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Ralph Waldo, author, born in Boston, Massachusetts, 25 May 1803; died
in Concord, Massachusetts, 27 April 1882. He was the second of five sons of the
Rev. William Emerson, minister of the 1st Church, Boston. His grandfather at the
sixth remove, Rev. Joseph Emerson, of Mendon, Massachusetts, married the
granddaughter of Rev. Peter Bulkeley, who was one of the founders of Concord,
Massachusetts, and minister of the first Church there. Joseph's grandson, of the
same name, was pastor at Malden, and married a daughter of the Rev. Samuel
Moody, of York, Maine, and three of the sons of this union were clergymen; among
them William. Ralph Waldo's grandfather, who presided over the Church in Concord
at the time of the first battle of the Revolutionary war, which took place close
by the minister's manse. This grandfather also had married the daughter of a
minister, the Rev. Daniel Bliss, his predecessor in the pulpit at Concord. Thus
the tendency and traditions of Ralph Waldo Emerson's ancestry were strong in the
direction of scholarly pursuits and religious thought.
family was one of those that constitute, as Dr. Holmes says, the "academic
races" of New England. His father (see EMERSON, WILLIAM) Was a successful
but not popular preacher, whose sympathies were far removed from Calvinism. He
published several sermons, and was editor of the "Monthly Anthology"
from 1805 till 1811, a periodical that had for contributors John Thornton
Kirkland, Joseph S. Buckminster, John S. J. Gardiner, William Tudor, and Samuel
C. Thacher. It was largely instrumental in developing a taste for literature in
New England, and led to the establishment of the "North American
Review." The mother of Waldo was a woman "of great patience and
fortitude, of the serenest trust in God, of a discerning spirit, and the most
courteous bearing." He strongly resembled his father.
aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, a woman of high intellectual attainments, was one of
his early companions; and in some printed extracts from her journals a mode of
thought and expression remarkably similar to that of the now celebrated essayist
is traceable. His youngest brother, Charles Chauncey, who died young, in 1834,
was distinguished by a singularly pure and sweet character, and contributed to
the "Harvard Register" three articles in which there are
passages strikingly like portions of the essays afterward produced by Ralph
Waldo. The latter concentrated in himself the spiritual and intellectual
tendencies of several generations.
entered the grammar school at the age of eight, and the Latin school, under
Master Gould, in 1815; but neither here nor at Harvard did he show unusual
ability. After leaving College he engaged in teaching, and began the study of
theology under the direction of Dr. Channing, although not regularly enrolled at
the Cambridge Divinity School. He read Plato, Augustine, Tillotson, Jeremy
Taylor, and had from boyhood been an enthusiast regarding Montaigne's essays, of
which he said: " It seems to me as if I had myself written the book in
some former life."
1826 he was "approbated to preach" by the Middlesex association
of ministers ; but his health forced him to pass the winter in South Carolina
and Florida. He was ordained in March 1829, as colleague of Rev. Henry Ware,
Jr., in the pastorate of the 2d Church, Boston, and succeeded to Ware's place
within eighteen months. His preaching was eloquent, simple, and effective. He
took part actively in the city's public affairs, and showed a deep interest in
philanthropic movements, opening his Church, also, to the antislavery agitators.
