Fable for Critics Emerson to Bryant

A Fable for Critics [Emerson to Bryant]

by James Russell Lowell

Famous writers mentioned in this section—click on the name to move to that part of the poem:

Ralph Waldo Emerson; engraved and published c. 1878 by S.A. Schoff, from an original drawing by Sam W. Rowse Library of Congress

Ralph Waldo Emerson; engraved and published c. 1878 by S.A. Schoff, from an original drawing by Sam W. Rowse
Library of Congress

‘There comes Emerson first, whose rich words, every one,
Are like gold nails in temples to hang trophies on,
Whose prose is grand verse, while his verse, the Lord knows,
Is some of it pr—— No, ’tis not even prose; 530
I’m speaking of metres; some poems have welled
From those rare depths of soul that have ne’er been excelled;
They’re not epics, but that doesn’t matter a pin,
In creating, the only hard thing’s to begin;
A grass-blade’s no easier to make than an oak;
If you’ve once found the way, you’ve achieved the grand stroke;
In the worst of his poems are mines of rich matter,
But thrown in a heap with a crash and a clatter;
Now it is not one thing nor another alone
Makes a poem, but rather the general tone, 540
The something pervading, uniting the whole,
The before unconceived, unconceivable soul,
So that just in removing this trifle or that, you
Take away, as it were, a chief limb of the statue;
Roots, wood, bark, and leaves singly perfect may be,
But, clapt hodge-podge together, they don’t make a tree.

‘But, to come back to Emerson (whom, by the way,
I believe we left waiting),—his is, we may say,
A Greek head on right Yankee shoulders, whose range
Has Olympus for one pole, for t’other the Exchange; 550
He seems, to my thinking (although I’m afraid
The comparison must, long ere this, have been made),
A Plotinus-Montaigne, where the Egyptian’s gold mist
And the Gascon’s shrewd wit cheek-by-jowl coexist;
All admire, and yet scarcely six converts he’s got
To I don’t (nor they either) exactly know what;
For though he builds glorious temples, ’tis odd
He leaves never a doorway to get in a god.
‘Tis refreshing to old-fashioned people like me
To meet such a primitive Pagan as he, 560
In whose mind all creation is duly respected
As parts of himself—just a little projected;
And who’s willing to worship the stars and the sun,
A convert to—nothing but Emerson.
So perfect a balance there is in his head,
That he talks of things sometimes as if they were dead;
Life, nature, love, God, and affairs of that sort,
He looks at as merely ideas; in short,
As if they were fossils stuck round in a cabinet,
Of such vast extent that our earth’s a mere dab in it; 570
Composed just as he is inclined to conjecture her,
Namely, one part pure earth, ninety-nine parts pure lecturer;
You are filled with delight at his clear demonstration,
Each figure, word, gesture, just fits the occasion,
With the quiet precision of science he’ll sort ’em,
But you can’t help suspecting the whole a post mortem.

‘There are persons, mole-blind to the soul’s make and style,
Who insist on a likeness ‘twixt him and Carlyle;
To compare him with Plato would be vastly fairer,
Carlyle’s the more burly, but E. is the rarer; 580
He sees fewer objects, but clearlier, truelier,
If C.’s as original, E.’s more peculiar;
That he’s more of a man you might say of the one,
Of the other he’s more of an Emerson;
C.’s the Titan, as shaggy of mind as of limb,—
E. the clear-eyed Olympian, rapid and slim;
The one’s two thirds Norseman, the other half Greek,
Where the one’s most abounding, the other’s to seek;
C.’s generals require to be seen in the mass,—
E.’s specialties gain if enlarged by the glass; 590
C. gives nature and God his own fits of the blues,
And rims common-sense things with mystical hues,—
E. sits in a mystery calm and intense,
And looks coolly around him with sharp common-sense;
C. shows you how every-day matters unite
With the dim transdiurnal recesses of night,—
While E., in a plain, preternatural way,
Makes mysteries matters of mere every day;
C. draws all his characters quite à la Fuseli,—
Not sketching their bundles of muscles and thews illy, 600
He paints with a brush so untamed and profuse,
They seem nothing but bundles of muscles and thews;
E. is rather like Flaxman, lines strait and severe,
And a colorless outline, but full, round, and clear;—
To the men he thinks worthy he frankly accords
The design of a white marble statue in words.
C. labors to get at the centre, and then
Take a reckoning from there of his actions and men;
E. calmly assumes the said centre as granted,
And, given himself, has whatever is wanted. 610

‘He has imitators in scores, who omit
No part of the man but his wisdom and wit,—
Who go carefully o’er the sky-blue of his brain,
And when he has skimmed it once, skim it again;
If at all they resemble him, you may be sure it is
Because their shoals mirror his mists and obscurities,
As a mud-puddle seems deep as heaven for a minute,
While a cloud that floats o’er is reflected within it.

