Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Thomas Wentworth
Higginson
1823
1911

American Unitarian Minister, Abolitionist, Editor and Author, "Discoverer" and Editor of Emily Dickinson's poems, Commander of Black Troops in the Civil War which was the first federally authorized African-American Regiment, Fought for rights of freed slaves, women and other disfranchised peoples

Author Quotes

Many persons sigh for death when it seems far off, but the inclination vanishes when the boat upsets, or the locomotive runs off the track, or the measles set it.

As yet, it must be owned, this daring expectation is but feebly reflected in our books. In looking over any collection of American poetry, for instance, one is struck with the fact that it is not so much faulty as inadequate. Emerson set free the poetic intuition of America, Hawthorne its imagination. Both looked into the realm of passion, Emerson with distrust, Hawthorne with eager interest; but neither thrilled with its spell, and the American poet of passion is yet to come. How tame and manageable are wont to be the emotions of our bards, how placid and literary their allusions! There is no baptism of fire; no heat that breeds excess. Yet it is not life that is grown dull, surely; there are as many secrets in every heart, as many skeletons in every closet, as in any elder period of the world’s career. It is the interpreters of life who are found wanting, and that not on this soil alone, but throughout the Anglo-Saxon race. It is not just to say, as someone has said, that our language has not in this generation produced a love-song, for it has produced Browning; but was it in England or in Italy that he learned to sound the depths of all human emotion?

Nothing can hide from me the conviction that an immortal soul needs for its sustenance something more than visiting, and gardening, and novel-reading, and crochet-needle, and the occasional manufacture of sponge cake.

As yet, we Americans have hardly begun to think of the details of execution in any art. We do not aim at perfection of detail even in engineering, much less in literature. In the haste of our national life, most of our intellectual work is done at a rush, is something inserted in the odd moments of the engrossing pursuit. The popular preacher becomes a novelist; the editor turns his paste-pot and scissors to the compilation of a history; the same man must be poet, wit, philanthropist, and genealogist. We find a sort of pleasure in seeing this variety of effort, just as the bystanders like to see a street-musician adjust every joint in his body to a separate instrument, and play a concerted piece with the whole of himself. To be sure, he plays each part badly, but it is such a wonder he should play them all! Thus, in our rather hurried and helter-skelter training, the man is brilliant, perhaps; his main work is well done; but his secondary work is slurred. The book sells, no doubt, by reason of the author’s popularity in other fields; it is only the tone of our national literature that suffers. There is nothing in American life that can make concentration cease to be a virtue. Let a man choose his pursuit, and make all else count for recreation only. Goethe’s advice to Eckermann is infinitely more important here than it ever was in Germany: “Beware of dissipating your power; strive constantly to concentrate them. Genius thinks it can do whatever it sees others doing, but it is sure to repent of every ill-judged outlay.”

Nothing is so galling to a people not broken in from the birth as a paternal, or in other words a meddling government, a government which tells them what to read and say and eat and drink and wear.

Character shows itself apart from genius as a special thing. The first point of measurement of any man is that of quality.

Test each sect by its best or its worst, as you will,--by its high-water mark of virtue or its low-water mark of vice. But falsehood begins when you measure the ebb of any other religion against the flood-tide of your own.

Do not waste a minute -- not a second -- in trying to demonstrate to others the merits of your performance. If your work does not vindicate itself, you cannot vindicate it.

That genius is feeble which cannot hold its own before the masterpieces of the world.

The Snowing of the Pines -
SOFTER than silence, stiller than still air
Float down from high pine-boughs the slender leaves.
The forest floor its annual boon receives
That comes like snowfall, tireless, tranquil, fair.
Gently they glide, gently they clothe the bare
Old rocks with grace. Their fall a mantle weaves
Of paler yellow than autumnal sheaves
Or those strange blossoms the witch-hazels wear.
Athwart long aisles the sunbeams pierce their way;
High up, the crows are gathering for the night;
The delicate needless fill the air; the jay
Takes through their golden mist his radiant flight;
They fall and fall, till at November’s close
The snow-flakes drop as lightly—snows on snows.

Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made of -
NOW all the cloudy shapes that float and lie
Within this magic globe we call the brain
Fold quite away, condense, withdraw, refrain,
And show it tenantless—an empty sky.
Return, O parting visions, pass not by;
Nor leave me vacant still, with strivings vain,
Longing to grasp at your dim garment’s train,
And be drawn on to sleep’s immunity.
I lie and pray for fancies hovering near;
Oblivion’s kindly troop, illusions blest;
Dim, trailing phantoms in a world too clear;
Soft, downy, shadowy forms, my spirit’s nest;
The warp and woof of sleep; till, freed from fear,
I drift in sweet enchantment back to rest.

Decoration -
MID the flower-wreathed tombs I stand
Bearing lilies in my hand.
Comrades! in what soldier-grave
Sleeps the bravest of the brave?

Is it he who sank to rest 5
With his colors round his breast?
Friendship makes his tomb a shrine;
Garlands veil it: ask not mine.

One low grave, yon trees beneath,
Bears no roses, wears no wreath; 10
Yet no heart more high and warm
Ever dared the battle-storm,

Never gleamed a prouder eye
In the front of victory,
Never foot had firmer tread 15
On the field where hope lay dead,

Then are hid within this tomb,
Where the untended grasses bloom,
And no stone, with feigned distress,
Mocks the sacred loneliness. 20

Youth and beauty, dauntless will,
Dreams that life could ne’er fulfil,
Here lie buried; here in peace
Wrongs and woes have found release.

Turning from my comrades’ eyes, 25
Kneeling where a woman lies,
I strew lilies on the grave
Of the bravest of the brave.

How much that the world calls selfishness is only generosity with narrow walls, a too exclusive solicitude to maintain a wife in luxury, or make one’s children rich.

Originality is simply a pair of fresh eyes.

Some wonder that children should be given to young mothers. But what instruction does the babe bring to the mother! She learns patience, self-control, endurance; her very arm grows strong so that she holds the dear burden longer than the father can.

The most fertile soil does not necessarily produce the most abundant harvest. It is the use we make of our faculties which renders them valuable. Talent, like other things, may lie fallow.

What instruction the baby brings to the mother!

Noble discontent is the path to heaven.

Author Picture
First Name
Thomas Wentworth
Last Name
Higginson
Birth Date
1823
Death Date
1911
Bio

American Unitarian Minister, Abolitionist, Editor and Author, "Discoverer" and Editor of Emily Dickinson's poems, Commander of Black Troops in the Civil War which was the first federally authorized African-American Regiment, Fought for rights of freed slaves, women and other disfranchised peoples