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RALPH WALDO EMERSON.
EMERSON is certainly one of the most original writers the New World has produced. He writes least like an American of any author we have read. We do not mean this disparagingly to his character as a good and true republican, but to show our opinion of his greater breadth and depth of appreciation than is generally met with in American authors.
Mr. Emerson's fame is a curious compound of poet, metaphysician, lecturer, economist, and critic; and in each we think him first-rate.
We shall give his poetry the preference in considering him critically, and at once commence by complaining of his peculiar metre and occasional obscurity. Mr. Browning has often maintained that the poet has a perfect and unchallengeable right to place the thought in any shape he pleases ; and that it is at the option of the public to read or not, just as it pleases; but that it has no right to criticise, seeing that it involves the apparent absurdity of the disciple teaching the master.
With all respect for the dictum of the author of “Sordello," we shall venture to give our opinion on the poet and philosopher, and with as great a belief in our own infallibility as though we were the Pope, or even the editor of a Sunday newspaper.
Passing over the peculiarity of Mr. Emerson's phraseology, we cannot avoid remarking what an old friend of Mr. Carlyle once said on reading some American writer's poetry," that he would have sworn they were Mr. Carlyle's verses.” We have often heard this remarked, but we never could see the justice of classing Mr. Emerson as a follower of Mr. Carlyle. We admit readily that as both write in English, and as both are great admirers of the German writers, more especially of Richter, a certain tinge of that wonderful man's style of thought and diction is naturally preserved; but it is more of matter than manner, and partakes more of admiration and appreciation than of imitation.
There is a singular force and meaning in most of Emerson's emanations, whether in prose or verse; and if they demand a little more attention on the reader's part than the generality of poetry, it arises from the superiority of the author, and not from his obscurity. It is absurd to expect an author to express himself in the old style, and in the stale formulæ of the past. Fresh and deep thinkers invent a form of conveying the thought as well as the thought itself. Like Minerva, it springs clothed from the head of Jove : garb and form are simultaneous.
In the “Ode to Beauty” Emerson presses much meaning into small compass. How unlike the common-place love verses of the many are the following! It is truly refreshing
to get hold of a strong thinker, however rugged may be his revelations.
“ Who gave thee, O Beauty,
The keys of this breast ?
Simplicity is here carried to its severity, and yet the poet breaks through, in the metaphorical language of passion, “ the keys of this breast.”
How directly the metaphysician goes into the heart of the subject !
“ Say, when in lapsed ages
Thee knew I of old ?
For which I was sold ?
I found me thy thrall,
Sweet Tyrant of all !
False waters of thirst,
Thou latest and first !"
The origin of the love of beauty, or how beauty acts upon the human heart, is truly a mystery, so deeply set in the mystery of our being, as to baffle poet as well as mere metaphysician; but as the fine old poet of Rydal says, many
revelations come on us in snatches and glimpses when we least expect them, and so with these short questionings we may even gain somewhat of the answer.
“ Thy dangerous glances
Made women of men;
Into nature again."
The rich carelessness of Emerson's muse is well developed in these lines :
“ Lavish, lavish Promiser,
Nigh persuading gods to err:
A mere versifier would have made those images into a hundred lines ; the true poet condenses; the elegant writer diffuses, till it becomes an atmosphere rather than a world.
The conclusion of this beautiful string of suggestive questionings and half-answered doubts is very fine.
“ All that's good and great with thee
Works in close conspiracy ;
There is nothing puling in these verses. A thorough mastery of the meaning contained in them is as good a lesson of mental logic as we need desire, and sharpens the intellect, as well as delights the poetical taste.
Mr. Emerson has, in some bold, clear lines, summed up his definition of true poetry.
6 TO MERLIN.
“ Thy trivial harp will never please,
Or fill my craving ear: