Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Review of Emerson's Essays*


 

There is perhaps no book that one would more gladly see put within the reach of a larger circle of readers than Emerson's Essays. This is that work of a master mind which Matthew Arnold considered the most important contribution to English literature in the century; and it was one of his wise flashes of insight to set the Concord poet and sage beside Marcus Aurelius, not as a master of styles, nor as an expounder of any new and consistent philosophy, but as "the friend and aider of those who would live in the spirit." It is here that Emerson has, and must ever have, his just station in the enduring republic of letters. With the Roman Emperor, with Epictetus, and the almost Christian Seneca, America has given one supreme and spotless name to be forever associated and beloved by multitudes of cheerless toilers. Yet he differs from all of these. The burden of time is not so heavy on him. He does not feel the weight of sin, nor the grime of toiling generations. He is of the morning, the healthy bringer of fresh light and air. To this age, dispirited and jaded as it is by too long-continued and curious thought, he has brought back joy from nature. Berry and bird-note served him well enough in all his needs. It is thus his particular glory that he offered solace which is in the reach of all. He taught us to use what before lay idle all about us, common and despised.

We are not to look to him for the solution of any of the riddles of life. He had no fixed and inter-dependent scheme of philosophy. He himself says that if the fates were to offer him his choice of gifts would say, "Give me continuity." He lives by intuition, takes the light as it comes to him. "Into every intelligence there is a door which is never closed, through which the Creator passes." This is the fundamental note of Emerson's faith, so that one may say he has the first essential quality of a poet; he speaks from within. Logic and expediency are for all of us; we can draw our own conclusions well enough, given the premises. But we look for higher wisdom than this in the poet. If he is not truly inspired, if he does not utter truths which we feel to be "beyond the reaches of our souls" and yet at once endorse as valid for ourselves-as something we have long striven to formulate without success until the coming of this seer and sayer of things-then he is not truly a poet, but only a maker of rhymes, a juggler and a charlatan. There are other qualities, indeed, which go to produce admirable poetry, some of these Emerson was without. But this first and most important gift of insight he possessed in greater abundance and purity than any other man that America has brought forth. He is always sincere, and you may trust him to the end. 'Tis he who-

Went like a migrant angel through the world,
Wearing the benediction of a smile.

There is a strange and delightful revelation prepared for any boy or girl in the teens or the twenties who has never turned the leaves of this book. Turn them now, and how the old familiar sentences catch the eye and tingle at the heart!

"Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string..Life only avails, not the having lived..It is alike your interest and mine, and all men's; however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth..

When a man lives with God, his voice shall be as sweet as the murmer of the brook and the nestle of the corn..God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please-you can never have both.

O friend, never strike sail to a fear! Come into port greatly, or sail with God the seas. Not in vain you live, for every passing eye is cheered and refined by the vision.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adorned by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today. 'Ah, so you will be sure to be misunderstood.' Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood and Socrates, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood."

So one might go on quoting at random. For when one has been a disciple it is hard not to be an apostle also. How precious the early mornings used to be when these sentences came crisp and new as if fallen from the June sky itself, borne down the wind with clover-scent and bird-calls. All the world looked different.

The exhilaration, the confident uplift to the spirit-this is the great boon of transcendentalism as the Concord teacher gives it to us. There is no more to say in a paper like this, which must be merely a finger post by the roadside pointing to where a pot of gold lies buried.

Only it is impossible not be glad that the directors of the Riverside Press have issued this work in a new and cheaper form, and placed it within the power of any man who buys books at all to secure for his own modest shelves this priceless treasure of wisdom and solace and encouragement not of the world.


Rev. of Emerson's Essays, Progress, Dec. 14, 1889 [back]