In 1832, however, he resigned his pastorate, and did not thereafter regularly
resume ministerial labors. Having decided that the use of the elements in the
communion was a mistaken formality the true communion, as he thought, being
purely spiritual he refused to make the compromise proposed, that he should put
his own construction on the Lord's supper, leaving his congregation to retain
their view. The parting with his flock was friendly, and, although long
misunderstood in certain quarters, he always maintained a strong sympathy with
several years he had been writing poetry, but he published no literary work
during the term of his pastorate. The poem "Goodbye, Proud World,"
incorrectly attributed to the date of his resignation, was written before he
entered the ministry. Excepting this piece, little poetry of his early period
has been given to the world. He had married, in 1829, Miss Ellen Louisa Tucker,
who died in February 1832. In 1833 he went to Europe for his health, visiting
Sicily, Italy, and France, and preaching in London and Edinburgh. At this time
he met Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Thomas Carlyle, forming with the last-named
writer an enduring friendship, which is one of the most interesting in literary
annals. It resulted in a correspondence, which was continued for thirty-six
years, and has been published under the editorship of Charles Eliot Norton
(Boston, 1883). Returning to the United States in 1834,
Emerson preached in New Bedford, declined a call to settle there, and went to
Concord, where he remained. In the next winter he began lecturing, the subjects
of his choice being, curiously enough, "Water" and "The
Relation of Man to the Globe." But he soon found themes better suited
to his genius, in a course of biographical lectures given in Boston, discussing
Luther, Milton, Burke, Michael Angelo, and George Fox. Two of these were
published in the "North American Review." This course was followed by
ten lectures on English literature in 1835, twelve on the philosophy of history
in 1836, and in 1837 ten on human culture. Much of the matter embraced in them
was afterward remolded and brought out in his later volumes of essays, or
condensed into the rhythmic form of poems.
Emerson married, in September 1835, Miss Lidian Jackson, of Plymouth,
Massachusetts. He then left the "Old Manse," where he had been
staying with Dr. Ripley, and moved into a house on the old Lexington road, along
which the British had retreated from Concord in 1775. In this" plain,
square, wooden house," surrounded by horse chestnut and pine trees,
with pleasant garden grounds attached, he made his home for the rest of his
life; and, through his presence there, the village became "the Delphi of
New England." On 19 April 1836, the anniversary of the Concord fight,
Emerson's hymn, composed for the occasion and containing those lines which have
since resounded almost as widely as the fame of the deed, "Here once the
embattled farmers stood, And fired the shot heard round the world," was
sung at the dedication of the battle monument.
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September of the same year his first book, "Nature," an
idealistic prose essay in eight chapters which had been written in the same room
of the "Old Manse" in which Hawthorne afterward wrote his "Mosses"
was published anonymously in Boston. During the summer he had supplied the
pulpit of the Concord Unitarian Church for three months, and in the autumn he
preached a while for a new society at East Lexington; but he refused to become
its pastor, saying: " My pulpit is the lyceum platform." Doubts had
arisen in his mind as to the wisdom of public prayer, the propriety of offering
prayer for others, and the rightfulness of adhering to any formal worship. From
this time his career became distinctively that of a literary man, although for
several years he confined himself mainly to lecturing, and most of his prose
writings were first given to the public orally. Carlyle had said to Longfellow
that when Emerson came to Craigenputtock it was "like the visit of an
1836 he edited early sheets of Carlyle's "Sartor Resartus," and
in 1838 three volumes of the same author's essays, all of these appearing in
book form in this country before they did so in England, and netting a
comfortable sum for Carlyle. "Nature," similarly, met with
considerable appreciation in England, but in the United States it took twelve
years to sell 500 copies. The character of the book was both methodical and
rhapsodical. It taught that the universe consists of nature and the soul, and
that external nature serves four purposes: commodity, beauty, language, and
discipline. It ministers to the senses; then to the love of beauty; then it
gives us language i. e., supplies words as the signs of natural facts, by which
we interpret our own spirits. Natural laws applied to man become moral laws; and
thus we perceive the highest use of nature which is discipline. It trains
reason, develops the intellect, and becomes the means of moral culture. Thus
nature speaks always of spirit, suggests the idea of the absolute, teaches
worship of God, whom we cannot describe, and shows us that nature itself is only
an apparition of God. " The mind is a part of the nature of
things," and God is revealed directly to the soul, spirit being present
all through nature, but acting upon us through ourselves and not from without.
verbal style this treatise has great beauty, and rises to the plane of a prose
poem" but the contents perplexed theologians. The author was accused of
pantheism, though it is hard to see how the belief so named differs from the
professed Christian doctrine of the omnipresence of God. Most of the practical
people in the community regarded Emerson as crazy, revolutionary, or a fool who
did not know his own meaning. Ex-president John Quincy
Adams wrote concerning him in 1840: "After failing in the everyday
vocations of a Unitarian preacher and schoolmaster, he starts a new doctrine of
transcendentalism, declares all the old revelations superannuated and worn out,
and announces the approach of new revelations."
