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

VIII. Art and Criticism

  • TO clothe the fiery thought
  • In simple words succeeds,
  • For still the craft of genius is
  • To mask a king in weeds.

  • LITERATURE is a poor trick, you will say, when it busies itself to make words pass for things; and yet I am far from thinking this subordinate service unimportant. The secondary services of literature may be classed under the name of Rhetoric, and are quite as important in letters as iron is in war. An enumeration of the few principal weapons of the poet or writer will at once suggest their value.

    Writing is the greatest of arts, the subtilest, and of most miraculous effect; and to it the education is costliest. On the writer the choicest influences are concentrated,—nothing that does not go to his costly equipment: a war, an earthquake, revival of letters, the new dispensation by Jesus, or by Angels; Heaven, Hell, power, science, the Néant, exist to him as colors for his brush.

    In this art modern society has introduced a new element, by introducing a new audience. The decline of the privileged orders, all over the world; the advance of the Third Estate; the transformation of the laborer into reader and writer has compelled the learned and the thinkers to address them. Chiefly in this country, the common school has added two or three audiences: once, we had only the boxes; now, the galleries and the pit.

    There is, in every nation, a style which never becomes obsolete, a certain mode of phraseology so consonant and congenial to the analogy and principles of its respective language as to remain settled and unaltered. This style is probably to be sought in the common intercourse of life, among those who speak only to be understood, without ambition of elegance. The polite are always catching modish innovations, and the learned depart from established forms of speech, in hope of finding or making better; those who wish for distinction forsake the vulgar, when the vulgar is right; but there is a conversation above grossness and below refinement where prosperity resides, and where Shakspeare seems to have gathered his comic dialogue. Goethe valued himself not on his learning or eccentric flights, but that he knew how to write German. And many of his poems are so idiomatic, so strongly rooted in the German soil, that they are the terror of translators, who say they cannot be rendered into any other language without loss of vigor, as we say of any darling passage of our own masters. “Le style c’est l’homme,” said Buffon; and Goethe said, “Poetry here, poetry there, I have learned to speak German.” And when I read of various extraordinary polyglots, self-made or college-made, who can understand fifty languages, I answer that I shall be glad and surprised to find that they know one. For if I were asked how many masters of English idiom I know, I shall be perplexed to count five.

    Ought not the scholar to convey his meaning in terms as short and strong as the smith and the drover use to convey theirs? You know the history of the eminent English writer on gypsies, George Borrow; he had one clear perception, that the key to every country was command of the language of the common people. He therefore mastered the patois of the gypsies, called Romany, which is spoken by them in all countries where they wander, in Europe, Asia, Africa. Yet much of the raw material of the street-talk is absolutely untranslatable into print, and one must learn from Burke how to be severe without being unparliamentary. Rabelais and Montaigne are masters of this Romany, but cannot be read aloud, and so far fall short. Whitman is our American master, but has not got out of the Fire-Club and gained the entrée of the sitting-rooms. Bacon, if “he could out-cant a London chirurgeon,” must have possessed the Romany under his brocade robes. Luther said, “I preach coarsely; that giveth content to all. Hebrew, Greek and Latin I spare, until we learned ones come together, and then we make it so curled and finical that God himself wondereth at us.” He who would be powerful must have the terrible gift of familiarity,—Mirabeau, Chatham, Fox, Burke, O’Connell, Patrick Henry; and among writers, Swift, De Foe and Carlyle.

    Look at this forlorn caravan of travellers who wander over Europe dumb,—never exchange a word, in the mother tongue of either, with prince or peasant; but condemned to the company of a courier and of the padrone when they cannot take refuge in the society of countrymen. A well-chosen series of stereoscopic views would have served a better purpose, which they can explore at home, sauced with joyful discourse and with reference to all the books in your library.

    Speak with the vulgar, think with the wise. See how Plato managed it, with an imagination so gorgeous, and a taste so patrician, that Jove, if he descended, was to speak in his style. Into the exquisite refinement of his Academy, he introduces the low-born Socrates, relieving the purple diction by his perverse talk, his gallipots, and cook, and trencher, and cart-wheels—and steadily kept this coarseness to flavor a dish else too luscious. Everybody knows the points in which the mob has the advantage of the Academy, and all able men have known how to import the petulance of the street into correct discourse. I heard, when a great bank president was expounding the virtues of his party and of the government to a silent circle of bank pensioners, a grave Methodist exclaimed “Fiddle-sticks!” The whole party were surprised and cheered, except the bank president, though it would be difficult to explain the propriety of the expression, as no music or fiddle was so much as thought of.

