Manvotional: In an Age of Fops and Toys

by Brett & Kate McKay on September 10, 2011 · 32 comments

in Manvotionals

In an Age of Fops and Toys
By: Ralph Waldo Emerson

In an age of fops and toys,
Wanting wisdom, void of right,
Who shall nerve heroic boys
To hazard all in Freedom’s fight,—
Break sharply off their jolly games,
Forsake their comrades gay
And quit proud homes and youthful dames
For famine, toil and fray?
Yet on the nimble air benign
Speed nimbler messages,
That waft the breath of grace divine
To hearts in sloth and ease.
So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When Duty whispers low, Thou must,
The youth replies, I can.

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

1 sam September 11, 2011 at 2:51 am

couldn’t fully understand it, could someone explain it?

2 Daren Redekopp September 11, 2011 at 7:21 am

Here’s a line by line paraphrase:

In a time when men are more concerned about their looks and their toys than wisdom or what’s right, who will be left to awaken the heroes to risk everything, looks and toys included, in the fight for freedom? Who will awaken the heroes to leave their games and their playmates, to leave their homes and their girlfriends for hunger, work, and war? But there is no need for worry, since man’s heart is so noble that when the call of duty comes even to the comfortably lazy, he will answer that call.

A powerful poem, and rather optimistic, too.

3 noname September 11, 2011 at 8:43 am

Very nice… although I personally think he was wrong. The youth won’t say I will. The world is basically screwed.

4 cheetto chi toe September 11, 2011 at 9:13 am

This was written in a time when there was mostly honnor and truth in the hearts of men and we knew right from wrong. Now, most ONLY value toys and fops. I still like to think that enough real men exist to make a difference.

5 Easton September 11, 2011 at 9:34 am

I would agree with noname. But, every man can do their part to answer the call when it comes to him. That’s why I’m at this website right now.

6 Leo September 11, 2011 at 9:58 am

I think there was a reason Brett posted this on 9/11. The 90s were like the fluffiest, most ridiculous decade on record, and yet when a crisis came, men rose to the occasion, they were brave, they were heroic, they laid down their lives. Society and our young men still often seem ridiculous, but I believe that they will answer the call again if needs be.

7 Luke September 11, 2011 at 11:09 am

noname, I think there has been some youth who have been saying “I will” on a daily basis for the past 10 years….

8 Steven September 11, 2011 at 11:22 am

I agree with Luke. More than half of our active duty personnel are between the ages of 18 and 30. I’d say that’s pretty youthful.

9 noname September 11, 2011 at 12:04 pm

@Steven, I was talking about the people under 18, people my age. No one under 18 really cares, that I can see. But 18-30 is pretty youthful.

10 Jack McGowan September 11, 2011 at 4:24 pm

I truely beleive that in the very near future, time will certainly tell if boys can still change into real men overnight. We baby boomers have our doubts.

11 Justin September 11, 2011 at 4:57 pm


Hasn’t every generation doubted the one that follows it?

Those damn kids and their long hair and rock music…

12 Cole September 11, 2011 at 5:20 pm


I think every generation does indeed doubt the one that follows. However, I think that what noname is saying is that the college generation doubts the high school generation. This is not a large gap, and I think it really screams that something is wrong; that us college age kids with all of our imperfections, doubt another group of kids only a few years younger.

13 Annalisa September 11, 2011 at 7:44 pm

Be that youth, and you will not have to look further for another.

14 Justin September 11, 2011 at 7:52 pm

Two weeks away from the birth of my first child I find inspiration in the words of Emerson. Hopefully I will raise my son to answer when duty calls. Hopefully I will teach him the true ways of manliness. Thank for the post, and the paraphrase.

15 Brucifer September 11, 2011 at 10:32 pm

I don’t have a homophobic bone in my body mind you, but as I read this old poem and ran across the anachronistic use of the word “gay,” once used to to mean happy, I find I can never forgive the ‘fop’ community for usurping that once fine word to make it a sexual reference. Bad show, chaps! And before anyone gets undies in a bunch here, let me clearly state that homosexuals most certainly belong in the military, to help take up those world challenges, “When Duty whispers low, Thou must,.” I served with a number of openly homosexual troops, and many were the finest troops in my unit.

16 Frank September 11, 2011 at 11:05 pm

Though Emerson may have been right when he first wrote the words, I think this is rather optimistic and indeed naive, to think now. In effect expecting nothing of youth, no toil, no sacrifice, of any kind, we have, in reality, largely bred out of American youth, at least, a willingness to do anything selfless, or that might require forgoing the ability to play X-Box.