term transcendentalists was somewhat vaguely applied to a number of writers,
among whom Emerson was the chief; but they did not constitute a regularly
organized group, and had no very well defined aims in common that could warrant
the classification. Emerson himself disclaimed it later, saying "there
was no concert of doctrinaires to establish certain opinions or to inaugurate
some movement in literature, philosophy, or religion . . . but only two or three
men and women, who read alone, with some vivacity. Perhaps all of these were
surprised at the rumor that they were a school or a sect, but more especially at
the name of ' Transcendentalism.'"
the scholars and writers of the period under notice, who numbered considerably
more than two or three, finally adopted the name that had been forced upon them
by changing the name of a periodical gathering held by them from the "Symposium
"to " The Transcendental Club." A period of new
intellectual activity had begun about 1820, on the return of Edward Everett from
Europe, laden with treasures of German thought, which he put into circulation.
Gradually his influence, and that of Coleridge and Carlyle in England, produced
a reaction against the philosophy of Locke and
Bentham, which, denying all innate ideas, and insisting upon purely mechanical
revelation, had hitherto ruled Unitarians in Old and New England. The
reactionists affirmed the existence of innate ideas, and a faculty in man that
transcends the senses and the understanding. Supported by Goethe's deep love of
nature as a companion of man, and Wordsworth's
conception of it as interfused with spirit, Emerson made a new advance,
reiterated the idea of a transcendent faculty, intuitive religion, and
perception of God, and embodied in an original form the spiritual interpretation
Symposium, or Transcendental Club, began to meet in 1836, first at the house of
Dr. George Ripley. Among the members were Emerson, Frederic H. Hedge, James
Freeman Clarke, Convers Francis, Theodore Parker, Bronson Alcott, Rev. Cyrus A.
Bartol, Orestes A. Brownson, Margaret Fuller,
and Miss Elizabeth P. Peabody. Dr. Channing once attended, and was in sympathy
with the club, which discussed religion, impersonality, justice, truth,
mysticism, pantheism, and the development of American genius. In this last theme
perhaps lay the germ of Emerson's oration, "The American Scholar," delivered
before the Phi Beta Kappa society at Cambridge in August 1837. This has been
well called " our intellectual Declaration
of Independence," an event without any former parallel in our
literary annals. After eloquently describing the education and duties of the
scholar, it protested against the prevailing subservience to European taste,
suspected the American freeman of being "timid, imitative, tame,"
and demanded that the individual man "plant himself indomitably on his
instincts and there abide .... We will walk on our own feet; we will work with
our own hands; we will speak our own minds .... A nation of freemen will for the
first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul
which inspires all men."
friend, Bronson Alcott, having set up a school in Boston for teaching young
children by methods based on a new theory of education, published in 1837 a book
reporting his own conversations with the children on the gospels, which excited
severe criticism, and Emerson defended him in the Boston "Courier."
He was destined to rouse a much greater hostility himself by his address to
the senior class in the Divinity College, Cambridge, 15 July 1838. With great
force and beauty of language he attacked the formalism of contemporary religion,
and the traditional limited way of using the mind of Christ.
“Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and
done, as if God were dead The soul is not preached .... It is the office of a
true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that he speaketh, not spake. The
true Christianity faith like Christ's in the infinitude of man is lost." To
each of the graduates he said: "Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy
Ghost, cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hands with the
address, pronounced with strong conviction, led to lively controversy, in which
Emerson took no part. Ten lectures were given by him, in the winter of 1838'9,
on "The Doctrine of the Soul," " Home." "The
School," "Love," etc., followed later by "Man the
Reformer," "The Method of Nature," and a "Lecture on
the Times." In these he treated some of the reforms then agitated
temperance, antislavery, nonresistance, no government, and equal labor. Having
come to hold the position of a religious reformer, he was looked to for sympathy
with other reforms: but he dealt with them in the same spirit as with religion,
and proceeded to reform the reformers. He pointed out that " reforms
have their higher origin in an ideal justice, but they do not retain the purity
of an idea." Their work "is done profanely, not piously; by
management, by tactics, and by clamor." Any end pursued for itself, by
the practical faculty, must become an offence. The end should be "inapprehensible
to the senses"; then it would always be a good, always giving health.
