Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. V. English Traits
IN these comments on an old journey, now revised after seven busy years have much changed men and things in England, I have abstained from reference to persons, except in the last chapter and in one or two cases where the fame of the parties seemed to have given the public a property in all that concerned them. I must further allow myself a few notices, if only as an acknowledgment of debts that cannot be paid. My journeys were cheered by so much kindness from new friends, that my impression of the island is bright with agreeable memories both of public societies and of households: and, what is nowhere better found than in England, a cultivated person fitly surrounded by a happy home, with
is of all institutions the best. At the landing in Liverpool I found my Manchester correspondent awaiting me, a gentleman whose kind reception was followed by a train of friendly and effective attentions which never rested whilst I remained in the country. A man of sense and of letters, the editor of a powerful local journal, he added to solid virtues an infinite sweetness and bonhommie. There seemed a pool of honey about his heart which lubricated all his speech and action with fine jets of mead. An equal good fortune attended many later accidents of my journey, until the sincerity of English kindness ceased to surprise. My visit fell in the fortunate days when Mr. Bancroft was the American Minister in London, and at his house, or through his good offices, I had easy access to excellent persons and to privileged places. At the house of Mr. Carlyle, I met persons eminent in society and in letters. The privileges of the Athenæum and of the Reform Clubs were hospitably opened to me, and I found much advantage in the circles of the Geologic, the Antiquarian and the Royal Societies. Every day in London gave me new opportunities of meeting men and women who give splendor to society. I saw Rogers, Hallam, Macaulay, Milnes, Milman, Barry Cornwall, Dickens, Thackeray, Tennyson, Leigh Hunt, DIsraeli, Helps, Wilkinson, Bailey, Kenyon and Forster: the younger poets, Clough, Arnold and Patmore; and among the men of science, Robert Brown, Owen, Sedgwick, Faraday, Buckland, Lyell, De la Beche, Hooker, Carpenter, Babbage and Edward Forbes.2 It was my privilege also to converse with Miss Baillie, with Lady Morgan, with Mrs. Jameson and Mrs. Somerville.3 A finer hospitality made many private houses not less known and dear. It is not in distinguished circles that wisdom and elevated characters are usually found, or, if found, they are not confined thereto; and my recollections of the best hours go back to private conversations in different parts of the kingdom, with persons little known. Nor am I insensible to the courtesy which frankly opened to me some noble mansions, if I do not adorn my page with their names. Among the privileges of London, I recall with pleasure two or three signal days, one at Kew, where Sir William Hooker showed me all the riches of the vast botanic garden; one at the Museum, where Sir Charles Fellowes explained in detail the history of his Ionic trophy-monument; and still another, on which Mr. Owen accompanied my countryman Mr. H. and myself through the Hunterian Museum.
The like frank hospitality, bent on real service, I found among the great and the humble, wherever I went; in Birmingham, in Oxford, in Leicester, in Nottingham, in Sheffield, in Manchester, in Liverpool. At Edinburgh, through the kindness of Dr. Samuel Brown, I made the acquaintance of De Quincey, of Lord Jeffrey, of Wilson, of Mrs. Crowe, of the Messrs. Chambers, and of a man of high character and genius, the short-lived painter, David Scott.
