Ralph Waldo Emerson Emerson, Ralph Waldo (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803–1882

American essayist and poet.

Emerson was one of the most influential American writers of the nineteenth century. He was one of the founders of the Transcendental movement which drew together major New England literary figures who shared beliefs in the divinity of nature and of the individual and asserted that each human must make moral determinations individually, regardless of religious dogma. Emerson's poetry reflects the same optimism, mysticism, and love of nature that his essays expressed. Through his essays and poems, Emerson influenced such acclaimed writers as Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Edwin Arlingtion Robinson, and Robert Frost.

Biographical Information

Emerson was born in Boston on May 25, 1803. His father died when Emerson was eight, and his mother took in borders to meet expenses and keep the family together. Emerson attended Harvard College from 1817 to 1821 and then taught school sporadically from 1821 to 1826. He also attended Harvard Divinity School intermittently from 1825 to 1827. In 1829, Emerson fulfilled the expectations of family members by being ordained, like his father and grandfather before him, as a Unitarian minister. But Emerson brought with him doubts concerning traditional Christian beliefs including the sanctity of the Eucharist, and he resigned from his position as pastor of Boston's Second Church in 1832. His decision to leave the church may also have been kindled in 1831 by the devastating death of his first wife, Ellen, to whom he had been married only a year and a half. After his resignation, Emerson spent the next year traveling in Europe where he met the influential writers William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle, and visited the botanical gardens of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, an experience which inspired his interest in the mystical significance of nature. Returning to America in 1833, Emerson settled in Concord, Massachusetts and began a career of lecturing on the popular lyceum lecture circuit. In 1835, he married his second wife, Lydia Jackson, with whom he had four children, one of whom, his son Waldo, died at the age of six. He anonymously published his essay Nature in 1836, admitting to its authorship only after hearing reviewers acclaim it. The same year he also helped establish what became known as the Transcendental Club, a group whose noteworthy members included Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret

Fuller. Emerson frequently contributed poetry to the Dial (1840-1843) the group's journal, and briefly served as its editor. He lived an active life, writing essays, poems and journals, delivering lectures, traveling, and establishing himself as a major American intellectual. He continued to write and lecture into his seventies, coming to be regarded as the "Sage of Concord." His later years, however, were characterized by a gradually advancing senility. He died in Concord in 1882.

Major Works

Emerson's poetry emphasizes nature as a symbol of the divine and focuses on the commonplace and everyday experience. Among his influences are the Romantic British poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, the metaphysical poet George Herbert, and the transcendental Persian poets Hafez and Saadi. The most well known of Emerson's mystical poems influenced by the Persian poets are "The Sphinx," the opening poem of his first volume which establishes Emerson's mysterious, prophetic tone; "Hamatreya," an application of Hindu wisdom to the New England setting; "Bacchus," a celebration of poetic inspiration; "Days," a combination of Puritan values and oriental imagery; and "Brahma," a condensation of Hindu ideas that lead to the association of Nirvana with selflessness. Another of Emerson's major themes was the Romantic tribute to nature. It is represented in such famous poems as "The Snow Storm," a poem in blank verse which depicts a fierce winter storm that transforms the New England landscape, "The Rhodora," a lyrical celebration of the native flower which suggests the presence of a divine force in its creation, along with "The Adirondacs," a blank verse tribute to the mountains and "The Titmouse," a paean to the tiny bird that conquers fear. Another thematic grouping contains poems examining personal issues in Emerson's life, such as "Threnody" about the death of his son, "The Problem" which addresses Emerson's personal dilemma of admiration for church leaders despite his refusal to remain within their ranks and "Terminus," an anticipation of his own death. During his life, Emerson was most noted for his patriotic poems such as the classic, public verses "Concord Hymn: Sung at the Completion of the Battle Monument, July 4, 1837" and "Boston Hymn." His edition Selected Poems is a compilation of poems from his first two volumes, rearranged with minor changes. Posthumous publications include Poems and the recently published The Poetry Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson which makes easily accessible Emerson's rough drafts and comments regarding the composition of his poetry.

Critical Reception

Emerson's poetic skills have always been a matter of debate among critics and approaches to evaluating his poems have been quite varied. The focus on thematic analyses began by questioning Emerson's religious doctrines. The early reviewers of Emerson's first book of poetry challenged Emerson's theological base and judged him lacking in Christian values. As nineteenth-century readers found more liberal statements of faith in the publications of other transcendental poets such as Whitman, critics became less harsh in their judgement of Emerson's poems, shifting their thematic analyses to focus on Emerson's success in writing about nature. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, Emerson's essays had established his reputation as an outstanding American philosopher, and during the remainder of his life, reviewers were generally reluctant to be overly critical of his poems.

