Home  »  The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson  »  IX. Papers from the Dial. V. Europe and European Books

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882). The Complete Works. 1904.
Vol. I. Nature, Addresses and Lectures

IX. Papers from the Dial. V. Europe and European Books

IT was a brighter day than we have often known in our literary calendar, when within a twelvemonth a single London advertisement announced a new volume of poems by Wordsworth, poems by Tennyson, and a play by Henry Taylor. Wordsworth’s nature or character has had all the time it needed in order to make its mark and supply the want of talent. We have learned how to read him. We have ceased to expect that which he cannot give. He has the merit of just moral perception, but not that of deft poetic execution. How would Milton curl his lip at such slipshod newspaper style. Many of his poems, as for example the Rylstone Doe, might be all improvised. Nothing of Milton, nothing of Marvell, of Herbert, of Dryden, could be. These are such verses as in a just state of culture should be vers de société, such as every gentleman could write but none would think of printing, or of claiming the poet’s laurel on their merit. The Pindar, the Shakspeare, the Dante, whilst they have the just and open soul, have also the eye to see the dimmest star that glimmers in the Milky Way, the serratures of every leaf, the test-objects of the microscope, and then the tongue to utter the same things in words that engrave them on all the ears of mankind. The poet demands all gifts, and not one or two only.

The poet, like the electric rod, must reach from a point nearer the sky than all surrounding objects, down to the earth, and into the dark wet soil, or neither is of use. The poet must not only converse with pure thought, but he must demonstrate it almost to the senses. His words must be pictures, his verses must be spheres and cubes, to be seen and smelled and handled. His fable must be a good story, and its meaning must hold as pure truth. In the debates on the Copyright Bill, in the English Parliament, Mr. Sergeant Wakley, the coroner, quoted Wordsworth’s poetry in derision, and asked the roaring House of Commons what that meant, and whether a man should have public reward for writing such stuff. Homer, Horace, Milton and Chaucer would defy the coroner. Whilst they have wisdom to the wise, he would see that to the external they have external meaning. Coleridge excellently said of poetry, that poetry must first be good sense; as a palace might well be magnificent, but first it must be a house.

Wordsworth is open to ridicule of this kind. And yet Wordsworth, though satisfied if he can suggest to a sympathetic mind his own mood, and though setting a private and exaggerated value on his compositions; though confounding his accidental with the universal consciousness, and taking the public to task for not admiring his poetry, is really a master of the English language, and his poems evince a power of diction that is no more rivalled by his contemporaries than is his poetic insight. But the capital merit of Wordsworth is that he has done more for the sanity of this generation than any other writer. Early in life, at a crisis it is said in his private affairs, he made his election between assuming and defending some legal rights, with the chances of wealth and a position in the world, and the inward promptings of his heavenly genius; he took his part; he accepted the call to be a poet, and sat down, far from cities, with coarse clothing and plain fare to obey the heavenly vision. The choice he had made in his will manifested itself in every line to be real. We have poets who write the poetry of society, of the patrician and conventional Europe, as Scott and Moore, and others who, like Byron or Bulwer, write the poetry of vice and disease. But Wordsworth threw himself into his place, made no reserves or stipulations; man and writer were not to be divided. He sat at the foot of Helvellyn and on the margin of Windermere, and took their lustrous mornings and their sublime midnights for his theme, and not Marlowe nor Massinger, not Horace nor Milton nor Dante. He once for all forsook the styles and standards and modes of thinking of London and Paris, and the books read there and the aims pursued, and wrote Helvellyn and Windermere and the dim spirits which these haunts harbored. There was not the least attempt to reconcile these with the spirit of fashion and selfishness, nor to show, with great deference to the superior judgment of dukes and earls, that although London was the home for men of great parts, yet Westmoreland had these consolations for such as fate had condemned to the country life,—but with a complete satisfaction he pitied and rebuked their false lives, and celebrated his own with the religion of a true priest. Hence the antagonism which was immediately felt between his poetry and the spirit of the age, that here not only criticism but conscience and will were parties; the spirit of literature and the modes of living and the conventional theories of the conduct of life were called in question on wholly new grounds,—not from Platonism, not from Christianity, but from the lessons which the country muse taught a stout pedestrian climbing a mountain and following a river from its parent rill down to the sea. The Cannings and Jeffreys of the capital, the Court Journals and Literary Gazettes were not well pleased, and voted the poet a bore. But that which rose in him so high as to the lips, rose in many others as high as to the heart. What he said, they were prepared to hear and confirm. The influence was in the air, and was wafted up and down into lone and into populous places, resisting the popular taste, modifying opinions which it did not change, and soon came to be felt in poetry, in criticism, in plans of life, and at last in legislation. In this country it very early found a stronghold, and its effect may be traced on all the poetry both of England and America.