‘There comes——, for instance; to see him’s rare sport,
Tread in Emerson’s tracks with legs painfully short; 620
How he jumps, how he strains, and gets red in the face.
To keep step with the mystagogue’s natural pace!
He follows as close as a stick to a rocket,
His fingers exploring the prophet’s each pocket.
Fie, for shame, brother bard; with good fruit of your own,
Can’t you let Neighbor Emerson’s orchards alone?
Besides, ’tis no use, you’ll not find e’en a core,—
—— has picked up all the windfalls before.
They might strip every tree, and E. never would catch ’em,
His Hesperides have no rude dragon to watch ’em; 630
When they send him a dishful, and ask him to try ’em,
He never suspects how the sly rogues came by ’em;
He wonders why ’tis there are none such his trees on,
And thinks ’em the best he has tasted this season.

‘Yonder, calm as a cloud, Alcott stalks in a dream,
And fancies himself in thy groves, Academe,
With the Parthenon nigh, and the olive-trees o’er him,
And never a fact to perplex him or bore him,
With a snug room at Plato’s when night comes, to walk to,
And people from morning till midnight to talk to, 640
And from midnight till morning, nor snore in their listening;—
So he muses, his face with the joy of it glistening,
For his highest conceit of a happiest state is
Where they’d live upon acorns, and hear him talk gratis;
And indeed, I believe, no man ever talked better,—
Each sentence hangs perfectly poised to a letter;
He seems piling words, but there’s royal dust hid
In the heart of each sky-piercing pyramid.
While he talks he is great, but goes out like a taper,
If you shut him up closely with pen, ink, and paper; 650
Yet his fingers itch for ’em from morning till night,
And he thinks he does wrong if he don’t always write;
In this, as in all things, a lamb among men,
He goes to sure death when he goes to his pen.
‘Close behind him is Brownson, his mouth very full
With attempting to gulp a Gregorian bull;
Who contrives, spite of that, to pour out as he goes
A stream of transparent and forcible prose;
He shifts quite about, then proceeds to expound
That ’tis merely the earth, not himself, that turns round,
And wishes it clearly impressed on your mind 661
That the weathercock rules and not follows the wind;
Proving first, then as deftly confuting each side,
With no doctrine pleased that’s not somewhere denied,
He lays the denier away on the shelf,
And then—down beside him lies gravely himself.
He’s the Salt River boatman, who always stands willing
To convey friend or foe without charging a shilling,
And so fond of the trip that, when leisure’s to spare,
He’ll row himself up, if he can’t get a fare. 670
The worst of it is, that his logic’s so strong,
That of two sides he commonly chooses the wrong;
If there is only one, why, he’ll split it in two,
And first pummel this half, then that, black and blue.
That white’s white needs no proof, but it takes a deep fellow
To prove it jet-black, and that jet-black is yellow.
He offers the true faith to drink in a sieve,—
When it reaches your lips there’s naught left to believe
But a few silly-(syllo-, I mean,)-gisms that squat ’em
Like tadpoles, o’erjoyed with the mud at the bottom. 680

‘There is Willis, all natty and jaunty and gay,
Who says his best things in so foppish a way,
With conceits and pet phrases so thickly o’erlaying ’em,
That one hardly knows whether to thank him for saying ’em;
Over-ornament ruins both poem and prose,
Just conceive of a Muse with a ring in her nose!
His prose had a natural grace of its own,
And enough of it, too, if he’d let it alone;
But he twitches and jerks so, one fairly gets tired,
And is forced to forgive where one might have admired; 690
Yet whenever it slips away free and unlaced,
It runs like a stream with a musical waste,
And gurgles along with the liquidest sweep;—
‘Tis not deep as a river, but who’d have it deep?
In a country where scarcely a village is found
That has not its author sublime and profound,
For some one to be slightly shallow’s a duty,
And Willis’s shallowness makes half his beauty.
His prose winds along with a blithe, gurgling error,
And reflects all of Heaven it can see in its mirror: 700
‘Tis a narrowish strip, but it is not an artifice;
‘Tis the true out-of-doors with its genuine hearty phiz;
It is Nature herself, and there’s something in that,
Since most brains reflect but the crown of a hat.
Few volumes I know to read under a tree,
More truly delightful than his A l’Abri,
With the shadows of leaves flowing over your book,
Like ripple-shades netting the bed of a brook;
With June coming softly your shoulder to look over,
Breezes waiting to turn every leaf of your book over, 710
And Nature to criticise still as you read,—
The page that bears that is a rare one indeed.

