Ralph Waldo Emerson



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The Sage of Concord and the intellectual center of the American Renaissance, Ralph Waldo Emerson, as preacher, philosopher, and poet, embodied the finest spirit and highest ideals of his age. A thinker of bold originality, his essays and lectures offer models of clarity, style, and thought, which made him a formidable presence in 19th century American life.

Born on May 3, 1803, in Boston, Waldo, as he preferred to be called, received a classical education at Boston Latin School and at Harvard College. Following in his father's footsteps, Emerson was ordained a Unitarian minister in 1829, but he experienced a religious crisis after the death from tuberculosis of his first wife, the beautiful and romantic Ellen Tucker, to whom he had been married only eighteen months. Resigning from the Second Church and journeying to England in 1832, he became friends with Carlyle, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, and began to formulate his Transcendental faith.

Returning to American in 1834, Emerson began a new career as a lecturer. The subsequent few years proved a roller-coaster of emotional events: the untimely deaths of his brothers Edward (1834) and Charles (1836); his remarriage to Lydia (whom he renamed Lidian because it had a more euphonious classical ring to it) Jackson of Plymouth and their settling comfortably in a new home in Concord, MA (1835); the birth of their children-- son Waldo in 1836, Ellen in 1838, Edith in 1841, and Edward in 1844; and the publication of Emerson's first major essay, NATURE (1836).

Gathering around him a circle of poets, reformers, artists, and thinkers who helped define a new national identity for American art--among them, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, the Peabody sisters, the Alcott family, Jonas Very, the Ripleys and the Channings-- Emerson expounded his views on the mystical harmonies of man and nature, the essential perfectibility of the human spirit, the unity of the human soul with the divine Over-Soul, and the values of non-conformity, intellectual and spiritual independence, self-reliance, and utopian friendship. A committed Abolitionist, a champion of the hounded Native Americans, a tireless crusader for peace and social justice, a supporter of educational reform, as well as a selfless champion of other creative geniuses around him--(his letter endorsing Whitman's LEAVES OF GRASS hailed the younger poet as "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed"), Emerson's writings combine passion with a purity of prose. With Margaret Fuller he founded THE DIAL, which published Transcendentalist literature from1840-1844, and in the years between 1837-1844 he published his most famous works, THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR, THE DIVINITY SCHOOL ADDRESS, and two volumes of ESSAYS (1841 & 1845), which contained the influential pieces SELF-RELIANCE, THE POET, FRIENDSHIP, and THE OVER-SOUL, this last an outline of the tenets of Transcendentalism.

1842 saw the death of his and Lidian's little Waldo, followed by the birth of their son Edward in 1844, and shortly afterwards in 1847 Emerson again went abroad, this time to England and to France, while Thoreau remained in Concord watching over the Emerson family. One by one throughout the remaining three and a half decades of his productive, disciplined life in which he lectured extensively and continued to write seven more major works, Emerson faced the departure of those close to him with stoic faith: his mother in 1853; his brother Bulkeley in 1859; his comrade Thoreau in 1862; his Aunt Mary Moody, who had been a profound influence on his moral and intellectual life from childhood, in 1863; his brother William in 1868. The last blow came in 1872, when the house where he and Lidian had lived for thirty-seven years burned. To relieve his depression, Emerson's friends arranged for him to travel abroad in 1873, while they raised the funds and oversaw the rebuilding of the house and the reconstruction of his library--a gift they presented to the speechless poet upon his return in 1873. There he lived quietly until his death into his seventy-ninth year, struggling with a waning memory, but persevering with his daughters' help, in editing his papers and publishing his last two volumes, PARNASSUS and LETTERS AND SOCIAL AIMS.

On April 27, 1882, the great thinker died of pneumonia, caught some weeks before after a rain-soaked walk through his beloved Concord woods. The tiny New England town tolled the bell for each of his years, shrouded itself in black, and prepared for the onslaught of mourners who came from far and near to accompany Emerson to his rest on Poets' Knoll in Sleepy Hollow cemetery.


From NATURE (1836):

"Nature is the incarnation of thought. The world is the mind precipitated."

"What is a farm but a mute gospel?"

"The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation."

"Between man and vegetable. I am not alone and not unacknowledged."

"We have listened too long to the courtly Muses of Europe."

"Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier."

"Life is our dictionary."

"It is one soul that animates all men."


[The Transcendentalist] "believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy."
"Whosoever would be a man, must be a nonconformist....A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds....To be great is to be misunderstood."

"Your goodness must have an edge to it,--else it is none."

From FRIENDSHIP (1841)
"Who hears, who understands me, becomes mine--a possession for all time."

"The essence of friendship is entireness, a total magnaminity and trust."

"I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with the roughest courage. When they are real, they are not unto glass threads or frostwork, but the solidest thing we know."

From the JOURNALS (1842)
"A spark of fire is infinitely deep, but a mass of fire reaching from earth upward into heaven, this is the sign of the robust, united, burning, radiant soul."
From THE POET (1844)
"America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres."
From WOODNOTES I (1840)
And such I knew, a forest seer,
A minstrel of the natural year,
Foreteller of the vernal ides,
Wise harbinger of spheres and tides,
A lover true, who knew by heart
Each joy the mountain dales impart;
It seemed that nature could not raise
A plant in any secret place,
In quaking bog, on snowy hill,
beneath the grass that shades the rill,
Under the snow, between the rocks,
In damp fields known to bird and fox,
But he would come in the very hour
It opened its virgin bower,
As if a sunbeam showed the place,
And tell its long-descended race.
It seemed as if the breezes brought him;
It seemed as if the sparrows taught him;
As if by secret sight he knew,
Where, in far fields, the orchis grew,
Many haps fall in the field
Seldom seen by wishful eyes,
But 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 thrushes' broods;
And the shy hawk did wait for him;
What others did at distance hear,
And guessed within the thicket's gloom,
Was shown to this philosopher,
And at his bidding seemed to come.

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