But, notwithstanding all Wordsworth’s grand merits, it was a great pleasure to know that Alfred Tennyson’s two volumes were coming out in the same ship; it was a great pleasure to receive them. The elegance, the wit and subtlety of this writer, his rich fancy, his power of language, his metrical skill, his independence of any living masters, his peculiar topics, his taste for the costly and gorgeous, discriminate the musky poet of gardens and conservatories, of parks and palaces. Perhaps we felt the popular objection that he wants rude truth; he is too fine. In these boudoirs of damask and alabaster, one is farther off from stern Nature and human life than in Lalla Rookh and the Loves of the Angels. Amid swinging censers and perfumed lamps, amidst velvet and glory, we long for rain and frost. Otto-of-roses is good, but wild air is better. A critical friend of ours affirms that the vice which bereaved modern painters of their power is the ambition to begin where their fathers ended; to equal the masters in their exquisite finish, instead of their religious purpose. The painters are not willing to paint ill enough; they will not paint for their times, agitated by the spirit which agitates their country; so should their picture picture us, and draw all men after them; but they copy the technics of their predecessors, and paint for their predecessors’ public. It seems as if the same vice had worked in poetry. Tennyson’s compositions are not so much poems as studies in poetry, or sketches after the styles of sundry old masters. He is not the husband who builds the homestead after his own necessity, from foundation-stone to chimney-top and turret, but a tasteful bachelor who collects quaint staircases and groined ceilings. We have no right to such superfineness. We must not make our bread of pure sugar. These delicacies and splendors are then legitimate when they are the excess of substantial and necessary expenditure. The best songs in English poetry are by that heavy, hard, pedantic poet, Ben Jonson. Jonson is rude, and only on rare occasions gay. Tennyson is always fine, but Jonson’s beauty is more grateful than Tennyson’s. It is a natural manly grace of a robust workman. Ben’s flowers are not in pots at a city florist’s, arranged on a flower-stand, but he is a countryman at a harvest-home, attending his ox-cart from the fields, loaded with potatoes and apples, with grapes and plums, with nuts and berries, and stuck with boughs of hemlock and sweetbriar, with ferns and pond-lilies which the children have gathered. But let us not quarrel with our benefactors. Perhaps Tennyson is too quaint and elegant. What then? It is long since we have had as good a lyrist; it will be long before we have his superior. Godiva is a noble poem that will tell the legend a thousand years. The poem of all the poetry of the present age for which we predict the longest term is Abou ben Adhem, of Leigh Hunt. Fortune will still have her part in every victory, and it is strange that one of the best poems should be written by a man who has hardly written any other. And Godiva is a parable which belongs to the same gospel. Locksley Hall and The Two Voices are meditative poems, which were slowly written to be slowly read. The Talking Oak, though a little hurt by its wit and ingenuity, is beautiful, and the most poetic of the volume. Ulysses belongs to a high class of poetry, destined to be the highest, and to be more cultivated in the next generation. Œnone was a sketch of the same kind. One of the best specimens we have of the class is Wordsworth’s Laodamia, of which no special merit it can possess equals the total merit of having selected such a subject in such a spirit.

Next to the poetry, the novels, which come to us in every ship from England, have an importance increased by the immense extension of their circulation through the new cheap press, which sends them to so many willing thousands. We have heard it alleged with some evidence that the prominence given to intellectual power in Bulwer’s romances has proved a main stimulus to mental culture in thousands of young men in England and America. The effect on manners cannot be less sensible, and we can easily believe that the behavior of the ballroom and of the hotel has not failed to draw some addition of dignity and grace from the fair ideals with which the imagination of a novelist has filled the heads of the most imitative class.

