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

§ 12. Ideas

And as his verse, so is his prose. Though in one sense, so far as he writes always with two or three dominant ideas in his mind, he is one of the most consistent and persistent of expositors, yet he is really himself only in those moments of inspiration when his words strike with almost irresistible force on the heart, and awake an echoing response: “This is true; this I have myself dimly felt.” Sometimes the memorable paragraph or sentence is purely didactic; sometimes it is highly metaphorical, as is the case with the closing paragraph of the Conduct of Life:

  • There is no chance, and no anarchy, in the universe. All is system and gradation. Every god is there sitting in his sphere. The young mortal enters the hall of the firmament; there is he alone with them alone, they pouring on him benedictions and gifts, and beckoning him up to their thrones. On the instant, and incessantly, fall snowstorms of illusions. He fancies himself in a vast crowd which sways this way and that, and whose movement and doings he must obey: he fancies himself poor, orphaned, insignificant. The mad crowd drives hither and thither, now furiously commanding this thing to be done, now that. What is he that he should resist their will, and think or act for himself? Every moment, new changes, and new showers of deceptions, to baffle and distract him. And when, by and by, for an instant, the air clears, and the cloud lifts a little, there are the gods still sitting around him on their thrones,–they alone with him alone.
  • There is, it need scarcely be said, a good deal in the works of Emerson—literary criticism, characterization of men and movements, reflection on the state of society—which lies outside of this ethical category; but even in such essays his guiding ideas are felt in the background. Nor are these ideas hard to discover. The whole circle of them, ever revolving upon itself, is likely to be present, explicit or implicit, in any one of his great passages, as it is in the paragraph just cited—the clear call to self-reliance, announcing that “a man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within”; the firm assurance that, through all the balanced play of circumstance, “there is a deeper fact in the soul than compensation, to wit, its own nature”; the intuition, despite all the mists of illusion, of the Over-Soul which is above us and still ourselves: “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles; meanwhile within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty … the eternal One.”

    Emerson’s philosophy is thus a kind of reconciled dualism, and a man’s attitude towards it in the end will be determined by his sense of its sufficiency or insufficiency to meet the facts of experience. One of Emerson’s biographers has attempted to set forth this philosophy as “a synthesis and an anticipation.” It is a synthesis because in it we fund, as Emerson had already found in Plato and Plotinus, a reconciliation of “the many and the one,” the everlasting flux and the motionless calm at the heart of things:

  • An ample and generous recognition of this transiency and slipperiness both in the nature of things and in man’s soul seems more and more a necessary ingredient in any estimate of the universe which shall satisfy the intellect of the coming man. But it seems equally true that the coming man who shall resolve our will never content himself with a universe a-tilt, a universe in cascade, so to speak; the craving for permanence in some form cannot be jauntily evaded. Is there any known mind which foreshadows the desired combination so clearly as Emerson’s? Who has felt profoundly the evanescence and evasiveness of things?… Yet Emerson was quite as firm in his insistence on a single unalterable reality as in his refusal to believe that any aspect or estimate of that reality could be final.