Nonfiction > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. V. English Traits
XIV. Literature
A STRONG 1 common sense, which it is not easy to unseat or disturb, marks the English mind for a thousand years: a rude strength newly applied to thought, as of sailors and soldiers who had lately learned to read. They 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 expression, 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 imports 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 farmyard, 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. 2 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 relished in Dante is the vise-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.” A taste for plain strong speech, what is called a biblical style, marks 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.  1
  It is not less seen in poetry. Chaucer’s 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 More, 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.  2
  The marriage of the two qualities is in their speech. It is a tacit rule of the language to make the frame or skeleton of Saxon words, and, when elevation or ornament is sought, to interweave Roman, but sparingly; nor is a sentence made of Roman words alone, without loss of strength. The children and laborers use the Saxon unmixed. The Latin unmixed is abandoned to the colleges and Parliament. Mixture is a secret of the English island; and, in their dialect, the male principle is the Saxon, the female, the Latin; and they are combined in every discourse. A good writer, if he has indulged in a Roman roundness, makes haste to chasten and nerve his period by English monosyllables. 3  3
  When the Gothic nations came into Europe they found it lighted with the sun and moon of Hebrew and of Greek genius. The tablets of their brain, long kept in the dark, were finely sensible to the double glory. To the images from this twin source (of Christianity and art), the mind became fruitful as by the incubation of the Holy Ghost. The English mind flowered in every faculty. The common sense was surprised and inspired. For two centuries England was philosophic, religious, poetic. The mental furniture seemed of larger scale: the memory capacious like the storehouse of the rains. The ardor and endurance of study, the boldness and facility of their mental construction, their fancy and imagination and easy spanning of vast distances of thought, the enterprise or accosting of new subjects, and, generally, the easy exertion of power,—astonish, like the legendary feats of Guy of Warwick. The union of Saxon precision and Oriental soaring, of which Shakspeare is the perfect example, is shared in less degree by the writers of two centuries. I find not only the great masters out of all rivalry and reach, but the whole writing of the time charged with a masculine force and freedom.  4
  There is a hygienic simpleness, rough vigor and closeness to the matter in hand even in the second and third class of writers; and, I think, in the common style of the people, as one finds it in the citation of wills, letters and public documents; in proverbs and forms of speech. The more hearty and sturdy expression may indicate that the savageness of the Norseman was not all gone. Their dynamic brains hurled off their words as the revolving stone hurls off scraps of grit. I could cite from the seventeenth century sentences and phrases of edge not to be matched in the nineteenth. Their poets by simple force of mind equalized themselves with the accumulated science of ours. The country gentlemen had a posset or drink they called October; and the poets, as if by this hint, knew how to distil the whole season into their autumnal verses: and as nature, to pique the more, sometimes works up deformities into beauty in some rare Aspasia or Cleopatra; and as the Greek art wrought many a vase or column, in which too long or too lithe, or nodes, or pits and flaws are made a beauty of;—so these were so quick and vital that they could charm and enrich by mean and vulgar objects.  5
  A man must think that age well taught and thoughtful, by which masques and poems, like those of Ben Jonson, full of heroic sentiment in a manly style, were received with favor. The unique fact in literary history, the unsurprised reception of Shakspeare;—the reception proved by his making his fortune; and the apathy proved by the absence of all contemporary panegyric,—seems to demonstrate an elevation in the mind of the people. Judge of the splendor of a nation by the insignificance of great individuals in it. 4 The manner in which they learned Greek and Latin, before our modern facilities were yet ready; without dictionaries, grammars, or indexes, by lectures of a professor, followed by their own searchings,—required a more robust memory, and coöperation of all the faculties; and their scholars, Camden, Usher, Selden, Mede, Gataker, Hooker, Taylor, Burton, Bentley, Brain Walton, acquired the solidity and method of engineers. 5  6
  The influence of Plato tinges the British genius. Their minds loved analogy; were cognizant of resemblances, and climbers on the staircase of unity. 6 ’T is a very old strife between those who elect to see identity and those who elect to see discrepancies; and it renews itself in Britain. The poets, of course, are of one part; the men of the world, of the other. But Britain had many disciples of Plato;—More, Hooker, Bacon, Sidney, Lord Brooke, Herbert, Browne, Donne, Spenser, Chapman, Milton, Crashaw, Norris, Cudworth, Berkeley, Jeremy Taylor.  7
  Lord Bacon has the English duality. His centuries of observations on useful science, and his experiments, I suppose, were worth nothing. One hint of Franklin, or Watt, or Dalton, or Davy, or any one who had a talent for experiment, was worth all his lifetime of exquisite trifles. But he drinks of a diviner stream, and marks the influx of idealism into England. 7 Where that goes, is poetry, health and progress. The rules of its genesis or its diffusion are not known. That knowledge, if we had it, would supersede all that we call science of the mind. It seems an affair of race, or of meta-chemistry;—the vital point being, how far the sense of unity, or instinct of seeking resemblances, predominated. For wherever the mind takes a step, it is to put itself at one with a larger class, discerned beyond the lesser class with which it has been conversant. Hence, all poetry and all affirmative action comes.  8
  Bacon, in the structure of his mind, held of the analogists, of the idealists, or (as we popularly say, naming from the best example) Platonists. Whoever discredits analogy and requires heaps of facts before any theories can be attempted, has no poetic power, and nothing original or beautiful will be produced by him. Locke is as surely the influx of decomposition and of prose, as Bacon and the Platonists of growth. The Platonic is the poetic tendency; the so-called scientific is the negative and poisonous. ’T is quite certain that Spenser, Burns, Byron and Wordsworth will be Platonists, and that the dull men will be Lockists. Then politics and commerce will absorb from the educated class men of talents without genius, precisely because such have no resistance.  9
