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An essay by John Burroughs

Flies In Amber

Title:     Flies In Amber
Author: John Burroughs [More Titles by Burroughs]

It has been the fashion among our younger writers to speak slightingly and flippantly of Emerson, referring to him as outworn, and as the apostle of the obvious. This view is more discreditable to the young people than is their criticism damaging to Emerson. It can make little difference to Emerson's fame, but it would be much more becoming in our young writers to garland his name with flowers than to utter these harsh verdicts.

It is undoubtedly true that Emerson entered into and influenced the lives of more choice spirits, both men and women, during the past generation than did any other American author. Whether he still does so would be interesting to know. We who have felt his tonic and inspiring influence can but hope so. Yet how impossible he seems in times like these in which we live, when the stars of the highest heaven of the spirit which illumine his page are so obscured or blotted out by the dust and the fog of our hurrying, materialistic age! Try to think of Emerson spending a winter going about the Western States reading to miscellaneous audiences essays like those that now make up his later volumes. What chance would he stand, even in university towns, as against the "movies" (a word so ugly I hesitate to write it) in the next street?

I once defended Emerson against a criticism of Matthew Arnold's. It is true, as Arnold says, that Emerson is not a great writer, except on rare occasions. Now and then, especially in his earlier essays, there is logical texture and cohesion in his pages; development, evolution, growth; one thing follows another naturally, and each paragraph follows from what went before. But most of his later writings are a kind of patchwork; unrelated ideas are in juxtaposition; the incongruities are startling. All those chapters, I suppose, were read as lectures to miscellaneous audiences in which the attention soon became tired or blunted if required to follow a closely reasoned argument. Pictures and parables and startling affirmations suited better. Emerson did not stoop to his audience; there was no condescension in him. The last time I heard him, which was in Washington in the early seventies, his theme was "Manners," and much of it passed over the heads of his audience.

Certain of Emerson's works must strike the average reader, when he first looks into them, as a curious medley of sense and wild extravagance, utterly lacking in the logical sequence of the best prose, and often verging on the futile and the absurd. Yet if one does not get discouraged, one will soon see running through them veins of the purest gold of the spirit, and insight into Nature's ways, that redeem and more than redeem them.

I recall that when, as a young man, I looked into them the first time, I could make nothing of them. I was fresh from reading the standard essayists and philosophers of English literature--Addison, Steele, Cowley, Johnson, Locke--and the poems of Pope, Young, and Cowper, all of ethical import and value, and sometimes didactic, but never mystical and transcendental, and the plunge into Emerson was a leap into a strange world. But a few years later, when I opened his essays again, they were like spring-water to parched lips. Now, in my old age, I go back to him with a half-sad pleasure, as one goes back to the scenes of one's youth.

Emerson taught us a mingled poetic and prophetic way of looking at things that stays with us. The talented English woman Anne Gilchrist said we had outgrown Emerson; had absorbed all he had to give us; and were leaving him behind. Of course he was always a teacher and preacher, in the thrall of his priestly inheritance, and to that extent we leave him behind as we do not leave behind works of pure literature.

As to continuity, some of his essays have much more of it than others. In his "Nature" the theme is unfolded, there is growth and evolution; and his first and second series of Essays likewise show it. The essays on "Character," on "Self-Reliance," on the "Over-Soul," meet the requirements of sound prose. And if there is any sounder prose than can be found in his "Nature," or in his "English Traits," or in his historical and biographical addresses, I do not know where to find it. How flat and commonplace seem the works of some of the masters of prose to whom Arnold alludes--Cicero, Voltaire, Addison, Swift--compared with those of Emerson! A difference like that between the prismatic hues of raindrops suspended from a twig or a trellis in the sunlight and the water in the spring or the brook.

But in Emerson's later work there is, as geologists say, nonconformity between the strata which make up his paragraphs. There is only juxtaposition. Among his later papers the one on "Wealth" flows along much more than the one on "Fate." Emerson believed in wealth. Poverty did not attract him. It was not suited to his cast of mind. Poverty was humiliating. Emerson accumulated a fortune, and it added to his self-respect. Thoreau's pride in his poverty must have made Emerson shiver.

Although Arnold refused to see in Emerson a great writer, he did admit that he was eminent as the "friend and aider of those who would live in the spirit"; but Arnold apparently overlooked the fact that, devoid of the merit of good literature, no man's writings could have high spiritual value. Strip the Bible of its excellence as literature, and you have let out its life-blood. Literature is not a varnish or a polish. It is not a wardrobe. It is the result of a vital, imaginative relation of the man to his subject. And Emerson's subject-matter at its best always partakes of the texture of his own mind. It is admitted that there are times when his writing lacks organization,--the vital ties,--when his rhetoric is more like a rocking-horse or a merry-go-round than like the real thing. But there are few writers who do not mark time now and then, and Emerson is no exception; and I contend that at his best his work has the sequence and evolution of all great prose. And yet, let me say that if Emerson's power and influence depended upon his logic, he would be easily disposed of. Fortunately they do not. They depend, let me repeat, upon his spiritual power and insight, and the minor defects I am pointing out are only like flies in amber.

He thought in images more strictly than any other contemporary writer, and was often desperately hard-put to it to make his thought wed his image. He confessed that he did not know how to argue, and that he could only say what he saw. But he had spiritual vision; we cannot deny this, though we do deny him logical penetration. I doubt if there ever was a writer of such wide and lasting influence as Emerson, in whom the logical sense was so feeble and shadowy. He had in this respect a feminine instead of a masculine mind, an intuitional instead of a reasoning one. It made up in audacious, often extravagant, affirmations what it lacked in syllogistic strength. The logical mind, with its sense of fitness and proportion, does not strain or over-strain the thread that knits the parts together. It does not jump to conclusions, but reaches them step by step. The flesh and blood of feeling and sentiment may clothe the obscure framework of logic, but the logic is there all the same. Emerson's mind was as devoid of logical sense as are our remembered dreams, or as Christian Science is of science. He said that truth ceased to be such when polemically stated. Occasionally he amplifies and unfolds an idea, as in the essays already mentioned, but generally his argument is a rope of sand. Its strength is the strength of the separate particles. He is perpetually hooking things together that do not go together. It is like putting an apple on a pumpkin vine, or an acorn on a hickory. "A club foot and a club wit." "Why should we fear," he says, "to be crushed by the same elements--we who are made up of the same elements?" But were we void of fear, we should be crushed much oftener than we are. The electricity in our bodies does not prevent us from being struck by lightning, nor the fluids in our bodies prevent the waters from drowning us, nor the carbon in our bodies prevent carbon dioxide from poisoning us.

One of Emerson's faults as a writer arose from his fierce hunger for analogy. "I would rather have a good symbol of my thought," he confesses, "than the suffrage of Kant or of Plato." "All thinking is analogizing, and it is the use of life to learn metonymy." His passion for analogy betrays him here and there in his Journals, as in this passage: "The water we wash with never speaks of itself, nor does fire or wind or tree. Neither does a noble natural man," and so forth. If water and fire and wind and tree were in the habit of talking of anything else, this kind of a comparison would not seem so spurious.

A false note in rhetoric like the above you will find in Emerson oftener than a false note in taste. I find but one such in the Journals: "As soon as a man gets his suction-hose down into the great deep, he belongs to no age, but is an eternal man." That I call an ignoble image, and one cannot conceive of Emerson himself printing such a passage.

We hear it said that Whittier is the typical poet of New England. It may be so, but Emerson is much the greater poet. Emerson is a poet of the world, while Whittier's work is hardly known abroad at all. Emerson is known wherever the English language is spoken. Not that Emerson is in any sense a popular poet, such as, for example, Burns or Byron, but he is the poet of the choice few, of those who seek poetry that has some intellectual or spiritual content. Whittier wrote many happy descriptions of New England scenes and seasons. "The Tent on the Beach" and "Snow-Bound" come readily to mind; "The Playmate" is a sweet poem, full of tender and human affection, but not a great poem. Whittier had no profundity. Is not a Quaker poet necessarily narrow? Whittier gave voice to the New England detestation of slavery, but by no means so forcibly and profoundly as did Emerson. He had a theology, but not a philosophy. I wonder if his poems are still read.

In his chapter called "Considerations by the Way," Emerson strikes this curious false note in his rhetoric: "We have a right to be here or we should not be here. We have the same right to be here that Cape Cod and Sandy Hook have to be there." As if Cape Cod or Cape Horn or Sandy Hook had any "rights"! This comparison of man with inanimate things occurs in both Emerson and Thoreau. Thoreau sins in this way at least once when he talks of the Attic wit of burning thorns and briars. There is a similar false note in such a careful writer as Dean Swift. He says to his young poet, "You are ever to try a good poem as you would a sound pipkin, and if it rings well upon the knuckle, be sure there is no flaw in it." Whitman compares himself with an inanimate thing in the line:

"I reckon I behave no prouder than the level I plant my house by."

But he claims no moral or human attributes or rights for his level; it simply acts in obedience to the principle it embodies--the law of gravitation.

The lecturer "gets away" with such things better than the writer. An audience is not critical about such matters, but the reader takes note of them. Mosaics will do on the platform, or in the pulpit, but will not bear the nearer view of the study.

