Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Ralph Waldo Emerson often employs powerful imagery to support the ideas expressed in his prose. Cite particular examples of this trait in Nature.

What, according to Emerson, are the uses of nature? Is “using” nature an unfortunate term? Would another expression convey his meaning better?

Some students of Emerson’s “The American Scholar” have seen this address as an attempt to define his own vocation. Why in 1837 would he have needed to do such a thing?

How does the style of “Self-Reliance” enforce its theme?

What is the point of Emerson’s reformulation of religious concepts? For instance, what is the effect of his employment of a term like “Oversoul” or “Power” when he appears to be referring to God?

What evidence can you find in Emerson’s writing that he acknowledged the existence and force of evil?

Other literary forms

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Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1909-1914), written over a period of fifty-five years (1820-1875), have been edited in ten volumes by E. W. Emerson and W. E. Forbes. Ralph L. Rusk edited The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson in six volumes (1939). Emerson was a noted lecturer in his day, although many of his addresses and speeches were not collected until after his death. These appear in three posthumous volumes—Lectures and Biographical Sketches (1884), Miscellanies (1884), and Natural History of Intellect (1893)—which were published as part of a centenary edition (1903-1904). A volume of Emerson’s Uncollected Writings: Essays, Addresses, Poems, Reviews, and Letters was published in 1912. A sixteen-volume edition of journals and miscellaneous papers was published between 1960 and 1982.


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Although Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poetry was but a small part of his overall literary output, he thought of himself as very much a poet—even in his essays and lectures. He began writing poetry early in childhood and, at the age of nine, composed some verses on the Sabbath. At Harvard, he was elected class poet and was asked to write the annual Phi Beta Kappa poem in 1834. This interest in poetry continued throughout his long career.

During his lifetime, he published two small volumes of poetry, Poems and May-Day and Other Pieces, which were later collected in one volume for the centenary edition of his works. Altogether, the centenary volume contains some 170 poems, of which perhaps only several dozen are noteworthy.

Although Emerson produced a comparatively small amount of poetry and an even smaller number of first-rate poems, he stands as a major influence on the subsequent course of American poetry. As scholar, critic, and poet, Emerson was the first to define the distinctive qualities of American verse. His broad and exalted concept of the poet—as prophet, oracle, visionary, and seer—was shaped by his Romantic idealism. “I am more of a poet than anything else,” he once wrote, although as much of his poetry is found in his journals and essays as in the poems themselves. In An Oration Delivered Before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Cambridge (1837; better known as The American Scholar), he called for a distinctive American poetry, and in his essay “The Poet,” he provided the theoretical framework for American poetics. Scornful of imitation, he demanded freshness and originality from his verse, even though he did not always achieve in practice what he sought in theory. Rejecting the derivative verse of the Hartford wits and the sentimental versifiers of his day, he sought an original style and flavor for an American poetry close to the native grain. The form of his poetry was, as F. I. Carpenter argues (Emerson Handbook , 1953), the logical result of his insistence on self-reliance, while...

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its content was shaped by his Romantic idealism. Thus his cumulative influence on American poetry is greater than his verse alone might imply.

Expression mattered more than form in poetry, according to Emerson. If he was not the completely inspirational poet called for in his essays, that may have been more a matter of temperament than of any flaw in his sense of the kind of poetry that a democratic culture would produce. In fact, his comments often closely parallel those of Alexis de Tocqueville on the nature of poetry in America. Both men agreed that the poetry of a democratic culture would embrace the facts of ordinary experience rather than celebrate epic themes. It would be a poetry of enumeration rather than elevation, of fact rather than eloquence; indeed, the democratic poet would have to struggle for eloquence, for poetry of the commonplace can easily become flat or prosaic. Even Emerson’s own best verse often seems uneven, with memorable lines interspersed with mediocre ones.

Part of the problem with Emerson’s poetry arose from his methods of composition. Writing poetry was not for him a smooth, continuous act of composition, nor did he have a set formula for composition, as Edgar Allan Poe advocated in “The Philosophy of Composition.” Instead, he trusted inspiration to allow the form of the poem to be determined by its subject matter. This “organic” theory of composition shapes many of Emerson’s best poems, including “The Snow-Storm,” “Hamatraya,” “Days,” and “Ode.” These poems avoid a fixed metrical or stanzaic structure and allow the sense of each line to dictate its poetic form. Emerson clearly composed by the line rather than by the stanza or paragraph, in both his poetry and prose, and this self-contained quality often gives his work a gnomic or orphic tone.

Although some of his poems appear to be fragmentary, they are not unfinished. They lack smoothness or polish because Emerson was not a lyrical but a visionary, oracular poet. He valued poetry as a philosophy or attitude toward life rather than simply as a formal linguistic structure or an artistic form. “The poet is the sayer, the namer, and represents beauty,” he observed in “The Poet.” With Percy Bysshe Shelley he believed that the poet was the visionary who would make people whole and teach them to see anew. “Poets are thus liberating gods,” Emerson concluded, because “they are free, and they make free.” Poetry is simply the most concentrated expression of the poetic vision, which all people are capable of sharing.

