Page images
PDF
EPUB

RALPH WALDO EMERSON

Address at the Passmore Edwards Institute,

June 15th, 1903.

WE

E come to-day, in these congenial sur

roundings of the Passmore Edwards Settlement, to unveil the bust of a great American, certainly one of the greatest of them all, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the centenary of whose birth, on the 25th of May last, was celebrated with reverence and enthusiasm throughout his own country and in many distant lands. Hundreds of speakers and writers have been discussing his merits, and I have absolutely nothing new to offer on a subject so freshly familiar. I would much rather set him before you in his own words than in any of my own.

His claims to distinction as poet, philosopher and prophet have been warmly advanced by his) disciples, and as freely contested by the critics, but whatever controversy there is about him seems to me to be really a war of words and a contest of definitions. It is generally agreed that he was one of the great intellectual lights of the nineteenth century; that, as a result of his forty years of wide and almost universal reading, profound contemplation, brilliant writing, and enlarged discourse, he came to be recognized as one

fof the wisest of men, a great and efficient teacher

,

a

after it, and far in advance of his age on many important questions.

He certainly had a vivid and fertile imagination, a wonderful power of idealizing the facts of nature and the events of life, and a quick sympathy with all that concerned and interested humanity, which enabled him to produce some poems which still live after half a century, and which are likely to find many readers in coming generations.

His neighbors assembled at Concord Bridge to celebrate the completion of the monument which marked the spot where the plain farmers of New England offered the first armed resistance to British troops. There bloodshed on both sides began the long conflict which divided the British Empire into two independent nations, - nations which now at last happily vie with each other in words and acts of mutual friendship, and in efforts to advance the best interests of mankind. In a single stanza he told the thrilling story in words that still echo like the sound of a trumpet :

“By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,

And fired the shot heard round the World."

Recalling his visit to Rome, and what he had seen of the work of Michael Angelo, as an architect, upon the great cathedral with its soaring dome, he apostrophized architecture as the Divine Art, directly illuminated by the Spirit of God, in words that ought to be immortal:

[ocr errors]

" The hand that rounded Peter's Dome,

And groined the aisles of Christian Rome,
Wrought in a sad sincerity;
Himself from God he could not free;
He builded better than he knew :
The conscious stone to beauty grew."

He had absolute faith in the close relation between the living God and the spirit of the individual man, and in the boundless possibilities of human nature as its direct result.

Listen to another single verse which ought to live as long as the language lasts, expressing this idea. He was showing how noble youth, brought up, it may be, in luxury and ease, in sport and idling, prove to be heroes when the trumpet sounds and their names are called; and turning their backs on all they have prized before, on home and love itself, risk life and limb and happiness to save or serve the cause of their country:

“ So nigh is grandeur to our dust,

So near is God to man,
When Duty whispers low Thou must,

The youth replies, “I can.'"

6

Nor are these utterances isolated and exceptional in their style and character. Much of his poetry breathes the same lofty spirit, the same living imagery. And sometimes he was master of a lighter vein, full of sparkling wit and genial fun.

Witness his fable of the quarrel between the squirrel and the mountain:

" The Mountain and the Squirrel had a quarrel,

And the former called the latter little Prig.'
Bun replied:
You are doubtless very big,
But all sorts of things and weather
Must be taken in together
To make up a year
And a sphere,
And I think it no disgrace
To occupy my place.
If I'm not so large as you,
You are not so small as I,
And not half so spry.
I'll not deny you make
A very pretty squirrel track.
Talents differ: all is well and wisely put,
If I cannot carry forests on my back
Neither can you crack a nut.'

Whether he is justly to be called a great poet or is destined to an immortality of centuries or not, he gave us much delightful poetry, and the lovers of poetry, who form but a small part of the readers of the English language, will always find much to cherish in what he has written.

You all know the main facts of his simple and uneventful life. He was a Puritan of the Puri.

« PreviousContinue »