Ralph Waldo Emerson Emerson, Ralph Waldo (Poetry Criticism)

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(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...

(The entire section is 50,002 words.)