  Bacon, capable of ideas, yet devoted to ends, required in his map of the mind, first of all, universality, or prima philosophia; the receptacle for all such profitable observations and axioms as fall not within the compass of any of the special parts of philosophy, but are more common and of a higher stage. 8 He held this element essential: it is never out of mind: he never spares rebukes for such as neglect it; believing that no perfect discovery can be made in a flat or level, but you must ascend to a higher science. “If any man thinketh philosophy and universality to be idle studies, he doth not consider that all professions are from thence served and supplied; and this I take to be a great cause that has hindered the progression of learning, because these fundamental knowledges have been studied but in passage.” He explained himself by giving various quaint examples of the summary or common laws of which each science has its own illustration. He complains that “he finds this part of learning very deficient, the profounder sort of wits drawing a bucket now and then for their own use, but the spring-head unvisited. This was the dry light which did scorch and offend most men’s watery natures.” 9 Plato had signified the same sense, when he said, “All the great arts require a subtle and speculative research into the law of nature, since loftiness of thought and perfect mastery over every subject seem to be derived from some such source as this. This Pericles had, in addition to a great natural genius. For, meeting with Anaxagoras, who was a person of this kind, he attached himself to him, and nourished himself with sublime speculations on the absolute intelligence; and imported thence into the oratorical art whatever could be useful to it.” 10  10
  A few generalizations always circulate in the world, whose authors we do not rightly know, which astonish, and appear to be avenues to vast kingdoms of thought, and these are in the world constants, like the Copernican and Newtonian theories in physics. In England these may be traced usually to Shakspeare, Bacon, Milton, or Hooker, even to Van Helmont 11 and Behmen, and do all have a kind of filial retrospect to Plato and the Greeks. Of this kind is Lord Bacon’s sentence, that “Nature is commanded by obeying her;” his doctrine of poetry, which “accommodates the shows of things to the desires of the mind,” or the Zoroastrian definition of poetry, mystical, yet exact, “apparent pictures of unapparent natures;” 12 Spenser’s creed that “soul is form, and doth the body make;” 13 the theory of Berkeley, that we have no certain assurance of the existence of matter; 14 Doctor Samuel Clarke’s argument for theism from the nature of space and time; Harrington’s political rule that power must rest on land, 15—a rule which required to be liberally interpreted; the theory of Swedenborg, so cosmically applied by him, that the man makes his heaven and hell; Hegel’s study of civil history, as the conflict of ideas and the victory of the deeper thought; the identity-philosophy of Schelling, couched in the statement that “all difference is quantitative.” So the very announcement of the theory of gravitation, of Kepler’s three harmonic laws, and even of Dalton’s doctrine of definite proportions, finds a sudden response in the mind, which remains a superior evidence to empirical demonstrations. I cite these generalizations, some of which are more recent, merely to indicate a class. Not these particulars, but the mental plane or the atmosphere from which they emanate was the home and element of the writers and readers in what we loosely call the Elizabethan age (say, in literary history, the period from 1575 to 1625), yet a period almost short enough to justify Ben Jonson’s remark on Lord Bacon,—“About his time, and within his view, were born all the wits that could honor a nation, or help study.”  11
  Such richness of genius had not existed more than once before. These heights could not be maintained. As we find stumps of vast trees in our exhausted soils, and have received traditions of their ancient fertility to tillage, so history reckons epochs in which the intellect of famed races became effete. So it fared with English genius. These heights were followed by a meanness and a descent of the mind into lower levels; the loss of wings; no high speculation. Locke, to whom the meaning of ideas was unknown, became the type of philosophy, and his “understanding” the measure, in all nations, of the English intellect. His countrymen forsook the lofty sides of Parnassus, on which they had once walked with echoing steps, and disused the studies once so beloved; the powers of thought fell into neglect. 16 The later English want the faculty of Plato and Aristotle, of grouping men in natural classes by an insight of general laws, so deep that the rule is deduced with equal precision from few subjects, or from one, as from multitudes of lives. Shakspeare is supreme in that, as in all the great mental energies. The Germans generalize: the English cannot interpret the German mind. 17 German science comprehends the English. The absence of the faculty in England is shown by the timidity which accumulates mountains of facts, as a bad general wants myriads of men and miles of redoubts to compensate the inspirations of courage and conduct.  12
  The English shrink from a generalization. “They do not look abroad into universality, or they draw only a bucketful at the fountain of the First Philosophy for their occasion, and do not go to the spring-head.” Bacon, who said this, is almost unique among his countrymen in that faculty; at least among the prose-writers. Milton, who was the stair or high table-land to let down the English genius from the summits of Shakspeare, used this privilege sometimes in poetry, more rarely in prose. For a long interval afterwards, it is not found. Burke was addicted to generalizing, but his was a shorter line; as his thoughts have less depth, they have less compass. Hume’s abstractions are not deep or wise. He owes his fame to one keen observation, that no copula had been detected between any cause and effect, either in physics or in thought; that the term cause and effect was loosely or gratuitously applied to what we know only as consecutive, not at all as causal. 18 Doctor Johnson’s written abstractions have little value; the tone of feeling in them makes their chief worth.  13
  Mr. Hallam, a learned and elegant scholar, has written the history of European literature for three centuries,—a performance of great ambition, inasmuch as a judgment was to be attempted on every book. But his eye does not reach to the ideal standards: the verdicts are all dated from London; all new thought must be cast into the old moulds. The expansive element which creates literature is steadily denied. Plato is resisted, and his school. Hallam is uniformly polite, but with deficient sympathy; writes with resolute generosity, but is unconscious of the deep worth which lies in the mystics, and which often outvalues as a seed of power and a source of revolution all the correct writers and shining reputations of their day. He passes in silence, or dismisses with a kind of contempt, the profounder masters: a lover of ideas is not only uncongenial, but unintelligible. 19 Hallam inspires respect by his knowledge and fidelity, by his manifest love of good books, and he lifts himself to own better than almost any the greatness of Shakspeare, and better than Johnson he appreciates Milton. But in Hallam, or in the firmer intellectual nerve of Mackintosh, one still finds the same type of English genius. It is wise and rich, but it lives on its capital. It is retrospective. How can it discern and hail the new forms that are looming up on the horizon, new and gigantic thoughts which cannot dress themselves out of any old wardrobe of the past?  14