it was Emerson's mission not to do practical work for reforms, but to supply
impulses and a high inspiration to the workers. In 1841 he lectured on "
The Conservative," and the next year on " The
Transcendentalist," saying that "transcendentalism "
was simply modern idealism, and that the "new views " were the
oldest of thoughts cast in a new mould. Yet, seven years before, he had
consulted with others about establishing a journal to be known as "The
Transcendentalist," and in July. 1840, it was begun, under the name of "The
succeeded Margaret Fuller as the editor, and during its continuance, until April
1844, published more than forty of his own pieces, prose and verse, in its
columns. The poems included such famous ones as "The Problem," "Woodnotes,"
and " Fate." This periodical contained much delicate and
valuable writing, but failed of pecuniary support. Associated as he was with the
idealists, in the capacity of chief intellectual leader, he took a cordial
interest in the semi socialistic experiment at Brook Farm (1840 to 1847), with
which some of the brightest New England men and women of that day were
connected; but he did not join the community, Hawthorne,
who was actually a member and lost money in the undertaking, has been much
criticized for having viewed it independently; but Emerson, outside, held a
similar neutral attitude, and wrote an account of the affair, in which, touching
it humorously at points, he called it "a French
Revolution in small, an Age of Reason in a patty pan."
1841 appeared the first volume of his essays, made up from lectures. It embraced
" History," "Compensation," " Self Reliance,"
" Heroism," "The OverSoul," " Spiritual Laws,"
"Love," "Friendship," "Prudence,"
"Intellect," " Circles," and "Art." A
second series was published in 1844, containing "Character,"
"Gifts."" Manners,"" The Poet,"
"Politics," " New England Reformers," and a new one on"
Nature." These made a favorable impression in France and England, and
laid the basis of his lofty reputation in this country as a prose writer. Two
years later he collected in a volume of "Poems " his scattered
metrical pieces, many of which had been printed in periodicals. He did not
escape sharp criticism, but the circle of his admirers rapidly widened.
new periodical, "The Massachusetts Quarterly Review," began its
career at Boston in 1847, edited by Theodore Parker, a disciple of Emerson, who
expounded the " new views" in a more combative way; and Emerson wrote
for it an " Editor's Address," inculcating a wise and sincere
spirit in meeting the problems of the state, of slavery, and socialism. In
October of that year he sailed to England on a lecturing tour, repeated a course
on " Representative Men " in various places, read a special
series in London on "The Mind and Manners in the Nineteenth
Century," and lectured frequently in Scotland. He was enthusiastically
received by large audiences, met a great number of the foremost men and women of
the time, and was a guest in many private houses. In 1849 he returned home and
published "Representative Men "(1850). Here he contributed to
the "Memoirs" of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1852) an account of
her conversations in Boston and her Concord life. He also, having visited Paris
while abroad, gave a lecture on "France," which has never been
printed; and at the Woman's Rights convention in 1856 delivered an address that
took advanced ground, for that date, in favor of larger liberty for women.
this year the result of his observations in England was published in the
volume entitled "English Traits," which gained cordial
recognition both at home and abroad, and has been translated into several
foreign languages. It is certainly the best analysis of the English people that
has been written by an American, and probably the best produced in any country.
