The only gift is a portion of thyself
The table of contents of Emerson’s “Essays: Second Series” places his essay “Gifts” squarely between “Manners” and “Nature,” almost as if the best gifts are a bridge between polite behavior and the glory that is natural creation. Seeing that, even before reading the essay, reminded me of being a small child, listening to my mother say that the best gifts are something that I would like to receive that also reminds the receiver of how special they are to me. It’s not the money; it’s the meaning.
In his essay “Manners,” Emerson put it a little differently, but at the heart of it I think he sounds like the mom I remember from early childhood.
Without the rich heart, wealth is an ugly beggar.
Here is Emerson’s quotation on gifts, in the context of the original 1844 “Gifts” essay:
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 its primary basis, when a man’s biography is conveyed in his gift, and every man’s wealth is an index of his merit. 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 black-mail.
On one hand, you have an almost Puritanical warning against symbolic sin-offerings, and on the other an insistent poetic generosity. Though the closing paragraph of the essay re-states his cautions about material gifting, he begins with “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.” Reading this, I can’t help but wonder if Emerson would rail against today’s commercialized Christmas shopping season, and then enjoy losing himself in buying gifts, no matter how stern his opinions. What do you think?