S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
What I must do is all that concerns me, and not what the people think. This rule, equally as arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the worlds opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
In the social world an Englishman to-day has the best lot. He is a king in a plain coat. He goes with the most powerful protection, keeps the best company, is armed by the best education, is seconded by wealth; and his English name and accidents are like a flourish of trumpets announcing him. This, with his quiet style of manners, gives him the power of a sovereign without the inconveniences which belong to that rank. I much prefer the condition of an English gentleman of the better class to that of any potentate in Europe, whether for travel, or for opportunity of society, or for access to means of science or study, or for mere comfort and easy healthy relation to people at home.
They [the English] have no fancy, and never are surprised into a covert or witty word, such as pleased the Athenians and Italians and was convertible into a fable not long after; but they delight in strong earthy expressions, not mistakable, coarsely true to the human body, and though spoken among princes, equally fit and welcome to the mob. This homeliness, veracity, and plain style appear in the earliest extant works, and in the latest. It imparts into songs and ballads the smell of the earth, the breath of cattle, and, like a Dutch painter, seeks a household charm, though by pails and pans. They ask their constitutional utility in verse. The kail and herrings are never out of sight. The poet nimbly recovers himself from every sally of the imagination. The English muse loves the farm-yard, the lane, and market. She says, with De Staël, I tramp in the mire with wooden shoes whenever they would force me into the clouds. For the Englishman has accurate perceptions; takes hold of things by the right end, and there is no slipperiness in his grasp. He loves the axe, the spade, the oar, the gun, the steam-pipe; he has built the engine he uses. He is materialist, economical, mercantile. He must be treated with sincerity and reality,with muffins, and not the promise of muffins; and prefers his hot chop with perfect security and convenience in the eating of it, to the chances of the amplest and Frenchiest bill of fare, engraved on embossed paper. When he is intellectual, and a poet, or a philosopher, he carries the same hard truth and the same keen machinery into the mental sphere. His mind must stand on a fact. He will not be baffled, or catch at clouds, but the mind must have a symbol palpable and resisting. What he relishes in Dante is the vice-like tenacity with which he holds a mental image before the eyes, as if it were a scutcheon painted on a shield. Byron liked something craggy to break his mind upon.
The person who screams, or uses the superlative degree, or converses with heat, puts whole drawing-rooms to flight. If you wish to be loved, love measure. You must have genius or a prodigious usefulness if you will hide the want of measure. This perception comes in to polish and perfect the part of the social instrument. Society will pardon much to genius and special gifts; but being in its nature a convention, it loves what is conventional or what belongs to coming together. That makes the good and bad of manners, namely, what helps or hinders fellowship. For fashion is not good sense absolute, but relative; not good sense private, but good sense entertaining company. It hates corners and sharp points of character; hates quarrelsome, egotistical, solitary, and gloomy people; hates whatever can interfere with total blending of parties; whilst it values all particularities as in the highest degree refreshing which can consist with good fellowship. And, besides the general infusion of wit to heighten civility, the direct splendour of intellectual power is ever welcome in fine society, as the costliest addition to its rule and its credit.
We must have kings, we must have nobles; nature is always providing such in every society: only let us have the real instead of the titular. In every society some are born to rule, and some to advise. The chief is the chief all the world over, only not his cap and plume. It is only this dislike of the pretender which makes men sometimes unjust to the true and finished man.
What a strange power there is in silence! How many resolutions are formedhow many sublime conquests effectedduring that pause when the lips are closed, and the soul secretly feels the eye of her Maker upon her! When some of those cutting, sharp, blighting words have been spoken which send the hot indignant blood to the face and head, if those to whom they are addressed keep silence, look on with awe: for a mighty work is going on within them, and the spirit of evil, or their guardian angel, is very near to them in that hour. During that pause they have made a step toward heaven or toward hell, and an item has been scored in the book which the day of judgment shall see opened. They are the strong ones of the earth, the mighty food for good or evil,those who know how to keep silence when it is a pain and a grief to them; those who give time to their own souls to wax strong against temptation, or to the powers of wrath to stamp upon them their withering passage.
A taste for plain, strong speechwhat is called a Biblical stylemarks the English. It is in Alfred, and the Saxon Chronicle, and in the Sagas of the Northmen. Latimer was homely. Hobbes was perfect in the noble vulgar speech. Donne, Bunyan, Milton, Taylor, Evelyn, Pepys, Hooker, Cotton, and the translators, wrote it. How realistic or materialistic in treatment of his subject is Swift! He describes his fictitious persons as if for the police. Defoe has no insecurity or choice. Hudibras has the same hard mentality, keeping the truth at once to the senses and to the intellect. It is not less seen in poetry. Chaucers hard painting of his Canterbury pilgrims satisfies the senses. Shakspeare, Spenser, and Milton, in their loftiest ascents, have this national grip and exactitude of mind. This mental materialism makes the value of English transcendental genius; in these writers, and in Herbert, Henry Moore, Donne, and Sir Thomas Browne. The Saxon materialism and narrowness, exalted into the sphere of intellect, makes the very genius of Shakspeare and Milton. When it reaches the pure element it treads the clouds as securely as the adamant. Even in its elevations materialistic, its poetry is common sense inspired, or iron raised to white heat.