The complete works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Letters and social aims [Vol. 8]
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-1882., Emerson, Edward Waldo, 1844-1930.

IMMORTALITY

The basis of this essay is a lecture given by Mr. Emerson before the Parker Fraternity in the Music Hall in Boston, December 29, 1861. Possibly it may have been read also in one of the University courses at Cambridge in 1870 or 1871. The manuscript he gave away, and no loose sheets—the miscellany which usually accompany the lecture—remain.

In the Introductory Note to this volume Mr. Cabot, explaining the part which he took in helping Mr. Emerson in the preparation of the book, says that Mr. Emerson looked through his journals for suitable material to add to the lectures before printing them, and "In this way it happened sometimes that writing of very different dates was brought together: e. g., the essay on Immortality, which has been cited as showing Page  435 what were his latest opinions on that subject, contains passages written fifty years apart from each other."

But Mr. Emerson, although he felt at the time hardly equal to the ordering this material, approved its use, and the whole paper had his sanction when published. He had left traditional revelation to prove

That man in the bush with God may meet,
and found that the voice of the Holy Spirit
Still whispers in the morning wind.
In the stars, in the forest, in men and women, he had seen that everywhere, however hidden, the laws of Beauty, Wisdom, Goodness were working, and that the three were One. His belief in the Universal Mind, the Over-Soul, of which we were the vessels, or rather channels, if we but kept ourselves open, was satisfying. He did not care to ask questions of detail.

"Men ask concerning the immortality of the soul, the employments of heaven, the state of the sinner, and so forth. They even dream that Jesus has left replies to precisely these interrogatories. Never a moment did that sublime spirit speak in their patois. To truth, justice, love, the attributes of the soul, the idea of immutableness is essentially associated. Jesus, living in these moral sentiments, heedless of sensual fortunes, heeding only the manifestations of these, never made the separation of the idea of duration from the essence of these attributes, nor uttered a syllable concerning the duration of the soul. … In the flowing of love, in the adoration of humility, there is no question of continuance. No inspired man ever asks this question or condescends to these evidences. For the soul is true to itself, and the man in whom it is shed abroad cannot wander from the present, which is infinite, to a future which would be finite."—"The Over-Soul," Essays, First Series.

Page  436 "The secret of heaven is kept from age to age. No imprudent, no sociable angel ever dropt an early syllable to answer the longings of saints, the fears of mortals. We should have listened on our knees to any favorite, who, by stricter obedience, had brought his thoughts into parallelism with the celestial currents and could hint to human ears the scenery and circumstance of the newly parted soul. But it is certain that it must tally with what is best in nature. It must not be inferior in tone to the already known works of the artist who sculptures the globes of the firmament and writes the moral law. It must be fresher than rainbows, stabler than mountains, agreeing with flowers, with tides and the rising and setting of autumnal stars. Melodious poets shall be hoarse as street ballads when once the penetrating key-note of nature and spirit is sounded,—the earth-beat, sea-beat, heart-beat, which makes the tune to which the sun rolls, and the globule of blood, and the sap of trees."—Representative Men, "Swedenborg."

And in the last pages of the essay on Worship, in Conduct of Life, he said:—

"The whole revelation that is vouchsafed us is the gentle trust, which, in our experience, we find will cover also with flowers the slopes of this chasm.

"Of immortality, the soul when well employed is incurious. It is so well, that it is sure it will be well. … Immortality will come to such as are fit for it, and he who would be a great soul in future, must be a great soul now."

Page 323, note 1. This story is found in Bede's Ecclesiastical History, chapter xiii., Bohn's Antiquarian Library.

Page 326, note 1. In a Romaic song, "The Grave of Dunos," a dying Klephtic chief says:—

Page  437
"Now the death hour comes and this day will I die.
O make my grave and make it a broad and a high one,
In which I could stand up to fight and load my gun in the middle;
And on the right side leave for me a little window open,
At which the swallows may fly in to tell me when the Spring comes,
And where, in fair May moons, the nightingales may sing."

"Romaic and Rhine Ballads," Dial, October, 1842.

Page 327, note 1. In an early journal (1830) Mr. Emerson wrote of his first wife: "Ellen Tucker wondered whether the spirits in Heaven look onward to their immortality, as we on Earth, or are absorbed in the present moment." In the same he wrote: "Every man contemplates an angel in his future self."

Page 328, note 1. Mr. Emerson one Monday morning in 1837 wrote, with a sad humor:—

"The Pagan theology of our churches treats Heaven as an inevitable evil, which, as there is no help against, the best way is to put the best face on the matter we can. 'From whence,' said the good preacher yesterday in his prayer, 'we shall not be able to return.' Truth will out."

Page 328, note 2. Mr. Emerson, in his journal, says that Goethe did so.

Page 328, note 3. Beaumont and Fletcher, The Double Marriage.

Page 330, note 1. Montesquieu, Pensées Diverses, p. 233.

Page 332, note 1. At this distance of time there seems no impropriety in giving the names of these friends, of whom the story is told—Lewis Cass and Albert H. Tracy.

