English Traits by Ralph Waldo Emerson

In 1847 Emerson (see Vol. XIII, p. 339) made his second visit to England, this time on a lecturing tour. An outcome of the visit was "English Traits," which was first published in 1856. "I leave England," he wrote on his return home, "with an increased respect for the Englishman. His stuff or substance seems to be the best in the world." "English Traits" deals with a series of definite subjects which do not admit of much philosophic digression, and there is, therefore, an absence of the flashes of spiritual and poetic insight which gave Emerson his charm.

I.—The Anchorage of Britain

I did not go very willingly to England. I am not a good traveller, nor have I found that long journeys yield a fair share of reasonable hours. I find a sea-life an acquired taste, like that for tomatoes and olives. The sea is masculine, the type of active strength. Look what egg-shells are drifting all over it, each one filled with men in ecstasies of terror alternating with cockney conceit, as it is rough or smooth. But to the geologist the sea is the only firmament; it is the land that is in perpetual flux and change. It has been said that the King of England would consult his dignity by giving audience to foreign ambassadors in the cabin of a man-of-war; and I think the white path of an Atlantic ship is the right avenue to the palace-front of this seafaring people.

England is a garden. Under an ash-coloured sky, the fields have been combed and rolled till they appear to have been finished with a pencil instead of a plough. Rivers, hills, valleys, the sea itself, feel the hand of a master. The problem of the traveller landing in Liverpool is, Why England is England? What are the elements of that power which the English hold over other nations? If there be one test of national genius universally accepted, it is success; and if there be one successful country in the universe that country is England.

The culture of the day, the thoughts and aims of men, are English thoughts and aims. A nation considerable for a thousand years has in the last centuries obtained the ascendant, and stamped the knowledge, activity, and power of mankind with its impress.

The territory has a singular perfection. Neither hot nor cold, there is no hour in the whole year when one cannot work. The only drawback to industrial conveniency is the darkness of the sky. The night and day are too nearly of a colour.

England resembles a ship in shape, and, if it were one, its best admiral could not have anchored it in a more judicious or effective position. The shop-keeping nation, to use a shop word, has a good stand. It is anchored at the side of Europe, and right in the heart of the modern world.

In variety of surface Britain is a miniature of Europe, as if Nature had given it an artificial completeness. It is as if Nature had held counsel with herself and said: "My Romans are gone. To build my new empire I will choose a rude race, all masculine, with brutish strength. Sharp and temperate northern breezes shall blow to keep them alive and alert. The sea shall disjoin the people from others and knit them by a fierce nationality. Long time will I keep them on their feet, by poverty, border-wars, seafaring, sea-risks, and stimulus of gain." A singular coincidence to this geographic centrality is the spiritual centrality which Emanuel Swedenborg ascribes to the people: "The English nation are in the centre of all Christians, because they have an interior intellectual light. This light they derive from the liberty of speaking and writing, and thereby of thinking."

II.—Racial Characteristics

The British Empire is reckoned to contain a fifth of the population of the globe; but what makes the British census proper important is the quality of the units that compose it. They are free, forcible men in a country where life has reached the greatest value. They have sound bodies and supreme endurance in war and in labour. They have assimilating force, since they are imitated by their foreign subjects; and they are still aggressive and propagandist, enlarging the dominion of their arts and liberty.

The English composite character betrays a mixed origin. Everything English is a fusion of distant and antagonistic elements. The language is mixed; the currents of thought are counter; contemplation and practical skill; active intellect and dead conservatism; world-wide enterprise and devoted use and wont; a country of extremes—nothing in it can be praised without damning exceptions, and nothing denounced without salvos of cordial praise.

The sources from which tradition derives its stock are mainly three: First, the Celtic—a people of hidden and precarious genius; second, the Germans, a people about whom, in the old empire, the rumour ran there was never any that meddled with them that repented it not; and, third, the Norsemen and the children out of France. Twenty thousand thieves landed at Hastings. These founders of the House of Lords were greedy and ferocious dragoons, sons of greedy and ferocious pirates. Such, however, is the illusion of antiquity and wealth that decent and dignified men now existing actually boast their descent from these filthy thieves.

As soon as this land, thus geographically posted, got a hardy people into it, they could not help becoming the sailors and factors of the world. The English, at the present day, have great vigour of body. They are round, ruddy, and handsome, with a tendency to stout and powerful frames. It is the fault of their forms that they grow stocky, but in all ages they are a handsome race, and please by an expression blending good nature, valour, refinement, and an uncorrupt youth in the face of manhood.

