Nonfiction > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. III. Essays: Second Series
V. Gifts
  GIFTS of one who loved me,—
’T was high time they came;
When he ceased to love me,
Time they stopped for shame.

IT 1 is said that the world is in a state of bankruptcy; that the world owes the world more than the world can pay, and ought to go into chancery and be sold. I do not think this general insolvency, which involves in some sort all the population, to be the reason of the difficulty experienced at Christmas and New Year and other times, in bestowing gifts; since it is always so pleasant to be generous, though very vexatious to pay debts. But the impediment lies in the choosing. If at any time it comes into my head that a present is due from me to somebody, I am puzzled what to give, until the opportunity is gone. Flowers and fruits are always fit presents; flowers, because they are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world. These gay natures contrast with the somewhat stern countenance of ordinary nature: they are like music heard out of a work-house. Nature does not cocker us; we are children, not pets; she is not fond; everything is dealt to us without fear or favor, after severe universal laws. Yet these delicate flowers look like the frolic and interference of love and beauty. Men use to tell us that we love flattery even though we are not deceived by it, because is shows that we are of importance enough to be courted. Something like that pleasure, the flowers give us: what am I to whom these sweet hints are addressed? Fruits are acceptable gifts, because they are the flower of commodities, and admit of fantastic values being attached to them. If a man should send to me to come a hundred miles to visit him and should set before me a basket of fine summer-fruit, I should think there was some proportion between the labor and the reward. 2
  For common gifts, necessity makes pertinences and beauty every day, and one is glad when an imperative leaves him no option; since if the man at the door have no shoes, you have not to consider whether you could procure him a paint-box. And as it is always pleasing to see a man eat bread, or drink water, in the house or out of doors, so it is always a great satisfaction to supply these first wants. Necessity does everything well. In our condition of universal dependence it seems heroic to let the petitioner be the judge of his necessity, and to give all that is asked, though at great inconvenience. If it be a fantastic desire, it is better to leave to others the office of punishing him. I can think, of many parts I should prefer playing to that of the Furies. 3 Next to things of necessity, the rule for a gift, which one of my friends prescribed, is that we might convey to some person that which properly belonged to his character, and was easily associated with him in thought. But our tokens of compliment and love are for the most part barbarous. Rings and other jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me. Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, coral and shells; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing. This is right and pleasing, for it restores society in so far to the primary basis, when a man’s biography is conveyed in his gift, and every man’s wealth is an index of his merit. 4 But it is a cold lifeless business when you go to the shops to buy me something which does not represent your life and talent, but a goldsmith’s. This is fit for kings, and rich men who represent kings, and a false state of property, to make presents of gold and silver stuffs, as a kind of symbolical sin-offering, or payment of blackmail.  2
  The law of benefits is a difficult channel, which requires careful sailing, or rude boats. It is not the office of a man to receive gifts. How dare you give them? We wish to be self-sustained. We do not quite forgive a giver. The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten. We can receive anything from love, for that is a way of receiving it from ourselves; but not from any one who assumes to bestow. We sometimes hate the meat which we eat, because there seems something of degrading dependence in living by it:—
  “Brother, if Jove to thee a present make,
Take heed that from his hands thou nothing take.” 5
We ask the whole. Nothing less will content us. We arraign society if it do not give us, besides earth and fire and water, opportunity, love, reverence and objects of veneration.
