Cambridge Sketches
by Frank Preston Stearns

Presented by

Public Domain Books

The Emerson Centennial

Emerson and the Great Poets

Read in the Town Hall, Concord, Mass., July 23, 1903

On his first visit to England, Emerson was so continually besieged with invitations that, as he wrote to Carlyle, answering the notes he received “ate up his day like a cherry;” and yet I have never met but one Englishman, Dr. John Tyndall, the chemist, who seemed to appreciate Emerson’s poetry, and few others who might be said to appreciate the man himself. Tyndall may have recognized Emerson’s keen insight for the poetry of science in such verses as:

  “What time the gods kept carnival;
    Tricked out in gem and flower;
  And in cramp elf and saurian form
    They swathed their too much power.”

A person who lacks some knowledge of geology would not be likely to understand this. Matthew Arnold and Edwin Arnold had no very high opinion of Emerson’s poetry; and even Carlyle, who was Emerson’s best friend in Europe, spoke of it in rather a disparaging manner. The “Mountain and the Squirrel” and several others have been translated into German, but not those which we here consider the best of them.

On the other hand, Dr. William H. Furness considered Emerson “heaven-high above our other poets;” C. P. Cranch preferred him to Longfellow; Dr. F. H. Hedge looked upon him as the first poet of his time; Rev. Samuel Longfellow and Rev. Samuel Johnson held a very similar opinion, and David A. Wasson considered Emerson’s “Problem” one of the great poems of the century.

These men were all poets themselves, though they did not make a profession of it, and in that character were quite equal to Matthew Arnold, whose lecture on Emerson was evidently written under unfavorable influences. They were men who had passed through similar experiences to those which developed Emerson’s mind and character, and could therefore comprehend him better than others. We all feel that Emerson’s poetry is sometimes too abstruse, especially in his earlier verses, and that its meaning is often too recondite for ready apprehension; but there are passages in it so luminous and so far-reaching in their application that only the supreme poets of all time have equalled them.

Homer’s strength consists in his pictorial descriptions, but also sometimes in pithy reflections on life and human nature; and it is in these latter that Emerson often comes close to him. Most widely known of Homer’s epigrams is that reply of Telemachus to Antiochus in the Odyssey, which Pope has rendered:

  “True hospitality is in these terms expressed,
  Welcome the coming, speed the parting guest.”

To which the following couplet from “Woodnotes” seems almost like a continuation:

  “Go where he will, the wise man is at home,
  His hearth the earth,—his hall the azure dome;”

The wise man carries rest and contentment in his own mental life, and is equally himself at the Corona d’Italia and on a western ranch; while the weakling runs back to earlier associations like a colt to its stable. But Homer is also Emersonian at times. What could be more so than Achilles’s memorable saying, which is repeated by Ulysses in the Odyssey: “More hateful to me than the gates of death is he who thinks one thing and speaks another;” or this exclamation of old Laertes in the last book of the Odyssey: “What a day is this when I see my son and grandson contending in excellence!”

It seems a long way from Dante to Emerson, and yet there are Dantean passages in “Woodnotes” and “Voluntaries.” They are not in Dante’s matchless measure, but they have much of his grace, and more of his inflexible will. This warning against mercenary marriages might be compared to Dante’s answer to the embezzling Pope Nicholas III. in Canto XIX. of the Inferno:

  “He shall be happy in his love,
  Like to like shall joyful prove;
  He shall be happy whilst he woos,
  Muse-born, a daughter of the Muse.
  But if with gold she bind her hair,
  And deck her breast with diamond,
  Take off thine eyes, thy heart forbear,
  Though thou lie alone on the ground.
  The robe of silk in which she shines,
  It was woven of many sins;
  And the shreds
  Which she sheds
  In the wearing of the same,
  Shall be grief on grief,
  And shame on shame.”

There is a Spartan-like severity in this, but so was Dante very severe. It was his mission to purify the moral sense of his countrymen in an age when the Church no longer encouraged virtue; and Emerson no less vigorously opposed the rank materialism of America in a period of exceptional prosperity.

The next succeeding lines are not exactly Dantean, but they are among Emerson’s finest, and worthy of any great poet. The “Pine Tree” says:

  “Heed the old oracles,
  Ponder my spells;
  Song wakes in my pinnacles
  When the wind swells.
  Soundeth the prophetic wind,
  The shadows shake on the rock behind,
  And the countless leaves of the pine are strings
  Tuned to the lay the wood-god sings.”

Again we are reminded of Dante in the opening passages of “Voluntaries”:

  “Low and mournful be the strain,
    Haughty thought be far from me;
  Where a captive lies in pain
    Moaning by the tropic sea.
  Sole estate his sire bequeathed—
    Hapless sire to hapless son—
  Was the wailing song he breathed,
    And his chain when life was done.”

It is still more difficult to compare Emerson with Shakespeare, for the one was Puritan with a strong classic tendency, and the other anti- Puritan with a strong romantic tendency; but allowing for this and for Shakespeare’s universality, it may be affirmed that there are few passages in King Henry IV. and Henry V. which take a higher rank than Emerson’s description of Cromwell:

  “He works, plots, fights ’mid rude affairs,
  With squires, knights, kings his strength compares;
  Till late he learned through doubt and fear,
  Broad England harbored not his peer:
  Unwilling still the last to own,
  The genius on his cloudy throne.”

Emerson learned a large proportion of his wisdom from Goethe, as he frequently confessed, but where in Goethe’s poetry will you find a quatrain of more penetrating beauty or wider significance than this from “Woodnotes”:

  “Thou canst not wave thy staff in air
     Nor dip thy paddle in the lake,
   But it carves the bow of beauty there,
     And ripples in rhyme the oar forsake.”

Or this one from the “Building of the House"—considered metaphorically as the life structure of man:

  “She lays her beams in music,
     In music every one,
   To the cadence of the whirling world
     Which dances round the sun.”

There is a flash as of heaven’s own lightning in some of his verses, and his name has become a spell to conjure with.


Preface  •  The Close of the War  •  Francis J. Child  •  Longfellow  •  Lowell  •  Cranch  •  T. G. Appleton  •  The Whip of the Sky  •  Pompeii  •  Doctor Holmes  •  Frank W. Bird, and the Bird Club  •  Sumner  •  Chevalier Howe  •  The War Governor  •  The Colored Regiments  •  Emerson’s Tribute to George L. Stearns  •  Elizur Wright  •  Dr. W. T. G. Morton  •  William T. G. Morton  •  Leaves From a Roman Diary  •  My Last Visit to the Longfellows  •  Centennial Contributions  •  The Emerson Centennial  •  The Hawthorne Centennial  •  Hawthorne and Hamlet

[Buy at Amazon]
Cambridge Sketches
By Frank Preston Stearns
At Amazon