‘He’s so innate a cockney, that had he been born
Where plain bare-skin’s the only full-dress that is worn,
He’d have given his own such an air that you’d say
‘T had been made by a tailor to lounge in Broadway.
His nature’s a glass of champagne with the foam on ‘t,
As tender as Fletcher, as witty as Beaumont;
So his best things are done in the flush of the moment;
If he wait, all is spoiled; he may stir it and shake it, 720
But, the fixed air once gone, he can never re-make it.
He might be a marvel of easy delightfulness,
If he would not sometimes leave the r out of sprightfulness;
And he ought to let Scripture alone—’tis self-slaughter,
For nobody likes inspiration-and-water.
He’d have been just the fellow to sup at the Mermaid,
Cracking jokes at rare Ben, with an eye to the barmaid,
His wit running up as Canary ran down,—
The topmost bright bubble on the wave of The Town.

‘Here comes Parker, the Orson of parsons, a man 730
Whom the Church undertook to put under her ban
(The Church of Socinus, I mean),—his opinions
Being So-(ultra)-cinian, they shocked the Socinians:
They believed—faith, I’m puzzled—I think I may call
Their belief a believing in nothing at all,
Or something of that sort; I know they all went
For a general union of total dissent:
He went a step farther; without cough or hem,
He frankly avowed he believed not in them;
And, before he could be jumbled up or prevented, 740
From their orthodox kind of dissent he dissented.
There was heresy here, you perceive, for the right
Of privately judging means simply that light
Has been granted to me, for deciding on you;
And in happier times, before Atheism grew,
The deed contained clauses for cooking you too:
Now at Xerxes and Knut we all laugh, yet our foot
With the same wave is wet that mocked Xerxes and Knut,
And we all entertain a secure private notion,
That our Thus far! will have a great weight with the ocean,
‘Twas so with our liberal Christians: they bore 751
With sincerest conviction their chairs to the shore;
They brandished their worn theological birches,
Bade natural progress keep out of the Churches,
And expected the lines they had drawn to prevail
With the fast-rising tide to keep out of their pale;
They had formerly dammed the Pontifical See,
And the same thing, they thought, would do nicely for P.;
But he turned up his nose at their mumming and shamming,
And cared (shall I say?) not a d—— for their damming; 760
So they first read him out of their church, and next minute
Turned round and declared he had never been in it.
But the ban was too small or the man was too big,
For he recks not their bells, books, and candles a fig
(He scarce looks like a man who would stay treated shabbily,
Sophroniscus’ son’s head o’er the features of Rabelais);—
He bangs and bethwacks them,—their backs he salutes
With the whole tree of knowledge torn up by the roots;
His sermons with satire are plenteously verjuiced,
And he talks in one breath of Confutzee, Cass, Zerduscht, 770
Jack Robinson, Peter the Hermit, Strap, Dathan,
Cush, Pitt (not the bottomless, that he’s no faith in),
Pan, Pillicock, Shakespeare, Paul, Toots, Monsieur Tonson,
Aldebaran, Alcander, Ben Khorat, Ben Jonson,
Thoth, Richter, Joe Smith, Father Paul, Judah Monis,
Musæus, Muretus, hem,—[Greek: m] Scorpionis,
Maccabee, Maccaboy, Mac—Mac—ah! Machiavelli,
Condorcet, Count d’Orsay, Conder, Say, Ganganelli,
Orion, O’Connell, the Chevalier D’O,
(See the Memoirs of Sully,) [Greek: to pan], the great toe 780
Of the statue of Jupiter, now made to pass
For that of Jew Peter by good Romish brass,
(You may add for yourselves, for I find it a bore,
All the names you have ever, or not, heard before,
And when you’ve done that—why, invent a few more).
His hearers can’t tell you on Sunday beforehand,
If in that day’s discourse they’ll be Bibled or Koraned,
For he’s seized the idea (by his martyrdom fired)
That all men (not orthodox) may be inspired;
Yet though wisdom profane with his creed he may weave in,
He makes it quite clear what he doesn’t believe in, 791
While some, who decry him, think all Kingdom Come
Is a sort of a, kind of a, species of Hum,
Of which, as it were, so to speak, not a crumb
Would be left, if we didn’t keep carefully mum,
And, to make a clean breast, that ’tis perfectly plain
That all kinds of wisdom are somewhat profane;
Now P.’s creed than this may be lighter or darker,
But in one thing, ’tis clear, he has faith, namely—Parker;
And this is what makes him the crowd-drawing preacher, 800
There’s a background of god to each hard-working feature,
Every word that he speaks has been fierily furnaced
In the blast of a life that has struggled in earnest:
There he stands, looking more like a ploughman than priest,
If not dreadfully awkward, not graceful at least,
His gestures all downright and same, if you will,
As of brown-fisted Hobnail in hoeing a drill;
But his periods fall on you, stroke after stroke,
Like the blows of a lumberer felling an oak,
You forget the man wholly, you’re thankful to meet 810
With a preacher who smacks of the field and the street,
And to hear, you’re not over-particular whence,
Almost Taylor’s profusion, quite Latimer’s sense.