The incongruities of Emerson are seen in such passages as this: "Each plant has its parasites, and each created thing its lover and poet," as if there were any relation between the two clauses of this sentence--between parasites and lovers and poets! As if one should say, "Woodchucks are often alive with fleas, and our fruit trees bloom in May."

Emerson was so emboldened by what had been achieved through the mastery of the earth's forces that he was led to say that "a wise geology shall yet make the earthquake harmless, and the volcano an agricultural resource." But this seems expecting too much. We have harnessed the lightnings, but the earthquake is too deep and too mighty for us. It is a steed upon which we cannot lay our hands. The volcano we may draw upon for heat and steam, as we do upon the winds and streams for power, but it is utterly beyond our control. The bending of the earth's crust beneath the great atmospheric waves is something we cannot bridle. The tides by sea as by land are beyond us.

Emerson had the mind of the prophet and the seer, and was given to bold affirmations. The old Biblical distinction between the scribes and the man who speaks with authority still holds. We may say of all other New England essayists and poets--Lowell, Whipple, Tuckerman, Holmes, Hillard, Whittier, Longfellow--that they are scribes only. Emerson alone speaks as one having authority--the authority of the spirit. "Thus saith the Lord"--it is this tone that gives him his authority the world over.

I never tire of those heroic lines of his in which he sounds a battle-cry to the spirit:

"Though love repine, and reason chafe,
There came a voice without reply,--
''T is man's perdition to be safe,
When for the truth he ought to die.'"

The last time I saw Emerson was at the Holmes seventieth-birthday breakfast in 1879. The serious break in his health had resulted in a marked aphasia, so that he could not speak the name of his nearest friend, nor answer the simplest question. Yet he was as serene as ever. Let the heavens fall--what matters it to me? his look seemed to say.

Emerson's face had in it more of what we call the divine than had that of any other author of his time--that wonderful, kindly, wise smile--the smile of the soul--not merely the smile of good nature, but the smile of spiritual welcome and hospitality.

Emerson had quality. A good Emersonian will recognize any passage from the Sage in a book of quotations, even if no name is appended.

We speak of Emerson as outgrown, yet only yesterday I saw in J. Arthur Thomson's recent Gifford Lectures on "The System of Animate Nature," repeated quotations from Emerson, mainly from his poetry. I think he is no more likely to be outgrown than are Wordsworth and Arnold. Yet I do not set the same value upon his poetry that I do upon that of Wordsworth at his best.

Emerson is the last man we should expect to be guilty of misinterpreting Nature, yet he does so at times. He does so in this passage: "If Nature wants a thumb, she makes it at the cost of the arms and legs." As if the arm were weaker or less efficient because of the thumb. What would man's power be as a tool-using animal without his strong, opposable thumb? His grasp would be gone.

He says truly that the gruesome, the disgusting, the repellent are not fit subjects for cabinet pictures. The "sacred subjects" to which he objects probably refer to the Crucifixion--the nails through the hands and feet, and the crown of thorns. But to jump from that fact to the assertion that Nature covers up the skeleton on the same grounds, is absurd. Do not all vertebrates require an osseous system? In the radiates and articulates she puts the bony system on the outside, but when she comes to her backbone animals, she perforce puts her osseous system beneath. She weaves her tissues and integuments of flesh and skin and hair over it, not to hide it, but to use it. Would you have a man like a jellyfish?

The same want of logic marks Carlyle's mind when he says: "The drop by continually falling bores its way through the hardest rock. The hasty torrent rushes over it with hideous uproar, and leaves no trace behind." But give the "hasty torrent" the same time you give the drop, and see what it will do to the rock!

Emerson says, "A little more or a little less does not signify anything." But it does signify in this world of material things. Is one man as impressive as an army, one tree as impressive as a forest? "Scoop a little water in the hollow of your palm; take up a handful of shore sand; well, these are the elements. What is the beach but acres of sand? what is the ocean but cubic miles of water? A little more or a little less signifies nothing." It is the mass that does impress us, as Niagara does, as the midnight sky does. It is not as parts of this "astonishing astronomy," or as a "part of the round globe under the optical sky"--we do not think of that, but the imagination is moved by the vast sweep of the ocean and its abysmal depths, and its ceaseless rocking. In some cases we see the All in the little; the law that spheres a tear spheres a globe. That Nature is seen in leasts is an old Latin maxim. The soap bubble explains the rainbow. Steam from the boiling kettle gave Watt the key to the steam engine; but a tumbler of water throws no light on the sea, though its sweating may help explain the rain.