We are not very well versed in these books, yet we have read Mr. Bulwer enough to see that the story is rapid and interesting; he has really seen London society, and does not draw ignorant caricatures. He is not a genius, but his novels are marked with great energy and with a courage of experiment which in each instance had its degree of success. The story of Zanoni was one of those world-fables which is so agreeable to the human imagination that it is found in some form in the language of every country, and is always reappearing in literature. Many of the details of this novel preserve a poetic truth. We read Zanoni with pleasure, because magic is natural. It is implied in all superior culture that a complete man would need no auxiliaries to his personal presence. The eye and the word are certainly far subtler and stronger weapons than either money or knives. Whoever looked on the hero would consent to his will, being certified that his aims were universal, not selfish; and he would be obeyed as naturally as the rain and the sunshine are. For this reason, children delight in fairy tales. Nature is described in them as the servant of man, which they feel ought to be true. But Zanoni pains us and the author loses our respect, because he speedily betrays that he does not see the true limitations of the charm; because the power with which his hero is armed is a toy, inasmuch as the power does not flow from its legitimate fountains in the mind, is a power for London; a divine power converted into a burglar’s false key or a highwayman’s pistol to rob and kill with.

But Mr. Bulwer’s recent stories have given us who do not read novels occasion to think of this department of literature, supposed to be the natural fruit and expression of the age. We conceive that the obvious division of modern romance is into two kinds: first, the novels of costume or of circumstance, which is the old style, and vastly the most numerous. In this class, the hero, without any particular character, is in a very particular circumstance; he is greatly in want of a fortune or of a wife, and usually of both, and the business of the piece is to provide him suitably. This is the problem to be solved in thousands of English romances, including the Porter novels and the more splendid examples of the Edgeworth and Scott romances.

It is curious how sleepy and foolish we are, that these tales will so take us. Again and again we have been caught in that old foolish trap. Had one noble thought, opening the chambers of the intellect, one sentiment from the heart of God been spoken by them, the reader had been made a participator of their triumph; he too had been an invited and eternal guest; but this reward granted them is property, all-excluding property, a little cake baked for them to eat and for none other, nay, a preference and cosseting which is rude and insulting to all but the minion.

Except in the stories of Edgeworth and Scott, whose talent knew how to give to the book a thousand adventitious graces, the novels of costume are all one, and there is but one standard English novel, like the one orthodox sermon, which with slight variation is repeated every Sunday from so many pulpits.

But the other novel, of which Wilhelm Meister is the best specimen, the novel of character, treats the reader with more respect; the development of character being the problem, the reader is made a partaker of the whole prosperity. Everything good in such a story remains with the reader when the book is closed. A noble book was Wilhelm Meister. It gave the hint of a cultivated society which we found nowhere else. It was founded on power to do what was necessary, each person finding it an indispensable qualification of membership that he could do something useful, as in mechanics or agriculture or other indispensable art; then a probity, a justice was to be its element, symbolized by the insisting that each property should be cleared of privilege, and should pay its full tax to the state. Then a perception of beauty was the equally indispensable element of the association, by which each was dignified and all were dignified; then each was to obey his genius to the length of abandonment. They watched each candidate vigilantly, without his knowing that he was observed, and when he had given proof that he was a faithful man, then all doors, all houses, all relations were open to him; high behavior fraternized with high behavior, without question of heraldry, and the only power recognized is the force of character.

The novels of Fashion, of Disraeli, Mrs. Gore, Mr. Ward, belong to the class of novels of costume, because the aim is purely external success. Of the tales of fashionable life, by far the most agreeable and the most efficient was Vivian Grey. Young men were and still are the readers and victims. Byron ruled for a time, but Vivian, with no tithe of Byron’s genius, rules longer. One can distinguish the Vivians in all companies. They would quiz their father and mother and lover and friend. They discuss sun and planets, liberty and fate, love and death, over the soup. They never sleep, go nowhere, stay nowhere, eat nothing, and know nobody, but are up to anything, though it were the genesis of Nature, or the last cataclysm,—Festus-like, Faust-like, Jove-like, and could write an Iliad any rainy morning, if fame were not such a bore. Men, women, though the greatest and fairest, are stupid things; but a rifle, and a mild pleasant gunpowder, a spaniel, and a cheroot, are themes for Olympus. I fear it was in part the influence of such pictures on living society which made the style of manners of which we have so many pictures, as, for example, in the following account of the English fashionist. “His highest triumph is to appear with the most wooden manners, as little polished as will suffice to avoid castigation, nay, to contrive even his civilities so that they may appear as near as may be to affronts; instead of a noble high-bred ease, to have the courage to offend against every restraint of decorum, to invert the relation in which our sex stand to women, so that they appear the attacking, and he the passive or defensive party.”

We must here check our gossip in mid-volley and adjourn the rest of our critical chapter to a more convenient season.