‘There is Bryant, as quiet, as cool, and as dignified,
As a smooth, silent iceberg, that never is ignified,
Save when by reflection ’tis kindled o’ nights
With a semblance of flame by the chill Northern Lights.
He may rank (Griswold says so) first bard of your nation
(There’s no doubt that he stands in supreme iceolation),
Your topmost Parnassus he may set his heel on, 820
But no warm applauses come, peal following peal on,—
He’s too smooth and too polished to hang any zeal on:
Unqualified merits, I’ll grant, if you choose, he has ’em,
But he lacks the one merit of kindling enthusiasm;
If he stir you at all, it is just, on my soul,
Like being stirred up with the very North Pole.

‘He is very nice reading in summer, but inter
Nos, we don’t want extra freezing in winter;
Take him up in the depth of July, my advice is,
When you feel an Egyptian devotion to ices. 830
But, deduct all you can, there’s enough that’s right good in him,
He has a true soul for field, river, and wood in him;
And his heart, in the midst of brick walls, or where’er it is,
Glows, softens, and thrills with the tenderest charities—
To you mortals that delve in this trade-ridden planet?
No, to old Berkshire’s hills, with their limestone and granite.
If you’re one who in loco (add foco here) desipis,
You will get out of his outermost heart (as I guess) a piece;
But you’d get deeper down if you came as a precipice,
And would break the last seal of its inwardest fountain, 840
If you only could palm yourself off for a mountain.
Mr. Quivis, or somebody quite as discerning,
Some scholar who’s hourly expecting his learning,
Calls B. the American Wordsworth; but Wordsworth
May be rated at more than your whole tuneful herd’s worth.
No, don’t be absurd, he’s an excellent Bryant;
But, my friends, you’ll endanger the life of your client,
By attempting to stretch him up into a giant;
If you choose to compare him, I think there are two per-
-sons fit for a parallel—Thomson and Cowper;[2] 850
I don’t mean exactly,—there’s something of each,
There’s T.’s love of nature, C.’s penchant to preach;
Just mix up their minds so that C.’s spice of craziness
Shall balance and neutralize T.’s turn for laziness,
And it gives you a brain cool, quite frictionless, quiet,
Whose internal police nips the buds of all riot,—
A brain like a permanent strait-jacket put on
The heart that strives vainly to burst off a button,—
A brain which, without being slow or mechanic,
Does more than a larger less drilled, more volcanic; 860
He’s a Cowper condensed, with no craziness bitten,
And the advantage that Wordsworth before him had written.

‘But, my dear little bardlings, don’t prick up your ears
Nor suppose I would rank you and Bryant as peers;
If I call him an iceberg, I don’t mean to say
There is nothing in that which is grand in its way;
He is almost the one of your poets that knows
How much grace, strength, and dignity lie in Repose;
If he sometimes fall short, he is too wise to mar
His thought’s modest fulness by going too far; 870
‘T would be well if your authors should all make a trial
Of what virtue there is in severe self-denial,
And measure their writings by Hesiod’s staff,
Which teaches that all has less value than half.

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