Monday, September 11, 2006

dreams of childhood fading: Emerson's Journals, September, 1823

From the Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1820-1824, edited by Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes (1909).

Emerson wrote this undated entry following his return home from his walk to Western Massachusetts. At 20, he was still living with his mother, in a new place Canterbury Lane, Roxbury, and still teaching young ladies.

I have often found cause to complain that my thoughts have an ebb and flow. Whether any laws fix them, and what the laws are, I cannot ascertain. I have quoted a thousand times the memory of Milton and tried to bind my thinking season to one part of the year, or to one sort of weather; to the sweet influence of the Pleiades, or to the summer reign of Lyra. The worst is, that the ebb is certain, long and frequent, while the flow comes transiently and seldom. [See note 1 at bottom]

Once when Vanity was full fed, it sufficed to keep me at work and to produce some creditable scraps; but alas! it has long been dying of a galloping starvation, and the Muse, I fear me, will die too. The dreams of my childhood are all fading away and giving place to some very sober and very disgusting views of a quiet mediocrity of talents and condition - nor does it appear to me that any application of which I am capable, any efforts, any sacrifices, could at this moment restore any reasonableness to the familiar expectations of my earlier youth. But who is he that repines? Let him read the song about the linter-goose.

Melons and plums and peaches, eating and drinking, and the bugle, all the day long. These are the glorious occupations which engross a proud and thinking being, running his race of preparation for the eternal world. Man is a foolish slave who is busy in forging his own fetters. Sometimes he lifts up his eyes for a moment, admires freedom, and then hammers the rivets of his chain. Who does not believe life to be an illusion when he sees the daily, yearly, livelong, inconsistency that men indulge, in thinking so well and doing so ill?
. . . [editor's elipsis]


. . God's works are fruits of his character; copies (as ancient philosophy expressed it) of his mind and wishes. One could not venerate him if he were only good. Who could bow down before a god who had infinite instincts of benevolenee, and no thought; in whom the eye of knowledge was shut; who was kind and good because he knew no better; who was infinitely gentle as brutes are gentle? The poor Egyptian plebeian layman might do so, who worshipped a divine Oxy for his gracious tameness; but an enlightened Man with the spirit of a man, would bid them bring the stake and the fire and make him Martyr, ere he surrendered his mind and body to such a prostration. Man reveres the Providence of God as the benign and natural result of his omniscience; and expects in the imperfect image of God an imperfect copy of the same eternal order. [Note 2]


Note 1: So in "The Poet"; Poems (appendix) p. 319
Is there warrant that the waves
Of thought, in their mysterious caves, Will heap in me their highest tide,
In me, therewith beatified?
Unsure the ebb and now of thought,
The moon comes back, - the spirit not.
Also in "The Preacher," Lectures and Biographical Sketches, p.219 [editor's note]

Note 2: Mr. Cabot, in his Memoir (p. 103), gives two letters on God and Providence, written at this period by Emerson to his Aunt Mary, who, as he used to say, "wished everyone to be a Calvinist but herself." [editor's note]

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