“Hawthorne” — Charles Ives

“Hawthorne” by Charles Ives

from Essays Before a Sonata

The substance of Hawthorne is so dripping wet with the supernatural, the phantasmal, the mystical—so surcharged with adventures, from the deeper picturesque to the illusive fantastic, one unconsciously finds oneself thinking of him as a poet of greater imaginative impulse than Emerson or Thoreau. He was not a greater poet possibly than they—but a greater artist. Not only the character of his substance, but the care in his manner throws his workmanship, in contrast to theirs, into a kind of bas-relief. Like Poe he quite naturally and unconsciously reaches out over his subject to his reader. His mesmerism seeks to mesmerize us—beyond Zenobia’s sister. But he is too great an artist to show his hand “in getting his audience,” as Poe and Tschaikowsky occasionally do. His intellectual muscles are too strong to let him become over-influenced, as Ravel and Stravinsky seem to be by the morbidly fascinating—a kind of false beauty obtained by artistic monotony. However, we cannot but feel that he would weave his spell over us—as would the Grimms and Aesop. We feel as much under magic as the “Enchanted Frog.” This is part of the artist’s business. The effect is a part of his art-effort in its inception. Emerson’s substance and even his manner has little to do with a designed effect—his thunderbolts or delicate fragments are flashed out regardless—they may knock us down or just spatter us—it matters little to him—but Hawthorne is more considerate; that is, he is more artistic, as men say.

Hawthorne may be more noticeably indigenous or may have more local color, perhaps more national color than his Concord contemporaries. But the work of anyone who is somewhat more interested in psychology than in transcendental philosophy, will weave itself around individuals and their personalities. If the same anyone happens to live in Salem, his work is likely to be colored by the Salem wharves and Salem witches. If the same anyone happens to live in the “Old Manse” near the Concord Battle Bridge, he is likely “of a rainy day to betake himself to the huge garret,” the secrets of which he wonders at, “but is too reverent of their dust and cobwebs to disturb.” He is likely to “bow below the shriveled canvas of an old (Puritan) clergyman in wig and gown—the parish priest of a century ago—a friend of Whitefield.” He is likely to come under the spell of this reverend Ghost who haunts the “Manse” and as it rains and darkens and the sky glooms through the dusty attic windows, he is likely “to muse deeply and wonderingly upon the humiliating fact that the works of man’s intellect decay like those of his hands” … “that thought grows moldy,” and as the garret is in Massachusetts, the “thought” and the “mold” are likely to be quite native. When the same anyone puts his poetry into novels rather than essays, he is likely to have more to say about the life around him—about the inherited mystery of the town—than a poet of philosophy is.

In Hawthorne’s usual vicinity, the atmosphere was charged with the somber errors and romance of eighteenth century New England,—ascetic or noble New England as you like. A novel, of necessity, nails an art-effort down to some definite part or parts of the earth’s surface—the novelist’s wagon can’t always be hitched to a star. To say that Hawthorne was more deeply interested than some of the other Concord writers—Emerson, for example—in the idealism peculiar to his native land (in so far as such idealism of a country can be conceived of as separate from the political) would be as unreasoning as to hold that he was more interested in social progress than Thoreau, because he was in the consular service and Thoreau was in no one’s service—or that the War Governor of Massachusetts was a greater patriot than Wendell Phillips, who was ashamed of all political parties. Hawthorne’s art was true and typically American—as is the art of all men living in America who believe in freedom of thought and who live wholesome lives to prove it, whatever their means of expression.

Any comprehensive conception of Hawthorne, either in words or music, must have for its basic theme something that has to do with the influence of sin upon the conscience—something more than the Puritan conscience, but something which is permeated by it. In this relation he is wont to use what Hazlitt calls the “moral power of imagination.” Hawthorne would try to spiritualize a guilty conscience. He would sing of the relentlessness of guilt, the inheritance of guilt, the shadow of guilt darkening innocent posterity. All of its sins and morbid horrors, its specters, its phantasmas, and even its hellish hopelessness play around his pages, and vanishing between the lines are the less guilty Elves of the Concord Elms, which Thoreau and Old Man Alcott may have felt, but knew not as intimately as Hawthorne. There is often a pervading melancholy about Hawthorne, as Faguet says of de Musset “without posture, without noise but penetrating.” There is at times the mysticism and serenity of the ocean, which Jules Michelet sees in “its horizon rather than in its waters.” There is a sensitiveness to supernatural sound waves. Hawthorne feels the mysteries and tries to paint them rather than explain them—and here, some may say that he is wiser in a more practical way and so more artistic than Emerson. Perhaps so, but no greater in the deeper ranges and profound mysteries of the interrelated worlds of human and spiritual life.

This fundamental part of Hawthorne is not attempted in our music (the 2nd movement of the series) which is but an “extended fragment” trying to suggest some of his wilder, fantastical adventures into the half-childlike, half-fairylike phantasmal realms. It may have something to do with the children’s excitement on that “frosty Berkshire morning, and the frost imagery on the enchanted hall window” or something to do with “Feathertop,” the “Scarecrow,” and his “Looking Glass” and the little demons dancing around his pipe bowl; or something to do with the old hymn tune that haunts the church and sings only to those in the churchyard, to protect them from secular noises, as when the circus parade comes down Main Street; or something to do with the concert at the Stamford camp meeting, or the “Slave’s Shuffle”; or something to do with the Concord he-nymph, or the “Seven Vagabonds,” or “Circe’s Palace,” or something else in the wonderbook—not something that happens, but the way something happens; or something to do with the “Celestial Railroad,” or “Phoebe’s Garden,” or something personal, which tries to be “national” suddenly at twilight, and universal suddenly at midnight; or something about the ghost of a man who never lived, or about something that never will happen, or something else that is not.

1 thought on ““Hawthorne” — Charles Ives”

  1. ‘ Hawthorne’s art was true and typically American—as is the art of all men living in America who believe in freedom of thought and who live wholesome lives to prove it, whatever their means of expression…’ How much of my life was dissipated by my headlong rush into the present. If only I had listened to the Zen masters and practiced ancestor worship more diligently.


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