Emerson and Yeats, as alive as ever

Lately I have been “sinfully strolling from book to book,” as Emerson once put it, re-reading at the same time The Heart of Emerson’s Journals and W.B. Yeats’s Autobiographies. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and William Butler Yeats (1856-1939), are both long dead, sort of, and both as alive as ever, as these citations demonstrate.

Some gems from the two books recorded in my journal as I went along, here sorted by author.

Emerson, at age 18 or thereabouts, in his journal: “We forget ourselves and our destinies in health, and the chief use of temporary sickness is to remind us of these concerns. I must improve my time better.”

June, 1831: “A sect or party is an elegant incognito devised to save a man from the vexation of thinking.”

April, 1834: “All the mistakes I make arise from forsaking my own station and trying to see the object from another person’s point of view.”

November, 1839: “… although no diligence can rebuild the universe in a model by the best accumulation of disposition of details, yet does the world reproduce itself in miniature in every event that transpires, so that all the laws of nature may be read in the smallest fact. So that the truth-speaker may dismiss all solicitude as to the proportion and congruency of the aggregate of his thoughts, so long as he is a faithful reporter of particular impressions.”

June, 1840: “In silence we must wrap much of our life, because it is too fine for speech, because also we cannot explain it to others, and because somewhat we cannot yet understand.”

1841: “When Jones Very was in Concord, he said to me, ‘I always felt when I heard you speak or read your writings that you saw the truth better than others, yet I felt that your spirit was not quite right. It was as if a vein of colder air blew across me.’”

1842: “How slowly, how slowly we learn that witchcraft and ghostcraft, palmistry and magic, and all the other so-called superstitions, which, with so much police, boastful skepticism and scientific committees, we had finally dismissed to the moon as nonsense, are really no nonsense at all, but subtle and valid influences, always starting up, mowing, muttering in our path, and shading our day.”

1842: “I have no thoughts today. What then? What difference does it make? It is only that there does not chance today to be an antagonism to evolve them, the electricity is the more accumulated; a week hence you shall meet somebody or something that shall draw from you a shower of sparks.”

1847: “I think I have material enough to serve my countrymen with thought and music, if only it was not scraps. But men do not want handfuls of gold dust, but ingots.”

Emerson, 1847, in a quotation I have cherished for years:

The Superstitions of our Age:

The fear of Catholicism;

The fear of pauperism;

The fear of immigration;

The fear of manufacturing interests;

The fear of radicalism or democracy;

And faith in the steam engine.

1848: “Happy is he who looks only into his work to know if it will succeed, never into the times or the public opinion; and who writes from the love of imparting certain thoughts and not from the necessity of sale – who writes always to the unknown friend.” [Itals Emerson’s]

1848: “The salvation of America and of the human race depends on the next election, if we believe the newspapers. But so it was last year, and so it was the year before, and our fathers believed the same thing forty years ago.”

1849: “A feature of the times is, when I was born, private and family prayer was in the use of all well-bred people, and now it is not known.”

1854: “Realism. We shall pass for what we are. Do not fear to die because you have not done your task. Whenever a noble soul comes, the audience awaits. And he is not judged by his performance, but by the spirit of his performance….”

1854: “We affirm and affirm, but neither you nor I know the value of what we say.”

1855: “Munroe seriously asked what I believed of Jesus and prophets. I said, as so often, that it seemed to me an impiety to be listening to one and another, when the pure Heaven was pouring itself into each of us, on the simple condition of obedience. To listen to any second-hand gospel is perdition of the First Gospel. Jesus was Jesus because he refused to listen to another, and listened at home.”


These quotations from Yeats are from a finished work, rather than a journal, and so cannot be dated.

“Yet it was a Yeats [that is, a member of his father’s side of the family] who spoke the only eulogy that turns my head. ‘We have ideas and no passions, but by marriage with a Pollexfen we have given a tongue to the sea cliffs.’” [p. 23]

Yeats, “I was vexed and bewildered, and am still bewildered and still vexed, finding it a poor and crazy thing that we who have imagined so many noble persons cannot bring our flesh to heel.” [p. 40]

Yeats, “My thoughts were a great excitement, but when I tried to do anything with them, it was like trying to pack a balloon into a shed in a high wind.” [p. 41]

Yeats, “I now can but share with a friend my thoughts and my emotions, and there is a continual discovery of difference, but in those days, before I had found myself, we could share adventures. When friends plan and do together, their minds become one mind and the last secret disappears.” [p. 48]

Yeats, “I began occasionally telling people that one should believe whatever had been believed in all countries and periods, and only reject any part of it after much evidence, instead of starting all over afresh and only believing what one could prove. But I was always ready to deny or turn into a joke what was for all that my secret fanaticism.” [pp. 78-79]

Yeats, “I had as many ideas as I have now, only I did not know how to choose from among them those that belonged to my life.” [p. 83]

Yeats, “We all have our simplifying image, our genius, and such hard burden does it lay upon us that, but for the praise of others, we would deride it and hunt it away.” [p. 121]