  He is a good man who can receive a gift well. We are either glad or sorry at a gift, and both emotions are unbecoming. Some violence I think is done, some degradation borne, when I rejoice or grieve at a gift. I am sorry when my independence is invaded, or when a gift comes from such as do not know my spirit, and so the act is not supported; 6 and if the gift pleases me overmuch, then I should be ashamed that the donor should read my heart, and see that I love his commodity, and not him. The gift, to be true, must be the flowing of the giver unto me, correspondent to my flowing unto him. When the waters are at level, then my goods pass to him, and his to me. 7 All his are mine, all mine his. I say to him, How can you give me this pot of oil or this flagon of wine when all your oil and wine is mine, which belief of mine this gift seems to deny? Hence the fitness of beautiful, not useful things, for gifts. This giving is flat usurpation, and therefore when the beneficiary is ungrateful, as all beneficiaries hate all Timons, not at all considering the value of the gift but looking back to the greater store it was taken from,—I rather sympathize with the beneficiary than with the anger of my lord Timons. For the expectation of gratitude is mean, and is continually punished by the total insensibility of the obliged person. It is a great happiness to get off without injury and heart-burning from one who has had the ill-luck to be served by you. It is a very onerous business, this of being served, and the debtor naturally wishes to give you a slap. A golden text for these gentlemen is that which I so admire in the Buddhist, who never thanks, and who says, “Do not flatter your benefactors.”  4
  The reason of these discords I conceive to be that there is no commensurability between a man and any gift. You cannot give anything to a magnanimous person. After you have served him he at once puts you in debt by his magnanimity. The service a man renders his friend is trivial and selfish compared with the to yield him, alike before he had begun to serve his friend, and now also. Compared with that good-will I bear my friend, the benefit it is in my power to render him seems small. Besides, our action on each other, good as well as evil, is so incidental and at random that we can seldom hear the acknowledgments of any person who would thank us for a benefit, without some shame and humiliation. We can rarely strike a direct stroke, but must be content with an oblique one; we seldom have the satisfaction of yielding a direct benefit which is directly received. But rectitude scatters favors on every side without knowing it, and receives with wonder the thanks of all people.  5
  I fear to breathe any treason against the majesty of love, which is the genius and god of gifts, and to whom we must not affect to prescribe. Let him give kingdoms of flower-leaves indifferently. 8 There are persons from whom we always expect fairy-tokens; let us not cease to expect them. This is prerogative, and not to be limited by our municipal rules. For the rest, I like to see that we cannot be bought and sold. The best of hospitality and of generosity is also not in the will, but in fate. I find that I am not much to you; you do not need me; you do not feel me; then am I thrust out of doors, though you proffer me house and lands. No services are of any value, but only likeness. When I have attempted to join myself to others by services, it proved an intellectual trick,—no more. They eat your service like apples, and leave you out. But love them, and they feel you and delight in you all the time.  6
Note 1. This short essay was one of Mr. Emerson’s contributions to the Dial.
  In the widest sense he held that there was no such thing as giving. The Over-soul common to all, the community of nature, rendered it impossible. Moreover, what belongs to the individual will come to him; what does not cannot be given. “Direct giving is agreeable to the early belief of men; direct giving of material or metaphysical aid.… The boy believes there is a teacher who can sell him wisdom. Churches believe in imputed merit. But in strictness we are not much cognizant of direct serving. Man is endogenous.… Gift is contrary to the law of the Universe. Serving others is serving us.… Indirect service is left.”—“Uses of Great Men,” Representative Men. And elsewhere, “When each comes forth form his mother’s womb, the gate of gifts closes behind him.”
  But in the domestic and usual sense he was a giver and receiver. And yet so fine was his sense both of honor and of fitness that it was hard for him to receive, and not always easy for him to choose a gift for another that should have a bloom of symbolism upon it.
  In the family the old-time New England custom of New Year’s presents was never supplanted by the modern Christmas-tree. To his last days, when his grandchildren were around him, Mr. Emerson gave New Year’s morning to this ceremony, and obeyed the rule of writing a poem to be read before each present was opened. Over these verses he often sat out the old year, and took great pleasure next morning in hearing the young people’s efforts, though most humble about his own. “The Maiden Song of the Æolian Harp” accompanied that characteristic gift to his daughter and her husband. As far as time and taste allowed him, he selected his presents for his family, but, even from them, it was a little hard for him to receive.