At Ambleside in March, 1848, I was for a couple of days the guest of Miss Martineau, then newly returned from her Egyptian tour. On Sunday afternoon I accompanied her to Rydal Mount. And as I have recorded a visit to Wordsworth, many years before, I must not forget this second interview. We found Mr. Wordsworth asleep on the sofa. He was at first silent and indisposed, as an old man suddenly waked before he had ended his nap; but soon became full of talk on the French news. He was nationally bitter on the French; bitter on Scotchmen, too. No Scotchman, he said, can write English. He detailed the two models, on one or the other of which all the sentences of the historian Robertson are framed. Nor could Jeffrey, nor the Edinburgh Reviewers write English, nor can * * *, who is a pest to the English tongue.4 Incidentally he added, Gibbon cannot write English. The Edinburgh Review wrote what would tell and what would sell. It had however changed the tone of its literary criticism from the time when a certain letter was written to the editor by Coleridge. Mrs. W. had the Editors answer in her possession. Tennyson he thinks a right poetic genius, though with some affectation. He had thought an elder brother of Tennyson at first the better poet, but must now reckon Alfred the true one. In speaking of I know not what style, he said, to be sure, it was the manner, but then you know the matter always comes out of the manner. He thought Rio Janeiro the best place in the world for a great capital city. We talked of English national character. I told him it was not creditable that no one in all the country knew anything of Thomas Taylor, the Platonist, whilst in every American library his translations are found. I said, If Platos Republic were published in England as a new book to-day, do you think it would find any readers?he confessed it would not: And yet, he added after a pause, with that complacency which never deserts a true-born Englishman, and yet we have embodied it all.5
His opinions of French, English, Irish and Scotch, seemed rashly formulized from little anecdotes of what had befallen himself and members of his family, in a diligence or stagecoach. His face sometimes lighted up, but his conversation was not marked by special force or elevation. Yet perhaps it is a high compliment to the cultivation of the English generally, when we find such a man not distinguished. He had a healthy look, with a weather-beaten face, his face corrugated, especially the large nose.
Miss Martineau, who lived near him, praised him to me not for his poetry, but for thrift and economy; for having afforded to his country-neighbors an example of a modest household where comfort and culture were secured without any display. She said that in his early housekeeping at the cottage where he first lived, he was accustomed to offer his friends bread and plainest fare; if they wanted anything more, they must pay him for their board. It was the rule of the house. I replied that it evinced English pluck more than any anecdote I knew. A gentleman in the neighborhood told the story of Walter Scotts staying once for a week with Wordsworth, and slipping out every day, under pretence of a walk, to the Swan Inn for a cold cut and porter; and one day passing with Wordsworth the inn, he was betrayed by the landlords asking him if he had come for his porter. Of course this trait would have another look in London, and there you will hear from different literary men that Wordsworth had no personal friend, that he was not amiable, that he was parsimonious, etc. Landor, always generous, says that he never praised anybody. A gentleman in London showed me a watch that once belonged to Milton, whose initials are engraved on its face. He said he once showed this to Wordsworth, who took it in one hand, then drew out his own watch and held it up with the other, before the company, but no one making the expected remark, he put back his own in silence. I do not attach much importance to the disparagement of Wordsworth among London scholars. Who reads him well will know that in following the strong bent of his genius, he was careless of the many, careless also of the few, self-assured that he should create the taste by which he is to be enjoyed. He lived long enough to witness the revolution he had wrought, and to see what he foresaw.6 There are torpid places in his mind, there is something hard and sterile in his poetry, want of grace and variety, want of due catholicity and cosmopolitan scope: he had conformities to English politics and traditions; he had egotistic puerilities in the choice and treatment of his subjects; but let us say of him that, alone in his time, he treated the human mind well, and with an absolute trust. His adherence to his poetic creed rested on real inspirations. The Ode on Immortality is the high-water mark which the intellect has reached in this age. New means were employed, and new realms added to the empire of the muse, by his courage.7