  The essays, the fiction and the poetry of the day have the like municipal limits. Dickens, with preternatural apprehension of the language of manners and the varieties of street life; with pathos and laughter, with patriotic and still enlarging generosity, writes London tracts. He is a painter of English details, like Hogarth; local and temporary in his tints and style, and local in his aims. Bulwer, an industrious writer, with occasional ability, is distinguished for his reverence of intellect as a temporality, and appeals to the worldly ambition of the student. His romances tend to fan these low flames. Their novelists despair of the heart. Thackeray finds that God has made no allowance for the poor thing in his universe,—more’s the pity, he thinks,—but ’t is not for us to be wiser; we must renounce ideals and accept London. 20  15
  The brilliant Macaulay, who expresses the tone of the English governing classes of the day, explicitly teaches that good means good to eat, good to wear, material commodity; that the glory of modern philosophy is its direction on “fruit;” to yield economical inventions; and that its merit is to avoid ideas and avoid morals. 21 He thinks it the distinctive merit of the Baconian philosophy in its triumph over the old Platonic, its disentangling the intellect from theories of the all-Fair and all-Good, and pinning it down to the making a better sick chair and a better wine-whey for an invalid;—this not ironically, but in good faith;—that, “solid advantage,” as he calls it, meaning always sensual benefit, is the only good. The eminent benefit of astronomy is the better navigation it creates to enable the fruit-ships to bring home their lemons and wine to the London grocer. It was a curious result, in which the civility and religion of England for a thousand years ends in denying morals and reducing the intellect to a sauce-pan. The critic hides his skepticism under the English cant of practical. To convince the reason, to touch the conscience, is romantic pretension. The fine arts fall to the ground. Beauty, except as luxurious commodity, does not exist. It is very certain, I may say in passing, that if Lord Bacon had been only the sensualist his critic pretends, he would never have acquired the fame which now entitles him to this patronage. It is because he had imagination, the leisures of the spirit, and basked in an element of contemplation out of all modern English atmospheric gauges, that he is impressive to the imaginations of men and has become a potentate not to be ignored. Sir David Brewster 22 sees the high place of Bacon, without finding Newton indebted to him, and thinks it a mistake. Bacon occupies it by specific gravity or levity, not by any feat he did, or by any tutoring more or less of Newton, etc., but as an effect of the same cause which showed itself more pronounced afterwards in Hooke, Boyle and Halley. 23  16
  Coleridge, a catholic mind, with a hunger for ideas; with eyes looking before and after to the highest bards and sages, and who wrote and spoke the only high criticism in his time, is one of those who save England from the reproach of no longer possessing the capacity to appreciate what rarest wit the island has yielded. Yet the misfortune of his life, his vast attempts but most inadequate performings, failing to accomplish any one masterpiece,—seems to mark the closing of an era. 24 Even in him, the traditional Englishman was too strong for the philosopher, and he fell into accommodations; and as Burke had striven to idealize the English State, so Coleridge ‘narrowed his mind’ in the attempt to reconcile the Gothic rule and dogma of the Anglican Church, with eternal ideas. But for Coleridge, and a lurking taciturn minority uttering itself in occasional criticism, oftener in private discourse, one would say that in Germany and in America is the best mind in England rightly respected. It is the surest sign of national decay, when the Bramins can no longer read or understand the Braminical philosophy.  17
  In the decomposition and asphyxia that followed all this materialism, Carlyle was driven by his disgust at the pettiness and the cant, into the preaching of Fate. In comparison with all this rottenness, any check, any cleansing, though by fire, seemed desirable and beautiful. He saw little difference in the gladiators, or “the causes” for which they combated; the one comfort was, that they were all going speedily into the abyss together. And his imagination, finding no nutriment in any creation, avenged itself by celebrating the majestic beauty of the laws of decay. The necessities of mental structure force all minds into a few categories; and where impatience of the tricks of men makes Nemesis amiable, and builds altars to the negative Deity, the inevitable recoil is to heroism or the gallantry of the private heart, which decks its immolation with glory, in the unequal combat of will against fate. 25  18
  Wilkinson, the editor of Swedenborg, the annotator of Fourier and the champion of Hahnemann, has brought to metaphysics and to physiology a native vigor, with a catholic perception of relations, equal to the highest attempts, and a rhetoric like the armory of the invincible knights of old. There is in the action of his mind a long Atlantic roll not known except in deepest waters, and only lacking what ought to accompany such powers, a manifest centrality. If his mind does not rest in immovable biases, perhaps the orbit is larger and the return is not yet: but a master should inspire a confidence that he will adhere to his convictions and give his present studies always the same high place. 26  19
  It would be easy to add exceptions to the limitary tone of English thought, and much more easy to adduce examples of excellence in particular veins; and if, going out of the region of dogma, we pass into that of general culture, there is no end to the graces and amenities, wit, sensibility and erudition of the learned class. But the artificial succor which marks all English performance appears in letters also: much of their æsthetic production is antiquarian and manufactured, and literary reputations have been achieved by forcible men, whose relation to literature was purely accidental, but who were driven by tastes and modes they found in vogue into their several careers. So, at this moment, every ambitious young man studies geology: so members of Parliament are made, and church-men.  20
  The bias of Englishmen to practical skill has reacted on the national mind. They are incapable of an inutility, and respect the five mechanic powers even in their song. 27 The voice of their modern muse has a slight hint of the steam-whistle, and the poem is created as an ornament and finish of their monarchy, and by no means as the bird of a new morning which forgets the past world in the full enjoyment of that which is forming. They are with difficulty ideal; they are the most conditioned men, as if, having the best conditions, they could not bring themselves to forfeit them. Every one of them is a thousand years old and lives by his memory: and when you say this, they accept it as praise.  21
  Nothing comes to the book-shops but politics, travels, statistics, tabulation and engineering; and even what is called philosophy and letters is mechanical in its structure, as if inspiration had ceased, as if no vast hope, no religion, no song of joy, no wisdom, no analogy existed any more. The tone of colleges and of scholars and of literary society has this mortal air. I seem to walk on a marble floor, where nothing will grow. They exert every variety of talent on a lower ground and may be said to live and act in a sub-mind. They have lost all commanding views in literature, philosophy and science. A good Englishman shuts himself out of three fourths of his mind and confines himself to one fourth. He has learning, good sense, power of labor, and logic; but a faith in the laws of the mind like that of Archimedes; a belief like that of Euler and Kepler, that experience must follow and not lead the laws of the mind; a devotion to the theory of politics like that of Hooker and Milton and Harrington, the modern English mind repudiates.  22