Page 333, note 1. This passage on Divine Will comes from the sheets of the lecture on Courage:—

Page  438 "I know not whether there be, as is alleged, in the upper region of our atmosphere a permanent westerly current, which carries all with it which rises to that height, but I know that when souls reach a certain height of perception, they accept a knowledge and principle above all selfishness. Whether there be an upper westerly current I know not; but I know a breath of Will blows through the Universe of souls eternally, in the direction of the Right and Necessary. It is the air which all intellects inhale and exhale, and it is the wind which blows all the worlds into order and orbit."

Page 334, note 1. The lines ending the poem "Threnody" are here suggested.

Page 335, note 1. Perhaps this passage was written after Mr. Emerson had the pleasure of riding under the vast pines of the Sierra Nevada, and standing at the feet of the giant redwoods of Mariposa when his good friend John Murray Forbes carried him thither for rest, after the strain of his University lectures in 1871.

Page 338, note 1. In my youth I received this answer from my father, indirect yet none the less satisfying, when I asked him what he thought about a future life: "We may be certain that, whatever it may be, no one will be disappointed."

Page 339, note 1. His poem the "Forerunners" tells of the "happy guides" whom he ever followed, but could not overtake.

Page 340, note 1. This is a favorite quotation from Plato's Phaedrus, about the soul which has perceived a truth.

Of ancient art Mr. Emerson said, "I find no trace of age in it."

Among Byron's poems Mr. Emerson valued especially that one beginning,— Page  439

"When coldness wraps this suffering clay,
Ah, whither strays the immortal mind?"
and used to repeat the lines:—
"Eternal, boundless, undecayed,
A thought unseen, but seeing all,
All, all on earth, or skies displayed,
Shall it survey shall it recall:
Each fainter trace that memory holds
So darkly of departed years
At one broad glance the soul beholds,
And all that was at once appears."

Page 343, note 1. Compare in the "Fragments on The Poet," in the Poems, the lines beginning,—

For thought, and not praise.

Page 344, note 1. The editor would gladly learn the source whence these lines are quoted, for which he and his friends have sought in vain.

Page 345, note 1. That life is a series of Nows, and the day divine, was a favorite thought: "The whole fact is here or nowhere."

Page 346, note 1. Mr. Emerson in answer to his revered friend, Rev. Henry Ware, who, troubled at the Divinity School Address, wrote to him about his grounds of belief,—"I do not know what arguments mean in reference to any expression of a thought."

Page 347, note 1. Mr. Emerson said in conversation with a young friend, "The soul feels that it is in communication with the soul of things—and the soul knows."

Page 349, note 1. Speaking of the soul, in his security that what was best must occur, Mr. Emerson is reported to Page  440 have said to Margaret Fuller, "Careful of health, careless of life, should be our motto."

Page 352, note 1. I quote from Mr. John Albee's Remembrances of Emerson this just remark: "Emerson refused to dogmatize about what is necessarily obscure at present. So some thought the obscurity lay in him."

In conclusion I quote this pleasant passage from A Western Journey with Emerson,1 written by his friend the late Professor James Bradley Thayer of the Harvard Law School:—

"'How can Mr. Emerson,' said one of the younger members of the party to me that day, 'be so agreeable, all the time, without getting tired!' It was the naive expression of what we all had felt. There was never a more agreeable travelling-companion; he was always accessible, cheerful, sympathetic, considerate, tolerant; and there was always that same respectful interest in those with whom he talked, even the humblest, which raised them in their own estimation. One thing particularly impressed me,—the sense that he seemed to have of a certain great amplitude of time and leisure. It was the behaviour of one who really believed in an immortal life, and had adjusted his conduct accordingly; so that, beautiful and grand as the natural objects were among which our journey lay, they were matched by the sweet elevation of character and the spiritual charm of our gracious friend. Years afterwards, on that memorable day of his funeral at Concord, I found that a sentence from his own essay on Immortality haunted my mind and kept repeating itself all the day long; it seemed to point to the sources of his power: 'Meantime the true disciples saw, through the letter, the doctrine of eternity, which dissolved the poor corpse and Nature also, and gave grandeur to the passing hour.'.

Page  441 "He was flooded and full to overflowing all through his life with a sense of the presence, the omnipresence and the instant operation of what he called 'the Over-Soul.' His apprehension and acceptance of this was no merely intellectual matter; it was something that penetrated into the substance of his being, and moved him like a vital force; it was this with its related beliefs that gave such power to his speech and such charm to his character, as of one who had already entered upon the immortal life, so that those who knew him intimately seemed to perceive what it was that the phrase of Scripture meant, when it said of the Almighty that he 'inhabited eternity.'.

"The truth that he saw, the powerful impulse that he felt, the inflaming inspiration that moved him were not the sort of things that the man of letters ordinarily has to handle, and they induced methods very different from the common. These things were difficult to grasp; only to be reached in rare moments; not to be adequately shadowed forth, unless when the mood was on. These high and delicate matters were to be set down when he saw them and as he saw them; they must be communicated, if indeed he might hope to communicate them, by picture, by symbol, by some far-darting gleam of imaginative phrase."