Essays Before a Sonata

Author: Charles Ives


A devotion to an end tends to undervalue the means. A power of revelation may make one more concerned about his perceptions of the soul’s nature than the way of their disclosure. Emerson is more interested in what he perceives than in his expression of it. He is a creator whose intensity is consumed more with the substance of his creation than with the manner by which he shows it to others. Like Petrarch he seems more a discoverer of Beauty than an imparter of it. But these discoveries, these devotions to aims, these struggles toward the absolute, do not these in themselves, impart something, if not all, of their own unity and coherence—which is not received, as such, at first, nor is foremost in their expression. It must be remembered that "truth" was what Emerson was after—not strength of outline, or even beauty except in so far as they might reveal themselves, naturally, in his explorations towards the infinite. To think hard and deeply and to say what is thought, regardless of consequences, may produce a first impression, either of great translucence, or of great muddiness, but in the latter there may be hidden possibilities. Some accuse Brahms’ orchestration of being muddy. This may be a good name for a first impression of it. But if it should seem less so, he might not be saying what he thought. The mud may be a form of sincerity which demands that the heart be translated, rather than handed around through the pit. A clearer scoring might have lowered the thought. Carlyle told Emerson that some of his paragraphs didn’t cohere. Emerson wrote by sentences or phrases, rather than by logical sequence. His underlying plan of work seems based on the large unity of a series of particular aspects of a subject, rather than on the continuity of its expression. As thoughts surge to his mind, he fills the heavens with them, crowds them in, if necessary, but seldom arranges them, along the ground first. Among class-room excuses for Emerson’s imperfect coherence and lack of unity, is one that remembers that his essays were made from lecture notes. His habit, often in lecturing, was to compile his ideas as they came to him on a general subject, in scattered notes, and when on the platform, to trust to the mood of the occasion, to assemble them. This seems a specious explanation, though true to fact. Vagueness, is at times, an indication of nearness to a perfect truth. The definite glory of Bernard of Cluny’s Celestial City, is more beautiful than true—probably. Orderly reason does not always have to be a visible part of all great things. Logic may possibly require that unity means something ascending in selfevident relation to the parts and to the whole, with no ellipsis in the ascent. But reason may permit, even demand an ellipsis, and genius may not need the self-evident part. In fact, these parts may be the "blind-spots" in the progress of unity. They may be filled with little but repetition. "Nature loves analogy and hates repetition." Botany reveals evolution not permanence. An apparent confusion if lived with long enough may become orderly. Emerson was not writing for lazy minds, though one of the keenest of his academic friends said that, he (Emerson) could not explain many of his own pages. But why should he!—he explained them when he discovered them—the moment before he spoke or wrote them. A rare experience of a moment at daybreak, when something in nature seems to reveal all consciousness, cannot be explained at noon. Yet it is a part of the day’s unity. At evening, nature is absorbed by another experience. She dislikes to explain as much as to repeat. It is conceivable, that what is unified form to the author, or composer, may of necessity be formless to his audience. A home-run will cause more unity in the grand stand than in the season’s batting average. If a composer once starts to compromise, his work will begin to drag on HIM. Before the end is reached, his inspiration has all gone up in sounds pleasing to his audience, ugly to him—sacrificed for the first acoustic—an opaque clarity, a picture painted for its hanging. Easy unity, like easy virtue, is easier to describe, when judged from its lapses than from its constancy. When the infidel admits God is great, he means only: "I am lazy—it is easier to talk than live." Ruskin also says: "Suppose I like the finite curves best, who shall say I’m right or wrong? No one. It is simply a question of experience." You may not be able to experience a symphony, even after twenty performances. Initial coherence today may be dullness tomorrow probably because formal or outward unity depends so much on repetition, sequences, antitheses, paragraphs with inductions and summaries. Macaulay had that kind of unity. Can you read him today? Emerson rather goes out and shouts: "I’m thinking of the sun’s glory today and I’ll let his light shine through me. I’ll say any damn thing that this inspires me with." Perhaps there are flashes of light, still in cipher, kept there by unity, the code of which the world has not yet discovered. The unity of one sentence inspires the unity of the whole—though its physique is as ragged as the Dolomites.

Intense lights—vague shadows—great pillars in a horizon are difficult things to nail signboards to. Emerson’s outward-inward qualities make him hard to classify, but easy for some. There are many who like to say that he—even all the Concord men—are intellectuals. Perhaps—but intellectuals who wear their brains nearer the heart than some of their critics. It is as dangerous to determine a characteristic by manner as by mood. Emerson is a pure intellectual to those who prefer to take him as literally as they can. There are reformers, and in "the form" lies their interest, who prefer to stand on the plain, and then insist they see from the summit. Indolent legs supply the strength of eye for their inspiration. The intellect is never a whole. It is where the soul finds things. It is often the only track to the overvalues. It appears a whole—but never becomes one even in the stock exchange, or the convent, or the laboratory. In the cleverest criminal, it is but a way to a low ideal. It can never discard the other part of its duality—the soul or the void where the soul ought to be. So why classify a quality always so relative that it is more an agency than substance; a quality that disappears when classified. "The life of the All must stream through us to make the man and the moment great." A sailor with a precious cargo doesn’t analyze the water. Because Emerson had generations of Calvinistic sermons in his blood, some cataloguers, would localize or provincialize him, with the sternness of the old Puritan mind. They make him THAT, hold him THERE. They lean heavily on what they find of the above influence in him. They won’t follow the rivers in his thought and the play of his soul. And their cousin cataloguers put him in another pigeon-hole. They label him "ascetic." They translate his outward serenity into an impression of severity. But truth keeps one from being hysterical. Is a demagogue a friend of the people because he will lie to them to make them cry and raise false hopes? A search for perfect truths throws out a beauty more spiritual than sensuous. A sombre dignity of style is often confused by underimagination and by surface-sentiment, with austerity. If Emerson’s manner is not always beautiful in accordance with accepted standards, why not accept a few other standards? He is an ascetic, in that he refuses to compromise content with manner. But a real ascetic is an extremist who has but one height. Thus may come the confusion, of one who says that Emerson carries him high, but then leaves him always at THAT height—no higher—a confusion, mistaking a latent exultation for an ascetic reserve. The rules of Thorough Bass can be applied to his scale of flight no more than they can to the planetary system. Jadassohn, if Emerson were literally a composer, could no more analyze his harmony than a guide-to-Boston could. A microscope might show that he uses chords of the 9th, 1lth, or the 99th, but a lens far different tells us they are used with different aims from those of Debussy. Emerson is definite in that his art is based on something stronger than the amusing or at its best the beguiling of a few mortals. If he uses a sensuous chord, it is not for sensual ears. His harmonies may float, if the wind blows in that direction, through a voluptuous atmosphere, but he has not Debussy’s fondness for trying to blow a sensuous atmosphere from his own voluptuous cheeks. And so he is an ascetic! There is a distance between jowl and soul—and it is not measured by the fraction of an inch between Concord and Paris. On the other hand, if one thinks that his harmony contains no dramatic chords, because no theatrical sound is heard, let him listen to the finale of "Success," or of "Spiritual Laws," or to some of the poems, "Brahma" or "Sursum Corda," for example. Of a truth his Codas often seem to crystallize in a dramatic, though serene and sustained way, the truths of his subject—they become more active and intense, but quieter and deeper.

Then there comes along another set of cataloguers. They put him down as a "classicist," or a romanticist, or an eclectic. Because a prophet is a child of romanticism—because revelation is classic, because eclecticism quotes from eclectic Hindu Philosophy, a more sympathetic cataloguer may say, that Emerson inspires courage of the quieter kind and delight of the higher kind.

The same well-bound school teacher who told the boys that Thoreau was a naturalist because he didn’t like to work, puts down Emerson as a "classic," and Hawthorne as a "romantic." A loud voice made this doubly TRUE and SURE to be on the examination paper. But this teacher of "truth AND dogma" apparently forgot that there is no such thing as "classicism or romanticism." One has but to go to the various definitions of these to know that. If you go to a classic definition you know what a true classic is, and similarly a "true romantic." But if you go to both, you have an algebraic formula, x = x, a cancellation, an apercu, and hence satisfying; if you go to all definitions you have another formula x > x, a destruction, another apercu, and hence satisfying. Professor Beers goes to the dictionary (you wouldn’t think a college professor would be as reckless as that). And so he can say that "romantic" is "pertaining to the style of the Christian and popular literature of the Middle Ages," a Roman Catholic mode of salvation (not this definition but having a definition). And so Prof. B. can say that Walter Scott is a romanticist (and Billy Phelps a classic—sometimes). But for our part Dick Croker is a classic and job a romanticist. Another professor, Babbitt by name, links up Romanticism with Rousseau, and charges against it many of man’s troubles. He somehow likes to mix it up with sin. He throws saucers at it, but in a scholarly, interesting, sincere, and accurate way. He uncovers a deformed foot, gives it a name, from which we are allowed to infer that the covered foot is healthy and named classicism. But no Christian Scientist can prove that Christ never had a stomachache. The Architecture of Humanism [Footnote: Geoffrey Scott (Constable & Co.)] tells us that "romanticism consists of...a poetic sensibility towards the remote, as such." But is Plato a classic or towards the remote? Is Classicism a poor relation of time—not of man? Is a thing classic or romantic because it is or is not passed by that biologic—that indescribable stream-ofchange going on in all life? Let us settle the point for "good," and say that a thing is classic if it is thought of in terms of the past and romantic if thought of in terms of the future—and a thing thought of in terms of the present is—well, that is impossible! Hence, we allow ourselves to say, that Emerson is neither a classic or romantic but both—and both not only at different times in one essay, but at the same time in one sentence—in one word. And must we admit it, so is everyone. If you don’t believe it, there must be some true definition you haven’t seen. Chopin shows a few things that Bach forgot—but he is not eclectic, they say. Brahms shows many things that Bach did remember, so he is an eclectic, they say. Leoncavallo writes pretty verses and Palestrina is a priest, and Confucius inspires Scriabin. A choice is freedom. Natural selection is but one of Nature’s tunes. "All melodious poets shall be hoarse as street ballads, when once the penetrating keynote of nature and spirit is sounded—the earth-beat, sea-beat, heart-beat, which make the tune to which the sun rolls, and the globule of blood and the sap of the trees."

An intuitive sense of values, tends to make Emerson use social, political, and even economic phenomena, as means of expression, as the accidental notes in his scale—rather than as ends, even lesser ends. In the realization that they are essential parts of the greater values, he does not confuse them with each other. He remains undisturbed except in rare instances, when the lower parts invade and seek to displace the higher. He was not afraid to say that "there are laws which should not be too well obeyed." To him, slavery was not a social or a political or an economic question, nor even one of morals or of ethics, but one of universal spiritual freedom only. It mattered little what party, or what platform, or what law of commerce governed men. Was man governing himself? Social error and virtue were but relative. This habit of not being hindered by using, but still going beyond the great truths of living, to the greater truths of life gave force to his influence over the materialists. Thus he seems to us more a regenerator than a reformer—more an interpreter of life’s reflexes than of life’s facts, perhaps. Here he appears greater than Voltaire or Rousseau and helped, perhaps, by the centrality of his conceptions, he could arouse the deeper spiritual and moral emotions, without causing his listeners to distort their physical ones. To prove that mind is over matter, he doesn’t place matter over mind. He is not like the man who, because he couldn’t afford both, gave up metaphysics for an automobile, and when he ran over a man blamed metaphysics. He would not have us get over-excited about physical disturbance but have it accepted as a part of any progress in culture, moral, spiritual or aesthetic. If a poet retires to the mountain-side, to avoid the vulgar unculture of men, and their physical disturbance, so that he may better catch a nobler theme for his symphony, Emerson tells him that "man’s culture can spare nothing, wants all material, converts all impediments into instruments, all enemies into power." The latest product of man’s culture—the aeroplane, then sails o’er the mountain and instead of an inspiration—a spray of tobacco-juice falls on the poet. "Calm yourself, Poet!" says Emerson, "culture will convert furies into muses and hells into benefit. This wouldn’t have befallen you if it hadn’t been for the latest transcendent product of the genius of culture" (we won’t say what kind), a consummation of the dreams of poets, from David to Tennyson. Material progress is but a means of expression. Realize that man’s coarseness has its future and will also be refined in the gradual uprise. Turning the world upside down may be one of its lesser incidents. It is the cause, seldom the effect that interests Emerson. He can help the cause—the effect must help itself. He might have said to those who talk knowingly about the cause of war—or of the last war, and who would trace it down through long vistas of cosmic, political, moral evolution and what not—he might say that the cause of it was as simple as that of any dogfight—the "hog-mind" of the minority against the universal mind, the majority. The un-courage of the former fears to believe in the innate goodness of mankind. The cause is always the same, the effect different by chance; it is as easy for a hog, even a stupid one, to step on a box of matches under a tenement with a thousand souls, as under an empty bird-house. The many kindly burn up for the few; for the minority is selfish and the majority generous. The minority has ruled the world for physical reasons. The physical reasons are being removed by this "converting culture." Webster will not much longer have to grope for the mind of his constituency. The majority—the people—will need no intermediary. Governments will pass from the representative to the direct. The hog-mind is the principal thing that is making this transition slow. The biggest prop to the hog-mind is pride—pride in property and the power property gives. Ruskin backs this up—"it is at the bottom of all great mistakes; other passions do occasional good, but whenever pride puts in its is all over with the artist." The hog-mind and its handmaidens in disorder, superficial brightness, fundamental dullness, then cowardice and suspicion—all a part of the minority (the non-people) the antithesis of everything called soul, spirit, Christianity, truth, freedom—will give way more and more to the great primal truths—that there is more good than evil, that God is on the side of the majority (the people)—that he is not enthusiastic about the minority (the non-people)—that he has made men greater than man, that he has made the universal mind and the over-soul greater and a part of the individual mind and soul—that he has made the Divine a part of all.

Again, if a picture in economics is before him, Emerson plunges down to the things that ARE because they are BETTER than they are. If there is a row, which there usually is, between the ebb and flood tide, in the material ocean—for example, between the theory of the present order of competition, and of attractive and associated labor, he would sympathize with Ricardo, perhaps, that labor is the measure of value, but "embrace, as do generous minds, the proposition of labor shared by all." He would go deeper than political economics, strain out the self-factor from both theories, and make the measure of each pretty much the same, so that the natural (the majority) would win, but not to the disadvantage of the minority (the artificial) because this has disappeared—it is of the majority. John Stuart Mill’s political economy is losing value because it was written by a mind more "a banker’s" than a "poet’s." The poet knows that there is no such thing as the perpetual law of supply and demand, perhaps not of demand and supply—or of the wage-fund, or price-level, or increments earned or unearned; and that the existence of personal or public property may not prove the existence of God.

Emerson seems to use the great definite interests of humanity to express the greater, indefinite, spiritual values—to fulfill what he can in his realms of revelation. Thus, it seems that so close a relation exists between his content and expression, his substance and manner, that if he were more definite in the latter he would lose power in the former,—perhaps some of those occasional flashes would have been unexpressed—flashes that have gone down through the world and will flame on through the ages— flashes that approach as near the Divine as Beethoven in his most inspired moments—flashes of transcendent beauty, of such universal import, that they may bring, of a sudden, some intimate personal experience, and produce the same indescribable effect that comes in rare instances, to men, from some common sensation. In the early morning of a Memorial Day, a boy is awakened by martial music—a village band is marching down the street, and as the strains of Reeves’ majestic Seventh Regiment March come nearer and nearer, he seems of a sudden translated—a moment of vivid power comes, a consciousness of material nobility, an exultant something gleaming with the possibilities of this life, an assurance that nothing is impossible, and that the whole world lies at his feet. But as the band turns the corner, at the soldiers’ monument, and the march steps of the Grand Army become fainter and fainter, the boy’s vision slowly vanishes—his "world" becomes less and less probable—but the experience ever lies within him in its reality. Later in life, the same boy hears the Sabbath morning bell ringing out from the white steeple at the "Center," and as it draws him to it, through the autumn fields of sumac and asters, a Gospel hymn of simple devotion comes out to him—"There’s a wideness in God’s mercy"—an instant suggestion of that Memorial Day morning comes—but the moment is of deeper import—there is no personal exultation—no intimate world vision—no magnified personal hope—and in their place a profound sense of a spiritual truth,—a sin within reach of forgiveness—and as the hymn voices die away, there lies at his feet—not the world, but the figure of the Saviour—he sees an unfathomable courage, an immortality for the lowest, the vastness in humility, the kindness of the human heart, man’s noblest strength, and he knows that God is nothing—nothing but love! Whence cometh the wonder of a moment? From sources we know not. But we do know that from obscurity, and from this higher Orpheus come measures of sphere melodies [note: Paraphrased from a passage in Sartor Resartus.] flowing in wild, native tones, ravaging the souls of men, flowing now with thousand-fold accompaniments and rich symphonies through all our hearts; modulating and divinely leading them.


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Chicago: Charles Ives, "2," Essays Before a Sonata, ed. Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934 in Essays Before a Sonata (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909), Original Sources, accessed May 29, 2024,

MLA: Ives, Charles. "2." Essays Before a Sonata, edited by Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934, in Essays Before a Sonata, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909, Original Sources. 29 May. 2024.

Harvard: Ives, C, '2' in Essays Before a Sonata, ed. . cited in 1909, Essays Before a Sonata, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 29 May 2024, from