  I fear the same fault lies in their science, since they have known how to make it repulsive and bereave nature of its charm;—though perhaps the complaint flies wider, and the vice attaches to many more than to British physicists. The eye of the naturalist must have a scope like nature itself, a susceptibility to all impressions, alive to the heart as well as to the logic of creation. But English science puts humanity to the door. It wants the connection which is the test of genius. The science is false by not being poetic. It isolates the reptile or mollusk it assumes to explain; whilst reptile or mollusk only exists in system, in relation. The poet only sees it as an inevitable step in the path of the Creator. But, in England, one hermit finds this fact, and another finds that, and lives and dies ignorant of its value. There are great exceptions, of John Hunter, a man of ideas; perhaps of Robert Brown, the botanist; and of Richard Owen, who has imported into Britain the German homologies, and enriched science with contributions of his own, adding sometimes the divination of the old masters to the unbroken power of labor in the English mind. But for the most part the natural science in England is out of its loyal alliance with morals, and is as void of imagination and free play of thought as conveyancing. It stands in strong contrast with the genius of the Germans, those semi-Greeks, who love analogy, and, by means of their height of view, preserve their enthusiasm and think for Europe. 28  23
  No hope, no sublime augury cheers the student, no secure striding from experiment onward to a foreseen law, but only a casual dipping here and there, like diggers in California “prospecting for a placer” that will pay. 29 A horizon of brass of the diameter of his umbrella shuts down around his senses. Squalid contentment with conventions, satire at the names of philosophy and religion, parochial and shop-till politics, and idolatry of usage, betray the ebb of life and spirit. As they trample on nationalities to reproduce London and Londoners in Europe and Asia, so they fear the hostility of ideas, of poetry, of religion,—ghosts which they cannot lay; and, having attempted to domesticate and dress the Blessed Soul itself in English broad-cloth and gaiters, they are tormented with fear that herein lurks a force that will sweep their system away. The artists say, “Nature puts them out;” the scholars have become unideal. They parry earnest speech with banter and levity; they laugh you down, or they change the subject. “The fact is,” say they over their wine, “all that about liberty, and so forth, is gone by; it won’t do any longer.” The practical and comfortable oppress them with inexorable claims, and the smallest fraction of power remains for heroism and poetry. No poet dares murmur of beauty out of the precinct of his rhymes. No priest dares hint at a Providence which does not respect English utility. The island is a roaring volcano of fate, of material values, of tariffs and laws of repression, glutted markets and low prices.  24
  In the absence of the highest aims, of the pure love of knowledge and the surrender to nature, there is the suppression of the imagination, the priapism of the senses and the understanding; we have the factitious instead of the natural; tasteless expense, arts of comfort, and the rewarding as an illustrious inventor whosoever will contrive one impediment more to interpose between the man and his objects. 30  25
  Thus poetry is degraded and made ornamental. Pope and his school wrote poetry fit to put round frosted cake. What did Walter Scott write without stint? a rhymed traveller’s guide to Scotland. 31 And the libraries of verses they print have this Birmingham character. How many volumes of well-bred metre we must jingle through, before we can be filled, taught, renewed! We want the miraculous; the beauty which we can manufacture at no mill,—can give no account of; the beauty of which Chaucer and Chapman had the secret. The poetry of course is low and prosaic; only now and then, as in Wordsworth, conscientious; or in Byron, passional; or in Tennyson, factitious. But if I should count the poets who have contributed to the Bible of existing England sentences of guidance and consolation which are still glowing and effective,—how few! Shall I find my heavenly bread in the reigning poets? Where is great design in modern English poetry? The English have lost sight of the fact that poetry exists to speak the spiritual law, and that no wealth of description or of fancy is yet essentially new and out of the limits of prose, until this condition is reached. Therefore the grave old poets, like the Greek artists, heeded their designs, and less considered the finish. It was their office to lead to the divine sources, out of which all this, and much more, readily springs; and, if this religion is in the poetry, it raises us to some purpose and we can well afford some staidness or hardness, or want of popular tune in the verses.  26
  The exceptional fact of the period is the genius of Wordsworth. He had no master but nature and solitude. “He wrote a poem,” says Landor, “without the aid of war.” His verse is the voice of sanity in a worldly and ambitious age. One regrets that his temperament was not more liquid and musical. He has written longer than he was inspired. But for the rest, he has no competitor. 32  27
  Tennyson is endowed precisely in points where Wordsworth wanted. There is no finer ear, nor more command of the keys of language. Color, like the dawn, flows over the horizon from his pencil, in waves so rich that we do not miss the central form. Through all his refinements, too, he has reached the public,—a certificate of good sense and general power, since he who aspires to be the English poet must be as large as London, not in the same kind as London, but in his own kind. But he wants a subject, and climbs no mount of vision to bring its secrets to the people. He contents himself with describing the Englishman as he is, and proposes no better. There are all degrees in poetry and we must be thankful for every beautiful talent. But it is only a first success, when the ear is gained. The best office of the best poets has been to show how low and uninspired was their general style, and that only once or twice they have struck the high chord. 33  28
  That expansiveness which is the essence of the poetic element, they have not. It was no Oxonian, but Hafiz, who said, “Let us be crowned with roses, let us drink wine, and break up the tiresome old roof of heaven into new forms.” A stanza of the song of nature the Oxonian has no ear for, and he does not value the salient and curative influence of intellectual action, studious of truth without a by-end.  29