Throughout both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, structural analyses of the poems have acknowledged that they are stylistically imperfect and that Emerson subordinated meter and diction to thematic concerns. Those critics who do not like Emerson's work mark these aesthetic weaknesses as overwhelming flaws in the poetry, while those who enjoy the poems defend Emerson's style as examples of his poetic theory in action, the idea that nineteenth-century American verse needed to be liberated from traditional forms. Albert Gelpi, for example, has asserted that Emerson intended his poems to convey the same moral messages he expounded in his essays and lectures and that he used poetic forms that would best convey these messages as experiences of inspiration. Charles Malloy, an American businessman with a penchant for poetry, was the first to closely analyze most of Emerson's major poems. During the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century he wrote articles for literary journals and delivered lectures in and around Boston explicating and praising individual poems, thus popularizing them. Malloy also founded the Boston Emerson Society, and served as its president for many years. In the 1930s and 1940s studies of Emerson's essay "Persian Poetry" and Emerson's translations of Persian poems resulted in examinations of the degree to which Emerson was influenced by the Persian poets. These studies rekindled interest in Emerson's poems based on analyses of their sources. Regardless of the question of its own merits, Emerson's poetry is often cited as having influenced generations of American poets.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Poems 1847

May-Day and Other Pieces 1867

Selected Poems 1876

Poems 1884

The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson 12 vols. (collection) 1903-4

The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson 5 vols, to date (essays, poetry, and other writings) 1971-

The Poetry Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson 1986

Other Major Works

Nature (essay) 1836

Essays (essay) 1841; also published as Essays: First Series, 1854

Nature; An Essay, and Lectures on the Times (essays) 1844

Orations, Lectures, and Addresses (essays) 1844

Essays: Second Series (essays) 1844

Nature; Addresses, and Lectures (essays) 1849

Representative Men: Seven Lectures (essays) 1850

English Traits (essays) 1856

The Conduct of Life (essays) 1860

Society and Solitude (essays) 1870

Letters and Social Aims (essays) 1876

Natural History of Intellect and Other Papers (essays) 1894

The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 10 vols, (journals) 1909-14

The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson (letters) 1939

Ralph Waldo Emerson (essay date 1844)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poet," in American Literary Essays, edited by Lewis Leary, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1960, pp. 161-74.

[The following is an excerpt from the noted essay, "The Poet, " which first appeared as the introductory essay in Emerson's 1844 collection Essays: Second Series. In this piece, Emerson describes the poet's intuitive sense and ability to record his perceptions, often with symbols from nature.]

Those who are esteemed umpires of taste are often persons who have acquired some knowledge of admired pictures or sculptures, and have an inclination for whatever is elegant; but if you inquire whether they are beautiful souls, and whether their own acts are...

(The entire section is 2643 words.)

Cyrus A. Bartol (essay date 1847)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poetry and Imagination," in Christian Examiner, Vol. 42, March, 1847, pp. 250-701.

[In this excerpt from his review of Emerson's Poems, Bartol offers a theological evaluation determining that Emerson's religious beliefs weaken his poetry.]

… The heart in [Emerson's] poetry is less than the head, and this causes a deficiency for which nothing else can fully atone. Only a transcendent splendor and wealth of intellect could redeem many of his pieces from condemnation and forgetfulness, as being frigid and unfeeling. These are sad flaws in such noble workmanship. Did a fellow-feeling for human nature in all its varieties equal and fill out his other...

(The entire section is 1550 words.)

Orestes A. Brownson (essay date 1847)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Emerson's Poems," in Brownson's Quarterly Review, Vol. 4, April, 1847, pp. 262-76.

[Brownson, an early Transcendentalist who became an ardent Roman Catholic, edited his own magazine from 1844 to 1875 as a vehicle for his religious beliefs and wrote popular books containing the sensationalized religious tone evident in this excerpt. Here Brownson criticizes Emerson's poetry by describing it as the voice of a depressed and delusional poet under the influence of Satan.]

… Mr. Emerson's poems … fail in all the higher requisites of art. They embody a doctrine essentially false, a morality essentially unsound, and at best a beauty which is partial, individual....