Thus Emerson’s poems seek to accomplish what the essays announce. His poems attempt to reestablish the primal relationship between humans and nature that he sought as a substitute for revelation. Emerson prized the poet as an innovator, a namer, and a language maker who could interpret the oracles of nature. In its derivation from nature, all language, he felt, was fossil poetry. “Always the seer is a sayer,” he announced in his Harvard Divinity School address, and through the vision of the poet “we come to look at the world with new eyes.”

Of the defects in Emerson’s poetry, the chief is perhaps that Emerson’s muse sees rather than sings. Because his lines are orphic and self-contained, they sometimes seem flat and discontinuous. Individual lines stand out in otherwise undistinguished poems. Nor do his lines always scan or flow smoothly, since Emerson was virtually tone-deaf. In “The Poet,” he rejects fixed poetic form in favor of a freer, more open verse. For Emerson, democratic poetry would be composed with variable line and meter, with form subordinated to expression. The poet in a democracy is thus a “representative man,” chanting the poetry of the common, the ordinary, and the low. Although Emerson pointed the way, it took Walt Whitman to master this new style of American poetry with his first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), which Emerson promptly recognized and praised for its originality. Whitman thus became the poet whom Emerson had called for in The American Scholar; American poetry had come of age.

Henry David Thoreau

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Henry David Thoreau is best known to most Americans as a man who divorced himself from society and lived in the woods, specifically the woods of Concord, Massachusetts, near Walden Pond, which he made famous with a small book of essays.

In the book, Walden or Life in the Woods, Thoreau offers his views on the duties and the rights of free men, the relationship of man to nature, the significance of solitude, the ultimate purpose of each man's existence, and numerous other beliefs he holds.

Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on July 12, 1817. During his lifetime, the United States would struggle to deal with its territorial expansion, mechanization and labor, foreign and domestic wars, and the issue of slavery. Thoreau himself was fervently against slavery; he also chose to be incarcerated, rather than pay taxes that would support the United States' war with Mexico. Thoreau spent only one night in jail, and he explains some of his reasoning in his 1849 essay, Civil Disobedience, which deals with defiance against unjust laws and acts by governments. His views on effective resistance to unfair government practices are contained in the essay, which remains a bible of nonviolent resistance movements. Thoreau's theories influenced the Indian civil rights leader, Mohandas Gandhi, South African former President, Nelson Mandela, as well as the African-American head of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thoreau attended Harvard from 1833 to 1837. Upon graduating, he taught school for a time, but soon resigned his position. A bit later, Thoreau met Ralph Waldo Emerson, the founder of the Transcendentalist Movement, and they became close friends. Emerson was a patron of Thoreau's, encouraging him to write and helping him publish; Thoreau even became a tutor to Emerson's children.

During a period of disagreement with Emerson, however, Thoreau set off on his adventure in the simplification of his life, to, as the famous lines put it, “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” His experiment of living alone in a cabin in the woods lasted two years and two months. In the middle of his sojourn, he went through the experience that led him to write Civil Disobedience. Anyone reading the book today might call its author an early proponent of libertarian philosophy, since it begins, “I heartily accept the motto—‘That government is best which governs least’.”

On the day Thoreau died, May 6, 1862, the United States was in the middle of the Civil War, fighting over what freedom meant and who should be free. Thoreau's writings became part of the canon of American literature which deals with the subject, and the number of minds he has influenced about personal and political duty is beyond count.

  • Friendship – The essay is frequently, but not always, preceded by an untitled poem by Emerson:

    A ruddy drop of manly blood The surging sea outweighs; The world uncertain comes and goes, The lover rooted stays. I fancied he was fled, And, after many a year, Glowed unexhausted kindliness Like daily sunrise there. My careful heart was free again,— O friend, my bosom said, Through thee alone the sky is arched, Through thee the rose is red, All things through thee take nobler form And look beyond the earth, The mill-round of our fate appears A sun-path in thy worth. Me too thy nobleness has taught To master my despair; The fountains of my hidden life Are through thy friendship fair.