  By the law of contraries, I look for an irresistible taste for Orientalism in Britain. For a self-conceited modish life, made up of trifles, clinging to a corporeal civilization, hating ideas, there is no remedy like the Oriental largeness. That astonishes and disconcerts English decorum. For once, there is thunder it never heard, light it never saw, and power which trifles with time and space. I am not surprised then to find an Englishman like Warren Hastings, who had been struck with the grand style of thinking in the Indian writings, deprecating the prejudices of his countrymen while offering them a translation of the Bhagvat. “Might I, an unlettered man, venture to prescribe bounds to the latitude of criticism, I should exclude, in estimating the merit of such a production, all rules drawn from the ancient or modern literature of Europe, all references to such sentiments or manners as are become the standards of propriety for opinion and action in our own modes, and, equally, all appeals to our revealed tenets of religion and moral duty.” 34 He goes to bespeak indulgence to “ornaments of fancy unsuited to our taste, and passages elevated to a tract of sublimity into which our habits of judgment will find it difficult to pursue them.”  30
  Meantime, I know that a retrieving power lies in the English race which seems to make any recoil possible; in other words, there is at all times a minority of profound minds existing in the nation, capable of appreciating every soaring of intellect and every hint of tendency. While the constructive talent seems dwarfed and superficial, the criticism is often in the noblest tone and suggests the presence of the invisible gods. I can well believe what I have often heard, that there are two nations in England; but it is not the Poor and the Rich, nor is it the Normans and Saxons, nor the Celt and the Goth. These are each always becoming the other; for Robert Owen does not exaggerate the power of circumstance. But the two complexions, or two styles of mind,—the perceptive class, and the practical finality class,—are ever in counterpoise, interacting mutually: one in hopeless minorities; the other in huge masses; one studious, contemplative, experimenting; the other, the ungrateful pupil, scornful of the source whilst availing itself of the knowledge for gain; these two nations, of genius and of animal force, though the first consist of only a dozen souls 35 and the second of twenty millions, forever by their discord and their accord yield the power of the English State.  31
Note 1. As introductory to this chapter this entry may be copied from Mr. Emerson’s notebook of 1878: “40 per cent. of the English people cannot write their names. One half of one per cent. of the Massachusetts people cannot, and these are probably Britons born.
  “It is certain that more people speak English correctly in the United States than in Britain.” [back]
Note 2. “The Englishman,” Emerson says in a lecture after his return, “stands in awe of a fact as something final and irreversible, and confines his thoughts and his aspirations to the means of dealing with it to advantage; he does not seek to comprehend it, but only to utilize it for enjoyment or display, at any rate to adapt himself to it; and he values only the faculties that enable him to do this. He admires talent and is careless of ideas. ‘The English have no higher heaven than Fate.’” [back]
Note 3. Mr. Emerson, though valuing the classics, and most careful in choosing the word that from its composition and association would most accurately give his meaning, sought plain Saxon words to make his thought clear to his lyceum audiences, and in many of his earlier published poems sacrificed music to vigor, as in the line—
  Boon Nature yields each day a brag.
Later his ear became finer. His style is remarkably Saxon. If his children brought home the word commence from school he bade them forget it and say begin. [back]
Note 4. Again the speech of the English King, in Chevy-Chase, on the fall of Percy, is recalled:—
  “I trust I have within my realms
Five hundred as good as he.”
Note 5. William Camden (1551–1623), who wrote the Annals of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth. James Usher (1580–1656), the Irish prelate, author of the Annales Veteris et Novi Testamenti. John Selden (1584–1664), “the great Dictator of Learning of the English nation,” best known by his Table-Talk. Joseph Mede (1586–1628), the theologian who attempted the explanation of the Book of Revelation in his Clavis Apocalyptica. Thomas Gataker (1574–1654), a divine who edited the writings of Marcus Aurelius and wrote on the Stoics. Richard Hooker (1553–1600), the author of the Ecclesiastical Polity. Jeremy Taylor (1613–67), the chaplain of Charles I., wrote the Liberty of Prophesying, the Great Exemplar, but especially the Holy Living and Holy Dying. Mr. Emerson in “The Problem” calls him
  The younger Golden Lips or mines,
Taylor, the Shakspeare of divines.
Robert Burton (1576–1640), who wrote the Anatomy of Melancholy, which Dr. Johnson said was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise, and Byron found the most exciting and instructive medley of quotations and classical anecdotes. Richard Bentley (1662–1742), the head of Cambridge University, remarkable for his critical study of the classics. Brian Walton (1600–61), the editor of the Polyglot Bible from nine languages, and Oriental scholar. [back]
Note 6. By comparison with what Mr. Emerson says later in this chapter, and elsewhere through the book and in letters, it is evident that this tint of Platonism refers to English scholars of another age, not to those he met. [back]
Note 7. In the journal of 1838–39 Mr. Emerson wrote: “Bacon’s perfect law of inquiry after truth was that nothing should be in the globe of matter which was not also in the globe of crystal; that is, nothing should take place as event in life which did not also exist as truth in the mind.” [back]
Note 8. Mr. Emerson, impatient of the modern writers on metaphysics, waiting in vain for the man who should deal with the worlds of spirit and matter worthily, wished to make his contributions, however fragmentary, towards the grand theme. As early as 1835 he made notes towards this end, beginning thus: “By the First Philosophy is meant the original laws of the mind. It is the science of what is, in distinction from what appears. It is one mark of them that their enunciation awakens the feeling of the moral sublime, and great men are they who believe in them. They resemble great circles in Astronomy, each of which, in what direction soever it is drawn, contains the whole sphere.” Mr. Emerson’s strength failed him when at length the opportunity seemed to come to give some form and completeness to this work, for which through the years he had made notes, in the invitation to give a course on Philosophy at Harvard University. Many of the notes were already embodied in other lectures; the fragments of the course were collected by Mr. Cabot in the opening paper of the volume called Natural History of Intellect. [  See Cabot’s Memoir of Emerson, vol. ii. p. 133; also his Prefatory Note to Natural History of Intellect.] [back]
Note 9. Bacon quotes here from Plutarch’s Morals a corrupted form of a saying of Heracleitus. I am indebted to Professor Wright of Harvard University for the following curious account of the steps of the perversion. Heracleitus wrote, [Greek], “a dry soul is wisest and best,” as what is dry is most near to fire and fire is at the top of Heracleitus’s upward way. [Greek] being an unusual word, a commentator explained it by putting [Greek], a more usual word, as explanatory, beside it, so that now the sentence read [Greek] etc., which might be rendered “a dry (i.e., not moist) soul,” etc. Then the original [Greek] was dropped and [Greek] substituted in some versions. But before this was done, while [Greek] and [Greek] stood side by side, some transcriber took [Greek] for [Greek] (light), so the sentence now stood [Greek], “the light is dry; soul is wisest and best,” or, differently punctuated, “as a dry light the soul is wisest and best.” It is the last form that Plutarch quotes.
