Review of Emerson's Essays [Second Series]

Work(s) reviewed: 

At the distance of three years this volume follows the first series of Essays, which have already made to themselves a circle of readers, attentive, thoughtful, more and more intelligent; and this circle is a large one if we consider the circumstances of this country, and of England also, at this time. In England it would seem there are a larger number of persons waiting for an invitation to calm thought and sincere intercourse than among ourselves. Copies of Mr. Emerson's first published little volume called " Nature," have there been sold by thousands in a short time, while one edition has needed seven years to get circulated here. Several of his orations and essays from the "Dial" have also been republished there, and met with a reverent and earnest response. We suppose that while in England the want of such a voice is as great as here, a larger number are at leisure to recognize that want; a far larger number have set foot in the speculative region, and have ears refined to appreciate these melodious accents. Our people, heated by a partisan spirit, necessarily occupied in these first stages by bringing out the material resources of the land, not generally prepared by early training for the enjoyment of books that require attention and reflection, are still more injured by a large majority of writers and speakers, who lend all their efforts to flatter corrupt tastes and mental indolence, instead of feeling it their prerogative and their duty to admonish the community of the danger and arouse it to nobler energy. The plan of the popular writer or lecturer is not to say the best he knows in as few and well-chosen words as he can, making it his first aim to do justice to the subject. Rather he seeks to beat out a thought as thin as possible, and to consider what the audience will be most willing to receive. The result of such a course is inevitable. Literature and art must become daily more degraded; philosophy cannot exist. A man who feels within his mind some spark of genius, or a capacity for the exercises of talent, should consider himself' as endowed with a sacred commission. He is the natural priest, the shepherd of the people. He must raise his mind as high as he can towards the heaven of truth, and try to draw up with him those less gifted by nature with ethereal lightness. If he does not so, but rather employs his powers to flatter them in their poverty, and to hinder aspiration by useless words, and a mere seeming of activity, his sin is great; he is false to God, and false to man. Much of this sin indeed is done ignorantly. The idea that literature calls men to the genuine hierarchy is almost forgotten. One, who finds himself able, uses his pen, as he might a trowel, solely to procure himself bread, without having reflected on the position in which he thereby places himself. Apart from the troop of mercenaries, there is one, still larger, of those who use their powers merely for local and temporary ends, aiming at no excellence other than may conduce to these. Among these rank persons of honor and the best intentions; but they neglect the lasting for the transient, as a man neglects to furnish his mind that he may provide the better for the house in which his body is to dwell for a few years. At a period when these sins and errors are prevalent, and threaten to become more so, how can we sufficiently prize and honor a mind which is quite pure from such? When, as in the present case, we find a man whose only aim is the discernment and interpretation of the spiritual laws by which we live, and move, and have our being, all whose objects are permanent, and whose every word stands for a fact. If only as a representative of the claims of individual culture in a nation which is prone to lay such stress on artificial organization and external results, Mr. Emerson would be invaluable here. History will inscribe his name as a father of his country, for he is one who pleads her cause against herself. If New England may be regarded as a chief mental focus to the New World, --and many symptoms seem to give her this place,-- as to other centres belong the characteristics of heart and lungs to the body politic; if we may believe, as we do believe, that what is to be acted out, in the country at large, is, most frequently, first indicated there, as all the phenomena of the nervous system are in the fantasies of the brain, we may hail as an auspicious omen the influence Mr. Emerson has there obtained, which is deep-rooted, increasing, and, over the younger portion of the community, far greater than that of any other person. His books are received there with a more ready intelligence than elsewhere, partly because his range of personal experience and illustration applies to that region; partly because he has prepared the way for his books to be read by his great powers as a speaker. The audience that waited for years upon the lectures, a part of which is incorporated into these volumes of Essays, was never large, but it was select, and it was constant. Among the hearers were some, who, though, attracted by the beauty of character and manner, they were willing to hear the speaker through, yet always went away discontented. They were accustomed to an artificial method, whose scaffolding could easily be retraced, and desired an obvious sequence of logical inferences. They insisted there was nothing in what they had heard, because they could not give a clear account of its course and purport. They did not see that Pindar's odes might be very well arranged for their own purpose, and yet not bear translating into the methods of Mr. Locke. Others were content to be benefited by a good influence, without a strict analysis of its means. " My wife says it is about the elevation of human nature, and so it seems to me," was a fit reply to some of the critics. Many were satisfied to find themselves excited to congenial thought and nobler life, without an exact catalogue of the thoughts of the speaker. Those who believed no truth could exist, unless encased by the burrs of opinion, went away utterly baffled. Sometimes they thought he was on their side; then presently would come something on the other. He really seemed to believe there were two sides to every subject, and even to intimate higher ground, from which each might be seen to have an infinite number of sides or bearings, an impertinence not to be endured! The partisan heard but once, and returned no more. But some there were, --simple souls,--whose life had been, perhaps, without clear light, yet still a-search after truth for its own sake, who were able to receive what followed on the suggestion of a subject in a natural manner, as a stream of thought. These recognized, beneath the veil of words, the still small voice of conscience, the vestal fires of lone religious hours, and the mild teachings of the summer woods. The charm of the elocution, too, was great. His general manner was that of the reader, occasionally rising into direct address or invocation in passages where tenderness or majesty demanded more energy. At such times both eye and voice called on a remote future to give a worthy reply,-- a future which shall manifest more largely the universal soul as it was then manifest to this soul. The tone of the voice was a grave body tone, full and sweet rather than sonorous, yet flexible, and haunted by many modulations, as even instruments of wood and brass seem to become after they have been long played on with skill and taste; how much more so the human voice! In the more expressive passages it uttered