Ralph Waldo Emerson Essay Gifts

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This short essay was one of Mr. Emerson's contributions to the Dial.

In the widest sense he held that there was no such thing as giving. The Over-soul common to all, the community of nature, rendered it impossible. Moreover, what belongs to the individual will come to him; what does not cannot be given. "Direct giving is agreeable to the early belief of men; direct giving of material or metaphysical aid. … The boy believes there is a teacher who can sell him wisdom. Churches believe in imputed merit. But in strictness we are not much cognizant of direct serving. Man is endogenous. … Gift is contrary to the law of the Universe. Serving others is serving us. … Indirect service is left."—"Uses of Great Men," Representative Men. And elsewhere, "When each comes forth from his mother's womb, the gate of gifts closes behind him."

But in the domestic and usual sense he was a giver and receiver. And yet so fine was his sense both of honor and of fitness that it was hard for him to receive, and not always easy for him to choose a gift for another that should have a bloom of symbolism upon it.

In the family the old-time New England custom of New Year's presents was never supplanted by the modern Christmas-tree. To his last days, when his grandchildren were around him, Mr. Emerson gave New Year's morning to this ceremony, and obeyed the rule of writing a poem to be read before each present was opened. Over these verses he often sat out the old year, and took great pleasure next morning in hearing the young people's efforts, though most humble about Page  324 his own. "The Maiden Song of the AEolian Harp" accompanied that characteristic gift to his daughter and her husband. As far as time and taste allowed him, he selected his presents for his family, but, even from them, it was a little hard for him to receive.

Great gifts went out from him to those to whom he thought them due, but on this subject his lips were closed.

Page 160, note 1. Fruits always pleased him,—his other senses more than that of taste, however,—his pears and plums seemed such a triumph achieved in evolution out of hard seed-cases, hips and haws. Van Mons (a Dutch pomologist mentioned in his copy of Downing's book on fruit-culture) was a saint he honored because of his doctrine and practice of "Amelioration." Care of his orchard and especially the harvesting of its small crop of pears, which perfumed his study, was the only farm-work of his later years.

Page 161, note 1. A saying of Landor's was often quoted by Mr. Emerson: "The highest price you can pay for a thing is to ask for it." The Nemesis of regret, or a least misgiving, would in a sensitive mind show the price to have been too high.

Page 161, note 2. John Thoreau, who died in his youth, Henry's older brother, was a lover of Nature and of children. He gave Mr. Emerson an instance of giving according to one's character. The latter recorded in his journal: "Long ago I wrote of Gifts and neglected a capital example. John Thoreau, Jr., one day put a blue-bird's box on my barn,—fifteen years ago, it must be,—and there it still is with every summer a melodious family in it adorning the place and singing its praises. There's a gift for you which cost the giver no money, but nothing which he bought could have been as good.

Page  325 "I think of another quite inestimable: John Thoreau knew how much I should value a head of little Waldo, then five years old. He came to me and offered to take him to a daguerreotypist who was then in town, and he, Thoreau, would see it well done. He did it and brought me the daguerre, which I thankfully paid for. A few months after, my boy died, and I have since to thank John Thoreau for that wise and gentle piece of friendship."

The happy thought of other friends, of an investment for him in beauty and comfort at compound interest, he recorded within two years after he made his home in Concord: "May 2, 1837. Day before yesterday Dr. Hobbs, Dr. Adams and Mr. Ripley1 sent me from Waltham thirty-one trees which I have planted by my home. What shall I render to my benefactors?" These pines and chestnuts still shelter and adorn his house.

Page 162, note 1. Epimetheus thus counsels his brother Prometheus:—

οὐδ' Ἐπιμηθεὺς

ἐφράσαθ' ὥς οἱ ἔεπε Προμηθεὺς μήποτε, δῶρον

δέξασθαι πὰρ Ζηνὸσ Ὀλυμπίου ἀλλ' ἀποπέμπειν

ἐξοπίσω μή πού τι κακὸν γένηται.

Hesiod, Works and Days, 85-88.

