Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803- 1882

Ralph Waldo Emerson “the sage of Concord” was the senior member of “The New England Poets” that included Hawthorne, Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, Lowell and Poe. This group of writers lived their lives and wrote their thoughts in or near the towns of Concord, Cambridge, and Boston. Emerson followed from eight generations of ministers; he followed in the footsteps of his father to Harvard College where he became a Unitarian minister. This was not a long-term engagement, however. It was not to last and Emerson withdrew from the church having “soon wearied of the trammels of creed and ecclesiastical regulation”. The immediate cause was his “disinclination to conduct the usual communion service.” He offered to continue if he could serve only as a spiritual leader – the congregation declined his offer and he went his way. Emerson enclosed the poem The Problem with his resignation:

“I like a church; I like a cowl;
I love a prophet of the soul;
And on my heart monastic aisles
Fall like sweet strains, or pensive smiles;
Yet not foo all his faith can see
Would I that cowled churchman be.
Why should the vest on him allure,
Which I could not on me endure?

Not from a vain or shallow thought
His awful Jove young Phidias brought;
Never from lips of cunning fell
The thrilling Delphic oracle;
Out from the heart of nature rolled
The burdens of Bible old;
The litanies of nations came,
Like the volcano’s tongue of flame,
Up from the burning core below,
The canticles of love and woe;
The hand that rounded Peter’s dome,
And groined the aisles of Christian Rome,
Wrought in a sad sincerity;
Himself from God he could not free;
He builded better than he knew;
The conscious stone to beauty grew.

Know’st thou what wove yon woodbird’s nest
Of leaves, and feathers from her breast?
Or how the fish outbuilt her shell,
Painting with morn each annual cell?
Or how the sacred pine-tree adds
To her old leaves new myriads?
Such and so grew these holy p[iles,
Whilst love and terror laid the tiles.
Earth proudly wears the Parthenon,
As the best gem upon her zone;
And Morning opes with haste her lids,
To gaze upon the Pyramids;
O’er England’s abbeys bends the sky,
As on its friends, with kindred eye;
For, out of Thought’s interior sphere
These wonders rose to upper air;
And Nature gladly gave them place,
Adopted them into her race,
And granted them an equal date
With Andes and with Ararat.

These temples grew as grows the grass;
Art might obey, but not surpass.
The passive Master lent his hand
To the vast soul that o’er him planned;
And the same power that reared the shrine,
Bestrode the tribes that knelt within.
Ever the fiery Pentecost
Girds with one flame the courtless host,
Trances the heart through chanting choirs,
And through the priest the mind inspires.
The word unto the prophet spoken
Was writ on tables yet unbroken’
The word by seer or sibyls told,
In groves of oak, or fanes of gold,
Still floats upon the morning wind,
Still whispers to the willing mind,
One accent of the Holy Ghost
The heedless world hath never lost.
I know what say the fathers wise,
The Book itself before me lies,
Old Chrysostom, best Augustine,
And he who blent both in his line,
The younger Golden Lips or mines,
Taylor, the Shakespeare of divines.
His words rae music in my ear,
I see his cowled portrait dear;
And yet, for all his faith could see,
I would not the good bishop be.”

In the Manchester City News May, 1820 Henry Sutton described Emerson as “a fine handsome man with nobly-formed head and genial face, learned and thoughtful…” “A pronounced and emphatic face…his head is high and well-formed, his nose very large, his chin strong, his eye gentle and searching…of slender figure more than medium eight, head small, shoulders remarkable sloping.” “His chief characteristics are beneficence and courtesy, which never fail, whether addressing the humblest pauper or the most distinguished scholar.” A consummate idealist believing in “the compensatory ebb and flow of the human journey…he writes in his Essay on Compensation “the value of the universe continues to throw itself into every point, if the good is there, so is the evil; if the affinity, so the repulsion, if the force, so the limitation.” Emerson held to an ideal philosophy and a purely spiritual interpretation of religion thus a Platonist to whom “the world of sense is an illusion and the world of thought “all”.

1830 was an important year in Emerson’s life; it was the year he came in contact with the “era of Transcendentalism”. In 1840 became editor of The Dial, a short-lived, transcendental publication whose prospectus declared “to furnish a medium for the freeest expression of thought on the questions which interest earnest minds in every community.” The staff included Margaret Fuller, A.B. Alcott. Theodore Parker, and George Ripley. For several years Emerson was the chair and lecturer of the Concord Lyceum which met every Wednesday evening at 7:30 “precisely.” It hosted some of the greats in literary history such as Thoreau, John Keyes, Henry Giles of Ireland, and Horace Greeley.