17 Artimid September 12, 2011 at 3:40 am

Well, while I agree that walking into a middle or high school and saying “This must be done” will get you either ignored, mugged, or laughed at, youth is a relative term. When the need is real, enough people show they will do what they must. Not sure about you guys, but when I was watching the CBS on September 11, 2001 and the subsequent days that followed.. a lot of people answered the call and did what they must. Youth is truly relative, 60 is the new 40, after all. On the planes we had people calling their families to tell them goodbye before stepping forward, and in that dust we had people running forward to save people and pull them into shops when it was almost impossible to see.
Of course, men and women, young and old, threw aside their joys in order to try to save as many people as possible under the rubble. While smaller in comparison, if you really rock a high school student’s world, you will find the same holds true. When a death happens, the students gather around each other to mourn a loss and when violence happens the students sometimes stand up and say “No, not here.” as has been seen if you were ever in a school that had a mild riot. The teachers can’t always get through to stop it, but you will usually find (though fewer and fewer) students stepping in to pull people off each other in order to stop it.

So, while optimistic, I believe it still holds true. When dealing with truly young people, it just takes a bit more and it usually needs to be more personal for them, as more and more kids are placing themselves in the fish bowl and don’t look out.. but if something happens in the fish bowl, enough stand up to make it known that the future won’t be in horrible hands. :)

18 Samuel September 12, 2011 at 8:39 am

Gentlemen, please don’t condemn my generation. While we may be seriously misled by onslaught of social media, gaming, etc, there are still some of us willing to step up and be Good. Throughout history there has always been a majority of fops but only the few great and the few evil are remembered.

19 Shlaw September 12, 2011 at 10:47 am

Throughout history there has been fops? Prior to the 18th century, most people were farmers. I guess if you consider a plow a toy…

20 Danny September 12, 2011 at 11:56 am

@ Justin
I’m only two days away from the birth of my second son. I have faith in myself and in the world that my boys will become men of integrity. That’s where it starts, parents and community caring about the integrity of our children and helping our children in becoming strong individuals. I believe if we have faith in the youth of this world and show that faith by believing in them then we will have a generation of great men, just like very generation before them. There will be those who falter but I believe the majority of boys want to answer the call of “thou must” but too many don’t believe they can because of the doubts people express about them.

21 Kyle Eppard September 12, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Great poem, the message is that everyone can here the call of duty, even though it isn’t always very loud. Its easy to sit around and do nothing, but not with a clear conscience.

22 Joshua September 13, 2011 at 9:48 am

I can see I am late to this conversation. Still, I think it is important to note that the total number of military personnel has dwindled since the use of the draft has gone the way of the buffalo. I find it interesting that many here are complaining about the lack of any expectation for our youth to step up and learn how to be men when so many of their fathers have forgotten how as well. I am not saying my generation is blameless, but without men in our lives to show us the way it takes a lot longer to learn to walk the path of manhood. If we expect our youth to become men overnight and answer that call we should also expect the same of the older men. My issue with many of these comments is that they seem to ignore the fact that the ills of my generation and those after did not develop overnight. If we lose hope for the future then we have only ourselves to blame. I apologize if someone already stated things like this, I don’t have time to read through all the comments. Thank you for your time.

23 Kevin September 21, 2011 at 9:27 am

The statisical fact is that most people (men and women ) of military age don’t sacrifice to serve. The statistics show that only 1% of the USA serve in the military. That is a shockingly small number. Most people allow others the do the majority of the sacrficing. This is not just this generation but is a fact since the military has been a voluntary institution.

24 Tuesday September 21, 2011 at 12:54 pm

I agree with Joshua in that many of the young men in this generation don’t have grand examples of manliness to follow. I’m a girl in my 20s and most of my friends come from broken homes. I’m not saying that women aren’t guilty of neglecting their families, but the fact is, many men in my parent’s generation (my father included) either walk away from their families or are physically present but emotionally absent. It’s difficult for boys to become a mature, self-sacrificing men when the men who should be teaching them are engaged in selfish pursuits. Instead of criticizing and doubting the younger generation, everyone should self-evaluate to see what role they play in shaping those who follow…

25 Ivey September 22, 2011 at 1:27 am

The hope that this poem brings to me is not in the youth, but in the message. Those in comfort and ease, beset with sloth, are captive to our culture’s lack of purpose. I believe that many youths are waiting for something great into which they might pour their lives. In he absence of that they seek meaning in war games, hedonism or entertainment. Offer real meaning, something worth giving all for, and many will rise to the occasion.

26 Dave M September 27, 2011 at 12:12 pm

This poem is yet another reminder to me that I have a solemn duty to raise my sons to be men of honor, and to be an example so that my daughters will (hopefully) choose wisely when they seek a husband.

27 Nick L September 29, 2011 at 12:43 am

I believe each generation, just as every man and woman must, will learn it’s lessons in different ways. Each person, regardless of the year of their birth is born into a set of circumstances and has laid before them a path wrought with choices and abstentions, duties and distractions, opportunities and dead ends. Where this time around we are confronted with an age of vast technology, infinite databases of knowledge, unbound communicative ability, we are – like those before us – presented a choice between uses of the novel and powerful. While sad statistics and heinous examples are not in short supply, blame and doubt are surely not the answers. Like Emerson I too am optimistic; it takes but one man to change the path of many. The example of a noble few willing to choose “famine, toil and fray” in the vision of human kind’s potential fulfilled can curb the blindest of those preoccupied by the fops and toys and other comforts we’ve left our senses for. I only wish that we didn’t need to wait until we’ve done irreversible damage to our environment, our communities, our souls. I only wish that we need not wait to be told “we must” before we answer the call. It will be when we answer the call of “we should” with the same grace divine that we will truly feel so near God. It falls upon each soul, not each generation. Those affected by your example will remember far more clearly than those you’ve told your mistakes to at the end of your time. The duty we speak of is not just for fight of freedom, but for all things we cherish: love, virtue, honesty, manliness, etc. I pray I do not forget these things.