  The “dry light” is also alluded to in “Manners,” Essays, Second Series, page 140. [back]
Note 10. From the Phædrus. [back]
Note 11. Jan Baptista van Helmont (1577–1644), the eminent Flemish physician, experimenter, and writer, author of the Ortus and the Progressus Medicinæ, The Magnetic Cure of Wounds, The Image of God in Man, and other works. [back]
Note 12. Mr. Emerson refers to the Chaldæan Oracles, quoted often by Thomas Taylor. In his note-book he says they are “from Zoroaster, or else utterances of the Theurgists under Marcus Antoninus.” [back]
Note 13. The quotation from Spenser is from “A Hymne in honour of Beautie,” the whole stanza being quoted on page 14 of Essays Second Series. [back]
Note 14. In a letter to Miss Fuller in 1841, Mr. Emerson speaks of “the joy with which in my boyhood I caught the first hint of the Berkeleyan philosophy, and which I certainly never lost sight of afterwards…. I could see that there was a Cause behind every stump and clod, and by the help of some fine words could make every old wagon and wood-pile and stone wall oscillate a little and threaten to dance; nay, give me a fair field, and the selectmen of Concord and the Rev. Pound-me-down himself began to look unstable and vaporous.” [Cabot’s Memoir of Emerson, vol. ii. p. 478.] [back]
Note 15. Dr. Samuel Clarke (1675–1729), a clergyman and remarkable scholar, author of The Being and Attributes of God, as well as other religious and scientific works, important in their day. He translated some of Sir Isaac Newton’s works into English. Of him Mr. Emerson notes, “’T is curious, that Newton’s theory of gravitation was introduced into the teaching of the Universities, by stealth. Sam Clarke taught, in the text, the old Ptolemaic theory; and, in the notes only, explained the new philosophy, which, of course, needed only to be explained in order gradually to supersede the old.” James Harrington (1611–77), author of many political treatises, especially the Oceana, The Grounds and Reasons for Monarchy Considered, and The Prerogative of Popular Government. [back]
Note 16. As confirming this love of the English, even of their scholars, to feel the solid ground of the understanding beneath their feet, may be quoted the remark of Dr. Paul Weber in his History of Philosophy: “English philosophy is to this day almost as empirical and positivistic as in the times of Bacon and Locke.” [back]
Note 17. Sterling, writing to Emerson in 1841, said that, twenty years earlier, to the English mind “Wordsworth and Coleridge were mystagogues lurking in caverns, and German literature thought of with a good deal less favor than we are now disposed to show towards that of China.” Emerson, writing in answer to this and another letter, said: “Your picture of England I was very glad to have. It confirms my own impressions … I think the most intellectual class of my countrymen look to Germany rather than to England for their recent culture, and Coleridge, I suppose, has always had more readers here than in Britain.” [back]
Note 18. It appears in Mr. Cabot’s memoir that Mr. Emerson read Hume—“the Scotch Goliath” he calls him—at the age of twenty, and made probably overmuch of Hume’s doubts and objections in spiritual matters, in a letter to his Aunt Mary, with purpose to stir her up to writing a vigorous letter of refutation. [back]
Note 19. Mr. Emerson met Hallam at the house of Mr. Milman, the historian, and dined with him later at Lord Ashburton’s, “sitting between Mr. Hallam and Lord Northampton.” He wrote, “Hallam was very courteous and communicative and has since called on me.” In the notebook he records: “Mr. Hallam asked me ‘whether Swedenborg were all mad, or partly so.’ He knew nothing of Thomas Taylor, nor did Milman, nor any Englishman.” [back]
Note 20. Mr. Emerson dined with Dickens and Carlyle at Mr. John Forster’s. The writings of Dickens did not attract him. He had read in one or two of the earlier books. In 1837 he wrote in his journal:—
  “Two or three events, two or three objects, large or small, suffice to genius. Let dulness work with multitudes and magnitudes. The poor Pickwick stuff (into which I have only looked and with no wish for more) teaches this, that prose and parlors and shops and city widows, the tradesman’s dinner, and such matters, are as good materials in a skilful hand for interest and art as palaces and revolutions.”
  He made the following entry in his journal two years later: “I have read Oliver Twist, in obedience to the opinions of so many intelligent people as have praised it. The author has an acute eye for costume; he sees the expression of dress, of form, of gait, of personal deformities; of furniture, of the outside and inside of houses; but his eye rests always on surfaces, he has no insight into character. For want of key to the moral powers, the author is fain to strain all his stage trick of grievance, of bodily terror, of murder and the most approved performances of Remorse. It all avails nothing. There is nothing memorable in the book except the flash, which is got at a police-office, and the dancing of the madman, which strikes a momentary terror. Like Cooper and Hawthorne he has no dramatic talent. The moment he attempts dialogue the improbability of life hardens to wood and stone. And the book begins and ends without a poetic ray, and so perishes in the reading.”