Note 2. He wrote from London: I attend Mr. Owens lectures at the Royal College of Surgeons; Faraday, at the Royal Institution; Lyell, Sedgwick, Buckland, Forbes, I hear at the Geologic Society; and two nights ago I dined with the antiquaries, and discussed Shakspeare with Mr. Collier. Dr. Carpenter has shown me his microscopes, Sir Henry De la Bèche his geologic museum, and I have really owed many valuable hours to the scientific bodies. Now the Picture Galleries are open, and I have begun to see pictures and artists. It is interesting to see the eagerness with which Mr. Emerson sought facts from the workers in science, to translate into higher terms. He quotes Owens utterances on palæontology in Poetry and Imagination, saying that every good reader will recall expressions or passages in works of pure science which have given him the same pleasure he seeks in the poets. In the same essay he finds delight in Faradays spherules of force, and in Greatness proudly claims for the brave scholar the right to weigh Plato, judge Laplace, know Newton, Faraday, judge of Darwin, criticise Kant and Swedenborg, and on all these arouse the central courage or insight [Letters and Social Aims]. On the opening page of Natural History of Intellect, Mr. Emerson says that his desire to enumerate the laws and powers of the intellect was incited by the masterly manner in which these same scientific men had presented those of matter. [back]
Note 3. Joanna Baillie, the friend of Scott, authoress of ballads in Scottish dialect and of many dramatic pieces, was at the time of Mr. Emersons visit in her ninetieth year. Lady Morgan, née Owenson in 1783, a bright young Irish lady, early won repute by her songs and tales, especially The Wild Irish Girl. She married Sir Thomas Charles Morgan, and with him travelled and lived abroad many years, writing many books, and finished her days in London, where she was very popular in society. Mrs. Anna Jameson, the well-known writer on Art. Mrs. Mary Somerville, the active-minded and successful student of physics, physical geography, astronomy and microscopy. Herself a remarkable example of what a woman could accomplish, she was one of the earliest champions of equal opportunities and rights for women. [back]
Note 4. The inbred hostility of Wordsworth, as a Borderer, to the Scot, and his traditionary ally the Frenchman, is interesting, recalling the old ballad of the Marches,
God send the land deliverance
Frae every reaving, riding Scot!
We ll sune hae neither cow nor ewe,
We ll sune hae neither staig nor stot!
The name starred in the text by Mr. Emerson was Carlyle, as appears in the notebook. [back]
Note 5. After speaking of the insularity of the English and their unwilling reception of ideas in science from foreign sources, Mr. Emerson notes: So in literature and philosophy,Plato has no readers in England, except as a Greek book. The expansive, the ideal tendency has no favor, but only the exact, the defining, the experimental. Thomas Taylor, the Platonist, is totally unknown in England. His translation of Plato is found in every public, and often in private libraries, in this country; never in England. I asked repeatedly among literary men for some account of him. But in vain. Poor Taylor in his day had insulted over the materialism and superstition of the times, and the dreadful sterility of times in which he fell, and sadly said: There does not appear to be any living author besides myself, who has made the acquisition of the Platonic Philosophy the great business of his life without paying the smallest attention to the accumulation of wealth. And the modern multitude, which he despised, avenged themselves by forgetting him. Coleridge and Wordsworth slowly and against all opposition made their genius felt. Goethe was received with mean cavilling criticism in the leading journals, like the Edinburgh and Blackwood, and with supercilious silence by the rest. The German Philosophy has made few steps. The English hate transcendental ideas, like the mysticism of the Eastern philosophy and religion, and one may see it amusingly in the anxiety a late critic shows to absolve Taliessin, the Welsh Bard, from the imputation of such odious doctrines as the transmigration of souls. Materialism is much less offensive. [back]
Note 7. With the best intentions on both sides, the meetings with the lights of England were a little disappointing. Mr. Emerson wrote in a letter:
LONDON, MARCH 20, 1848.
What shall I say to you of Babylon? There is nowhere so much wealth of talent and character and social accomplishment; every star outshone by one more dazzling, and you cannot move without coming into the light and fame of new ones. I have seen, I suppose, some good specimens, chiefly of the literary-fashionable and not of the fashionable sort. They have all carried the art of agreeable sensations to a wonderful pitch, they know everything, have everything, they are rich, plain, polite, proud and admirable. But though good for them, it ends in the using. I shall or should soon have enough of this play for my occasion. The seed-corn is oftener found in quite other districts . Tennyson, whom I wish to see more than any other, is in Ireland, and I fear I shall miss him. I saw Wordsworth to very good purpose in Westmoreland, and all the Scottish gods at Edinburgh. Perhaps it is no fault of Britain,no doubt it is because I grow old and cold,but no persons here appeal in any manner to the imagination. I think even that there is no person in England from whom I expect more than talent and information. But I am wont to ask very much more of my benefactors,expansions that amount to new horizons. [Letters of Emerson to a Friend. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1899.] [back]