28 Grant Ashley September 30, 2011 at 9:18 pm

I was born in 1991 (I’m 20) and I have alot of toys (I study fashion= heaps of clothes and every other parapernalia you can imagine) and I like to look good and own nice things. But on the flip side, I care for my family and friends and look after the women in my life. Chivalry isnt exclusive to victorians/edwardians/war vets. Doing the right thing, owning up to your short-comings, being selfless and leading those with less than you is something I try to do and alot of young men today do. I find it insulting that people think just because you have an iphone and skinny jeans you dont know how to be a man. Gentlemen aren’t dead they just come in new packaging.

29 Grant Ashley September 30, 2011 at 9:25 pm

Also, I am homosexual, and I can tie a tie, do pull-ups, polish a pair of shoes, and pick a damn good suit better than most men in their 50′s who whinge about my generation not being ‘real’ men. When in fact this website tells you how to tie a tie, iron a shirt and be efficient in a business meeting. All things I can do naturally.

30 happy2bhere September 30, 2011 at 9:38 pm

How much longer can we expect these young men to put their lives on the line to be slaughtered for what are often less than honorable causes? How much longer can we allow the innocent youth (read to young to know better or understand why or even ask), our brothers, our sons and daughters or our husbands and wives to be sacrificed at the whim and whimsy of men and women who lack integrity, decency, compassion and regard for human life (read politicians). By what right do we (read the collective) ask this of them? How many more men or women get blown up or become physically or mentally incompacitated and unable to function in society before there are no more willing left to go. War does not make the man, nor does his willingness to participate reflect virtue. The battle of today, yesterday and tomorrow is for mans mind. When i look around today i fear that is a battle that has already been more or less lost. They just dont make them like they used to (read men and women). It is amazing how we are convinced that somehow the same actions regardless of the geography or timeline always yields the same result (read war leads to death for many, destruction for many more and enormous profit for some). This social programming is the definition of insanity. The power lies in the fact that many of us refuse to see the truth (read if it ain’t broke don’t fix it). The world could surely use more men and women of integrity. My deepest appreciation to all those whom have served and died admirably for this coutry, You all deserved so much better than that. May we all rise against the tide to levels of intelligence , reason and integrity that our future generations would not even recognize “war”. May our future generations never know the pain and absence of a loved one whose life has been lost on some battlefield on the other side of the world fighting for whatever the current scheme may be (read freedom,. safety of americans, oil, spreading democracy, killing terrorist or whatever other crazy stories they are out to sell us). Since the battle of the future will continue to be for mans mind, in the future may that battle only take place in mans mind and resolve itself long before it gets to the battlefield of human sacrifice. C’mon people I know we are better than this and they know (read cabal of evil men who wish to keep the war machine going) we are better than this. They are betting on the fact we wont figure it we are only doing this to each other. Them and their families are cetainly not out there dying on the battlefields or coming home with invisible scars that will never heal. We just keep letting them send us and ours for that while we sit on this sidelines singing their praises, sighting their courage and wrapping ourselves in the honor of thier deaths. ENOUGH is ENOUGH already.

31 Dawud October 7, 2011 at 7:46 am

I think it’s kind of sad that the only thought that springs to mind for many here when Emerson writes of the “fight for freedom” is military service. This will surely be controversial here, but Iraq and Afghanistan have very little to do with freedom for ourselves or for Iraqis and Afghans. Poor and workingthe class peopleis are simply fighting in wars that the wealthy profiteer from. Over the last decade and more, including in the 90s, I have witnessed young people fighting for freedom on the streets and picket lines of America. Raising their voices in protest to our government’s erosion of our civil rights and the fleecing of America by corporate greed and the politicians wbo are in the pockets of the super rich. They have taken beatings, been arrested, shot with rubber bullets and taken lungfuls of tear gas and facefuls of pepper spray. And they are doing it now on Wall Street, in LA, Boston, Philly, Chicago and more and more cities. And on top of that, there are Marines and other servicemen in their numbers and vets that have declared their intention to stand i have solidarity and as a barrier between them and the police that would brutalize them. They are as crucial, perhaps more crucial, to the cause of freedom than dropping bombs and putting boots on the ground in foreign lands. And we have seen over the last year how people in foreign lands are more than capable of standing together on their streets and overthrowing governments that sell out their own people.

Emerson isn’t wrong now. Some just have a narrow understanding of the poem and need to broaden their interpretation. I worry more about the disinterest of the Boomer generation, who often seem more cincerned with themselves than in what the younger generation has to say about what will be good for us

32 Another noname December 6, 2013 at 8:36 pm

This youth will.

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