  I find this mention of Bulwer in the journal for 1842: “Zanoni. We must not rail if we read the book. Of all the ministers to luxury these novel-writers are the best. It is a trick, a juggle. We are cheated into laughter or wonder by feats which only oddly combine acts that we do every day. There is no new element, no power, no furtherance. It is only confectionery, not the raising of new corn; and being such, there is no limit to its extension and multiplication…. But Zanoni pains us, and the author gets no respect from us because he speedily shows us that his view is partial; that this power which he gives to his hero is a toy, and not flowing from its legitimate fountains in the mind, is a power for London, a divine power converted into a highwayman’s pistol to rob and kill with.”
  Mr. Emerson met Thackeray in England, and probably later in Boston. He read only one of his books; of the painful impression left upon him by this he writes in the journal for 1850: “Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is pathetic in its name, and in his use of the name; an admission it is from a man of fashion in the London of 1850, that poor old puritan Bunyan was right in his perception of the London of 1650. And yet now in Thackeray is the added wisdom of skepticism, that, though this be really so, he must yet live in tolerance of, and practically in homage and obedience to these illusions. And there is in the book an admission, too, which seems somewhat new in literature, akin to Froude’s Formula in the Nemesis, that ‘Moral deterioration follows on a diminished exchequer;’ and State Street thinks it is easy for a rich man to be honourable, but that in failing circumstances, no man can be relied on to keep his integrity.” [back]
Note 21. Mr. Emerson met Macaulay, “that Niagara of information,” as Fanny Kemble used to call him, at least twice, at private houses. Of the table-talk on one of these occasions Mr. Alexander Ireland, in his biographical sketch of Emerson, says: “He witnessed one of Macaulay’s brilliant feats in conversation at a dinner where Hallam was one of the guests. The talk was on the question whether the ‘additional letters,’ lately published by Carlyle, were spurious or genuine. Emerson afterwards, describing the conversation, said:… ‘Macaulay overcame everybody at the table, including Hallam, by pouring out with victorious volubility instances of the use of words in a different meaning from that they bore in Cromwell’s time, or by citing words which were not in use at all until half a century later. A question, which might have been settled in a few minutes by the consent of a few men of insight, opened a tiresome controversy which lasted during the whole dinner. Macaulay seemed to have the best of it; still, I did not like the arrogance with which he paraded his minute information; but then there was a fire, speed, fury, talent and effrontery in the fellow which were very taking.’”
  Mr. Ireland adds, “Carlyle, in speaking of Macaulay, used sometimes to exclaim, ‘Flow on, thou Shining River,’ following up with his accustomed loud shout of laughter.” [back]
Note 22. Sir David Brewster, the biographer of Sir Isaac Newton. Brewster was himself a successful investigator in the field of optics, and a writer of distinction. [back]
Note 23. Robert Hooke (1635–1703), the eminent mathematician and physicist who disputed with Newton the honor of the discovery of the law of gravitation. Robert Boyle (1626–91), the physical experimenter and learned writer sometimes called “the Christian Philosopher.” Edmund Halley (1656–1742), the distinguished astronomer and mathematician, the friend of Newton, whose Principia he published at his own expense. [back]
Note 24. Coleridge had died the year after Mr. Emerson’s visit to him, described earlier in this volume. Carlyle, in announcing his death to his friend, had written, “How great a Possibility, how small a realized Result!”
  Among Mr. Emerson’s papers is a short printed notice of his own life and works, designed for a handbook of contemporary biography sent by the English editor in 1859 to him for revision and correction. It says, “In 1849 Emerson visited England, receiving a cordial reception from the literary society of London” [Mr. Emerson here added “and rather alarming the religious society of Glasgow”]. The editor alludes to English Traits as a work “singularly fair and justly appreciative,” but says that “his influence upon the British mind has been comparatively limited. This circumstance is perhaps accounted for by the fact that he is more an interpreter of Coleridge and Carlyle than an original thinker.” Mr. Emerson’s marginal comment was, “He must be a superficial reader of Emerson who fancies him an interpreter of Coleridge or Carlyle.” [back]
Note 25. All Emerson’s love for Carlyle was needed to allow for his friend’s attitude of despair for his day and hopelessness for his generation. In the early letters Carlyle, while praising each particular work that his friend sent him, was constantly urging on him his doctrine of Silence, sitting still,—doing, not teaching. Fortunately Emerson listened to his Genius rather than to his friend. He writes in his English notebook: “It is droll to hear this talker talking against talkers, and this writer writing against writing. He has such vigor of constitution that he can dispose of poison very well. He is a bacchanal in the strong waters of vituperation.”