Although frequently linked to transcendentalism Emerson's main interest was not to create a new philosophy but rather advocating the 19th century doctrine of American individualism and self-reliance. “Mr. Emerson never undertook to enlarge the field of knowledge or to rearrange it under more suitable aspects…he never reached the supreme rest of the solitary giant Spinoza, and cannot be ranked among the professed philosophers like Fichte and Herbert Spencer, who made systems that reproduce the cosmos or fair world on a reduced scale.” He preferred to be remembered as an idealist. This did not endure him to the sectarians of the time. By Brownson he was denounced as “a heretic” at the same time “admitted that he would gladly assign to his old friend’s poems the highest rank among our American attempts at poetry but for the fact that they were blasphemous…poetry which chants falsehood and evil…denouncing the acclaimed Threnody” and the book of poem in which it appeared “the saddest book we ever read.” It was the New York Times that rescued Emerson from the criticism heaped upon him from the religious right.

Emerson became the consummate American essay writer although his essays are perhaps more correctly described as prose-poems as in one comment: “Eloquence was now to be lavished on the poetic qualities of prose.” But it was his use of words that brought praise from the literary world in this respect Emerson gave them full respect in place and choice when writing. Firkins in his biography of Emerson (2000) points out this example from May Day:

“Where in English is there a word more pedestrian, more lounging and unambitious, than the word ‘fellows’? Emerson can dilate it to cosmic dimensions, and make it orchestral with music”

“The caged linnet in the Spring
Hearkens or the choral glee,
When his fellows on the wing
Migrate from the Southerrn Sea.”

In an article in the New York Tribune of Jan. 11, 1872 you may find the full address given by Emerson at Howard University on a Sunday morning, December 1871 where he set forth his What Books to Read address. He cited the usual religious texts, then Shakespeare “as one book of the world,” Gibbon’s History, Boswell’s Life of Johnson which he thought should be offered for entertainment, Bacon’s essays which he described as “a little Bible of earthly wisdom”, then Thomas Burke as “an author that no young man, certainly in the law, could live without; then he presented “no mind of equal compass to that of Goethe “the oracle at all the leading students in every nation at this time”. Conversations with Eckermann was suggested as “an easy introduction to Goethe. Finally Faust which he characterized as “the most disagreeable books he had ever read… It represents the modern mind, and that is what is aimed at; but it does not represent the Eternal Mind, alone of value in every age.”

Writing poetry was not something that dropped into Emerson’s life toward the end of his life as is true of many. He had a passion for poetry early on. Writing his brother in 1817:

“That is – poor Ralph must versify,
Through College like a thousand drums
But when well through then, then oh my
The dark dull night of Business comes first.”

Obviously he had seen the disambiguation between poetry and “any reputable vocation.” So when about to enter Harvard Divinity School he writes:

“I, the bantling of a country Muse,
Abandon all those toys with speed to obey
The King whose meek ambassador I go.”

Emerson shunned the larger forms, ballads, epics, narratives, The Adirondacs was written in blank verse. He did have a go at humor in The Visit, written as the encounter of an unwelcome guest:

”Asketh, ‘How log thou shalt stay?’
Devastator of the day!
Know, each substance, and relation,
Thorough nature’s operation,
Hath its unit, bound, and metre;
And every new compound
Is some product and repeater,
Product of the earlier found.
But the unit of the visit,
The encounter of the wise,
Say, what other metre is it
Than the meeting of the eyes?
Nature poureth into nature
Through the channels of that feather.
Riding on the ray of sight,
Fleeter far than whirlwinds go,
Or for service, or delight,
Hearts to hearts their meaning show,
Sum their long experience,
And import intelligence.
Single look has drained the breast;
Single moment years confessed.
The duration of a glance
Is the term of convenance.
And though thy rede by church or state,
Frugal multiples of that.
Speeding Saturn cannot halt;
Linger, thou shalt rue the fault;
If love his moment overstay,
Hatred’s swift repulsions play.”

He once wrote of Philadelphia:

“If the world was all Philadelphia, although the poultry and dairy-market would be admirable, I fear suicide would exceedingly prevail.”