The style is succinct and exact, sown with epigram, as in most of Emerson's
writings; but, the purpose being more objective than that of his essays, the
saving common sense that underlies all of his thinking is here brought
constantly and predominantly into view. Previously to this publication he had
given seven lectures in Freeman place chapel, Boston, and another in New York,
and had also made addresses before the Antislavery society in both cities. While
in the ministry he alone had opened a Church to abolition speakers, and his
sympathies were always on the side of emancipation. In 1835 he countenanced
Harriet Martineau in her outspoken condemnation of slavery, and in the height of
her unpopularity invited her to his house. Again, in 1844, he spoke stirringly
on the anniversary of West Indian emancipation, and scourged his countrymen for
tolerating Negro servitude. His own plan was to buy the slaves, at a cost of
$2,000,000,000, and he put faith in moral and spiritual influences to remove the
evil, rather than in legislation. He never formally united with the abolition
party, but he encouraged it, and his influence was great. As the contest grew
warmer, he rose to the emergency and took a more active part, even making
campaign speeches for John G. Palfrey, who, having missed reelection to congress
on account of his antislavery course in that body, was nominated as free soil
candidate for governor of Massachusetts.
assault on Charles Sumner by Preston S. Brooks
called forth another vigorous speech. In November 1859, he said before the
Parker fraternity that John Brown, were he to be hanged, would " shake
the gallows glorious, like the cross." A few days afterward he spoke at
a John Brown meeting at Tremont temple, with Wendell Phillips, and took part in
another at Concord, and in still a third at Salem, Massachusetts. In January,
1861, also, he addressed the Antislavery society at Boston, in the face of
disturbance by a mob. Though he was not a chief agitator of the cause, these
efforts, so alien to his retired habits as a student, poet, and meditative
writer, made him a marked advocate of freedom.
" Atlantic Monthly" made its first appearance in November 1857,
with James Russell Lowell as the editor, and Emerson became a contributor,
printing in all twenty-eight poems and prose articles in the first thirty-seven
volumes. "The Romany Girl," "Days," "Brahma,"
" Waldeinsamkeit," " The Titmouse," "Boston Hymn,"
"Saadi," and "Terminus," which are among his best
known poems, belong to this period; and in the "Atlantic" in
1858 appeared his essay on Persian poetry, which is instructive as to the
influence of oriental verse upon Emerson's. He continued to lecture in different
parts of the country, and at the Burns festival in Boston in January 1859, made
an after dinner speech which is described as imbued with a passion uncommon in
his utterances. A competent judge who had heard the chief orators of the time,
to surpass anything accomplished by them, said its effect on the assembly, and
it seems to have indicated a reserve power in Emerson seldom suspected.
1860 and 1862 he lost by death his friend Theodore Parker and his intimate
companion Thoreau, both of whom he celebrated in memorial addresses. The "
Conduct of Life" was published in the former years series of essays on
fate, power, wealth, culture, behavior, worship, considerations by the way,
beauty, and illusions. With a diminished admixture of mysticism, it offered a
larger proportion of practical philosophy, and stated the limitations of fate in
life, while but reaffirming the liberty of the individual. Hitherto Emerson's
books had sold very slowly; but of the "Conduct of Life" the
whole edition, 2,500 copies, was sold in two days. This is an index of the great
change that had occurred in the popular estimate of him since the issuing of his
first volume, "Nature," twenty-seven years before. He who had been
feared as a revolutionist, or laughed at as erratic, was now, at the age of
fifty-seven, accepted as a veritable prophet and sage. The people and the times
had, in a measure, grown up to him. A new "Dial" having been
established in Cincinnati about this time, he wrote for its pages. During the
civil war he delivered a lecture on "American Civilization" at
the Smithsonian institution in February 1862; an address in Boston on the emancipation
proclamation, September of the same year; and at Concord, 19 April 1865, he
pronounced a brief eulogy on Abraham Lincoln.