  Shortly before the publication of English Traits Emerson wrote to Carlyle: “I say to myself, the high-seeing, austerely exigent friend whom I elected, and who elected me, twenty years and more ago, finds me heavy and silent, when all the world elects and loves him. Yet I have not changed. I have the same pride in his genius, the same sympathy with the Genius that governs his, the old love with the old limitations, though love and limitation be all untold. And I see well what a piece of Providence he is, how material he is to the times, which must always have a solo Soprano to balance the roar of the orchestra. The solo sings the theme; the orchestra roars antagonistically, but follows. And have I not put him into my Chapter of ‘English Spiritual Tendencies,’ with all thankfulness to the Eternal Creator,—though the chapter lie unborn in a trunk?” [back]
Note 26. In his journal for 1851, Mr. Emerson recalls the high esteem in which he had at first held Wilkinson for ability, power of labor, acute vision, “and especially the power I so value, and so rarely meet, of expansion, expansion such as Alcott shines with, but all this spoiled by a certain levity.” He then laments his “changing his sphere from Swedenborg’s mysticism to French Fourierism.” Wilkinson, on his part, in a later criticism of Emerson for his limited acceptance of Swedenborg, made the amusing charge of narrow and timid Unitarianism. [back]
Note 27. In a fragment of a lecture called “Anglo-Saxon” is this passage on the lack of original æsthetic sense:—
  “The English race must take rank with the Roman and the Turk as being born for power, but without art. They cannot make a pattern for a pitcher, they cannot build well, or paint, or carve, or dance. Then England has no music. It has never produced a first-rate composer, and accepts only such music as has already been decided to be good in Italy and Germany. They seem to have great delight in these things, but not original appreciation; and value them as showy commodities, which they buy at great prices for pride. But they firmly hold what they have once been taught,—as well the peculiarities of a picture, or style of building, as the rule for breaking a line of battle; and all England thinks as one man, on the merits of the Italian masters, as on the genuineness of the canonical Bible…. ‘England never did or can look at art otherwise than as a commodity it can buy.’ Hogarth and Wilkie and Landseer with their humour and homeliness and veracity are truly national artists. In sculpture, never a quite original genius. The superb scholarship of Flaxman’s sculpture is far the best they have had, and, in general, their artists show total want of all object, with great powers of execution. Their drawing has the highest finish but no grandeur.” [back]
Note 28. This was written at the time when Science, newly freed from bonds of a priori considerations of Theology and Philosophy, was on its guard against other than material considerations, especially in unimaginative England. Mr. Emerson, with his belief that the same laws ruled mind and matter, was impatient of this attitude and was more interested in the wide views of the German and French savans. In John Hunter’s work he took great interest. Comparative anatomy, ever since at the museum of the Jardin des Plantes, in 1833, he had been startled by the view of the upward series of creation from monad to man, had commanded his respect. Richard Owen, celebrated for his studies in this branch, had shown him the Hunterian Museum of which he was curator, and doubtless explained the ideas of evolution as far as they were then recognized. Mr. Emerson very probably also met Robert Brown, the great botanist and explorer of vegetable physiology. [back]
Note 29. He wrote in the notebook: “The people have wide range, but no ascending range in their speculations. An American, like a German, has many platforms of thought. But an Englishman requires to be treated with tenderness if he wishes to climb.” John Sterling, his friend, said, “Think if we had a dozen such to stand up for ideas, as Cobden and his friends do for machinery.” [back]
Note 30. This was before William Morris’s day, who not only awakened his people to the hideousness of their expensive furniture and stuffs, but gave them things beautiful and honest, and said, moreover, that if a family could do but one thing to beautify their home, the best would be to make, in the street in front of it, a bonfire of two thirds of the contents. [back]
Note 31. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Mr. Emerson only presents one aspect of the case. In his poem “The Harp” he speaks of
  Scott, the delight of generous boys,
but he never outgrew his love for the poet and the man. See in Miscellanies his remarks at the Scott Centennial Anniversary. [back]
Note 32. Before this visit to England, Mr. Emerson wrote much in two papers in the Dial (now included in the volume Natural History of Intellect) of
  Wordsworth, Pan’s recording voice,
as he calls him in “The Harp.” In a late notebook he said, “I may say of Wordsworth what Cartwright said of Fletcher,—
  “‘What he would write, he was before he writ.’”
  In 1870 Mr. Emerson made this note: “I ought to write a paper on Wordsworth partly from my Dial paper, and partly from MSS.” Some of the latter may appear in the extracts from the journals. The following comparison of the poets, written in 1868, should, however, appear here:—
  “Wordsworth is manly, the manliest poet of his age. His poems record the thoughts and emotions which have occupied his mind, and which he reports because of their reality. He has great skill in rendering them into simple and sometimes happiest poetic speech. Tennyson has incomparable felicity in all poetic forms, and is a brave thoughtful Englishman, exceeds Wordsworth a hundred fold in rhythmic power and variety, but far less manly compass; and Tennyson’s main purpose is the rendering, whilst Wordsworth’s is just value of the dignity of the thought.” [back]
Note 33. Of his first meeting with Tennyson he writes:—
  “I saw Tennyson first at the house of Coventry Patmore, where we dined together. I was contented with him at once. He is tall and scholastic looking, no dandy, but a great deal of plain strength about him, and, though cultivated, quite unaffected. Quiet, sluggish sense and thought; refined as all English are, and good-humoured. There is in him an air of general superiority that is very satisfactory. He lives with his college set,… and has the air of one who is accustomed to be petted and indulged by those he lives with. Take away Hawthorne’s bashfulness, and let him talk easily and fast, and you would have a pretty good Tennyson.” Yet, in most other accounts of Tennyson heard by Mr. Emerson, his silence, his devotion to his pipe and a certain dreamy helplessness are dwelt upon.
  In the paper “Europe and European Books,” written in 1843, reprinted from the Dial in Natural History of Intellect, may be found Mr. Emerson’s feeling about Tennyson’s poetry at that time. In the essay on “The Poet” (page 9) Tennyson is criticised. But in the journal of 1871, after some complaint at the sacrifice of natural strength to finish in Tennyson’s second volume of poems, he adds: “And yet, tried by one of my tests, it was not found wholly wanting. I mean that it was liberating; it slipped, or caused to slide a little, ‘this mortal coil.’ The poems of ‘Locksley Hall’ and ‘The Talking Oak,’ I bear cheerful witness, both gave me to feel a momentary share of freedom and power.”
  When he read “Ulysses” he was inclined to “question whether there is taste in England to do justice to the poet.”In 1846 he notes: “Tennyson and Browning, though full of talent, remind one of the catbird’s knowing music.” And again:—
  “The office of poetry, I supposed, was Tyrtæan,—consoling, indemnifying; and, of the Uranian, deifying or imparadising. Homer did what he could,—and Callimachus, Pindar, and the Greek tragedians; Horace and Persius; Dante was faithful, and Milton, Shakspeare and Herbert. But now shall I find my heavenly bread in Tennyson? or in Milnes? in Lowell? or in Longfellow? Yet Wordsworth was mindful of the office.” [back]
Note 34. Preface to translation of the Bhagavad Gîtâ (1785) by Sir Charles Wilkins. [back]
Note 35. John Sterling, the unseen friend and correspondent, who died three years before this visit of Emerson’s to England, was eminently one of this first class. Brilliant and faithful, an advancing mind and a poet, he illuminated the lives of his friends, even the sad Carlyle, his biographer, who loved him strangely, though flouting his hopes and purposes. [back]
Click here to shop the Bartleby Bookstore.

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2014 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors