Saturday, November 11, 2006

Emerson Sails to England and Notes the Importance of Good Reading Material

This week's Emerson wasn't quite as fun as last week's when he related his first trip to England and his visits to famous authors, but it was, nonetheless, enjoyable. Chapter two is about sailing to England--from Boston to Liverpool--on his second trip there. He was more famous by then and was invited by a group to come and do a circuit of lectures. He didn't want to go, he admits "I am not a good traveller, nor have I found that long journeys yield a fair share of reasonable hours." But the group persisted and he was persuaded. He set sail aboard the ship Washington Irving on October 5, 1847. The ship was a sailing ship, not one of the faster and more expensive steamships that had also begun taking passengers across the pond. In good Emerson fashion, he does not keep to himself or his cabin but has to talk to everyone and find out about sailing and the ship and what it is like to be a sailor. He writes about how ships are personified and how each has her own character. He marvels at the phosphorescence of the ocean, how the mate describes the phosphoric insects as "shaped like a Carolina potato," and how he is told that the effect is so bright along the equator you could read small print by it. Then there is the "confinement, cold, motion, noise and odor" of the ship which he says he could do perfectly fine without but is impossible to avoid. Their ship has a stowaway boy who the sailors put to work and make one of their own. The mate tells Emerson that nine out of ten sailors began their careers as runaways. Emerson is also a reader and notes that

a good rule in every journey [is] to provide some piece of liberal study to rescue the hours...Classics which at home are drowsily read, have a strange charm in a country inn, or in the transom of a merchant brig. I remember that some of the happiest and most valuable hours I have owed to books, passed, many years ago, on shipboard. The worst impediment I have found at sea is the want of light in the cabin.
The ship has a small library offering the books of Basil Hall, Dumas, Dickens, Bulwer, Balzac and Sand. Finally they arrive in England. In chapter three Emerson describes the land as a garden, a "singular perfection," "conveniently small," and delightfully various, in effect a "miniature of Europe" with plains, forests, marshes, rivers, seashores and mountains on a "sufficient scale to fill the eye and touch the imagination." He declares that to "see England well needs a hundred years" so "stuffed full" it is with "towns, towers, churches, villas, palaces, hospitals and charity houses." And he finds Britain to be most felicitously situated "right in the heart of the modern world." Emerson's only complaint is that the country is so industrious that the sky is too dark and "it strains the eyes to read and write." Coal smoke and soot darken the day and discolor even the sheep. And he wonders how much the consumption of coal has altered the climate on the island. He would probably be glad to know that modern technologies have pretty much cleared up the skies and a good deal of the famous London fog as well. Since he didn't like the fog he would, no doubt, be pleased. Emerson's writing remains relaxed and very reporterly. I keep waiting for him to toss out a theory or make some kind of argument, but he hasn't yet. Maybe he is saving it for chapter four, which is next week's reading: Race