  • maugre[archaic] in spite of
  • benevolence – goodwill
  • complacency – contentedness
  • nimblest – the quickest and most agile
  • misapprehension – a misconception or misunderstanding
  • metamorphosed – transformed
  • ennuis – feelings of boredom or depression
  • unsought – without being looked for
  • affinity – a liking
  • connives – pretends to be ignorant of; conspires
  • Apollo – the Greek god of the sun, poetry, light, music, and truth, and others; he was the son of Zeus and often has “Phoebus” attached to his name.
  • Muses – In mythology, the muses are nine sisters, daughters of Zeus, who inspire creativity in poetry, music, art, and other disciplines. They are: Clio (history), Urania (astronomy), Thalia (comedy), Melpomene (tragedy), Erato (love poetry), Polyhymnia (song), Euterpe (lyric poetry), Terpsichore (dance), and Calliope (epic poetry).
  • systole – the contraction of the heart; opposite of diastole
  • diastole – the relaxation of the heart; opposite of systole
  • metaphysical – supernatural; not perceivable by the senses
  • Elysian – heavenly; Elysium was the region of the Greek underworld reserved for heroes.
  • apprehension – the ability to be understood
  • chaplets – a garland of leaves worn on the head
  • festoons – decorative drapings of leaves or flowers
  • reveries – rhapsodies; pleasant considerations
  • tantamount – almost the same as
  • effigy – an imitation or likeness
  • superinduces[archaic] brings on in addition
  • environs – surrounds
  • indulged – allowed; given in to
  • apathies – lapses of caring or concern
  • epilepsies – seizures or spasms
  • rebuked – criticized; chastised
  • naturlangsamkeit[German] “the natural slowness of time”; Emerson may have coined the word.
  • Alps – a major European mountain range
  • Andes – a mountain range in South America
  • audacious – bold
  • bower – a temporary structure covered with leaves and flowers
  • intrinsic – natural; native
  • dissimulation – deception
  • diadems – crowns, jewels
  • parry – to ward off
  • philanthropy – a love of humankind; charitable acts
  • paradox – something that contradicts itself
  • lucre – money or profit
  • sutler[archaic] someone who sells small goods to soldiers
  • substantiate – to make real; give substance to
  • municipal – relating to local society or government
  • prostitution – cheap, frequent use
  • modish – stylish; fashionable
  • amity – friendship; peaceful relations
  • frivolous – trivial; silly
  • curricle – a two-wheeled carriage drawn by horses
  • sallies – jokes, quips, or jests
  • consummation – the ultimate goal
  • latent – dormant; potential
  • evanescent – like a vapor; vanishing
  • piques – excites or stirs up
  • antagonism – hostility
  • nettle – a thorn
  • confounding – ruining; confusing
  • desecrate – to violate or destroy the sacredness of
  • profane – low; earthly and trivial
  • mien – the facial expression
  • Crimen…aequat[Latin] “Those whom crime pollutes, it makes equal.”
  • vitiates – corrupts or debases
  • consuetudes – customs
  • nonage – immaturity
  • Janus-faced – Janus, the Roman god of gates, doorways, beginnings, and endings, is usually depicted with two faces, each looking in an opposite direction.
  • harbinger – an omen or predictor
  • firmament – the sky
  • languid – slow; not energetic
  • capacious – able to receive or contain
  • empyrean – relating to heaven
  • unrequited – without having the same emotion returned
  • deify – to worship as a god; to exalt


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Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1981. An excellent biography, at once scholarly and readable. Deals with the personal as well as public side of Emerson and shows the evolution of his ideas by citing the stages of their development in journal entries, letters, essays, and poems.

Baker, Carlos. Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait. New York: Viking, 1996.

Barish, Evelyn. Emerson: The Roots of Prophecy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Belknap, 2003. A thorough and admiring biography that presents Emerson as an international figure.

Fuller, Randall. Emerson’s Ghost: Literature, Politics, and the Making of Americanists. Oxford: Oxford University, 2007. This work looks at the ways in which some prominent literary critics have responded to Emerson’s writing, and how their responses have impacted American literature and history.

Goodman, Russell B. American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Includes a chapter on Emerson’s philosophical perspective on the romantic idea of the “marriage of the self and the world.”

Jacobson, David. Emerson’s Pragmatic Vision: The Dance of the Eye. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993. A discussion of Emerson’s insistence that a practical application of learning and philosophy leads to empowerment. Includes an index.

Lopez, Michael. Emerson and Power: Creative Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996. Focuses on Emerson’s emphasis on power and force in the development of his American philosophy. Includes an index.

McAleer, John. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.

Myerson, Joel, ed. A Historical Guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. A collection of essays that provide an extended biographical study of Emerson. Later chapters study his concept of individualism, nature and natural science, religion, antislavery, and women’s rights.

Porte, Joel, and Saundra Morris, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Provides a critical introduction to Emerson’s work through interpretations of his writing and analysis of his influence and cultural significance. Includes a comprehensive chronology and bibliography.

Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. A first-rate biography on Emerson that includes a life chronology, genealogy, and index.

Robinson, David M. Emerson and the Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Focuses on Emerson’s writings as they relate to pragmatic rather than merely transcendental purposes. Includes an introduction that reviews various perspectives on Emerson. Contains an index.

Yanella, Donald. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston: Twayne, 1982. In this brief but penetrating work, Yanella offers an introduction to the works of Emerson for the nonspecialist in the field of nineteenth century literature. Concentrates on Emerson’s poetry and essays. Considers Emerson’s philosophical and religious views, traces his influences, and assesses his impact on the development of nineteenth century American literature. Includes a chronology of works.


Critical Essays