on for a delicately sensitive interpretation of a Chopin Nocturne. But that Paderewski’s magic hand should thus be exposed to the mercy of an insensate blast of wind, there lies, if not the irony of fate, at least the “tears of things.”

It was, then, under full liability to this especial infirmity of the flesh already described, and to its imaginative vagaries, that some years ago I set out to spend the evening and night at the Emerson house in Concord. I had not seen Mr. Emerson for several years, and had learned that meanwhile he had been sorely visited home by the disease of aphasia, or incapacity to call up words. He, the magician of words, with Prospero’s wand to summon the Ariels of the sky or the Calibans of the muck-swamp before our eyes, thus broken in his hands! It seemed nothing less tragic than the destruction of Turner’s miraculous color-sense, dooming him to paint his Fighting Téméraire with all the prismatic tints and dyes on his palette now indistinguishable from so many drabs. Flow could he bear up under such an infliction! He, to whom the breaking on his mind of a single happy word in which to incarnate his idea had often been enough to glorify a whole day! A-Phasia, no speech, and to such a revealer! It must be tantamount to A-Theism, no God, to a rapt saint.

Even for all I knew of Mr. Emerson’s old-time serenity, I did not, therefore, see how it could prove otherwise but that I should find him dejected, humiliated, even rebellious in spirit over a fate that had struck so wanton a blow at the dignity of a man dowered with so high a commission. Besides, I was too well up in the story of literary and artistic calamities to be misled by any surface show either of seeming cheerfulness or of Stoic triumph. Milton’s sonnet on his blindness! Yes, I had read that with its trumpet blast of resolve to “bate no jot of hope or faith, but still bear up and steer right onward.” But I had equally read his Samson Agonistes, and listened awestruck to the wails of agony and despair blindness had wrung from him. And so I fairly dreaded a close interview which should inevitably expose the infirmity of a man at whose feet I had reverentially sat for years, pondering his every freighted word.

Mr. Emerson was always a surprise from the first hour in which he dawned on New England. But the climax of his surprises must, I think, have come to those who talked with him in the days of his aphasia. Thousands have laughed over his transcendentally humorous retort to the Second Advent apostle who tried to appall him with the assurance that the destruction by fire of the whole material world was immediately at hand: “Well, I don’t see why we should n’t contrive to get on just about as well without it! ” I bear authentic witness to the fact that during a full hour’s talk with him that evening the predominant impression left on my mind was, “Well, were the whole complex vocabulary of human speech destroyed, I don’t see why —so far as peace of mind is concerned — we shouldn’t be about as well off without language as with it.” The native sweetness of Mr. Emerson’s nature revealed itself at every turn. There was no trace of sense of humiliation or wounded pride; neither any trace of enforced resignation or resolve to master repining or grief. Aphasia was taken as naturally and serenely as a midsummer moonlight row on Concord River.

Perfectly evident was it that Mr. Emerson’s intellect was as clear as ever. He thought connectedly, and, in his mind’s eye, saw distinctly the shades of idea and feeling and of object and imagery he wanted to present, only that ever and anon the requisite word or epithet obstinately refused to come to the rescue. To offer one or two examples of this! He was giving me, for instance, an account of a recent visit to Montreal, and it was in this way he proceeded : “I was called on by the — by the — how do you name the principal personage of a city ? ” “ The mayor ? ” I suggested. “Yes, the mayor! He came in an open barouche to take me the famous drive round the Mountain. After a while the — the — the — how do you call what stores up water till it is suddenly — suddenly — what shall I say ? not squeezed out ? ” “A sponge! ” I said. “No, no,” with the sweetest of smiles and a sweeping motion of the hand up to the sky. “The clouds, perhaps! ” “Yes, the clouds began to roll up and threaten rain. I had forgotten to take with me my — my — my — by the way, what is that people always borrow and never return ? ” “ Umbrella? ” “Yes, umbrella,” and so on and on throughout the conversation. Perception, humor, vivid interest in persons and scenery, all were plainly on the alert within. But the word in which to embody these continually failed. While, as everybody recognizes, the inmost philosophical essence of the umbrella was thus intellectually grasped, the mere empirical designation of its silk, stick, and whalebone would not turn up.

I fairly marveled at the composure and genial patience of a mind of such calibre. The habit of a lifetime thus dislodged, the free flow of expression which had been his perpetual joy thus dammed back, one would have looked for inevitable gestures of impatience or annoyance. Indeed, the situation was at first very trying to me personally. The idea of my sitting there, supplying from my beggarly vocabulary words to Mr. Emerson, struck me as a trifle too much like carting quartz pebbles to the diamond mines of Golconda. But each word — mayor, cloud, umbrella,—no matter what — was received with as gracious courtesy as though it had been the veritable Kohinoor.

Later on in the conversation, I asked Mr. Emerson about the hygienic rules he, as a student, had found most conducive to health and power of work. “At what time of day have you found it best to take your principal meal ? ” This query seemed to cause him especial trouble. He was ill at numbers, and the dial plate of the clock evidently suggested as recondite problems as the cycles and epicycles of Hipparchus. The way, however, in which he extricated himself from the dilemma was psychologically very interesting, as revealing how entirely logical was the idea in his brain in its struggle with the clogged channels of expression. “I have always been accustomed, ” he replied, “to take my principal meal at — at — at— o’clock.” The blank, however, he could not fill. So, composedly spreading the fingers of his left hand, and manipulating them with the forefinger of his right, he began audibly a process of counting. “At twelve, eleven, ten o’clock! Yes, at ten o’clock my principal meal! ” Then feeling that somehow he had not hit the right number, he smiled an amused smile and triumphantly began to reverse the process of calculation. “No, at twelve, thirteen, fourteen o’clock! At fourteen o’clock, I have taken my principal meal.” With this outcome he was perfectly satisfied. The oddity of the number fourteen never struck him. What he had aimed to get at was two hours from noon, and seeing his mistake in at first trying his method backwards, he genially smiled and tried it forwards.

I record these instances simply to emphasize the beauty of spirit revealed in Mr. Emerson. Here was a man who did not seem to belong to the ordinary category of humanity, but to be lifted above its usual infirmities. No trace of the grief, despondency, sense of indignity to which age is so often a prey, but in their place an inexpressible sweetness of serenity. He had won fame and been courted all over the civilized world. Yet now a new divine depth seemed to me to nestle down into the word, “Except you become as a little child, you shall in no wise enter into the Kingdom.” Certainly not into this kingdom ! And all so naturally.

“ It is time to be old,
To take in sail.”

Why not! — as much as to be born, to love, to marry, to take the world captive. Here before my eyes was the living commentary on his wonderful poem of old age, Terminus: —

“ As the bird trims her to the gale,
I trim myself to the storm of time,
I man the rudder, reef the sail,
Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime ;
‘ Lowly faithful, banish fear,
Right onward drive unharmed ;
The port, well worth the cruise, is near,
And every wave is charmed.’ ”