30 May 1867, he attended at the organization of the Free religious association
in Boston, and stated his view as to religion briefly thus: ”As soon as every
man is apprised of the Divine presence in his mind, and sees that the law of
duty corresponds with the laws of physical nature that duty, social order, power
of character, wealth of culture, perfection of taste, all draw their essence
from this moral sentiment "then we have a religion that exalts, that
commands all the social and all the private action." Emerson passed
many severe criticisms on his countrymen, publicly accused America of wanting in
faith, hope, enthusiasm, and in a letter to Carlyle called it an intelligent but
sensual, avaricious America. The war, with its heroisms and exhibitions of moral
strength, gave him new courage, new belief in the national future. His Phi Beta
Kappa oration of 1867 on "The Progress of Culture" expressed
even snore sanguine expectation than "The American Scholar,"
thirty years before. He received the degree of LL.D. from Harvard in 1866, and
was elected to the board of overseers in 1867. He began to feel the approach of
age, and in 1866 wrote the noble poem "Terminus." " It
is time to be old, To take in sail; I trim myself to the storm of time, I man
the rudder, reef the sail, Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime."
Nevertheless, in the following year he brought out "MayDay,"
a long poem, the freshest and most youthful in tone of any that he had written,
accompanied by many other pieces, some of which had appeared previously. In the
next three years, 1868'70, he read at Harvard a number of lectures on "The
Natural History of the Mind," which have not been collected. The essays
entitled " Society and Solitude" were published in 1870. They
are noticeable for an easy, almost conversational tone, differing remarkably
from the earlier published essays and "English Traits." The
same is true of "Letters and Social Aims" (1875). Emerson's
method of composition was to jot down notes from reading and observation, which
were entered in a commonplace book, with a memorandum on the margin. From this
he drew the material for his lectures, which, heard from the platform, were
flowing in style and clear in sequence. When he prepared them for publication,
much of the incidental matter and connecting links were struck out. The latest
two volumes were arranged for the press when the author, growing old, gave them
a less rigorous revision, and relied upon help from others.
1870 and 1871 he wrote introductions to a translation of Plutarch's "Morals
" and W. E. Channing's poem "The Wanderer."
"Parnassus," a collection of poems by British and American
authors, was brought out, with a short introduction, in 1874. Emerson was
nominated in the latter year for the lord rectorship of Glasgow University by
the independents, and was defeated by a vote of 500 in his favor against 700 for
Benjamin Disraeli. In 1875 he made a short address at the unveiling of French's
statue of "The Minuteman" on the Concord
battlefield. He responded to an invitation from two societies of the
University of Virginia in 1876 by lecturing to them on "The
March 1878, he read a paper at the Old South Church, Boston, on " The
Fortune of the Republic," in which, commenting with sagacity on current
tendencies in the national life, he said: "let the passion for America
cast out the passion for Europe." The same year he printed in the "
North American Review The Sovereignty of Ethics"; in 1879 he read "The
Preacher" in Divinity College, Cambridge, and an essay on "
Superlatives" was published in "The Century" magazine
for February 1882, shortly before his death. Two posthumous volumes of essays
and reminiscences have appeared: "Miscellanies," and "Lectures
and Biographical Sketches "; and many brief poems heretofore
unpublished have been included in a new edition.
July 1872, Emerson's house at Concord was partly destroyed by fire. This shock
hastened the decline of his mental powers, which had already set in, and
impaired his health. His friends’ spontaneously asked to be allowed to rebuild
the house, and deposited in bank for him over $11,000, at the same time
suggesting that he go abroad for rest and change. With his daughter Ellen he
visited England and the Nile, and returned to Concord in May 1873, to find his
house rebuilt and so perfectly restored to its former state that few could have
discovered any change (see view on page 346). Welcomed by the citizens m a mass,
he drove to his home, passing beneath a triumphal arch erected m his honor, amid
general rejoicing. After 1867 Emerson wrote no poems, and little prose, but
revised his poetry and arranged the "Selected Poems." Always
inclined to slow speech, sometimes pausing for a word, he succumbed to a gradual
aphasia, which made it difficult for him to converse. He forgot the names of
persons and things. He had some difficulty in discriminating printed letters,
and for the last five years of his life was unable to conduct correspondence.
