Page images


NINE years after Bryant, Emerson was born. Our second American poet began his life in 1803, half-way between the war of the Revolution and the war with England in 1812. The embattled farmers had won their independence, and they were ready for another fray. It was a time of sturdy self-assertion. The early Calvinism had been toned down by a discovery of the dignity of man. Emerson was the heir of eight successive generations of Puritan divines who had been gradually sloughing off their Puritanism and standing for what they regarded as natural freedom of thought. Straitened circumstances had trained him, as they trained Bryant, to plain living; his Cambridge surroundings were more favorable than were Bryant's to high thinking. His father was pastor of the First Unitarian Church of Boston, a pleasing preacher of somewhat latitudinarian doctrine and no stickler for the mere forms of religion. When this father died,

left a family of six children, all of them under ten years of age, of whom Ralph was the fourth son. The mother, with five hundred dollars a year from the church, kept boarders in order to support and educate her children. They sometimes lacked food, but then


their aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, a genius but a strict Calvinist, stayed their stomachs by telling them stories of heroic endurance.

Ralph Waldo lived in an atmosphere of letters. He is described as a spiritual-looking boy in blue nankeen, angelic and remarkable. He had a lofty carriage of the head, which some attributed to pride, but which was wholly unconscious. There was no education of the playground or the nursery. Aunt Mary frowned upon mirth or frivolity in the children. The boy lived a life apart, and never learned to mingle freely with his fellows. School began when he was only three years old. He does not appear to have been a precocious scholar. In his college course at Harvard, he was not distinguished in his class, except for a certain poetical gift. He supported himself through college by serving as errand boy to the president, and by waiting on the table at commons. But all this nourished in him a habitual self-reliance, and the child was father of the man, for in his diary he wrote even then, "I purpose from this day to utter no essay or poem that is not absolutely and peculiarly my own."

Emerson's address on "The American Scholar,' delivered at Cambridge in 1837, has been called "the intellectual Declaration of Independence of the United States." But that address was antedated by Bryant's dictum, eighteen years before, that American poets should seek to achieve original expression and should no longer imitate. It is easy to see that freedom was in the air, and that neither one of these writers had a monopoly of originality. Colonial subjection, even in literature, had had its day, and a new age was opening.

[blocks in formation]

Both Bryant and Emerson felt the stirrings of a new life, the former in his vision of the New England landscape, the latter in his apprehension of the spirit which moved within it. Of the two, however, we must give the palm for simplicity and intelligibility to Bryant, though we acknowledge the superiority of Emerson in breadth and insight. I speak of their poetry, and I would liken Bryant's to the clear radiance of a summer morning, while Emerson's is like the fitful flashes which light up a summer evening cloud.


It is interesting to note that Emerson puts his poem of "The Sphinx" in the forefront of his published This somewhat obscure and unmetrical production has significance as indicating his own estimate of his genius, and as boldly challenging the animadversions of his critics. Emerson is himself a sphinx. His writings propound a riddle, which is still unsolved. Is he philosopher, or poet, or prophet? Matthew Arnold denies that he is any one of these, and declares rather ambiguously that he is simply "the friend and aider of those who would live in the spirit." Emerson is doubtful about himself, for at one time he says, "It has been decided that I cannot write poetry "; at other times he writes: "I am half a bard, not a poet, but a lover of poetry and poets." "I am born a poet-of a lower class, no doubt, yet a poet." "I am not a great poet, but whatever is of me is a poet." "My singing, be sure, is very husky, and is for the most part in prose. Still I am a poet, in the sense of a preserver and dear lover of the harmonies that are in the soul and in matter, and specially of the correspondences between these and those." But James

[ocr errors]



Russell Lowell said of Emerson's verses, "They are pure pr―; no, they are not even prose.'

[ocr errors]

Perhaps it is nearest the truth to say that he was a poetical philosopher. But even here we must qualify our statement. If organization of material is necessary to philosophy, Emerson was no philosopher, for he had no system. He speaks of his own" formidable tendency to the lapidary style. I build my house of boulders. Here I sit, and read and write, with very little system, and as far as regards composition with the most fragmentary result, paragraphs incomprehensible, each sentence an infinitely repellent particle." What philosophy he has is infinitely eclectic also-a medley of all philosophies-fate and free will, good and evil, God and man, being inextricably combined and confounded. I am more inclined to call him a prophet than to call him either a poet or a philosopher. The prophet utters some great and vital truth, but he mixes with this so much of error that he becomes too often a false prophet. What he says of Alcott is even more true of himself: "Gold ore is so combined with other elements that no chemistry is able to separate it without great loss."

Yet there is a leading and dominant thought in all his work, and we must grasp this, if we would understand either his poetry or his prose. It is the thought of the spiritual meaning of the world. Emerson, beyond all others, is the poet of transcendentalism, but of transcendentalism under bonds to a naturalistic philosophy. To explain and to justify this estimate will require some reflection, and I can at present only indicate the drift of my discussion. Since his verse is

« PreviousContinue »