  Great gifts went out from him to those to whom he thought them due, but on this subject his lips were closed. [back]
Note 2. Fruits always pleased him,—his other senses more than that of taste, however,—his pears and plums seemed such a triumph achieved in evolution out of hard seedcases, hips and haws. Van Mons (a Dutch pomologist mentioned in his copy of Downing’s book on fruit-culture) was a saint he honored because of his doctrine and practice of “Amelioration.” Care of his orchard and especially the harvesting of its small crop of pears, which perfumed his study, was the only farm-work of his later years. [back]
Note 3. A saying of Landor’s was often quoted by Mr. Emerson: “The highest price you can pay for a thing is to ask for it.” The Nemesis of regret, or a least misgiving, would in a sensitive mind show the price to have been too high. [back]
Note 4. John Thoreau, who died in his youth, Henry’s older brother, was a lover of Nature and of children. He gave Mr. Emerson an instance of giving according to one’s character. The latter recorded in his journal: “Long ago I wrote of Gifts and neglected a capital example. John Thoreau, Jr., one day put a blue-bird’s box on my barn,—fifteen years ago, it must be,—and there it still is with every summer a melodious family in it adorning the place and singing its praises. There’s a gift for you which cost the giver no money, but nothing which he bought could have been as good.
  “I think of another quite inestimable: John Thoreau knew how much I should value a head of little Waldo, then five years old. He came to me and offered to take him to a daguerreotypist who was then in town, and he, Thoreau, would see it well done. He did it and brought me the daguerre, which I thankfully paid for. A few months after, my boy died, and I have since to thank John Thoreau for that wise and gentle piece of friendship.”
  The happy thought of other friends, of an investment for him in beauty and comfort at compound interest, he recorded within two years after he made his home in Concord: “May 2, 1837. Day before yesterday Dr. Hobbs, Dr. Adams and Mr. Ripley [Rev. Samuel Ripley, his uncle, and two other friends in Waltham] sent me from Waltham thirty-one trees which I have planted by my home. What shall I render to my benefactors?” These pines and chestnuts still shelter and adorn his house. [back]
Note 5. Epimetheus thus counsels his brother Prometheus:—
Hesiod, Works and Days, 85–88.    
Note 6. In Mr. Emerson’s copy of Cotton’s translation of Montaigne, which book, as a boy, he read with delight and “felt as if I myself had written this book in some former life, so sincerely it spoke my thoughts,” the following passage is marked:—
  “Oh, how am I obliged to almighty God, who has been pleased that I should immediately receive all I have from his bounty, and particularly reserved all my obligation to himself! How instantly do I beg of his holy compassion that I may never owe a real thanks to any one. O happy liberty in which I have thus far lived! May it continue with me to the last. I endeavour to have no need of any one. In me omnis est spes mihi.” [back]
Note 7. A new and strange experience and trial came to Mr. Emerson when in his age his house was nearly destroyed by fire. A common impulse moved his friends, near and far, to seize the opportunity to show their love or reverence for him by restoring it, and sending him abroad for refreshment meantime. Something of the struggle in Mr. Emerson’s mind, and more of the emotion which he felt, is shown in the correspondence with Dr. Le Baron Russell and Judge Hoar, the friends to whom the contributors committed the pleading of their case. This is printed in the Appendix to Mr. Cabot’s Memoir, from which I extract a few sentences. The ingenious Judge, the ambassador, relates how “I told him by way of prelude that some of his friends had made him a treasurer of an association who wished him to go to England and examine Warwick Castle and other noted houses that had been recently injured by fire, in order to get the best ideas possible for restoration, and then apply them to a house which the association was formed to restore in this neighborhood.
  “When he understood the thing … he seemed very deeply moved. He said that he had been allowed so far in life to stand on his own feet, and that he hardly knew what to say,—that the kindness of his friends was very great.… But he must see the list of contributors.…
  “I am glad that Mr. Emerson, who is feeble and ill, can learn what a debt of obligation his friends feel to him.”
  When he made up his mind to accept his friends’ kindness he wrote: “Thank them for me whenever you meet them, and say to them that I am not wood or stone if I have not yet trusted myself to go to each one of them directly.” And when he was allowed to see the list of his benefactors he wrote: “It cannot be read with dry eyes or pronounced with articulate voice. Names of dear and noble friends; names also of high respect with me, but on which I had no known claims; names, too, that carried me back many years, as they were of friends of friends of mine more than of me, and thus I seemed to be drawing on the virtues of the departed.” [back]
Note 8. There were certain persons whose Oriental temperament seemed to him to bestow on them a right to exercise their genius for gifts, perhaps as valid as that of the Puritan to maintain his independence of favors. [back]

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