Yet he read through all his own published works "with much interest and
surprise," and tried to arrange his manuscripts, which he examined
thoroughly. He also, following his custom of reading a paper annually before the
Concord lyceum, gave there, in 1880, his hundredth lecture to the local
audience. On that occasion the several hundred people in the hall spontaneously
arose at his entrance and remained standing until he had taken his place on the
platform. He took an interest in the Concord school of philosophy, organized in
1880, and supplied to its sessions an essay on "Natural
Aristocracy." Most of these later productions were put together from
portions of earlier compositions.
this time of decline he retained the perfect courtesy and consideration for
others that had always characterized him. He was apparently quite able to
comprehend the essence of things around him, and, to a certain extent, ideas;
but the verbal means of communication were lost. He had so long regarded
language and visible objects as mere symbols that the symbols at last melted
away and eluded him. He continued to read everything in printed form that he
found upon his table, whispering the words over like a child, and was fond of
pointing out pictures in books. In April 1882, he took a severe cold, and,
attended by his son, Dr. Edward Waldo Emerson, died of pneumonia. He was buried
in the cemetery at Concord, near the graves of Hawthorne and Thoreau,
in ground over which he had often walked and talked with them and with Margaret
was tall and slender, not of robust physique, rather sallow in the face, with an
aquiline nose, brown hair, and eyes of the "strongest and brightest
blue." His head was below the average in circumference, long, narrow,
but more nearly equal in anterior and posterior breadth than most heads, His
appearance was majestic. He was calm, kindly in expression, and frequently
smiled, but seldom laughed. His manners were dignified but exquisitely simple.
He was a ready listener, and often seemed to prefer listening, as if he were to
be instructed rather than to instruct. He rarely showed irritation. His
hospitality was almost unbounded, and he frequently waited upon the humblest of
his guests with his own hands. He was never well-to-do until in his latest
years. In 1838 he wrote to Carlyle that he possessed about $22,000 at interest,
and could earn $800 in a winter by lecturing, but never had a dollar "to
spend on a fancy." He worked hard every summer writing, and every
winter traveling and lecturing. His habits were regular and his diet frugal, the
only peptic luxury in which he indulged being pie at breakfast. Every morning
was spent in his study, and he would go all day without food unless called to
eat. His bedtime was ten o'clock, but, if engaged in literary work, he would sit
up until one or two, and was able to do this night after night. He fulfilled the
duties of a citizen by attending town meetings punctiliously.
question has been made whether Emerson was rather a poet than a philosopher, or
whether he was a philosopher at all. An exact philosopher he was not; but all
that he wrote and said was based upon philosophic ideas. He was an intellectual
rather than an emotional mystic, an idealist who insisted upon the application
of idealism to the affairs of daily life. He believed that "Nature is
the incarnation of a thought The world is mind precipitated." He
believed in the Over Soul as a light guiding man, the light of intuitive
perception, in God as the soul of the world, and in the human soul as one with
that Over Soul. He was not able to formulate these or other beliefs of his
logically. Writing to his former colleague, Henry Ware, he said" "I
could not give an account of myself if challenged I do not know what arguments
are in reference to any expression of a thought. I delight in telling what I
think but if you ask me how I dare say so, or why it is so, I am the most
helpless of mortal men."
continued to be his position to the end. He relied upon intuition, and thought
that every one might bring himself into accord with God on that basis, He
expressed what he felt at the moment, and some of his sayings, even in a single
essay, seem to be mutually opposed. But if the whole of his works be taken
together, a type of thought may be discerned in the conflicting expressions,
coherent and suggestive, like that presented by the photographs of several
generations of a family superimposed on one plate. In the beginning he seems to
have looked somewhat askance at science; but in the 1849 edition of "Nature"
he prefixed some verses that said: "And, striving to be man, the worm
Mounts through all the spires of form." This came out ten years before Darwin's
" Origin of Species," and twenty years sooner than "The
Descent of Man." Lamarck's theories, however, had been popularized in
1844. But Emerson here showed how quick he was to seize upon the newest thought
in science or elsewhere if it seemed to be true. Eleven years passed, and he
declared in the essay on "Worship," in "Conduct of Life
The religion which is to guide and fulfill the present and coming ages must be
intellectual. The scientific mind must have a faith which is science There will
be a new Church founded on moral science, at first cold and naked, but it will
have heaven and earth: for its beams and rafters, science for symbol and
illustration. It will fast enough gather beauty, nmsie, picture, poetry."