Yeats, speaking of William Morris, quotes someone as saying, “He is always afraid that he is doing something wrong and generally is.” 🙂

Yeats, “… I can see some like imagining [that is, some similar imagining] in every great change, and believe that the first flying-fish first leaped, not because it sought ‘adaptation’ to the air, but out of horror of the sea.” [p. 143]

Yeats, “When a man writes any work of genius, or invents some creative action, is it not because some knowledge or power has come into his mind from beyond his mind? It is called up by an image, as I think … but our images must be given to us, we cannot choose them deliberately.” [p. 272]

Speaking of the work that he and J.M. Synge and Lady Gregory had done, and why: “I think as I speak these words of how deep down we have gone, below all that is individual, modern and restless, seeking foundations for an Ireland that can only come into existence in a Europe that is still but a dream.” [p. 554]


And a quotation from Frank DeMarco! Thinking of the journal entries from 2006 that I have been posting, I wrote:

“I just had this thought: ‘I have not lived without purpose entirely; it’s just that it wasn’t necessarily my purpose.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s good. Yeats would have liked that.’”


10 thoughts on “Emerson and Yeats, as alive as ever

  1. Paraphrasing a comment from don Juan Matus, Castaneda’s teacher: “There’s the Eagle’s intent, and there’s your intent, and for a man of knowledge they slowly become the same.”

  2. Hi Frank, thanks a lot (and all).

    Witty as it is but when reading yours this morning it is occuring to me something very funny (actually, it is felt as funny) – when I`m to read Frank’s GEMS above (really FELT as gems) and Jim`s – THEN “a glimpse” almost as a Flashlight occured: I do BELIEVE in what the author (and all authors) telling – BECAUSE it is THEIR TRUTH – THEIR INSIGHTS….Therefore their truth becoming MY truth as well (all novels & stories to read). The energy is never “lost.” As Edgar Cayce used to tell: “…..Forever imprinted upon Time & Space.” Whatever TO THINK, the THOUGHT = Energy = Creating.
    Hm, oh well, a rainy and foggy day today and no winds and not especially cold here with me… the green gras to watch. All folks busy to prepare for the Advent and the coming of Christmas….old pattern (but cosy if not being too much materialistic).
    LOL, Inger Lise

  3. Dissing Morris, my favourite designer??? Luckily with a smiley added, though I suspect Yeats knew of such.

    A heavy time lately, nothing seems to work. Not only half-sick but full. And yet, many insights on my own strategies of coping in this life. Or the programs written into me (us) as a very small child. Somehow it seems we are the strangers in our families. Having to adapt to the normalcy is a heavy burden that requires hiding and cutting off much of what would be the real me. Leading a false life to earn one’s living. It does not look like a good deal. All of what I have put into being real does not add up to much. A quaint hobby. Oh, I ‘m being harsh now. It is just that I have taken survival more seriously than being real. Why has it taken me this long to see it? Or to really feel it, because I have known this for a long time. And of course this is one of those hard nuts life puts you to chew: how to find a way of living that is different from the prevailing zeitgeist and still have enough of human togetherness and belonging to keep you going?

    And thank you Frank for keeping this going!

    1. Hmm, what does it mean, “Not only half-sick but full”?
      Yes, it is a hard question, often posed: How do we live among others when we don’t quite fit? We are herd animals by instinct, and yet some of us can come no nearer to the herd than the outer fringes, both because we can’t stand it and because they can’t stand it. Laurens van der Post writes of this.

      1. Most of my time I feel I have about 60% of my capability on-line. Not completely well but not really sick either. Needing to rest often. Now I’m more like 10% capable and 90% sick: extremely tired, head-ache (that is quite unusual) constantly cold. And some part of me is somewhere else: things fall off my hands, I’m absent-minded and I don’t know why. I feel like a stranger to myself. I’d like to express friendliness to this stranger but I do not know what she likes. So I try to find out.

        I’ll check van Post – I vaguely remember he being inspired by Jung.

          1. Well, I’m not a native english speaker, so my expressions can be off. Not that it really matters but i’ll try again: Fully sick means day off from work. Partly sick means miserable but going to work. I do not feel this makes it any clearer, though. I have a somewhat difficult relationship with my feelings of wellness. From some perspectives I am healthier than most, but very often my experienced unwellness affects what I feel capable of doing. I cannot push myself anymore as I used to do. Haha, my relationship to health is difficult to define. It is difficult to live on the descending curve might be one way to put it. Shadows get longer and there is a chill in the air. Winter is coming.

          2. Thanks, that did clear it up. We would say, perhaps, fully sick, or too sick to go to work, or something. Denis Brogan once said the British and Americans are divided by a common language; I can’t imagine how you and Inger Lise follow this blog and provide lucid comments in a language that is not your native language, however good at it you both are.

            Kristiina, consider this. Write a three or four paragraph essay on your health, and whatever subjects connect to it, and send it to me to post as a blog entry. you may be surprised at the things the clarify within you, as you write. And, usually, you will find that your expression of a problem helps someone else who has the same problem but feels alone in it.

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