The English are rather manly than warlike. They delight in the antagonism which combines in one person the extremes of courage and tenderness. Nelson, dying at Trafalgar, says, "Kiss me, Hardy," and turns to sleep. Even for their highwaymen this virtue is claimed, and Robin Hood is the gentlest thief. But they know where their war-dogs lie, and Cromwell, Blake, Marlborough, Nelson, and Wellington are not to be trifled with.

They have vigorous health and last well into middle and old age. They have more constitutional energy than any other people. They box, run, shoot, ride, row, and sail from Pole to Pole. They are the most voracious people of prey that have ever existed, and they have written the game-books of all countries.

These Saxons are the hands of mankind—the world's wealth-makers. They have that temperament which resists every means employed to make its possessor subservient to others. The English game is main force to main force, the planting of foot to foot, fair play and an open field—a rough tug without trick or dodging till one or both comes to pieces. They hate craft and subtlety; and when they have pounded each other to a poultice they will shake hands and be friends for the remainder of their lives.

Their realistic logic of coupling means to ends has given them the leadership of the modern world. Montesquieu said: "No people have true commonsense but those who are born in England." This commonsense is a perception of laws that cannot be stated, or that are learned only by practice, with allowance for friction. The bias of the nation is a passion for utility. They are heavy at the fine arts, but adroit at the coarse. The Frenchman invented the ruffle, the Englishman added the shirt. They think him the best-dressed man whose dress is so fit for his use that you cannot notice or remember to describe it.

In war the Englishman looks to his means; but, conscious that no better race of men exists, they rely most on the simplest means. They fundamentally believe that the best stratagem in naval war is to bring your ship alongside of the enemy's ship, and bring all your guns to bear on him until you or he go to the bottom. This is the old fashion which never goes out of fashion.

Tacitus said of the Germans: "Powerful only in sudden efforts, they are impatient of toil and labour." This highly destined race, if it had not somewhere added the chamber of patience to its brain, would not have built London. I know not from which of the tribes and temperaments that went to the composition of the people this tenacity was supplied, but they clinch every nail they drive. "To show capacity," a Frenchman described as the end of speech in a debate. "No," said an Englishman, "but to advance the business."

The nation sits in the immense city they have builded—a London extended into every man's mind. The modern world is theirs. They have made and make it day by day. In every path of practical ability they have gone even with the best. There is no department of literature, of science, or of useful art in which they have not produced a first-rate book. It is England whose opinion is waited for. English trade exists to make well everything which is ill-made elsewhere. Steam is almost an Englishman.

One secret of the power of this people is their mutual good understanding. Not only good minds are born among them, but all the people have good minds. An electric touch by any of their national ideas melts them into one family. The chancellor carries England on his mace, the midshipman at the point of his dirk, the smith on his hammer, the cook in the bowl of his spoon, and the sailor times his oars to "God save the King!"

I find the Englishman to be him of all men who stands firmest in his shoes. The one thing the English value is pluck. The word is not beautiful, but on the quality they signify by it the nation is unanimous. The cabmen have it, the merchants have it, the bishops have it, the women have it, the journals have it. They require you to dare to be of your own opinion, and they hate the practical cowards who cannot answer directly Yes or No.

Their vigour appears in the incuriosity and stony neglect each of the other. Each man walks, eats, drinks, shaves, dresses, gesticulates, and in every manner acts and suffers, without reference to the bystanders—he is really occupied with his own affairs, and does not think of them. In short, every one of these islanders is an island himself, safe, tranquil, incommunicable.

Born in a harsh and wet climate, which keeps him indoors whenever he is at rest, and, being of an affectionate and loyal temper, the Englishman dearly loves his home. If he is rich he builds a hall, and brings to it trophies of the adventures and exploits of the family, till it becomes a museum of heirlooms. England produces, under favourable conditions of ease and culture, the finest women in the world. Nothing can be more delicate without being fantastical, than the courtship and mutual carriage of the sexes. Domesticity is the taproot which enables the nation to branch wide and high. In an aristocratical country like England, not the trial by jury, but the dinner is the capital institution. It is the mode of doing honour to a stranger to ask him to eat.

The practical power of the English rests on their sincerity. Alfred, whom the affection of the nation makes the type of their race, is called by a writer at the Norman Conquest, the "truth-speaker." The phrase of the lowest of the people is "honour-bright," and their praise, "his word is as good as his bond." They confide in each other—English believes in English. Madame de StaŽl says that the English irritated Napoleon mainly because they have found out how to unite success with honesty. The ruling passion of an Englishman is a terror of humbug.