    Not only low style, but the lowest classifying words outvalue arguments; as, upstart, dab, cockney, prig, granny, lubber, puppy, peacock—“A cocktail House of Commons.” I remember when a venerable divine [Dr. Osgood] called the young preacher’s sermon “patty cake.” The sans-culottes at Versailles cried out, “Let our little Mother Mirabeau speak!” Who has not heard in the street how forcible is bosh, gammon and gas. The short Saxon words with which the people help themselves are better than Latin. The language of the street is always strong. I envy the boys the force of the double negative (no shoes, no money, no nothing), though clean contrary to our grammar rules, and I confess to some titillation of my ears from a rattling oath.

    In the infinite variety of talents, ’t is certain that some men swear with genius. I knew a poet in whose talent Nature carried this freak so far that his only graceful verses were pretty blasphemies. “The better the worse,” you will say; and I own it reminds one of Vathek’s collection of monstrous men with humps of a picturesque peak, and horns of exquisite polish. What traveller has not listened to the vigor of the Sacre! of the French postilion, the Sia ammazato! of the Italian contadino, or the deep stomach of an English drayman’s execration. I remember an occasion when a proficient in this style came from North Street to Cambridge and drew a crowd of young critics in the college yard, who found his wrath so æsthetic and fertilizing that they took notes, and even overstayed the hour of the mathematical professor.

    ’T is odd what revolutions occur. We were educated in horror of Satan, but Goethe remarked that all men like to hear him named. Burns took him into compassion and expressed a blind wish for his reformation.

  • “Ye aiblins might, I dinna ken,
  • Still have a stake.”
  • And George Sand finds a whole nation who regard him as a personage who has been greatly wronged, and in which he is really the subject of a covert worship. As a study in language, the use of this word is curious, to see how words help us and must be philosophical. The Devil in philosophy is absolute negation, falsehood, nothing; and in the popular mind, the Devil is a malignant person. Yet all our speech expresses the first sense. “The Devil a monk was he,” means, he was no monk, and “The Devil you did!” means you did not. Natural science gives us the inks, the shades; ink of Erebus—night of Chaos.… Goethe, who had collected all the diabolical hints in men and nature for traits for his for Walpurgis Nacht, continued the humor of collecting such horrors after this first occasion had passed, and professed to point his guest to his Walpurgis Sack, or Acherontian Bag, in which, he said, he put all his dire hints and images, and into which, he said, he should be afraid to fall himself, lest he should be burnt up. Dante is the professor that shall teach both the noble low style, the power of working up all his experience into heaven and hell; also the sculpture of compression.

    The next virtue of rhetoric is compression, the science of omitting, which makes good the old verse of Hesiod, “Fools, they did not know that half was better than the whole.” The French have a neat phrase, that the secret of boring you is that of telling all,—“Le secret d’ennuyer est celui de tout dire;” which we translate short, “Touch and go.” The silences, pauses, of an orator are as telling as his words. What the poet omits exalts every syllable that he writes. In good hands it will never become sterility. A good writer must convey the feeling of a flamboyant witness, and at the same time of chemic selection,—;as if in his densest period was no cramp, but room to turn a chariot and horses between his valid words. There is were hardly danger in America of excess of condensation; there must be no cramp insufficiency, but the superfluous must be omitted. In the Hindoo mythology, “Viswaharmàn” placed the sun on his lathe to grind off some of his effulgence, and in this manner reduced it to an eighth,—more was inseparable….

    In architecture the beauty is increased in the degree in which the material is safely diminished; as when you break up a prose wall, and leave all the strength in the poetry of columns. As soon as you read aloud, you will find what sentences drag. Blot them out, and read again, you will find the words that drag. ’T is like a pebble inserted in a mosaic. Resolute blotting rids you of all those phrases that sound like something and mean nothing, with which scriptural forms play a large part. Never say, “I beg not to be misunderstood.” It is only graceful in the case when you are afraid that what is called a better meaning will be taken, and you wish to insist on a worse; a man has a right to pass, like Dean Swift, for a worse man than he is, but not for a better.

