English Traits by Ralph Waldo
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.