Max Müller's Recollections of Emerson, Lowell and Holmes

by Edwin Watts Chubb

Living at Oxford, writes Max Müller, I have had the good fortune of receiving visits from Emerson, Dr. Wendell Holmes, and Lowell, to speak of the brightest stars only. Each of them stayed at our house for several days, so that I could take them in at leisure, while others had to be taken at one gulp, often between one train and the next. Oxford has a great attraction for all Americans, and it is a pleasure to see how completely they feel at home in the memories of the place. The days when Emerson, Wendell Holmes, and Lowell were staying with us, the breakfasts and luncheons, the teas and dinners, and the delightful walks through college halls, chapels and gardens are possessions forever....

I do not wonder that philosophers by profession had nothing to say to his (Emerson's) essays because they did not seem to advance their favorite inquiries beyond the point they had reached before. But there were many people, particularly in America, to whom these rhapsodies did more good than any learned disquisitions or carefully arranged sermons. There is in them what attracts us so much in the ancients, freshness, directness, self-confidence, unswerving loyalty to truth, as far as they could see it. He had no one to fear, no one to please. Socrates or Plato, if suddenly brought to life in America, might have spoken like Emerson, and the effect produced by Emerson was certainly like that produced by Socrates in olden times.

What Emerson's personal charm must have been in earlier life we can only conjecture from the rapturous praises bestowed on him by his friends, even during his lifetime.... And his influence was not confined to the American mind. I have watched it growing in England. I can still remember the time when even experienced judges spoke of his essays as mere declamations, as poetical rhapsodies, as poor imitations of Carlyle. Then gradually one man after another found something in Emerson which was not to be found in Carlyle, particularly his loving heart, his tolerant spirit, his comprehensive sympathy with all that was or was meant to be good and true, even though to his own mind it was neither the one nor the other....

Another eminent American who often honored my quiet home at Oxford was James Russell Lowell, for a long time United States minister in England. He was a professor and at the same time a politician and a man of the world. Few essays are so brimful of interesting facts and original reflections as his essays entitled Among my Books.

Lowell's conversation was inexhaustible, his information astonishing. Pleasant as he was, even as an antagonist, he would occasionally lose his temper and use very emphatic language. I was once sitting next to him when I heard him stagger his neighbor, a young lady, by bursting out with, "But, madam, I do not accept your major premise!" Poor thing, she evidently was not accustomed to such language, and not acquainted with that terrible term. She collapsed, evidently quite at a loss as to what gift on her part Mr. Lowell declined to accept.

Sometimes even the most harmless remark about America would call forth very sharp replies from him. Everybody knows that the salaries paid by America to her diplomatic staff are insufficient, and no one knew it better than he himself. But when the remark was made in his presence that the United States treated their diplomatic representatives stingily, he fired up, and discoursed most eloquently on the advantages of high thoughts and humble living....

I lost the pleasure of shaking hands with Longfellow during his stay in England. Though I have been more of a fixture at Oxford than most professors, I was away during the vacation when he paid his visit to our university, and thus lost seeing a poet to whom I felt strongly attracted, not only by the general spirit of his poetry, which was steeped in German thought, but as the translator of several of my father's poems.

I was more fortunate with Dr. Wendell Holmes. His arrival in England had been proclaimed beforehand, and one naturally remained at home in order to be allowed to receive him. His hundred days in England were one uninterrupted triumphal progress. When he arrived at Liverpool he found about three hundred invitations waiting for him. Though he was accompanied by a most active and efficient daughter, he had at once to engage a secretary to answer this deluge of letters. And though he was past eighty, he never spared himself, and was always ready to see and to be seen. He was not only an old, but a ripe and mellow man. There was no subject on which one could touch which was not familiar to the autocrat of the breakfast table. His thoughts and his words were ready, and one felt that it was not for the first time that the subject had been carefully thought out and talked out by him. That he should have been able to stand all the fatigue of the journey and the constant claims on his ready wit seemed to me marvelous. I had the pleasure of showing him the old buildings of Oxford. He seemed to know them all, and had something to ask and say about every one. When we came to Magdalen College, he wanted to see and to measure the elms. He was very proud of some elms in America, and he had actually brought some string with which he had measured the largest tree he knew in his own country. He proceeded to measure one of our finest elms in Magdalen College, and when he found that it was larger than his American giant, he stood before it admiring it, without a single word of envy or disappointment.

I had, however, a great fright while he was staying at our house. He had evidently done too much, and after our first dinner party he had feverish shivering fits, and the doctor whom I sent for declared at once that he must keep perfectly quiet in bed, and attend no more parties of any kind. This was a great disappointment to myself and to a great many of my friends. But at his time of life the doctor's warning could not be disregarded, and I had, at all events, the satisfaction of sending him off to Cambridge safe and sound. I had him several days quite to myself, and there were few subjects which we did not discuss. We mostly agreed, but even where we did not, it was a real pleasure to differ from him. We discussed the greatest and the smallest questions, and on every one he had some wise and telling remarks to pour out. I remember one conversation while we were sitting at an old wainscoted room at All Souls', ornamented with the arms of former fellows. It had been at first the library of the college, then one of the fellows' rooms, and lastly a lecture room. We were deep in the old question of the true relation between the divine and human in man, and here again, as on all other questions, everything seemed to be clear and evident to his mind. Perhaps I ought not to repeat what he said to me when we parted: "I have had much talk with people in England; with you I have had a real conversation." We understood each other and wondered how it was that men so often misunderstood one another. I told him that it was the badness of our language, he thought it was the badness of our tempers. Perhaps we were both right. With him again good-by was good-by for life, and at such moments one wonders indeed how kindred souls became separated, and one feels startled and repelled at the thought that, such as they were on earth, they can never meet again. And yet there is continuity in the world, there is no flaw, no break anywhere, and what has been will surely be again, though how it will be we cannot know, and if only we trust in the wisdom that pervades the whole universe, we need not know.