Page 162, note 2. In Mr. Emerson's copy of Cotton's translation of Montaigne, which book, as a boy, he read with delight and "felt as if I myself had written this book in some former life, so sincerely it spoke my thoughts," the following passage is marked:—

"Oh, how am I obliged to almighty God, who has been pleased that I should immediately receive all I have from his bounty, and particularly reserved all my obligation to himself! Page  326 How instantly do I beg of his holy compassion that I may never owe a real thanks to any one. O happy liberty in which I have thus far lived! May it continue with me to the last. I endeavour to have no need of any one. In me omnis est spes mihi."

Page 163, note 1. A new and strange experience and trial came to Mr. Emerson when in his age his house was nearly destroyed by fire. A common impulse moved his friends, near and far, to seize the opportunity to show their love or reverence for him by restoring it, and sending him abroad for refreshment meantime. Something of the struggle in Mr. Emerson's mind, and more of the emotion which he felt, is shown in the correspondence with Dr. Le Baron Russell and Judge Hoar, the friends to whom the contributors committed the pleading of their case. This is printed in the Appendix to Mr. Cabot's Memoir, from which I extract a few sentences. The ingenious Judge, the ambassador, relates how "I told him by way of prelude that some of his friends had made him a treasurer of an association who wished him to go to England and examine Warwick Castle and other noted houses that had been recently injured by fire, in order to get the best ideas possible for restoration, and then apply them to a house which the association was formed to restore in this neighborhood.

"When he understood the thing … he seemed very deeply moved. He said that he had been allowed so far in life to stand on his own feet, and that he hardly knew what to say,—that the kindness of his friends was very great. … But he must see the list of contributors. …

"I am glad that Mr. Emerson, who is feeble and ill, can learn what a debt of obligation his friends feel to him."

When he made up his mind to accept his friends' kindness he wrote: "Thank them for me whenever you meet Page  327 them, and say to them that I am not wood or stone if I have not yet trusted myself to go to each one of them directly." And when he was allowed to see the list of his benefactors he wrote: "It cannot be read with dry eyes or pronounced with articulate voice. Names of dear and noble friends; names also of high respect with me, but on which I had no known claims; names, too, that carried me back many years, as they were of friends of friends of mine more than of me, and thus I seemed to be drawing on the virtues of the departed."

Page 165, note 1. There were certain persons whose Oriental temperament seemed to him to bestow on them a right to exercise their genius for gifts, perhaps as valid as that of the Puritan to maintain his independence of favors.

The table of contents of Emerson’s “Essays: Second Series” places his essay “Gifts” squarely between “Manners” and “Nature,” almost as if the best gifts are a bridge between polite behavior and the glory that is natural creation. Seeing that, even before reading the essay, reminded me of being a small child, listening to my mother say that the best gifts are something that I would like to receive that also reminds the receiver of how special they are to me. It’s not the money; it’s the meaning.

In his essay “Manners,” Emerson put it a little differently, but at the heart of it I think he sounds like the mom I remember from early childhood.

Without the rich heart, wealth is an ugly beggar.

Here is Emerson’s quotation on gifts, in the context of the original 1844 “Gifts” essay:

Next to things of necessity, the rule for a gift, which one of my friends prescribed, is, that we might convey to some person that which properly belonged to his character, and was easily associated with him in thought.

But our tokens of compliment and love are for the most part barbarous. Rings and other jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only gift is a portion of thyself.

Thou must bleed for me. Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, coral and shells; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing. This is right and pleasing, for it restores society in so far to its primary basis, when a man’s biography is conveyed in his gift, and every man’s wealth is an index of his merit. But it is a cold, lifeless business when you go to the shops to buy me something, which does not represent your life and talent, but a goldsmith’s. This is fit for kings, and rich men who represent kings, and a false state of property, to make presents of gold and silver stuffs, as a kind of symbolical sin-offering, or payment of black-mail.

On one hand, you have an almost Puritanical warning against symbolic sin-offerings, and on the other an insistent poetic generosity. Though the closing paragraph of the essay re-states his cautions about material gifting, he begins with “I fear to breathe any treason against the majesty of love, which is the genius and god of gifts, and to whom we must not affect to prescribe.” Reading this, I can’t help but wonder if Emerson would rail against today’s commercialized Christmas shopping season, and then enjoy losing himself in buying gifts, no matter how stern his opinions. What do you think?

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Posted in Ralph Waldo Emerson


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