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Flies In Amber
by [?]

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.”