Page images




Did Emerson believe in personal immortality? It is very doubtful. If God is impersonal, and man is to be merged at last in God, the less faith we have in individual existence beyond the grave, the better. Yet, with the mystics, he did not believe in annihilation. "God upholds us with his uncreated power," he says, "and keeps the soul still herself." And some of his interpreters, like Cooke, maintain that he rejects the individual, local, and selfish, but retains the personal, divine, and eternal. One can find in his writings occasional utterances that encourage faith. "Life is not long enough for art, or for friendship," he declares. The soul does not age with the body." He is “sure that in the other life we will be permitted to finish the work begun in this." But then he also says: "A future state is an illusion for the ever-present state. It is not duration, but a taking of the soul out of time." He believes in the future, only because he has God in the present But whether we shall know each other beyond the grave is "a school-dame question." Even the "Threnody," which expresses his grief at the death of his beautiful young son, gives us no certain assurance that he ever expected to meet him again. In the shadow of that affliction he wrote to Carlyle: "I dare not fathom the Invisible and Untold, to inquire what relations to my departed ones I yet sustain." He speaks of "the inarticulateness of the Supreme Power," and asks: "How can we insatiate hearers, perceivers, and thinkers, ever reconcile us to it? My divine temple, which all angels seemed to love to build, was shattered in a night." This is surely far short of the comfort which Christ gives to his dis

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

ciples, and it shows that in his sorrow our author needed more than any inner light could give him. The "Threnody" is painful reading to one who believes that Christ has brought life and immortality to light in his glorious gospel, and it reminds us of the sad and uncertain inscriptions upon the monuments of the dead in classic times. Listen to these words:

The South-wind brings

Life, sunshine and desire,

And on every mount and meadow
Breathes aromatic fire;

But over the dead he has no power,
The lost, the lost, he cannot restore;
And, looking over the hills, I mourn
The darling who shall not return.

Not mine, I never called thee mine,
But Nature's heir,-if I repine,
And seeing rashly torn and moved
Not what I made, but what I loved,
Grow early old with grief that thou
Must to the wastes of Nature go,-
'Tis because a general hope

Was quenched, and all must doubt and grope.

What is excellent,

As God lives, is permanent;

Hearts are dust, hearts' loves remain;

Heart's love will meet thee again.

Revere the Maker; fetch thine eye

Up to his style, and manners of the sky.

Silent rushes the swift Lord
Through ruined systems still restored,
Broadsowing, bleak and void to bless,
Plants with worlds the wilderness;


Waters with tears of ancient sorrow
Apples of Eden ripe to-morrow.
House and tenant go to ground,
Lost in God, in Godhead found.

[ocr errors]


Schleiermacher's touching address at the funeral of his only son furnishes a remarkable parallel to this poem. They both exhibit a calm confidence that all is well, without certainty of future reunion. So far as Emerson was concerned, Jesus might never have lived, and might never have opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. He would have been content, he said, "to be a good Roman in the days of Cicero. I burn after the aliquid immensum infinitumque' which Cicero desired." Like Marcus Aurelius, he had the self-repression and the self-assertion of the Stoic. Calm and benignant, a New England Brahmin, living in an upper air of thought, he had no eye for the tragedy of the world and for its need of redemption. He moved among men with something of Goethe's majestic composure. Doctor Holmes tells us that he was fully six feet in height, but spare in build and weighing only one hundred and forty pounds. Blue eyes, brown hair, sloping shoulders, all marked him for an idealist. He had no ear for music, never indulged in loud laughing, was no mathematician or mechanic. The seeing eye was his, as he himself said, but not the working hand. He was never hungry, though he always had pie for breakfast, and only replied to Oliver Wendell Holmes's remonstrance with the naïve question, "Why, what is pie for?" rose at seven, drank coffee and tea, and took to his bed at ten in the evening. He complained of his




own debility, procrastination, and inefficiency; yet he was instant in season and out of season at his work of reading, thinking, and writing; so that the amount of his literary product, though small in poetry, is in prose extraordinarily large.

Emerson was not only sincere in his thinking-he was also honest in his utterances. The condensation and pithiness of every sentence in his conversation and in his writing were the fruit of much pondering of phrase. "To give the thought just and full expression,” he says, “I must not prematurely utter it. It is as if you let the spring snap too soon." We know what is meant by "going off at half-cock." There was something attractive and impressive in his frequent waiting for the proper word, and in his triumphant seizure of that word when it came to mind. This painstaking, however, became too much of a habit, and it led to paralysis. In his latter days he was afflicted with great loss of memory. First the names of persons, and then the names of the most familiar things, passed from him. [But this affliction seemed never to disturb his tranquillity. He smiled at himself; took the needed word from others, went on in perfect composure. It was affecting to see him at the funeral of Longfellow. He paid respect by his presence to one of his lifelong friends, a poet like himself, and one more widely popular. At the close of the service he turned to his companion and said: "The gentleman whose funeral we have been attending was a sweet and beautiful soul, but-I have forgotten his name." And in less than a twelvemonth Emerson had followed Longfellow.

[ocr errors]



He was what he was, and we must value the good, even while we deprecate the evil. He grasped one of the greatest truths, and that one truth gave him a resting-place and fortress from which he could look out calmly upon the world. As years increased, he could write:

Spring still makes spring in the mind
When sixty years are told;

Love wakes anew this throbbing heart,
And we are never old;
ver the winter glaciers

I see the summer glow,

And through the wild-piled snow-drift,
The warm rosebuds below."

Good-bye, proud world! I'm going home:
Thou art not my friend, and I'm not thine.
Long through thy weary crowds I roam;
A river-ark on the ocean brine,

Long I've been tossed like the driven foam;
But now, proud world! I'm going home."2

When frail Nature can no more,

Then the Spirit strikes the hour;

My servant Death, with solving rite,
Pours finite into infinite.13

And in all literature there are few anticipations of death more composed and stalwart than Emerson's poem entitled "Terminus":

It is time to be old,

To take in sail:

The god of bounds,

Who sets to seas a shore,

Came to me in his fatal rounds,

And said, 'No more!

41"The World-Soul."


43" Threnody."

« PreviousContinue »