Page images
PDF
EPUB

70

DISCORD NECESSARY TO HARMONY

O doleful ghosts, and goblins merry!
O all you virtues, methods, mights,
Means, appliances, delights,
Reputed wrongs and braggart rights,
Smug routine, and things allowed,
Minorities, things under cloud!
Hither! take me, use me, fill me,

Vein and artery, though ye kill me!"

One thing is forever good;
That one thing is Success,-
Dear to the Eumenides,

And to all the heavenly brood.

Who bides at home, nor looks abroad,

Carries the eagles, and masters the sword.

These quotations show how far Emerson was from recognizing evil as a "body of death" which required a Deliverer. It is only a discord necessary to perfect harmony; it is only the dark background without which we could not appreciate the bright; it is indeed the soil from which truth and goodness must emerge.) "Our crimes," he says, "may be lively stones, out of which we shall construct the temple of the true God.") We

must even see in moral evil a manifestation of God's nature:

"Mithridates."

Higher far into the pure realm,
Over sun and star,

Over the flickering Dæmon film,
Thou must mount for love;

Into vision where all form

Into one only form dissolves;

In a region where the wheel

On which all beings ride

Visibly revolves;

Where the starred, eternal worm

Destiny."

[merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small]

"Woe to them that call evil good, and good evil," said the ancient prophet. (Yet this ignoring of sin is the fundamental error of Emerson's teaching.) There can be no question about his sincerity, and the sweetness and cheerfulness of his disposition. He had never experienced serious conflicts with his own nature, and he seldom, if ever, was conscious of moral imperfection. In his early life indeed he writes: "Milton was enamored of moral perfection. He did not love it more than I. That which I cannot declare has been my angel from childhood until now. It has separated me from men. It has driven sleep from my bed. It has tortured me for my guilt. It has inspired me with hope." And his poem entitled "Grace" has lines which seem almost Christian:

How much, preventing God, how much I owe
To the defences thou hast round me set;
Example, custom, fear, occasion slow,-
These scorned bondmen were my parapet.
I dare not peep over this parapet

To gauge with glance the roaring gulf below,
The depths of sin to which I had descended,
Had not these me against myself defended!

But the remedy is all in self and not in God. Self, indeed, is an effluence and manifestation of God:

"The Celestial Love."

72

SALVATION BY CHARACTER

So nigh is grandeur to our dust,

So near is God to man,

When Duty whispers low, Thou must,

The youth replies, I can.

"The essence of Christianity," he says, "is in its practical morals." We must summon up our better nature, our lofty ideals, our strength of will:

Freedom's secret wilt thou know?—
Counsel not with flesh and blood;
Loiter not for cloak or food;
Right thou feelest, rush to do."

There is little comfort here for the sin-sick and despairing. Emerson preaches salvation by character, when man's first need is salvation from character. Yet we must concede that he presents a winning picture of Pelagian virtue. Father Taylor, the seaman's preacher, was severely orthodox, but when Emerson died, and some one intimated a doubt of his eternal fate, Taylor gallantly remarked: "Well, if Emerson has gone to hell, all I can say is that the climate will speedily change, and immigration will rapidly set in. He might think this or that, but he was more like Jesus Christ than any one I have ever known. The devil will not know what to do with him." But this same Father Taylor gave it as his verdict that "Emerson knows no more of the religion of the New Testament than Balaam's ass did of the principles of Hebrew grammar."

[blocks in formation]

THE POET THE EMANCIPATED MAN

73

All that I have said thus far is meant as an introduction to his poetry, and to the understanding of its theological significance. Emerson's conception of

poetry will help us here. To him the poet was the emancipated man, lifted into consciousness of his divine Original, with insight into the hidden meaning of the world, and foresight of the end to which the world is hastening:

The free winds told him what they knew,
Discoursed of fortune as they blew;

And on his mind at dawn of day
Soft shadows of the evening lay.10

But he does not regard this elevation and ecstasy as peculiar to the poet: it is only an intensification of moods that belong at times to the common man :

In the deep heart of man a poet dwells

Who all the day of life his summer story tells."

For this reason the poet appeals to the universal heart of man; he rouses in us the same emotions that swayed himself; he teaches us the habit of thinking for ourselves. Emerson counted among "the traits common to all works of the highest art that they are universally intelligible, that they restore to us the simplest states of mind."

[blocks in formation]

74

CHARACTERISTICS OF TRUE POETRY

That wit and joy might find a tongue,
And earth grow civil, HOMER Sung."

To clothe the fiery thought

In simple words succeeds,
For still the craft of genius is
To mask a king in weeds.13

12

This is the first of Milton's essential characteristics of poetry: it must be "simple, sensuous, passionate." But Emerson is not true to his own principle. He is not always simple, he is not always intelligible, and he is generally cold in temper rather than impassioned. The philosopher and the seer too often interfere with the poet. He must needs plunge into the unknown, and disclose things beyond all power of human speech:

Ever the Poet from the land

Steers his bark and trims his sail;
Right out to sea his courses stand,
New worlds to find in pinnace frail."

And when he has found truth undiscovered before, he must give it utterance in ways that will stir men's hearts by their novelty, even though they break with every tradition of meter and of rhyme. I doubt whether Emerson was ever consciously sensational, but his lordly method is not the method of true poetry, when he writes:

12" Solution."

Great is the art,

Great be the manners, of the bard.
He shall not his brain encumber
With the coil of rhythm and number;
But, leaving rule and pale forethought,

13" Quatrains."

14 44 Quatrains."

« PreviousContinue »