Shelley, beloved! the year has a new name from any thou knowest. When Spring arrives, leaves that you never saw will shadow the ground, and flowers you never beheld will star it, and the grass will be of another growth. Thy name is added to the list which makes the earth bold in her age, and proud of what has been. Time, with slow, but unwearied feet, guides her to the goal that thou hast reached; and I, her unhappy child, am advanced still nearer the hour when my earthly dress shall repose near thine, beneath the tomb of Cestius.
—Journal of Mary Shelley
When Emerson borrowed from Wordsworth that fine phrase about plain living and high thinking, no one was more astonished than he that Whitman and Thoreau should take him at his word. He was decidedly curious about their experiment. But he kept a safe distance between himself and the shirt-sleeved Walt; and as for Henry Thoreau–bless me! Emerson regarded him only as a fine savage, and told him so. Of course, Emerson loved solitude, but it was the solitude of a library or an orchard, and not the solitude of plain or wilderness. Emerson looked upon Beautiful Truth as an honored guest. He adored her, but it was with the adoration of the intellect. He never got her tag in jolly chase of comradery; nor did he converse with her, soft and low, when only the moon peeked out from behind the silvery clouds, and the nightingale listened. He never laid himself open to damages. And when he threw a bit of a bomb into Harvard Divinity School it was the shrewdest bid for fame that ever preacher made.
I said “shrewd”–that’s the word.
Emerson had the instincts of Connecticut–that peculiar development of men who have eked out existence on a rocky soil, banking their houses against grim Winter or grimmer savage foes. With this Yankee shrewdness went a subtle and sweeping imagination, and a fine appreciation of the excellent things that men have said and done. But he was never so foolish as to imitate the heroic–he, simply admired it from afar. He advised others to work their poetry up into life, but he did not do so himself. He never cast the bantling on the rocks, nor caused him to be suckled with the she-wolf’s teat. He admired “abolition” from a distance. When he went away from home it was always with a return ticket. He has summed up Friendship in an essay as no other man ever has, and yet there was a self-protective aloofness in his friendship that made icicles gather, as George William Curtis has explained.
In no relation of his life was there a complete abandon. His “Essay on Self-Reliance” is beef, iron and wine, and “Works and Days” is a tonic for tired men; and yet I know that, in spite of all his pretty talk about living near Nature’s heart, he never ventured into the woods outside of hallooing distance from the house. He could neither ride a horse, shoot, nor sail a boat–and being well aware of it, never tried. All his farming was done by proxy; and when he writes to Carlyle late in life, explaining how he is worth forty thousand dollars, well secured by first mortgages, he makes clear one-half of his ambition.
And yet, I call him master, and will match my admiration for him ‘gainst that of any other, six nights and days together. But I summon him here only to contrast his character with that of another–another who, like himself, was twice married.
In his “Essay on Love” Emerson reveals just an average sophomore insight; and in his work I do not find a mention or a trace of influence exercised by either of the two women he wedded, nor by any other woman. Shelley was what he was through the influence of the two women he married.