Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Emerson*


 

Is is a hundred years since Emerson's birth? It is time for another Emerson. There will be many still living this spring to keep his memory fresh, to recount to us what manner of man he was-his personal friends, and those who had the good fortune to hear his voice.

There are others whose debt to him is also incalculably great, who can only bear testimony to the influence of the prophet and poet. The man himself they never knew. That was their loss and must always remain a regret in their lives. Nothing in later life, I fancy, can supply the impulse which young hero-worship brings; and not to have seen one's hero in the flesh must always seem an irreparable deprivation.

Twenty-five years ago, when we were all of us even younger than we are now, there were thousands of youthful hearts imbued with the passion for truth and encouraged in noble ambitions by Emerson's incomparable words. Scholars, dreamers, students in college, in the counting room, by the lonely fire of logs, or within the sound of hurrying feet on the pavement-the message came to them with revelation and hope. It was a time when science was destroying superstition. To many a conscientious mind, being bred under the shadow of scrupulous orthodoxy, and yet beginning to be touched with divine doubt, the process of change was full of sadness. To the thoughtful boy, beginning to turn his eyes inward for the source of the light, yet enamored with the engaging loveliness of the earth, it seemed the height of tragedy to have the pillars of established faith removed. Not everyone had the hardihood to accept all the conclusions of the new science without shrinking. There was a need of a great friend whose unflinching courage might serve as a stay amid tottering creeds and overthrown convictions.

That friend was Emerson. Other philosophers and scientists, inflexible in the cause of truth, might overturn the temples of our fathers, but that gentle but intrepid spirit gave us a more spacious house of worship, bidding us abandon the old without a regret. He taught us to look with equanimity upon the decay of the dogma, and reassured us with confidence in the free spiritual life which dogma had overcrusted and obscured. He made us glad of our loss and lighthearted at being freed from an encumbrance. We perceived that while the signs and vestments of our paternal religion might vanish like smoke, the breath of goodness and the core of things remained potent and quickening as before.

To render this incalculable service for a growing generation secured for Emerson a unique loyalty and enthusiasm, and we came to look upon him with that tender reverence which unquestioned goodness always inspires. I know not how it may be with those who are of age to assume the toga virilis today, but I fancy there is no living voice to hearten and inspire now as there was then. However credulous our ears, however fervent our fancy, however noble and unselfish our aspiration, we listen in vain for the confident voice of joyous revelation sounding through the world. There is now no prophet in Israel, and the Philistines may triumph unrebuked.

In all his prose, in all his verse, Emerson is the lover of truth, the advocate of the spiritual life, and the foe of all mean considerations. Compromise was for him impossible, and worldly wisdom but another name for poltroonery. So single-hearted was he, so thoroughly the preacher of righteousness, that his work does not give us the satisfaction in sensuous beauty which we derive from many poets-his inferiors. It has even been said of him, in this regard, that he was not a great artist, that his message was delivered without regard to effect, that in him the matter was of more importance than the form, that he had no style. But this is hardly so. Consider how thoroughly the pellucid spirit of the man permeated all his words, making his phrases, often homely and unadorned, more memorable than the most richly wrought utterances of other men. His work is like his person, as one imagines it-the most radiant and diaphanous tenement of the soul. So clear was his conception of the truth, it could not be diluted nor obscured, but must come to us by the shortest way, as simply and directly as possible. He was a speaker of precepts and maxims, not a builder of rhyme-at least not in the sense that Milton and Tennyson were. With him the main thing was not the creation of a detached and finished mechanism in words embodying so much moral truth or philosophic thought, but rather the expression of his convictions with the least possible amount of reliance on language. He cared for his message more than his medium.

Yet in spite of this, I think we must concede the greatness of Emerson as an artist-as the master of a style peculiarly his own. For it is the mark of an artist so to impress himself upon his medium, so unmistakably to qualify his work, as to make it a unique product, the very image and likeness of himself. It is always possible to say of the art of any great master: "This is his; it can be the work of none other; here is the very man himself." And of whom can we say this, if not of the adorable sage of Concord village? He was an original thinker, it is true; but he was also an original artist; he wrote like no one else. Both in method and in substance he shares with Whitman the distinction of being the most novel and significant of American poets. For incomparable freshness of phrase and trenchancy of diction they are only approached, in a younger generation, by that other strange, solitary New Englander, Emily Dickinson. And Emily Dickinson's output, for all its brilliancy and vigor, was somewhat too slight, too unvaried, and too thin, to lift her to a place among the mighty masters of English poetry, though her place among the lesser immortals-the little masters-is secure.

Emerson himself is not easily comparable with other poets. At this time of his centennial, a white day in the annals of New England, it is more profitable to heed his lesson than to take his measure. In the bewildering maze of a breathless commercial civilization, it is well to have something tonic and unflinching to refer to. We never needed Emerson's radiant faith in ideas and ideals more than we do today, and such a faith never seemed farther from our thoughts. If we have read him and pondered him when we were boys, and derived any moral stimulus from his wholesome, glad morality, let us read him and ponder him again. He is a deep well, and we may go to him often for our refreshment, with no fear of his failing. And if any of us have not yet made his acquaintance, let us hurry to repair that misfortune as quickly as may be. To tell the truth, we need the Philippines much less than we need another Emerson; but since we have got the Philippines, we need an original Emerson all the more. He will help us to add honesty and refinement, taste and beauty and modest sincerity to our sturdy self-assurance; so that our civilization may stand for something noble in history, as well as something gigantic.


"Emerson," Literary World, May 1903 [back]