he thus advanced in viewing science, he advanced also in viewing all other
subjects " but it was from the point of view of intuition and oneness with
what he called the Over Soul. Everything that he said must be looked at in the
light of his own remark, " Life is a train of moods." But his
moods rest upon the certainty, to him, of his own intuition. Emerson's
presentation of his views is generally in a large degree poetic. His poems sum
up and also expand his prose. The seeming want of technical skill in his verse
is frequently due to a more subtle art of natural melody that defied
conventional rules of versification. The irregular lines, the flaws of metre and
rhyme, remind us of the intermittent breathings of an Eolian harp. Emerson's
poetic instrument may have been a rustic contrivance, but it answered to every
impulse of the winds and the sighs of human feeling, from "Monadnoc"
to the "Threnody " upon the death of his child son. Sometimes
he unconsciously so perfected his poetic lines that, as Dr. Hohnes says, a
moment after they were written they "seemed as if they had been carved
on marble for a thousand years," as this in "Voluntaries”:
"So nigh is grandeur to our dust, So near is God to man, When duty whispers
low, Thou must, The youth replies, I can." Matthew Arnold has
pronounced his essays "the most important work done in prose" in
this century" but Professor C. C. Everett, discussing the qualities of
Emerson in the "Andover Review" for March 1887, describes his
philosophy as that of a poet, and adds, "so his ethics is the ethics of
a poet." He regards the
poems as the most complete and worthy expression of Emerson's genius.
other critics do not generally accept Dr. Everett’s discovery of passion in
Emerson’s poetry. As has been well remarked by another writer, the verse, in
general abstractly and intellectually beautiful, kindles to passion only when
the chosen theme is distinctly American or patriotic. Emerson constantly
preached by life and pen a new revelation, a new teacher of religion and morals,
putting himself always in the place of a harbinger, a John crying in the
wilderness. Julian Hawthorne has written of him: "He is our future
living in our present, and showing the world, by anticipation, what sort of
excellence we are capable of."
His own life conformed perfectly to the idealism that he taught; but he
regarded himself as a modest link in the chain of progress. He made his
generation turn their eyes forward instead of backward. He enforced upon them
courage, self-reliance, patriotism, hope. People flocked to him from all
quarters, finally, for advice and guidance. The influence that he exercised not
only upon persons since grown eminent, such as Professor Tyndall, who found a
life's inspiration in his thought, but also upon thousands unknown, is one of
his claims to recognition. Another is that, at a time when, it is conceded, the
people of the United States were largely materialistic in their aims, he came
forward as the most idealistic writer of the age, and also as a plain American
citizen. He was greatly indebted to preceding authors. It has been ascertained
that he named in his writings 3,393 quotations from 868 individuals, mostly
writers. "The inventor only knows how to quote," said Emerson;
and, notwithstanding his drafts upon the treasury of the past, he is the most
original writer as a poet, seer, and thinker that America possesses. The
doctrine of the "many in one," which he incessantly taught, is
exemplified in himself and his works. The best extant accounts of Emerson are "Ralph
Waldo Emerson, his Life, Writings, and Philosophy," by George Willis
Cooke (Boston, 1881); "Ralph Waldo Emerson," by Oliver Wendell
Holmes (Boston, 1884); " Emerson at Home and Abroad," by
Moncure D. Conway ; "Biographical Sketch," by Alexander
Ireland; "The Genius and Character of Emerson, Lectures at the Concord
School of Philosophy," edited by P. B. Sanborn (Boston, 1885). See,
also, F. B. Sanborn's "Homes and Haunts of Emerson." J. E.
Cabot, of Boston, has in charge a life authorized by Emerson's family, which may
include extracts from his diaries and other unpublished matter.
Virtualology is not
affiliated with the authors of these links nor responsible for each Link's
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