Friday, April 13, 2007

Emerson dreams

From the Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson:
April 13, 1833

Rome fashions my dreams. All night I wander amidst statues & fountains, and last night was introduced to Lord Byron!
Another post of mine featuring dreams. Emerson is nearing the end of his stay in Rome. This brief entry shows a Romantic side, not often present in his writing. I put a capital R before the word because the Romantic movement in literature was only just coming to an end at the time he wrote. (Keats' Ode On a Grecian Urn had been published only 13 years before.)

At this time Byron wasn't quite 10 years dead. As poets and men the two were pretty much at opposite ends of a spectrum of vivacity. Emerson mentions Byron and his works in quite a few journal entries. He admired the talent, particularly the rhetorical skill, and freedom from cant. A few years after writing this entry, he would write of a fire & brimstone preacher, "I thought Lord Byron's vice better than Rev. Mr. M's Virtue." He also recognized limitations, particularly in the narrow choice of subject. In 1841 he gave a series of anecdotes about his favorite aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, including this: "She hated the poor, low, thin, unprofitable, unpoetical Humanitarians as the devastators of the Church & robbers of the soul & never wearies with piling on them new terms of slight & weariness. 'Ah!' she said, 'what a poet would Byron have been, if he had been born & bred a Calvinist!'"

Late in life Emerson produced Parnassus, an anthology of his favorite poems. As a commonplace book, it's a bit like Minorities by T.E. Lawrence (though Lawrence did not publish his). In this anthology Emerson gives all the reasons why Byron deserves to be read (and why I aim to re-read Don Juan every couple of years). He says "Byron is always egotistic, but intersting thereby, through the taste and genius of his confession or his defiance" (Preface, vii) And later:
Byron's rare talent is conspicuously partial. He has not sweetness, nor solid knowledge, nor lofty aim. He had a rare skill for rhythm, unmatached facility of expression, a firm, ductile thread of gold. His rhymes do not suggest any restraint, but the utmost freedom, as the rules of the dance do not fetter the good dancer, but exhibit his natural grace. In his isolation he is starved for a purpose; and finding no material except of romance, -- first, of corsairs, and Oriental robbers and harems, and, lastly, of satire, -- he revenges himself on society for its supposed distrust of him, by cursing it, and throwing himself on the side of its destroyers. His life was wasted; and its only result was this billiant gift of song with which he soothed his chosen exile. I do not know that it can retain for another generation the charm it had for his contemporaries; but the security with which he pours these perfectly modulated verses to any extent, without any sacrifice of sense for the sake of metre, surprises the reader. (Preface, ix)

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