    And I sometimes wish that the Board of Education might carry out the project of a college for graduates of our universities, to which editors and members of Congress and writers of books might repair, and learn to sink what we could best spare of our words; to gazette those Americanisms which offend us in all journals. Some of these are odious. Some as an adverb—“reeled some;” considerable as an adverb for much; “quite a number;” slim for bad; the adjective graphic, which means what is written,—graphic arts and oral arts, arts of writing, and arts of speech and song,—but is used as if it meant descriptive: “Minerva’s graphic thread.” A Mr. Randall, M. C., who appeared before the committee of the House of Commons on the subject of the American mode of closing a debate, said, “that the one-hour rule worked well; made the debate short and graphic.” ’T is the worst praise you can give a speech that it is as if written.

    Never use the word development, and be wary of the whole family of Fero. Dangerous words in like kind are display, improvement, peruse, circumstances, commence for begin. Vulgarisms to be gazetted, moiety used for a small part;—“nothing would answer but;” “there is none but what”—“there being scarce a person of any note in England but what some time or other paid a visit or sent a present to our Lady of Walsingham” (Bishop Parcy); “might have to go;” “I have been to Europe;” “in our midst;” considerable—“it is considerable of a compliment,” “under considerable of a cloud;” balance for remainder—“spent the balance of his life;” “as a general thing;” “after all.” Confusions of lie and lay, sit and set, shall and will.

    Persons have been named from their abuse of certain phrases, as “Pyramid” Lambert, “Finality” Russell, “Humanity” Martin, “Horizon” Turner.

    Every age gazettes a quantity of words which it has used up. We are now offended with “Standpoint,” “Myth,” “Subjective,” “the Good and the True” and “the Cause.”

    A list might be made of showy words that tempt young writers: asphodel, harbinger, chalice, flamboyant, golden, diamond, amethyst, opal and the rest of the precious stones, carcanet, diadem.

    But these cardinal rules of rhetoric find best examples in the great masters, and are main sources of the delight they give. Shakspeare might be studied for his dexterity in the use of these weapons, if it were not for his heroic strength. There is no such master of low style as he, and therefore none can securely soar so high. I do not mean that he delights in comedy, exults in bringing the street itself, uproarious with laughter and animal joy, on to the scene, with Falstaff and Touchstone and Trinculo and the fools; but that in the conduct of the play, and the speech of the heroes, he keeps the level tone which is the tone of high and low alike, and most widely understood. A man of experience altogether, his very sonnets are as solid and close to facts as the Banker’s Gazette; and the only check on the detail of each of his portraits is his own universality, which made bias or fixed ideas impossible—his impartiality is like a sunbeam.

    His fun is as wise as his earnest, its foundations are below the frost. His muse is moral simply from its depth, and I value the intermixture of the common and the transcendental as in Nature. One would say Shakspeare must have been a thousand years old when he wrote his first piece; so thoroughly is his thought familiar to him, so solidly worded, as if it were already a proverb, and not only hereafter to become one. Well, that millennium is really only a little acceleration in his process of thought; his loom is better toothed, cranked and pedalled than other people’s, and he can turn off a hundred yards to their one. Shakspeare is nothing but a large utterance. We cannot find that anything in his age was more worth expression than anything in ours; nor give any account of his existence, but only the fact that there was a wonderful symbolizer and expressor, who has no rival in all ages and who has thrown an accidental lustre over his time and subject.

    My friend thinks the reason why the French mind is so shallow, and still to seek, running into vagaries and blind alleys, is because they do not read Shakspeare; whilst the English and Germans, who read Shakspeare and the Bible, have a great onward march. Shakspeare would have sufficed for the culture of a nation for vast periods. The Chinese have got on so long with their solitary Confucius and Mencius; the Arabs with their Mahomet; the Scandinavians with their Snorre Sturleson; and if the English island had been larger and the Straits of Dover wider, to keep it at pleasure a little out of the imbroglio of Europe, they might have managed to feed on Shakspeare for some ages yet; as the camel in the desert is fed by his humps, in long absence from food.

    Montaigne must have the credit of giving to literature that which we listen for in bar-rooms, the low speech,—words and phrases that no scholar coined; street-cries and war-cries; words of the boatman, the farmer and the lord; that have neatness and necessity, through their use in the vocabulary of work and appetite, like the pebbles which the incessant attrition of the sea has rounded. Every historic autobiographic trait authenticating the man adds to the value of the book. We can’t afford to take the horse out of the Essays; it would take the rider too.

