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.
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.
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.
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.