Page images
PDF
EPUB

ENGLISH PROSE

SELF-RELIANCE 1

RALPH WALDO EMERSON

I READ the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. Always the soul hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instil is of more value than any thought they may contain. To believe 5 your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for always the inmost becomes the outmost-and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets 10 of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato and Milton is that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men, but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which 15 flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of 20 art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with goodhumored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices

1 From Essays, First Series, 1841; the second half of the essay has here been omitted.

is on the other side. Else to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another. 5 There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good,

no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through 10 his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him

to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face,

one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, 15 and another none. It is not without preestablished har

mony, this sculpture in the memory. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. Bravely let him speak the utmost syllable

of his confession. We but half express ourselves, and are 20 ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents.

It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. It needs a divine

man to exhibit anything divine. A man is relieved and gay 25 when he has put his heart into his work and done his best;

but what he has said or done otherwise shall give him no peace.

It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends;

no invention, no hope. 30 Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.

Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves

childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their percep35 tion that the Eternal was stirring at their heart, working

through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind

the same transcendent destiny; and not pinched in a corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but redeemers and benefactors, pious aspirants to be noble clay under the Almighty effort let us advance on Chaos and the Dark.

5 What pretty oracles nature yields us on this text in the face and behavior of children, babes, and even brutes. That divided and rebel mind, that distrust of a sentiment because our arithmetic has computed the strength and means opposed to our purpose, these have not. Their mind being 10 whole, their eye is as yet unconquered, and when we look in their faces, we are disconcerted. Infancy conforms to nobody; all conform to it; so that one babe commonly makes four or five out of the adults who prattle and play to it. So God has armed youth and puberty and manhood 15 no less with its own piquancy and charm, and made it enviable and gracious and its claims not to be put by, if it will stand by itself. Do not think the youth has no force, because he cannot speak to you

and Hark! in the next room who spoke so clear and emphatic? Good Heaven! it 20 is he! it is that very lump of bashfulness and phlegm which for weeks has done nothing but eat when you were by, and now rolls out these words like bell-strokes. It seems he knows how to speak to his contemporaries. Bashful or bold then, he will know how to make us seniors very 25 unnecessary

The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. How is a boy the master of society !-independent, irresponsible, 30 looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests; he gives an independent, 35 genuine verdict. You must court him; he does not court you. But the man is as it were clapped into jail by his

me.

« PreviousContinue »