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88, 374, 477, 575.
96, 384, 480, 576.
For many years, it has seemed to me that the writings of Emerson, highly as they are prized by a large number of the best minds of America and England, and steadily on the increase as his fame is, are not yet rated at their worth, nor as they will inevitably be rated in the ages to come. That there has been a marked increase in his value among American readers since his first appearance before the public nearly a half-century ago, there is no question. But I think that he is far from occupying that undisputed position that will be his in future times, when he will rank as one of the great minds of the ages, and take his place by the side of some of his own representative men.
This might once have seemed extravagant praise. But to-day, the most cultivated minds are beginning to wake to a conviction of its simple truth. If we rightly recall the comparative barrenness of that region of thought among us, which Emerson almost alone tilled and brought into efflorescence and fruit, and trace the remarkable influence his books have had in elevating the standard of our higher literature, we must regard the advent of so rare a genius in the New England of 1835 as a phenomenon so remarkable that it stands entirely alone. In comparison with the intellectual lights of the time, he seemed almost like a mind out of another planet,—so original, so fearlessly transcendental, yet in the highest sense so practical. And America at least has been more enriched by the new mines he opened to her higher life than she ever was in material prosperity by the ores of Colorado and California.
I think we are apt to forget our debt to this remarkable genius for his fresh currents of intuitive thought when conventional views of nature and life were so prevalent. At the present day we have grown accustomed to his voice. His style and modes of thought no longer startle and tantalize us as they did once.
For he has left his stamp upon other minds who have followed his leading and imbibed his spirit. We must remember that it is quite within the memory of many of us, when the name of Emerson stood for all that was visionary in philosophy and heretical in religion, when there were few who believed in him as the inaugurator of a newer, healthier, larger era of thought. It was necessary that he should have lived and written to a ripe old age, illustrating his books by his life, with time and opportunity to impress himself upon the younger generations that grew up around him, before the world's opinion of him could ripen into its present prospect of maturity.
If the enthusiasm with which his early lectures in Boston and his first books were greeted by a few of the younger minds of the time has seemed to diminish since his first appearance before the public, it is only because it has developed and broadened into a life of thought, faith, and conduct with many cultivated men and women, who hardly know how much they have owed to this once almost isolated thinker. The seed he planted has sunk out of sight, but into congenial soil, and has sprouted, budded, and borne fruit far and wide through the country; for large numbers of cultivated and spiritually-minded people now require that their intellectual food should at least be flavored with the rich and fragrant juices condensed in his books. But, in enjoying our inheritance, we are somewhat too forgetful of its testator; and perhaps we are a little too near him to measure his height.
Like all the greatest minds, Emerson has been known by a minority of readers. Outside of America and England, he is little known. It seems strange that even Victor Hugo should have asked, “ And who is Emerson?” Or at least it would seem strange, were it not known how superciliously indifferent France is about all great men except her own.
Though some of his sentences have got to be household words as those of few other modern writers have among us, and though we have Emerson Birthday Books, and stick up an Emerson Calendar on our walls, yet it goes without saying that, except in some of the lecture-rooms of New England, what is called popularity could not reasonably have been expected for essays like his. The highest intellectual genius may become famous, but is not likely to be popular. Shakspeare is more famous than popular. Most of his plays are, to be sure, well known, so far as the plot and story go; but his golden passages are for the cultured few. And I think it is chiefly in the last hundred years that many of these have been quoted as exceptionally fine. And his sonnets seem to have received little attention till à recent period, and even now are a treasure to the poets chiefly.
It may be said that Emerson was always popular as a lecturer. I do not deny that there was an element, in most of his lectures, which struck here and there the popular mind. There was a charm to his audiences in his originality of diction, in his occasional wit and humor, in his touches of poetry, his surprising flashes of intuitive vision, his quaint and condensed apothegms, his illustrations of practical life, and (what went very far with his audiences) his rich musical voice and his earnest and impressive delivery. And those who were so fortunate as to hear him in his prime cannot forget that rapt expression of his eye, as he sometimes followed the conclusion of a sentence with a long look
toward his audience, as if to enforce it with all his own grand conviction of its truth. There was something that lifted his hearers in spite of their lack of entire appreciation,
- just as it is with the mixed audiences who listen to a symphony of Beethoven. Nobody believes that all concert-goers really feel the music of this grand master, except distantly, and in “the suburbs of his graces.” In their hearts, the majority of listeners prefer something less transcendental. A thorough appreciation is reserved for those only who have a fine and cultivated musical sense. So I suppose it was with Emerson's audiences. There was a vague sense of being floated into a higher region, even when they could not follow the speaker into the profounder recesses of his thought, or make out the connection of all his sentences. And often, when their attention flagged in the effort, he would flash upon them with some metaphor or illustration from common life, which kept alive their interest and stimulated their expectation of more good things to come. This was undoubtedly the charm his lectures had for the people. It was that, however vague and idealistic he may have seemed, he touched so originally upon life and history, and made his hearers feel the practical side of his genius, and the bearing of the actual upon the spiritual. And one is reminded of the passages of bewitching melody in the work of some great composer, that cheer so many listeners to whom the grand movements of pure harmony are unintelligible. There was always something they could understand; and this was presented in a way that excited anticipation, and kept them at least in a lofty intellectual mood.
The aspects in which we may consider the writings of Mr. Emerson will readily suggest themselves.
Take him first as an observer of nature and of man, and we are struck with the variety, the freshness, the accuracy of his observation. He uses his eyes well, and gives us brief, vivid touches like a painter's out-of-door sketches. And these are not the less realistic, that he passes from them to the subject he illustrates, holding the outer world to be