“Incipe quidquid agas: pro toto est prima operis pars” [for the modern student this translation is given: Begin what you have to do: the beginning of a work stands for the whole.] Emerson’s many American epigrammatic sentences, most of which appeared in the American Scholar, stand as proof of this statement. Here are some:

“Books are the best things, well used: abused, among the worst”
“God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose.”
“Conversation is a game of circles.”
“”We do not count a man’s years, until he has nothing else to count.”
“Nature abhors the old.” And many more.

Emerson built friendships even with his dissenters. His lifelong friend was Thomas Carlyle, a friendship which “continued without break or flaw for nearly fifty years upon the death of Carlyle. This tribute was given Emerson by Bronson Alcott who had long admired him for “the amiability of his disposition, the strictness of his morals and attention to duties.”

“Misfortune to have lived not knowing thee;
‘I were not high living, nor to noblest end,
Who, dwelling near, learned not entirely,
Rich friendship’s ornament that still doth lead
To life its consequence and propriety,
Thy fellowship was my culture, noble friend,
By the hand thou took’st me and did’st condescend
To bring me straightaway into thy fair guild…
Permit me then, thus honored still to be
A scholar in thy university.”

On Friday morning, April 28, 1882 the Boston Post headline read “Emerson Dead”

Our first characteristic is: self-reliance, individualism.

“As long as any man exists there is some heed of him; let him fight for his own.” Emerson

Éach one of us can bask in the great morning which rises out of the Eastern Sea,…Trust thyself…There is a time in every man’s education when he must arrive at the conviction that imitation is suicide; when he must take himself for better or worse as his portion; and know that thought the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which it was given him to till.” Essay on Man.

“The deep today which all men scorn…Other world! There is no other world. All God’s life opens into the individual particular, and hero and now or nowhere is reality. The present hour is the decisive hour, and every day is doomsday.” Emerson

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“He is a fresh, cool fountain from which one may draw indefinitely from the health and comfort of one’s life.”

“rejected the ordinary concept of material success and put in its place a type of self-realization that emphasized the rational and moral self as the essence of humanity ”.

“Emerson was regularly taken notice of for his startling self-reliance.” Wortham

“the most original, not only of American poets, but of living writers. He is no vendor of second-hand notions, but a man on his own account, who gives you jewels from his own mines, and of his own setting.” Democratic Review May, 1847

“”Professor Willilam James took as his text Emerson’s own words: ‘So night is grandeur to our dust. So near is god to Man!’. He extolled Emerson as the champion of the individual…”

Our second characteristic is: intellectual pathos.

“This monument of my despair
Build I to the All-Good, All-Fair.
Not the private good,
But I, from by beatitude,
Albeit scorned as none was scorned,
Adorn her as was none adorned
I make this maiden an ensample
To Nature, through her kingdoms ample,
Whereby to model newer races,
Statelier forms, and fairer faces;
To carry man to new degrees
Of power, and of Comeliness,
These presents by the hostages
Which I pawn for my release,
See to thyself O Universe!
Thou are better, and not worse.
And the god, having given all,
Is freed forever from his thrall.” To Rhea

“A sad self-knowledge, withering, fell
On the beauty of Uriel;
In heaven once eminent, the god
Withdrew, that hour, into his cloud;
Whether doomed to long gyration
In the sea of generation,
Or by knowledge grown too bright
To hit the nerve of feebler sight.
Straightaway, a forgetting wind
Stole over the celestial kind,
And their lips the secret kept,
If in ashes the fire-seed slept.
But now and then, truth-speaking things
Shamed the angels’ veiling wings;
And, shrilling from the solar course,
Or from fruit of chemic force,
Procession of a soul in matter,
On the speeding change of water,
Or out of the good of evil born,
Came Uriel’s voice of cherub scorn,
And a blush tinged the upper sky
And the gods shook, they knew not why.” From Uriel

“The cup of life is not so shallow
That we have drained the best,
That all the wine at once we swallow
And lees make all the rest.

Maids of as soft a bloom shall marry
As Hymen yet hath blessed,
And fairer forms are in the quarry
Than Angelo released.” Cup of Life

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“men descend to meet…we descend because we have a worse opinion of them [others] than we have of ourselves . We are pharisees, esteeming ourselves and despising others…Instead of descending to meet our companions we ought to ascend. Not in fawning or flattery, but in all sincerity, we ought to appeal to their better selves, without reference to their worse…to rise on stepping stones of their dead selves to higher things.” Emerson

“It is safe to say that no American thinker is more widely known, read and revered, at home and aborad, than Emerson…”

“His inspiration flows from the intellect, or rather from the supreme poetic faulty, to a far reater degree than from the affections. Still, he is not without frequent touches of the tenderest pathos” Whipple

“Seldom been equalled in depth and beauty” Theodore Parker of To Rhea

“The greatest Western poem yet.” Robert Frost of Uriel

Our third characteristic is: serial comma, faulty execution, ignorance of poetic conventions.

“[Poetry]should ring as blows the breeze,
Free, peremptory, clear,
No jingling serenader’s art,
Nor tinkling of piano-strings,
Can make the wild blood start
In its mystic spring,
The kingly bard
Must smite the chords rudely and hard,
As with hammer or with mace;
That they may render back
Artful thunder, which conveys
Secrets of the solar track,
Sparks of the supersolar blaze.” Emerson Essay

“O faire and stately mind, whose eyes
Were kindled in the upper skies
At the same torch that lighted mine;
For so I must interpret still
Thy sweet dominion o’er my will,
A sympathy divine.

Ah! let me blameless gaze upon
Features that seem at heart my own;
Nor fear those watchful sentinels,
Who charm the more their glance forbids,
Chaste-glowing, underneath their lids,
With fire that draws while it repels.” To Eva [example of the Spanish sestilla (sestet)]

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“The inspiration , the boundless imagination, the lofty perception of beauty, are all there, but the execution is faulty … many of his poems are like colossal statues hewn roughly into shape and left unfinished.” Theodore Parker

“full of ancient errors disguised in the drapery of a misty rhetoric…his style is abrupt and fitful…”

“…sincerity and authenticity had come to replace formal rhetoric as the hallmark of the highest eloquence. The power of language reflected the absolute amount of life implicated in it.” von Frank

“He lacks too much that peculiar sense which is the origin of rhythm and number, to pay much attention to either. Not endowed with the perception and love of music, he feels no need of it, and generally does not aim at it…The meaning and not the melody is what he thinks of.”

“There has been nothing done in English rhyme like this since Milton.” Frederic Hedge of The Problem [see above]

“a perfect sentence, because it makes its own feet, and creates its own form, stands in no real need of punctuation…Write solid sentences and you can even spare punctuation.” Emerson Miscellaneous Journals

“Mr. Emerson does nothing conventionally. Artistic rules exact from him no obedience. In his composition, the art must bend to him – not he to the art…He does not connect his paragraphs as most writers do. The union is not a physical one of words, but a spiritual one rather of ideas. He does not, therefore, whittle down one sentence to make it match the rest.” Correspondence of the Philadelphia Press.

“For it is not metres. But a metre-making argument that makes a poem.” Emerson The Poet

Our fourth characteristic is: love of nature, oriental mysticism.

“Ah! well I mind the calendar,
Faithful through a thousand years,
Of the painted race of flowers,
Exact to days, exact to hours,
Counted on the spacious dial
Yon broidered zodiac girds.
I know the pretty almanac
Of the punctual coming back
On their due days, of the birds.
… May Day

“She promised in my secret ear
‘When none but God and I could hear
That she would cleave to me forever...” Miscellaneous Journals

“Seldom seen by wishful eyes,
Bu all her shows did Nature yield,
To please and win this pilgrim wise.
He saw the partridge drum in the woods;
He heard the woodcock’s evening hymn:
He found the tawny thrush’s broods;
And the shy hawk did wait for him,
What others did at distance hear,
And guessed within the thicket’s gloom,
Was showed to this philosopher,
And at his bidding seemed to come.” Woodnotes I

“By fate, not option, frugal Nature gave
One scent to hyson and to wall-flower,
One sound to pine-groves and to water-falls,
One aspect to the desert and the lake,
It was her stern necessity; all things
Are of one pattern made; bird beast, and flower,
Sun, picture, form, space, thought, and character
Deceive us, seeming to be many things,
And are but one.” Xenopones

"Atom from atom yawns as far
As moon from earth or star from star...
The sun athwart the cloud thought it no sin
To use my land to put his rainbows in." Hafiz

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“One cannot conceive of a time when the best thinkers, the stongest intellect, ahd genuine lovers of nature will not find aid and inspiration in these productions, among the lofties and nobles that genius has ever moulded into words. “

“the elegiac laments…play a pivotal role in the development of Emerson’s mature poetic style. Because they are the first of his poems to be deeply occupied with the intimate sphere.”