    Herrick is a remarkable example of the low style. He is, therefore, a good example of the modernness of an old English writer. So Latimer, so Chaucer, so the Bible. He found his subject where he stood, between his feet, in his house, pantry, barn, poultry-yard, in his village, neighbors’ gossip and scandal. Like Montaigne in this, that his subject cost him nothing, and he knew what he spake of, and did not write up to it, but could write down (a main secret), and took his level, so that he had all his strength, the easiness of strength; he took what he knew, and “took it easy,” as we say. The Germans praise in Goethe the comfortable stoutness. Herrick’s merit is the simplicity and manliness of his utterance, and, rarely, the weight of his sentence. He has, and knows that he has, a noble, idiomatic English, a perfect, plain style, from which he can soar to a fine, lyric delicacy, or descend to coarsest sarcasm, without losing his firm footing. This flower of speech is accompanied with an assurance of fame. We have an artist who in this merit of which I speak will easily cope with these celebrities.

    In Carlyle as in Byron one is more struck with the rhetoric than with the matter. He has manly superiority rather than intellectuality, and so makes hard hits all the time. There’s more character than intellect in every sentence—herein strongly resembling Samuel Johnson. The best service Carlyle has rendered is to rhetoric, or art of writing. In his books the vicious conventions of writing are all dropped. You have no board interposed between you and the writer’s mind, but he talks flexibly, now high, now low, in loud emphasis, in undertones, then laughs till the walls ring, then calmly moderates, then hints, or raises an eyebrow. He has gone nigher to the wind than any other craft.

    Carlyle, with his inimitable ways of saying the thing, is next best to the inventor of the thing, and I think of him when I read the famous inscription on the pyramid, “I King Saib built this pyramid. I, when I had built it, covered it with satin. Let him who cometh after me, and says he is equal to me, cover it with mats.” What he has said shall be proverb, nobody shall be able to say it otherwise. No book can any longer be tolerable in the old husky Neal-on-the-Puritans model. In short, I think the revolution wrought by Carlyle is precisely parallel to that going forward in picture, by the stereoscope. Until history is interesting, it is not yet written.

    Here has come into the country, three months ago, a History of Friedrich, infinitely the wittiest book that ever was written; a book that, one would think, the English people would rise up in a mass to thank him for, by cordial acclamation, and signify, by crowning him with chaplet of oak-leaves, their joy that such a head existed among them, and sympathizing and much-reading America would make a new treaty or send a minister extraordinary to offer congratulations of honoring delight to England in acknowledgment of such a donation; a book holding so many memorable and heroic facts, working directly on practice; with new heroes, things unvoiced before—the German Plutarch, now that we have exhausted the Greek and Roman and British biography—with a range, too, of thought and wisdom, so large, so colloquially elastic, that we not so much read a stereotype page as we see the eyes of the writer looking into ours, whilst he is humming and chuckling, with undertones, and trumpet-tones, and shrugs, and long commanding glances, stereoscoping every figure that passes, and every hill, river, wood, hummock and pebble in the long perspective, with its wonderful mnemonics, whereby great and insignificant men are ineffaceably marked and medalled in the memory by what they were, had and did; and withal a book that is a judgment-day for its moral verdict on the men and nations and manners of modern times. And this book makes no noise. I have hardly seen a notice of it in any newspaper or journal, and you would think there was no such book. I am not aware that Mr. Buchanan has sent a special messenger to Great Cheyne Row, Chelsea; but the secret interior wits and hearts of men take note of it, not the less surely. They have said nothing lately in praise of the air, or of fire, or of the blessing of love, and yet, I suppose, they are sensible of these, and not less of this Book, which is like these.

    After Low Style and Compression what the books call Metonomy is a principal power of rhetoric. It means, using one word or image for another. It is a low idealism. Idealism regards the world as symbolic, and all these symbols or forms as fugitive and convertible expressions. The power of the poet is in controlling these symbols; in using every fact in Nature, however great and stable, as a fluent symbol, and in measuring his strength by the facility with which he makes the mood of mind give its color to things. The world, history, the powers of Nature,—he can make them speak what sense he will.

    All conversation, as all literature, appears to me the pleasure of rhetoric, or, I may say, of metonomy. “To make of motes mountains, and of mountains motes,” Isocrates said, “was the orator’s office.” Well, that is what poetry and thinking do. Whatever new object we see, we perceive to be only a new version of our familiar experience, and we set about translating it at once into our parallel facts. We have hereby our vocabulary.