The English race are reputed morose. They have enjoyed a reputation for taciturnity for six or seven hundred years. Cold, repressive manners prevail, and there is a wooden deadness in certain Englishmen which surpasses all other countrymen. In the power of saying rude truth no men rival them. They are proud and private, and even if disposed to recreation will avoid an open garden. They are full of coarse strength, butcher's meat, and sound sleep. They are good lovers, good haters, slow but obstinate admirers, and very much steeped in their temperament, like men hardly awaked from deep sleep which they enjoy.

The English have a mild aspect, and ringing, cheerful voice. Of absolute stoutness of spirit, no nation has more or better examples. They are good at storming redoubts, at boarding frigates, at dying in the last ditch, or any desperate service which has daylight and honour in it. They stoutly carry into every nook and corner of the earth their turbulent sense of inquiry, leaving no lie uncontradicted, no pretension unexamined.

They are very conscious of their advantageous position in history. I suppose that all men of English blood in America, Europe, or Asia, have a secret feeling of joy that they are not Frenchmen. They only are not foreigners. In short, I am afraid that the English nature is so rank and aggressive as to be a little incompatible with any other. The world is not wide enough for two. More intellectual than other races, when they live with other races they do not take their language, but bestow their own. They subsidise other nations, and are not subsidised. They proselytise and are not proselytised. They assimilate other nations to themselves and are not assimilated.

III.—Wealth, Aristocracy, and Religion

There is no country in which so absolute a homage is paid to wealth. There is a mixture of religion in it. The Englishman esteems wealth a final certificate. He believes that every man has himself to thank if he does not mend his condition. To pay their debts is their national point of honour. The British armies are solvent, and pay for what they take. The British empire is solvent. It is their maxim that the weight of taxes must be calculated not by what is taken but by what is left. They say without shame: "I cannot afford it." Such is their enterprise, that there is enough wealth in England to support the entire population in idleness one year. The proudest result of this creation of wealth is that great and refined forces are put at the disposal of the private citizen, and in the social world the Englishman to-day has the best lot. I much prefer the condition of an English gentleman of the better class to that of any potentate in Europe.

The feudal character of the English state, now that it is getting obsolete, glares a little in contrast with democratic tendencies. But the frame of society is aristocratic. Every man who becomes rich buys land, and does what he can to fortify the nobility, into which he hopes to rise. The taste of the people is conservative. They are proud of the castles, language, and symbols of chivalry. English history is aristocracy with the doors open. Who has courage and faculty, let him come in.

All nobility in its beginnings was somebody's natural superiority. The things these English have done were not done without peril of life, nor without wisdom of conduct, and the first hands, it may be presumed, were often challenged to show their right to their honours, or yield them to better men.

Comity, social talent, and fine manners no doubt have had their part also. The lawyer, the farmer, the silk mercer lies perdu under the coronet, and winks to the antiquary to say nothing. They were nobody's sons who did some piece of work at a nice moment.

The English names are excellent—they spread an atmosphere of legendary melody over the land. Older than epics and histories, which clothe a nation, this undershirt sits close to the body. What stores of primitive and savage observation it infolds! Cambridge is the bridge of the Cam; Sheffield the field of the river Sheaf; Leicester the camp of Lear; Waltham is Strong Town; Radcliffe is Red Cliff, and so on—a sincerity and use in naming very striking to an American, whose country is whitewashed all over with unmeaning names, the cast-off clothes of the country from which the emigrants came, or named at a pinch from a psalm tune.

In seeing old castles and cathedrals I sometimes say: "This was built by another and a better race than any that now look on it." Their architecture still glows with faith in immortality. Good churches are not built by bad men; at least, there must be probity and enthusiasm somewhere in society.

England felt the full heat of the Christianity which fermented Europe, and, like the chemistry of fire, drew a firm line between barbarism and culture. When the Saxon instinct had secured a service in the vernacular tongue the Church was the tutor and university of the people.

Now the Anglican Church is marked by the grace and good sense of its forms; by the manly grace of its clergy. The gospel it preaches is "By taste are ye saved." The religion of England is part of good breeding. When you see on the Continent the well-dressed Englishman come into his ambassador's chapel and put his face for silent prayer into his well-brushed hat, you cannot help feeling how much national pride prays with him, and the religion of a gentleman.

At this moment the Church is much to be pitied. If a bishop meets an intelligent gentleman and reads fatal interrogation in his eyes, he has no resource but to take wine with him.

But the religion of England—is it the Established Church? No. Is it the sects? No. Where dwells the religion? Tell me first where dwells electricity, or motion, or thought? They do not dwell or stay at all. Electricity is passing, glancing, gesticular; it is a traveller, a newness, a secret. Yet, if religion be the doing of all good, and for its sake the suffering of all evil, that divine secret has existed in England from the days of Alfred to the days of Florence Nightingale, and in thousands who have no fame.