“In every company in which a poem is read, you may be sure, a part hear the exoteric, and a part the esoteric sense.” Emerson

“It was not cheerfulness or music which made Emerson a poet. It was high thought joined with an almost perfect sense of use of the right word.. Emerson has said more memorable things than any other American writer.” Centennial Birthday Anniversary. Concord. May 25, 1903

Our fifth characteristic is moral, ethical, optimism.

“So long as thou been loyal to thyself,
So long hast thou been loyal to the world,
So long hast thou been loyal to thy God,
That how so men may look upon the faith
Thy face looks at them tranquil with its truth.”

“Behold the sea,
The opaline, the plentiful and strong,
Yet beautiful as is the rose in June,
Fresh as is the trickling rainbow of July;
Sea full of food, the nourisher of kinds,
Purger of earth, and medicine of men;
Creating a sweet climate by my breath,
Washing out harms and griefs from memory,
And, in my mathematic ebb and flow,
Giving a hint of that which changes not.”

“Life is short to waste
In critic peep or cynic bark,
Quarrel or reprimand:
Twill soon be dark’
Up! Mind thine own aim, and
God speed the mark!” To JW

“I hold it of little matter
Whether your jewel be of pure water,
A rose diamond or a white,
But whether it dazzle me with light.
I care not how you are dressed,
In coarsest weeds or in the best;
Nor whether your name is base or brave;
Nor for the fashion of your behavior;
But whether you charm me,
Bid my bread feed and my fire warm me,
And dress up nature in your favor.
One thing is forever good;
That one thing is Success.” Fate

“Plunge in yon angry waves,
Defying doubt and care,
And the flowing of the seven broad seas
Shall never wet thy hair.
Is Allah’s face on thee
Bending with love benign?
Thou too on Allah’s countenance
O fairest! Turnest thine.
And though thy fortune and thy form
Be broken, waste, and void,
Though suns be spent, of thy life-root
No fibre is destroyed.” Faith

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“His doctrine of peace and love, and in his war upon shame.”

“His observation, his wit, his reason, his imagination , his style all obey the controlling sense of beauty, which is at the heart of his nature, and instinctively avoid the ugly and the base.”

“In his teachings and his life he is a great moral influence.” George Willis Cooke

“An intense sympathy with nature was one of the strongest characteristics of his poetry.” Whipple

“Emerson was never without honor, even in his own town and among him every day associates…” Boston Daily Globe, May 26, 1893.

“It has come to be practically a sort of rule in literature, that a man, having once shown himself capable of original writing, is entitled thenceforth to steal from the writings of others, at discretion.” Emerson on Shakespeare

“Character is higher than intellect, a great soul will be strong to live, as well as to think.”

“The Oriental luxuriance of expression which was always a part of Emerson’s equipment, as if he were a born Persian transplanted to the New England rocks, crops out in numberless places.” Benton

We close with this couplet and followed by a quatrain Dirge:

“The brook sings on, but sings in vain
Wanting the echo in my brain.”

“Knows he who till this lonely field,
To reap its scanty corn,
What mystic fruit his acres yield
At midnight and at morn?

In the long sunny afternoon,
The plain was full of ghosts;
I wandered up, I wandered down,
Beset by pensive hosts.

The winding Concord gleamed below,
Pouring as wide a flood
As when my brothers, long ago,
Came with me to the wood.

But they are gone, the holy ones
Who trod with me this lovely vale;
The strong, star-bright companions
Are silent, low, and pale.

My good, my noble, in their prime,
Who made this world the feast it was,
Who learned with me the lore of time,
Who loved this dwelling-place!

They took this valley for their toy,
They played with it in every mood;
A cell for prayer, a hall for joy,
They treated nature as they would.

I tough this flower of silken leaf,
Which once our childhood knew;
Its soft leaves wound me with grief
Whose balsam never grew.

Hearken to yon pine-warbler
Singing aloft in the tree!
Hearest thou, O traveler,
What he singeth to me?

Not unless God made sharp thine ear
With sorrow such as mine,
Out of that delicate lay could’st thou
Its heavy tale divine.

‘Go lonely man’ it saith;
‘They loved thee from their birth;
Their hands were pure, and pure their faith,
There are no such hearts on earth.

‘Ye drew one mother’s milk,
One chamber held ye all;
A very tender history
Did in your childhood fall.

‘Ye cannot unlock your heart,
The key is gone with them;
The silent organ loudest chants
The master’s requiem.’”