    Everything has two handles. Pindar when the victor in a race by mules offered him a trifling present, pretended to be hurt at thought of writing on demi-asses. When, however, he offered a sufficient present, he composed the poem:—

  • “Hail, daughters of the tempest-footed horse,
  • That skims like wind along the course.”
  • That was the other handle. I passed at one time through a place called New City, then supposed, like each of a hundred others, to be destined to greatness. I fell in with one of the founders who showed its advantages and its river and port and the capabilities: “Sixty houses, sir, were built in a night, like tents.” After Chicago had secured the confluence of the railroads to itself, I chanced to meet my founder again, but now removed to Chicago. He had transferred to that city the magnificent dreams which he had once communicated to me, and no longer remembered his first emporium. “Where is the town? Was there not,” I asked, “a river and a harbor there?” “Oh yes, there was a guzzle out of a sand-bank.” “And the town?” “There are still the sixty houses, but when I passed it, one owl was the only inhabitant.” When Samuel Dexter, long since, argued the claims of South Boston Bridge, he had to meet loud complaints of the shutting out of the coasting-trade by the proposed improvements. “Now,” said he, “I come to the grand charge that we have obstructed the commerce and navigation of Roxbury Ditch.” ’T is very easy to call the gracious spring “poor goody herb-wife,” or to represent the farm, which stands for the organization of the gravest needs, as a poor trifle of pea-vines, turnips and hen-roosts. Everything has two handles. Shakspeare says, “A plague of opinion; a man can wear it on both sides, like a leather jerkin.”

    Here is my friend E., the model of opinionists. He is the April day incarnated and walking, soft sunshine and hailstones, sour east wind and flowery southwest—alternating, and each sovereign, and painting all things its own color. He has it all his own way. He complains of Nature,—too many leaves, too windy and grassy, and I suppose the birds are too feathery and the horses too leggy. He thinks Egypt a humbug, and Palestine used up, and England a flash in the pan; and that the only art is landscape-painting. But when we came, in the woods, to a clump of goldenrod,—“Ah!” he says, “here they are! these things consume a great deal of time. I don’t know but they are of more importance than any other of our investments.” Well, this is the game that goes on every day in all companies; this is the ball that is tossed in every court of law, in every legislature and in literature, and in the history of every mind by sovereignty of thought to make facts and men obey our present humor or belief.

    I designed to speak of one point more, the touching a principal question in criticism in recent times—the Classic and Romantic, or what is classic?

    The art of writing is the highest of those permitted to man as drawing directly from the soul, and the means or material it uses are also of the soul. It brings man into alliance with what is great and eternal. It discloses to him the variety and splendor of his resources. And there is much in literature that draws us with a sublime charm—the superincumbent necessity by which each writer, an infirm, capricious, fragmentary soul, is made to utter his part in the chorus of humanity, is enriched by thoughts which flow from all past minds, shares the hopes of all existing minds; so that, whilst the world is made of youthful, helpless children of a day, literature resounds with the music of united vast ideas of affirmation and of moral truth.

    What is the Classic? Classic art is the art of necessity; organic; modern or romantic bears the stamp of caprice or chance. One is the product of inclination, of caprice, of haphazard; the other carries its law and necessity within itself.

    The politics of monarchy, when all hangs on the accidents of life and temper of a single person, may be called romantic politics. The democratic, when the power proceeds organically from the people and is responsible to them, are classic politics. The classic unfolds, the romantic adds. The classic should, the modern would. The classic is healthy, the romantic is sick. The classic draws its rule from the genius of that which it does, and not from by-ends. It does not make a novel to establish a principle of political economy.

    Don’t set out to please; you will displease. The Augsburg Allgemeine Zeitung deprecates an observatory founded for the benefit of navigation. Nor can we promise that our School of Design will secure a lucrative post to the pupils.

    When I read Plutarch, or look at a Greek vase, I incline to accept the common opinion of scholars, that the Greeks had clearer wits than any other people. But there is anything but time in my idea of the antique. A clear or natural expression by word or deed is that which we mean when we love and praise the antique. In society I do not find it, in modern books, seldom; but when I come into the pastures, I find antiquity again. Once in the fields with the lowing cattle, the birds, trees and waters and satisfying curves of the landscape, and I cannot tell whether this is Thessaly and Enna, or whether Concord and Acton.

    A man of genius or a work of love or beauty will not come to order, can’t be compounded by the best rules, but is always a new and incalculable result, like health. Don’t rattle your rules in our ears; we must behave as we can. Criticism is an art when it does not stop at the words of the poet, but looks at the order of his thoughts and the essential quality of his mind. Then the critic is poet. ’T is a question not of talents but of tone; and not particular merits, but the mood of mind into which one and another can bring us.