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Francis Bowen (essay date 1847)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Nine New Poets," in The North American Review, Vol. LXIV, No. 135, April, 1847, pp. 402-34.

[In this excerpt, Bowen finds fault with Emerson's meter, rhyme and "obscure" allusions. Bowen's negative response to the poems represents the general reaction of early reviewers to Emerson's first book of poetry.]

… [Mr. Emerson's] mystical effusions have been for some years the delight of a large and increasing circle of young people, and the despair of the critics. He is a chartered libertine, who has long exercised his prerogative of writing enigmas both in prose and verse, sometimes with meaning in them, and sometimes without,—more frequently without. Many of...

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Harvard Magazine (essay date 1855)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Emerson as a Poet," in Harvard Magazine, Volume 1, October, 1855, pp. 422-33.

[In this excerpt from an article appearing in the magazine associated with Emerson's alma mater, Harvard University, the anonymous critic commends Emerson as an intellectual poet whose original verse derives its inspiration from both American nature and Eastern religions. Written eight years after Emerson first published Poems, the critic's positive response reflects the changing attitude toward poetic styles during the 1850s.]

The venerable and historic town of Concord (not Concord, New Hampshire, famous for its small-beer school of politicians) is likely, in addition to its...

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Charles Eliot Norton (essay date 1867)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of May-Day and Other Pieces, in North American Review, Vol. CCXVI, July, 1867, pp. 325-27.

[Norton, an editor of leading journals during the 1860s and a professor at Harvard University for twenty-five years, wrote internationally reknowned literary and social criticism and historical essays that produced a wide cultural influence. In this excerpt, he praises Emerson's second book of poetry by expressing a willingness to accept Emerson's uneven poetic style as a minor flaw in light of the greater contribution made by Emerson's moral and spiritual themes.]

In the exquisite poem in this volume [May-Day and Other Pieces] called "Terminus" Mr....

(The entire section is 986 words.)

William Dean Howells (essay date 1867)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of May-Day and Other Pieces, in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 20, September, 1867, pp. 376-78.

[Howells, one of the most popular novelists of the late nineteenth century, was an editor of Atlantic Monthly for fifteen years. In this excerpt Howells praises selections from Emerson's second book of poetry and states that Emerson's poetry, while challenging, offers great intellectual rewards.]

We wonder whether those who take up Mr. Emerson's poem now, amid the glories of the fading summer, are not giving the poet a fairer audience than those who hurried to hear his song in the presence of the May he celebrates. As long as spring was here, he had a...

(The entire section is 1353 words.)

Oliver Wendell Holmes (essay date 1899)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Emerson's Poems," in Ralph Waldo Emerson/John Lothrop Motley: Two Memoirs, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1899, pp. 239-64.

[Holmes, a contemporary of Emerson's, was a famous medical doctor and fellow writer. In the following excerpt, Holmes discusses Emerson's poetry by comparing Emerson to the great writers throughout history, ranking Emerson highly for the moral statements he makes in symbolic terms but also criticizing him slightly for the unevenness of his poetic rhythm.]

… The difference between Emerson's poetry and that of the contemporaries with whom he would naturally be compared is that of algebra and arithmetic. He deals largely in general...

(The entire section is 2812 words.)

Elisabeth Luther Cary (essay date 1904)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poems," in Emerson: Poet and Thinker, G. P. Putman's Sons, 1904, pp. 205-20.

[In this excerpt Cary, a professional journalist-biographer, praises Emerson's poetry, finding it equal to William Wordsworth's in its "moral purpose." To Cary, Emerson epitomizes America's mid-nineteenth century call for poets to fulfill an organic ideal of verse.]

Emerson delayed until 1847 the first edition of his poems, "uncertain always," he wrote to his brother, whether he had "one true spark of that fire which burns in verse." It is not probable that to-day any critic of importance could be found to share his doubt. Whatever may be said of his prose there is one thing that must...

(The entire section is 2590 words.)

Henry Van Dyke (essay date 1922)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Puritan Plus Poetry," in Companionable Books, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1922, pp. 335-55.

[In the following excerpt, Van Dyke emphasizes Emerson's ability to describe the beauty of nature and to spark the reader's imagination.]

… [Emerson's] prose is better known and more admired than his verse, for several reasons: first, because he took more pains to make the form of it as perfect as he could; second, because it has a wider range and an easier utterance; third, because it has more touches of wit and of familiarity with the daily doings of men; and finally, because the majority of readers probably prefer prose for silent reading, since the full charm of...

