The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

IX. Emerson

§ 11. Form and Style

In literary form and style the privilege of spontaneous sentiment showed itself with Emerson not in that fluency which in many of his contemporaries meant mere longwindedness, but in the habit of waiting for the momentary inspiration to the neglect of meditated construction and regularity. He has indeed succeeded in sustaining himself to the end in three or four poems of some compass, but his noblest work in verse must be sought in those quatrains which need no context for their comprehension and might be called spiritual ejaculations. Matthew Arnold has quoted for approval the two familiar stanzas,

  • So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
  • So near is God to man,
  • When Duty whispers low, Thou must,
  • The youth replies, I can.
  • and,
  • Though love repine and reason chafe,
  • There came a voice without reply:
  • “’Tis man’s perdition to be safe,
  • When for the truth he ought to die.”
  • These quatrains are, he says, “exceptional“ in Emerson. They are that, and something more: they are exceptional in literature. One would have to search far to find anything in English equal to them in their own kind. They have the cleanness and radiance of the couplets of Simonides. They may look easy, but as a matter of fact the ethical epigram is an extremely difficult genre, and to attain this union of gravity and simplicity requires the nicest art. Less epigrammatic in tone but even more exquisitely finished are the lines entitled Days, pre-eminent in his works for what may truly be called a haunting beauty:
  • Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
  • Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
  • And marching single in an endless file,
  • Bring diadems and faggots in their hands.
  • To each they offer gifts after his will,
  • Bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky that holds them all.
  • I, in my pleachèd garden, watched the pomp,
  • Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
  • Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day
  • Turned and departed silent. I, too late,
  • Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.