Emerson quotes Goethe as saying, "The beautiful is a manifestation of secret laws of nature which, but for this appearance, had been forever concealed from us." As if beauty were an objective reality instead of a subjective experience! As if it were something out there in the landscape that you may gather your arms full of and bring in! If you are an artist, you may bring in your vision of it, pass it through your own mind, and thus embalm and preserve the beauty. Or if you are a poet, you may have a similar experience and reproduce it, humanized, in a poem. But the beauty is always a distilled and re-created, or, shall we say, an incarnated beauty--a tangible and measurable something, like moisture in the air, or sugar in the trees, or quartz in the rocks. There is, and can be, no "science of beauty." Beauty, like truth, is an experience of the mind. It is the emotion you feel when in health you look from your door or window of a May morning. If you are ill, or oppressed with grief, or worried, you will hardly experience the emotion of the beautiful.

Emerson said he was warned by the fate of many philosophers not to attempt a definition of beauty. But in trying to describe it and characterize it he ran the same risk. "We ascribe beauty to that which is simple," he said; "which has no superfluous parts; which exactly answers its end; which stands related to all things; which is the mean of many extremes." Is a boot-jack beautiful? Is a crow-bar? Yet these are simple, they have no superfluous parts, they exactly serve their ends, they stand related to all things through the laws of chemistry and physics. A flower is beautiful, a shell on the beach is beautiful, a tree in full leaf, or in its winter nudity, is beautiful; but these things are not very simple. Complex things may be beautiful also. A village church may be beautiful no less than a Gothic cathedral. Emerson was himself a beautiful writer, a beautiful character, and his works are a priceless addition to literature.

"Go out of the house to see the moon," says Emerson, "and it is mere tinsel; it will not please as when its light shines upon your necessary journey." This is not true in my experience. The stars do not become mere tinsel, do they, when we go out to look at the overwhelming spectacle? Neither does the moon. Is it not a delight in itself to look at the full moon--

"The vitreous pour of the full moon, just tinged with blue,"

as Whitman says?

"The moon doth look round her with delight when the heavens are bare,"

says Wordsworth, and equally with delight do we regard the spectacle. The busy farmer in the fields rarely sees the beauty of Nature. He has not the necessary detachment. Put him behind his team and plough in the spring and he makes a pleasing picture to look upon, but the mind must be open to take in the beauty of Nature.

Of course Emerson is only emphasizing the fact of the beauty of utility, of the things we do, of the buildings we put up for use, and not merely for show. A hut, a log cabin in a clearing, a farmer's unpainted barn, all have elements of beauty. A man leading a horse to water, or foddering his cattle from a stack in a snow-covered field, or following his plough, is always pleasing. Every day I pass along a road by a wealthy man's estate and see a very elaborate stone wall of cobblestones and cement which marks the boundary of his estate on the highway. The wall does not bend and undulate with the inequalities of the ground; its top is as level as a foundation wall; it is an offense to every passer-by; it has none of the simplicity that should mark a division wall; it is studied and elaborate, and courts your admiration. How much more pleasing a rough wall of field stone, or "wild stone," as our old wall-layer put it, with which the farmer separates his fields! No thought of looks, but only of utility. The showy, the highly ornate castle which the multimillionaire builds on his estate--would an artist ever want to put one of them in his picture? Beauty is likely to flee when we make a dead set at her.

Emerson's exaggerations are sometimes so excessive as to be simply amusing, as, when speaking of the feats of the imagination, he says, "My boots and chair and candlestick are fairies in disguise, meteors and constellations." The baseball, revolving as it flies, may suggest the orbs, or your girdle suggest the equator, or the wiping of your face on a towel suggest the absorption of the rain by the soil; but does the blacking of your shoes suggest anything celestial? Hinges and levers and fulcrums are significant, but one's old hat, or old boots, have not much poetic significance. An elm tree may suggest a cathedral, or a shell suggest the rainbow, or the sparkling frost suggest diamonds, or the thread that holds the beads symbolize the law that strings the spheres, but a button is a button, a shoestring a shoestring, and a spade a spade, and nothing more.

I cherish and revere the name of Emerson so profoundly, and owe him such a debt, that it seems, after all, a pity to point out the flaws in his precious amber.

Let us keep alive the Emersonian memories: that such a man has lived and wrought among us. Let us teach our children his brave and heroic words, and plant our lives upon as secure an ethical foundation as he did. Let us make pilgrimages to Concord, and stand with uncovered heads beneath the pine tree where his ashes rest. He left us an estate in the fair land of the Ideal. He bequeathed us treasures that thieves cannot break through and steal, nor time corrupt, nor rust nor moth destroy.[2]

[Footnote 2: At the onset of the author's last illness he attempted to rearrange and improve this essay, but was even then unequal to it, and, after a little shifting and editing, gave it up. "Do what you can with it," he said; and when I asked him if he could not add a few words to close it, he sat up in bed, and wrote the closing sentences, which proved to be the last he ever penned.--C. B.]

[The end]
John Burroughs's essay: Flies In Amber