(The entire section is 598 words.)

Alfred Noyes (essay date 1924)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Emerson," in Some Aspects of Modern Poetry, Hodder and Stoughton, N.D. pp. 55-68.

[Noyes was a prolific, twentieth-century, British poet and the author of books about Tennyson and Voltaire. In the following excerpt, Noyes compares Emerson to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edgar Allan Poe with a focus on the poems, "Humble-Bee," "Give All to Love," and "Bacchus. " He also presents Emerson as a creative force in the development of modern poetry linking Emerson to Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling.]

Twelve years ago, during a first visit to America, I was surprised to find that the man whom I had always believed to be the greatest poet of...

(The entire section is 2673 words.)

Robert M. Gay (essay date 1928)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poetry, England, and the War," in Emerson: A Study of the Poet as Seer, Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1928, pp. 192-228.

[Gay edited a collection of verse for college students. In the following excerpt, he criticizes Emerson's poetry for its lack of "smoothness" and links this poetic flaw to what he perceives as Emerson's theory of poetry with its emphasis on the poem as a philosophical statement rather than an aesthetically stylized work of art.]

In September, 1844, Emerson purchased, on the shore of Walden Pond, a plot of eleven acres, to which, on the advice of friends, he added three or four more of pine woods adjoining. No purchase of his life gave...

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Jean Gorely (essay date 1931)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Emerson's Theory of Poetry," in Poetry, Vol. XXII, July-August, 1931, pp. 263-73.

[In the following excerpt, Gorely explores Emerson's method of poetic composition by referring to his journals and his essay, "The Poet. " She discusses the value that Emerson places on inspiration and truth as forces that guide the poet in rhythmical expression.]

In the first essay of the series of 1844, [The Poet] Emerson considers the nature and function of the true poet. He begins his discussion with these words: "The breadth of the problem is great, for the poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but...

(The entire section is 3726 words.)

Seymour L. Gross (essay date 1955)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Emerson and Poetry," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. LIV, No. 1, January, 1955, pp. 82-94.

[Gross is an American-Literature scholar whose area of specialization is Nathaniel Hawthorne with an additional focus on African-American Literature and Emerson criticism. In the following excerpt, Gross examines contradictory aspects of Emerson's theories of poetry and rates Emerson's poetry unfavorably. The critic points out specific flaws in the poems "Each and All" and "The Rhodora" but presents "Days" as Emerson's finest poem.]

In view of the multitude of learned articles and books on the subject of Emerson's theory and practice of poetry, there is perhaps some...

(The entire section is 4966 words.)

R. A. Yoder (essay date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Toward the 'Titmouse Dimension': The Development of Emerson's Poetic Style," in PMLA, Vol. 87, No. 2, March, 1972, pp. 255-70.

[In this excerpt, Yoder presents a chronological study of Emerson's poems to reveal the development of Emerson's poetic style. Yoder finds that Emerson's use of poetic techniques, his themes, and his poetic structures follow a progression that coincides with his changing concept of the "poet's identity."]

… The task of defining Emerson's poetry is difficult because, unlike Whitman and Emily Dickinson, the acknowledged giants of nineteenth-century American poetry, Emerson has no distinctive, original, easily defined style. It has been...

(The entire section is 7948 words.)

Donald Yannella (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Artful Thunder," in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Twayne Publishers, 1982, pp. 69-96.

[Donald Yannella is an American educator and a scholar of nineteenth-century American Literature. In this excerpt he shows that while "not all are great" Emerson's poems are "technically accomplished works" worthy of a distinguished rank in American poetry. Yannella begins by interpreting Emerson's poetic theory as stated in "The Poet," and proceeds to explicate a selection of Emerson's poems grouped together thematically.]

Emerson was forty-three years old when the first of his three volumes of poetry was issued on Christmas Day 1846. (It bears the publication date 1847.) Before any...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Burkholder, Robert E. and Myerson, Joel. Emerson: An Annotated Bibliography. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994, 234 p.

Annotated bibliography of writings on Emerson, arranged chronologically between 1980 and 1991.

Burkholder, Robert E. and Myerson, Joel. Emerson: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985, 842 p.

Annotated bibliography of writings on Emerson, arranged chronologically between 1816 and 1979.

Myerson, Joel. Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Descriptive Bibliography....

(The entire section is 1287 words.)