notes of silvery clearness, winning, yet still more commanding. The words uttered in those tones floated a while above us, then took root in the memory like winged seed. In the union of an even rustic plainness with lyric inspirations, religious dignity with philosophic calmness, keen sagacity in details with boldness of view, we saw what brought to mind the early poets and legislators of Greece --men who taught their fellows to plough and avoid moral evil, sing hymns to the gods, and watch the metamorphoses of nature. Here in civic Boston was such a man -- one who could see man in his original grandeur and his original childishness, rooted in simple nature, raising to the heavens the brow and eyes of a poet. And these lectures seemed not so much lectures as grave didactic poems, theogonies, perhaps, adorned by odes when some power was in question whom the poet had best learned to serve, and with eclogues wisely portraying in familiar tongue the duties of man to man and "harmless animals." Such was the attitude in which the speaker appeared to that portion of the audience who have remained permanently attached to him. They value his words as the signets of reality; receive his influence as a help and incentive to a nobler discipline than the age, in its general aspect, appears to require; and do not fear to anticipate the verdict of posterity in claiming for him the honors of greatness, and, in some respects, of a master. In New England Mr. Emerson thus formed for himself a class of readers who rejoice to study in his books what they already know by heart. For, though the thought has become familiar, its beautiful garb is always fresh and bright in hue. A similar circle of "like-minded" persons the books must and do form for themselves, though with a movement less directly powerful, as more distant from its source. The Essays have also been obnoxious to many charges; to that of obscurity, or want of perfect articulation; of "euphuism," as an excess of fancy in proportion to imagination, and an inclination, at times, to subtlety at the expense of strength, have been styled. The human heart complains of inadequacy, either in the nature or experience of the writer, to represent its full vocation and its deeper needs. Sometimes it speaks of this want as "under development," or a want of expansion which may yet be remedied; sometimes doubts whether "in this mansion there be either hall or portal to receive the loftier of the passions." Sometimes the soul is deified at the expense of nature, then again nature at that of man; and we are not quite sure that we can make a true harmony by balance of the statements. This writer has never written one good work, if such a work be one where the whole commands more attention than the parts, or if such a one be produced only where, after an accumulation of materials, fire enough be applied to fuse the whole into one new substance. This second series is superior in this respect to the former; yet in no one essay is the main stress so obvious as to produce on the mind the harmonious effect of a noble river or a tree in full leaf. Single passages and sentences engage our attention too much in proportion. These Essays, it has been justly said, tire like a string of mosaics or a house built of medals. We miss what we expect in the work of the great poet, or the great philosopher-- the liberal air of all the zones; the glow, uniform yet various in tint, which is given to a body by free circulation of the heart's blood from the hour of birth. Here is, undoubtedly, the man of ideas; but we want the ideal man also --want the heart and genius of human life to interpret it; and here our satisfaction is not so perfect. We doubt this friend raised himself too early to the perpendicular, and did not lie along the ground long enough to hear the secret whispers of our parent life. We could wish he might be thrown by conflicts on the lap of mother earth, to see if he would not rise again with added powers. All this we may say, but it cannot excuse us from benefiting by the great gifts that have been given, and assigning them their due place. Some painters paint on a red ground. And this color may be supposed to represent the groundwork most immediately congenial to most men, as it is the color of blood, and represents human vitality. The figures traced upon it are instinct with life in its fulness and depth. But other painters paint on a gold ground. And a very different, but no less natural, because also a celestial beauty, is given to their works who choose for their foundation the color of the sunbeam, which Nature has preferred for her most precious product, and that which will best bear the test of purification --gold. If another simile may be allowed, another no less apt is at hand. Wine is the most brilliant and intense expression of the powers of earth. It is her potable fire, her answer to the sun. It exhilarates, it inspires, but then it is liable to fever and intoxicate, too, the careless partaker. Mead was the chosen drink of the northern gods. And this essence of the honey of the mountain bee was not thought unworthy to revive the souls of the valiant who had left their bodies on the fields of strife below. Nectar should combine the virtues of the ruby wine, the golden mead, without their defects or dangers. Two high claims on the attention of his contemporaries our writer can vindicate. One from his sincerity. You have his thought just as it found place in the life of his own soul. Thus, however near or relatively distant its approximation to absolute truth, its action one you cannot fail to be healthful. It is a part of the free air. Emerson belongs to that band of whom there may be found a few in every age, and who now in known human history may be counted by hundreds, who worship the one God only, the God of Truth. They worship, not saints, nor creeds, nor churches, nor reliques, nor idols in any form. The mind is kept open to truth, and life only valued as a tendency towards it. This must be illustrated by acts and words of love, purity and intelligence. Such are the salt of the earth; let the minutest crystal of that salt be willingly by us held in solution. The other claim is derived from that part of his life, which, if sometimes obstructed or chilled by the critical intellect, is yet the prevalent and the main source of his power. It is that by which he imprisons his hearer only to free him again as a "liberating God," (to use his own words.) But, indeed, let us use them altogether, for none other, ancient or modern, can more worthily express how, making present to us the courses and destinies of nature, he invests himself with her serenity and animates us with her joy. "Poetry was all written before time was; and whenever we are so finely organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is music, we hear those primal warblings, and attempt to write them down, but we lose ever and anon a word or a verse, and substitute something of our own, and thus miswrite the poem. The men of more delicate ear write down these cadences more faithfully, and these transcripts, though imperfect, become the songs of the nations." Thus have we, in a brief and unworthy manner, indicated some views of these books. The only true criticism of these or any good books may be gained by making them the companions of our lives. Does every accession of knowledge or a juster sense of beauty make us prize them more? Then they are good, indeed, and more immortal than mortal. Let that test be applied to these Essays which will lead to great and complete poems--somewhere.

Margaret Fuller, 1844